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On the Morality of Rewriting History

aerial satellite 3d rendering of Hong Kong separated by water

China is pushing for the use of new textbooks, textbooks which will deny that Hong Kong was ever a British colony. The textbooks, which are in the process of being reviewed for approval by teachers, principles, and others affiliated with Hong Kong Bureau of education, would be implemented as curriculum this fall if approved.

These books contain a new narrative about British occupation of Hong Kong, a narrative that will rewrite the previous story that Hong Kong was “lawfully” occupied as a British colony until 1997. The new narrative maintains that Hong Kong was never a British colony and was instead always a part of China. The New York Times, which reviewed teachers’ editions of the new textbooks, quotes the following excerpt: “The British aggression violated the principles of international law so its occupation of Hong Kong region should not have been recognized as lawful.”

These revisions have been in the making for some time and have been roundly criticized by the Professional Teachers’ Union in Hong Kong as “political censorship.” The Bureau, however, rejoined that the changes will “help students develop positive values.”

This push for a new narrative generates a crucial moment for pro-democracy advocates inside and out of China.

One desired effect of this new narrative is that Hong Kong has never been apart from China, so there is no historical basis on which to claim that Hong Kong should continue to be independently and democratically run.

This isn’t the case, however, and would renege on an historic obligation. As Tiffany May writes for The New York Times, “Under the terms of the 1997 handover negotiated with Britain, China had agreed that the social and economic systems of the territory would remain unchanged for 50 years after resuming sovereignty.” Another desired effect of the narrative is that the future generation will be raised patriotic, loyal to China. Indeed, to enforce such “positive values,” students (potentially as young as kindergarteners) will be taught of a new law that permits authorities to deliver prison sentences to those who oppose Beijing.

There are several issues at stake with the question of whether China (that is, Beijing) should rewrite Hong Kong’s history.

In general, to discuss whether something morally should or ought to happen, there is a first question of whether something is morally permissible. If some action isn’t morally permissible, then we ought not to do it; however, even though an action is morally permissible, it does not follow that we ought to do the action. For example, if we conclude that limiting free speech is morally permissible in a certain circumstance, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we ought to limit free speech in that circumstance. Of course, if something ought to happen, this presupposes and requires that whatever ought to happen is morally permissible.

In asking particularly whether Beijing should re-write Hong Kong’s history, one relevant question is whether there are any permissible limitations of freedom of speech, and if so, whether this case is justified.

Part of the new laws permit severe punishment for criticism of or dissent from Beijing. Some in favor of the new laws and textbooks have argued that freedom comes with certain obligations and responsibilities, such as the primary obligation to one’s country. Those in opposition might argue that, while there are certain obligations to one country, these obligations are not relevant in this case. For the obligation to support one’s country is not exclusive of criticizing its present political/societal/economic structure. In fact, criticism might be a sign of an individual’s loyalty in that the individual may desire to change the present situation for the better. In terms of permissibility, then, a special obligation to a nation does not make it impermissible to critique that nation. Indeed, the opposite seems to be the case.

Closely related to the topic of free speech is the question of whether limiting freedom of thought is ever permissible. The issues of freedom of speech and thought certainly overlap: the latter necessarily affects the ability to speak on certain topics, and the former would inevitably affect the ability to think on certain topics. And the revision of textbooks, including the elimination of information and not solely the addition of a perspective, seems to classify at least as a limitation on thought.

As George Orwell’s novel 1984 has instructed us, the revision of history practically inhibits the future generations (and perhaps present generations) from discussing and knowing history. It is unclear whether this is ever permissible, though it clearly is impermissible in the case that it is factually inaccurate. In the case of Beijing denying Hong Kong’s former status as a colony, this certainly seems to be the case. Of course, it is another matter whether it was morally correct for Britain to have occupied Hong Kong.

While I only suggested some provisional answers to the above questions, it is imperative to answer these questions to understand some of the relevant moral landscape in rewriting history.

Judgment, Condemnation, and Historical Context

photograph of statue of Thomas Jefferson seatedin profile

Is it right to condemn historical figures for moral beliefs that, while common during their time, are now known to be odious?

Our attitudes toward historical figures matter. Our attitudes bear on the question of what public honors should be bestowed on morally flawed historical figures, and our attitudes toward historical figures will influence our contemporary moral thinking. How I view historical figures may influence my trust in moral and institutional traditions I have received from those thinkers. If I believe our Founding Fathers were good and noble people with certain, though largely isolatable, tragic flaws, I’ll trust our constitutional system more than if I believe our Founding Fathers were mostly moral degenerates skilled at couching their corruption in the propagandistic rhetoric of admirable ideals. This trust need not be self-conscious. If you present multiple people with the exact same policy proposals while varying who you say supports it, you can flip who supports which policy. Just seeing an idea as presented by someone ‘on my side’ or ‘in my team’ or ‘within my in-group’ (to use the language of social psychology), will incline you to find it plausible. The extent to which I’ll instinctively trust the political structure set up by our Founding Fathers will depend, at least in part, on the extent to which I see the Founding Fathers as patriotic exemplars.

So how should we think of historical figures with odious beliefs? There are two lines of argument against judging them the way we would judge contemporaries.

The first line is often expressed by language like “they belonged to a particular time.” The argument suggests that these thinkers were, because of their historical context, blamelessly morally ignorant of things we now know.

If you heard about a doctor who, in their rush to treat patients as quickly as possible, did not bother to sterilize materials between amputations, you would reasonably condemn that person as culpably negligent or heartless. However, we do not make similar moral judgements about doctors in the seventeenth century. Sure, it would have been better had they sterilized their instruments, but these doctors did not have the germ theory of disease, they had no reason to think that boiling their surgical instruments would do anything, and indeed they had every reason to think that the longer they took to perform amputations the further infections could spread.

We do not judge historical figures for terrible surgical practices because we think that at least some forms of non-moral ignorance exculpate. But if non-moral ignorance can exculpate, can’t moral ignorance as well? Just as we, the beneficiaries of the modern medical awakening, cannot fairly judge historical figures for the poor choices they made as a consequence of their worse scientific environment, so, the thought goes, we, the beneficiaries of various moral awakenings, cannot fairly judge historical figures for the poor choices they made as a consequence of their worse moral environment.

There are, however, good reasons to doubt the extrapolation from the non-moral case to the moral case. One contemporary philosopher who argues for an asymmetry between moral and non-moral ignorance is Elizabeth Harman. Harman, following Nomy Arpaly, thinks you are blameworthy if you betray an inadequate concern for what is morally significant.

This account would explain why non-moral ignorance sometimes excuses. If I mistakenly believe a certain charitable organization does good work, then donating to that actually harmful charity need not display an inadequate concern for the plight of the poor, for example. I might really care as much as I should for justice, but simply be misled about what would best serve others.

This account of blameworthiness would also explain why moral ignorance does not excuse. If I’m morally ignorant that I ought to give to the poor, then that very ignorance displays a lack of concern for the poor, and thus a lack of concern for what really is morally significant. Circumstances where we fail to grasp the character of our acts (say I thought the backpack I grabbed on my way out of class was mine, when really it was your very similar-looking bag) do not communicate moral indifference (I may still be fully concerned to respect your property). In contrast, being aware that I was taking your property but not appreciating that it was wrong, would actually prove my lack of concern.

But not all philosophers agree with drawing this strong asymmetry between moral and non-moral ignorance. Why, for instance, is it wrong for us to morally condemn vicious people raised as child soldiers? One plausible answer is that child soldiers cannot be blamed for their ignorance of the moral law.

Of course, even if we accept moral ignorance can, in principle, excuse, it remains an open question if it does in the historical cases we’re considering. There is a difference between having had one’s conscience systematically flayed by the brutal brainwashing that goes into creating a child soldier, and simply growing up in a society with a high tolerance for evil.

Consider the view of Elizabeth Anscombe, who thinks there are some examples of moral ignorance that really do excuse. Anscombe describes an executioner who has private knowledge of a condemned man’s innocence, but who cannot use that knowledge to exonerate the man. She asks us to further suppose the executioner knows the man had a fair trial under a rightful legal authority. Anscombe thinks since the greatest moral theologians can’t agree about this case, the simple executioner might really be blameless for choosing wrongly.

But even if there are cases of excusing moral ignorance, Anscombe thinks they are exceedingly rare. They don’t cover the controversial cases of historical figures. Anscombe follows Aristotle and Aquinas in thinking that the main outlines of morality are accessible by the light of natural human reason, and while humans are incredibly self-deceived, that does not get us off the hook given that we should, and can, almost always know the core of what is right or wrong if we don’t give into vicious self-deception. Their actions betrayed ignorance of basic moral truths which Anscombe thinks were clearly accessible to them. Thus, Anscombe ends up thinking that while there is no principled asymmetry between moral and non-moral ignorance, there is a practical asymmetry. The main outlines of science (say germ theory) are not truths available to everyone just in light of common human reason, but the main outlines of morality (say the evil of chattel slavery) are truths available to everyone just in light of common human reason. Thus, it is far more common for non-moral ignorance to excuse; not because non-moral ignorance alone can excuse, but because moral ignorance is rarely blameless.

Perhaps this first line of argument could be salvaged, but for now I will put it aside, because…

there is a second line of argument I want to consider. This is the argument often expressed by the honest voice in the back of my head saying: “but are you really that confident that if you were a white kid growing up in Antebellum South that you would have had the moral clarity to see the right of things?” Sure, maybe I agree with Anscombe and Aquinas that I should  have been able to see the right of things. But am I really so certain I would have?

The force of this thought comes from an extension of the norm against hypocritical blame. We generally think it inappropriate to blame someone for things I expect I might do were I in your situation. Since I’m not particularly exceptional amongst my own moral cohort, I don’t have good reason to think I’d be exceptional if transplanted to a historical cohort, so I should temper my outrage at historical figures.

However, here we tend to draw the wrong lesson. We’re tempted to think something like:  I’m a morally decent person, I’m probably not in a position to judge at least many historical figures as far worse than me, so many of these historical figures must not have been that bad.

That is almost the opposite of the conclusion suggested here.  We have already seen when considering the first line of argument that there are good reasons for thinking historical figures are fully responsible for their bad beliefs. My hypocrisy does not show the other person is not evil, rather it shows I might be evil as well.

Thoughts on hypocrisy should not lead us to think better of historical figures, but rather to think worse, and more humbly, of ourselves. We should recognize that many of the beliefs about which we are self-righteous might be largely chosen, not from principle, but because it helps us gain the glowing approval of those whose opinions we prize. And likewise, we should perhaps recognize that whatever moral clarity we do have is an undeserved grace.

This does require a pessimistic view of humanity. Yet it is a sort of pessimism shared by many of the great moral traditions and thinkers. Plato thought that our material bodies, filled with appetites, continually pull us away from virtue. Aristotle thought that only someone with an exceptionally fortunate and unearned upbringing could ever become good. Stoics doubted there ever were, or even could be, any true sages. Christians taught humans were slaves to original sin absent the intervention of divine grace. Kant famously proclaimed humans were by nature evil.

If we accept this pessimism, what attitude should we take towards historical figures? On the one hand it allows you to acknowledge the utter evil and depravity of historical figures who defended odious practices. But on the other hand, it also discourages the hatred that inclines us to divide the world into the virtuous in-group and the vicious out-group. We should willingly acknowledge the evil of historical figures, but should be skeptical that it gives us any standing to look down on them, as though we have any moral height from which to condescend.

There are three principled attitudes to take towards historical figures. First, following Harman, we could think there is a real asymmetry between our own blameworthiness and theirs because our differing moral values really show differing levels of blameworthiness. Second, we could see them as similar to ourselves — largely good people though victims of largely blameless ignorance. Or third, and this one seems right to me, we could again see them as similar to ourselves, but as also blameworthy in their ignorance of their own depravity, and so conclude that we are actually closer to their wickedness than we realized.

Indro Montanelli’s Statue and Reckoning with the Past

photograph of Indro Montanelli statue

Following the death of George Floyd, protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement have resulted in the removal of statues across the United States built in honor of controversial figures. The United States has not been unique in confronting its troubled past. In Bristol, the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, has been torn down. In Belgium, the statue of King Leopold II, who has been estimated to have murdered approximately 10 million people while ruling Congo, has been covered with “BLM” signs and subsequently removed. In Italy, controversies have surrounded the monument built in honor of Indro Montanelli, an influential journalist from the 30’s whose reputation has been repeatedly haunted by his associations with the colonization of Africa during the Fascist regime. The statue, built in Milan in 2006, has recently been covered with paint, yet unlike its European counterparts, the monument has been cleaned by the Mayor who refuses to remove it.

Montanelli’s Story

The controversies surrounding Montanelli’s statue stem from his role in the Fascist colonization of Africa in 1935. Then 24, Montanelli voluntarily joined the fascist occupation and soon after arriving in Ethiopia he went on to marry a 12-year-old girl from the village. As Montanelli recalls the story in an interview from 2000, he “leased” the girl, whose name he claims to be Destà, from his father. Montanelli’s actions have been harshly condemned, and protesters have surrounded his statue with signs that call him “racist” and “rapist.” But why the decision to clean the monument and refuse to remove it?

Erasing History”

One of the arguments against the removal of the statue is that doing so would have the consequence of erasing part of Italy’s history. Montanelli founded the conservative daily Il Giornale in 1973, worked several years for the daily Il Corriere Della Sera, as well as collaborated with the United Press in New York. Mariastella Gelmini, leader of the right-wing political party Forza Italia, claims that Montanelli was responsible for playing a crucial role in journalistic history, and perhaps even within the country’s, so the statue should stay in order to preserve Italy’s past. The fact that Italy takes particular pride in its millennial history, has given these claims considerable traction.

The argument however hinges on the premise that monuments play a role in communicating shared history. Yet statues do not seem to have a historical function, but an honorific one. We do not learn history by contemplating monuments, instead we learn history through the traditional tools that are meant to pass it on (let these be books or lectures or testimonies). It is because we already know history, that we decide to build monuments that commemorate it, not the other way around. To illustrate, consider the following example: In the small beach town of Anzio, approximately 1-hour from Rome, there is a statue that depicts a girl walking surrounded by seagulls. The monument was built in honor of a 5-year-old called Angelita who, during the Second World War, was found during the Battle of Anzio by the Scottish soldier S.C. Hayes of the Royal Scots Fusiliers walking on the beach, frightened by the bombings. She later died in Hayes’ arms. In 1979, the city of Anzio decided to build the monument in Angelita’s memory. Yet the statue is not particularly informative. It only shows Angelita’s name without explaining why the statue was built. Would anyone be able to learn Angelita’s story simply by contemplating the monument? No, the statue does not teach any history. On the contrary, it is because one already knows Angelita’s story that one is able to grasp the meaning of the statue. It is unclear then how history would be erased if the statue was removed.

“A Man of His Time” 

Another argument in favor of keeping Montanelli’s statue is that his actions do not justify the removal of his monument because they should be properly contextualized. In 1969, during a famous talk show, Montanelli himself specified that in marrying Destà (and consummating the wedding) “no violence” was exerted because, “in Africa it was another thing.” What Montanelli is hinting at is that in Ethiopia marrying girls of Desta’s age was considered perfectly legal. When pressed by Elvira Banotti, a feminist activist, he admits that marrying a 12-year-old girl in Europe would be illegal, but because such a marriage is permitted in Ethiopia his actions are above reproach. But this confrontation fails to address the elephant in the room: the philosophical distinction between explanatory reasons and justificatory reasons. An explanatory reason helps to make sense, psychologically, of why someone is motivated to act in a certain way. A justificatory reason, on the other hand, provides argument as to the rightness or wrongness of an action. If, for example, you accidentally step on my foot, the pain may explain my angered reaction towards you. But it does not justify my anger that is, my explanation does not make that action right. Similarly for Montanelli, the fact that in Ethiopia it was permissible to marry a 12-year-old girl may provide an explanatory reason for what Montanelli did, but not a justificatory reason.

But, one might wonder, isn’t the legality of the action enough to justify Montanelli’s behavior? This raises an interesting issue about the relationship between the legal and moral domain. What is legal (or illegal) often does not overlap with what is moral (or immoral). Betraying a friend may be immoral, but it is not illegal. Similarly, one may believe that smoking marijuana, which is illegal in many countries, is not immoral. If one thinks that smoking marijuana is only a legal issue (and not a moral one), then geography will make a big difference. Moving from the United States to Canada (where smoking marijuana is legal), for instance, might change one’s situation. But the same does not work for actions that are illegal and also immoral. Torturing kittens for fun is illegal and arguably immoral. If you moved to another country where it was legal, would you engage in said practice? No, if you genuinely think that torturing kittens for fun is morally wrong. That is, if you internalize wrongness of that action, and by ‘internalize’ I mean that the wrongness of that action speaks to you, then that action is immoral regardless of its geography. Given this, we should reflect on why Montanelli immediately after moving to Africa decided to marry a 12-year-old girl which in Italy not only was illegal but also arguably immoral. The quickness and ease in which he married a 12-year-old girl raises questions, and doubts, about whether he regarded the action as genuinely immoral instead of merely illegal.

“Lives Should be Judged in their Complexity”

Even if his actions were wrong, Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala, claims that Montanelli’s life should be judged in “its complexity.” After all, Sala insists, “when we judge our own lives, can we say that ours is spotless?” But even if we assume for the sake of argument that we should judge lives in their totality, this seems to be an argument in favor of the statue’s removal rather than against it. The statue of the journalist, which depicts him at his typewriter, captures only an isolated frame of his life. Doing justice to his life’s complexity would require also doing justice to Destà’s story, which has instead been obscured. Thus, a statue that represents only one aspect of Montanelli’s life is not a statue that should stay, precisely because, as the mayor says, it fails to represent Montanelli’s life in all its complexity. That our statues fail to tell the whole story of the characters they depict is not uncommon. And, as philosopher Joanna Burch-Brown argues, the removal of statues can express a “commitment to tell the full truth about its problematic history.” Milan’s mayor may not see the statue as being built because of Montanelli’s crimes in Africa, but keeping it in spite of those crimes, does not address the problem. The situation demands a justification for why the crimes Montanelli committed are not sufficient to outweigh the reasons for keeping the statue.

The arguments discussed here are not unique to Montanelli’s case but can be generalized to how we treat monuments and statues. Our assessment of honorific monuments must take into consideration the messages these might send, even when these are unintended. In line with this reflection, we should keep in mind that those historical figures we choose to honor should be people we can all look up to.

Why We Shouldn’t Have to Have the White History Month Conversation

A close-up photograph of a section of dates on a calendar.

In 1915, Carter G. Woodson, a historian from Harvard University, helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). A little over a decade after the organization’s founding in 1926, the group sponsored Negro History Week, an event where communities across the country would come together to celebrate, host lectures, and conduct performances to commemorate the legacy of African Americans who had broken race barriers and made extraordinary achievements. A little more than thirty years later during the 1960’s, also the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month. To this day, Black History month is a time to recognize the accomplishment of African Americans who helped make the United States what it is today. However, as with every topic regarding race in the United States, there is always controversy, confusion, and opposition. In terms of Black History Month, it is the controversy is between African Americans and their white counterparts. Why is Black History Month so crucial, and what differentiates it from cultural pride? Consequently, why shouldn’t we ask why there is no white history month?

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3D Scans, Archaeological Sites, and “Digital Colonialism”

Photo of the Palmyra ruins in Syria

During the height of its power, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) destroyed and looted numerous cultural heritage sites under its control. In January 2017, it was reported that ISIS had destroyed two ancient structures in Palmyra. Cultural heritage sites are also prone to natural disasters. An earthquake that hit an ancient city in Myanmar in 2016 damaged numerous temples located there.

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Opinion: The Pope, Fake News, and the Gospels

A photo of Pope Francis

After an unpopular visit to South America, Pope Francis now has released a statement condemning “fake news.” It has long been suspected that this Pope has leftist ideological leanings, and it seems that Francis’ remarks about “fake news” are directed against Donald Trump and his populist tactics, although the U.S. president remained unmentioned.

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Ethnic Identity in America: Remembering the Ni’ihau Incident

An aerial view of Niihau island surrounded by blue ocean.

The Island of Ni’ihau is a recluse. Only the island’s inhabitants, along with a few fortunate individuals from outside Ni’ihau, are allowed to leave and return as they please. This 70-square-mile plot of land near the center of the Pacific Ocean is Hawaii’s westernmost island, and it lacks roads, Internet, and even indoor plumbing. Ni’ihau hosts approximately 130 permanent residents, all of whom live in isolation and without modern conveniences in an effort to preserve the native culture of Hawaii. The island was sold by King Kamehameha V in 1864 to the Scottish plantation-owner Elizabeth Sinclair, who promised to keep Hawaiians “as strong in Hawaii as they are now.” Despite the residents’ conversion to Christianity, a few modern technologies being introduced, and some of the younger islanders learning English, the local culture along with the native Hawaiian language have successfully persisted.

All this was jeopardized, however, in the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

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The Political Manipulation of the Fatima Cult

An image of the Sanctuary of Fatima.

2017 is the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The communist Left has organized celebrations, and this is unfortunate. That revolution did not topple the Czar’s autocratic regime, but rather a liberal government that was progressing towards important reforms. Furthermore, the Bolshevik Revolution soon turned extremely violent, and gave rise to a totalitarian regime that brought much misery to the world.

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The Moral Legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution

A vintage photo of a Bolshevik protest in Russia

November 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution (it is alternatively called the “October Revolution,” but this is because of the mismatch between the Julian and Gregorian calendars). It is arguably the most influential event of the 20th Century, and it is celebrated by leftists worldwide. Yet strangely, Vladimir Putin himself has no intentions to host big ceremonies. His leadership may rely on Soviet nostalgia in his confrontation with the West, but in fact, he is much closer to the Czarist style of authoritarianism, and correctly sees that the revolutionary ideology of 1917 is more dangerous than valuable to him.

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Should History be Kinder to George Patton?

A black-and-white photo of George Patton marching through a cemetery.

General George Patton has been an enigmatic figure for many years. Robert Orlando’s recently released documentary, Silence Pattonattempts to portray him as a Cassandra-like figure who warned against the risk of Stalin and communism, and nobody would listen. Patton died under strange circumstances, and there has always been talk of a conspiracy to kill him. According to the film, there was an attempt to silence him, because he turned out to be a nuisance to the Allies’ post-war plans.

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Was the Civil War a “War of Northern Aggression?”

A photo of a confederate flag flying over Columbia, South Carolina

Make no mistake: racism is a big problem in the US, and the far right hate groups that recently assembled in Charlotesville, Virgina, killing one anti-racism activist, deserve full blown condemnation, as opposed to President Trump’s lukewarm response. Let’s also be absolutely clear about something: Robert E. Lee (whose statue in Charlotesville was taken down, which sparked the hate groups’ manifestations) was a slave owner and the General of an army that fought for the right to preserve slavery, and there is no rational way that slavery could ever be justified.

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The Case of Ezequiel Zamora: Are Latin American Bandits Heroes?

Last week, Venezuela’s government honored the 200th anniversary of Ezequiel Zamora’s birth, in national celebrations. According to the official leftist party line, Zamora was a national hero that led guerrilla warfare against Venezuela’s corrupt governments in the mid-nineteenth century. Hugo Chavez’s political ideology was founded on the so-called “tree of three roots” (árbol de las tres racíces): Simon Bolivar, Simon Rodriguez and Ezequiel Zamora.

Bolivar and Rodriguez are heroes universally admired and respected by Venezuelans throughout the political spectrum. Zamora, on the other hand, is a much more divisive figure. According to historical revisionists, Zamora is no hero.

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Long Distance Information, Give Me Memphis, Tennessee

This is the second in a series on American History and the Ethics of Memory. This post originally appeared on September 15, 2015.

Warner Madison doesn’t trust the police. He thinks they view all black people with suspicion, harass them on the streets, and arrest them without cause. When police accost his children on their way to school, he can barely contain his anger. He fires off a letter protesting what he calls “one of the most obnoxious and foul and mean” things he has ever witnessed. But he possesses little hope that police treatment of African Americans in his city will change.

What does Warner Madison think of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Samuel DuBose? There’s no telling. He’s been dead for probably more than a century. Warner Madison’s outrage about race and policing came to a head just after the Civil War, in 1865, when he was a 31-year-old barber living in Memphis, Tennessee.

Memphis isn’t among recent flashpoints—Ferguson, North Charleston, Baltimore—nor does it crop up among placenames associated with racial violence of decades past—South Central, Crown Heights, Watts. In collective memory of American history, Memphis figures as the scene of a lot of great music and the assassination of Martin Luther King. Yet the Memphis of Warner Madison’s time is an essential, though largely forgotten, part of understanding race and policing in America.

A recent New York Times article suggests Americans are living through “a purge moment” in their relationship to history. Especially since the June shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, icons of slavery and the Confederate States of America have been challenged and, in many cases, removed: the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds and, most recently, a statue of Jefferson Davis from the University of Texas at Austin’s Main Mall. At Yale University, students are now debating whether to rename Calhoun College, which honors a Yale alumnus who is best known as the antebellum South’s most ardent defender of slavery.

Skeptics are concerned about “whitewashing” the past or hiding important if controversial aspects of our history in “a moral skeleton closet.” (At the extreme end, one can find online commenters likening such reconsiderations to ISIS’s destruction of pre-Islamic antiquities in Syria.) But there’s little harm and often much good in collective soul-searching, as among the students at Yale, about how best to remember a community’s past and express its shared values—whatever decision that community may finally come to about its memorials. And, as I argued here previously, memory is a scarce resource. Figures like Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun shouldn’t be forgotten, but their public memorialization, in statues, street names, and the like, keeps them before our eyes to the exclusion of things we could be remembering instead—things we might find more useful for understanding the world around us.

Take Memphis in the 1860s. A southern city that fell to Union forces only about a year into the Civil War, in June 1862, it became a testing ground for the new order that would follow the destruction of slavery. As word spread across the countryside that the reputed forces of freedom had taken Memphis, African Americans flocked to the city. By the end of the war, Memphis’s black population had grown from 3,000 to 20,000, and surrounding plantations were proportionately emptied—to the dismay of cotton planters who needed laborers in their fields.

White authorities forcibly moved former slaves back onto the plantations. How? Using newly invented laws against “vagrancy.” Memphis blacks who could not prove gainful employment in the city were deemed vagrants, and vagrants were subject to arrest and impressment into the agricultural labor force.

Vagrancy had existed as a word and a phenomenon for centuries. In the post-Civil War South, it became a crime. Vagrancy laws were mainstays of southern states’ “black codes” during the late nineteenth century, because they helped white supremacists restore a social order that resembled slavery. Black men without jobs were guilty of the crime of vagrancy simply by going outside and walking down the street. Once arrested and imprisoned, they could be put on chain gangs—and white southerners could once again exploit their unpaid labor.

It’s not surprising that former Confederates were responsible for criminalizing black unemployment. But so was the Freedmen’s Bureau—the federal agency expressly charged by Congress and Abraham Lincoln with assisting former slaves in their transition to freedom. The bureau’s Memphis superintendent wrote in 1865 that the city had a “surplus population of at least six thousand colored persons [who] are lazy, worthless vagrants” and authorized patrols that were arresting black Memphians indiscriminately.

When some of the leading black citizens of Memphis had seen enough of this—men taken away to plantations at the points of bayonets, children stopped on their way to school and challenged to prove they weren’t “vagrants”—they called on the most literate people among them, including Warner Madison, to compose petitions to high-ranking federal officials. Paramount among their grievances was the harassment of “Children going to School With there arms full of Book[s].” To the African American community, freedom meant access to education. But to whites—even the very officials responsible for protecting black rights—freedom meant that African Americans needed to get to work or be policed.

Clinton Fisk, a Union general during the war, now oversaw Freedmen’s Bureau operations in all of Tennessee and Kentucky. He replied politely to the letters he received, but he never credited or even mentioned the reports of abuse Warner Madison and his compatriots provided. He asked his subordinate in Memphis to investigate, and the unbothered report came back: “I can find no evidence whatever that School children, with Books in their hands have been arrested, except in two or three cases.” Even Clinton Fisk—an abolitionist who so strongly advocated African American education that Fisk University bears his name—failed to affirm that having a book kept a person from being vagrant.

This period of conflict culminated in the Memphis riots of 1866—an episode that ought to be infamous (and is the subject of a few good books) but is generally absent from public consciousness. White Memphians initially assumed the “riots” were a black protest that turned violent, but what actually occurred in Memphis on the first days of May in 1866 was a massacre of black men, women, and children by white mobs, among whom were many police officers.

In failing to remember 1860s Memphis—failing even to know the name of someone like Warner Madison, after whom no highways or elementary schools are named—we fail to remember that the federal government once made it the special province of law enforcement agents to accost African Americans in public places. Without remembering that, we cannot apprehend the complexity and durability of the problems underlying current events.

What we now call “racial profiling,” and even the appallingly frequent uses of lethal force against black citizens, may result less from the implicit bias of police officers than from a historical legacy. Abiding modes of law enforcement and criminal justice, brought to us by nineteenth-century white Americans’ anxieties about the abolition of slavery, were designed to treat black people walking freely on city streets—unless they were being economically productive in ways white people approved—as social threats.

Racism may be only a partial explanation. Some of the people who were arresting “vagrants” in Memphis were African American—they were soldiers in the U.S. Army acting under Freedmen’s Bureau orders—and so are three of the six Baltimore police officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray. Blame may rest, too, with habits of mind upon which few people even frown—like taking gainful employment as a measure of human worth (a pernicious corollary of the belief that markets possess wisdom), or presuming that someone must be up to no good if he has (in Chuck Berry’s words) no particular place to go.

From Concentration Camp to Hotel

Mamula, an island situated on the border of Montenegro and Croatia, was the site of a World War II Italian concentration camp, in which 2,300 people were imprisoned and 130 or so were killed. Now, the Montenegrin government has agreed to a project to transform the island into a resort – a stark contrast to the fate of other concentration camps across Europe, which largely remain empty or act as memorial museums.

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Copyrighting Anne Frank’s Diary

On January 1, Anne Frank’s diary was published online by more than one person, despite outcry from the Anne Frank Fonds, the foundation founded by Anne’s father. The argument of the publishing academics was that more than 70 years have passed since the death of Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which sends the work into the public domain across most of Europe. However, the foundation argues that Otto Frank, as editor and publisher, held the copyright. He died in 1980, making the work still under copyright. Additionally, the translator that worked with Otto Frank on the diary, another copyright holder, is still alive.

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The Hiroshima Bombing: Was it Terrorism?

Terrorism is a word often associated with its modern context. When we think of terrorists, we think of masked gunmen attacking shopping malls and beaches, or planes flying into the World Trade Center on September 11th. Rarely do we consider events that predate the 21th century – events that may have taken place before the modern notion of terrorism arose, but that also relied heavily on the killing of civilians and fear to accomplish their aims.

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Imagining Trinity’s Echoes

It was seventy years ago today that the New Mexico desert was first lit in the glare of a nuclear explosion. Dubbed “Trinity” by the scientists who had built it, the 1945 test was the first time an atomic bomb had ever been detonated. A little over a month later, similar devices would be dropped on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, ending WWII in the Pacific and killing as many as 200,000 people. Three explosions in three different locations, they were the first of many, with results that sparked fears of nuclear warfare that remain today. And now, seventy years later, photos depicting the tests pay homage to the dark anniversary.

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Remembering the Underground Schools of Kosovo

An abandoned school lies among the neighborhoods dotting the outskirts of Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital city. Forgotten by some and removed from the public eye, the school is unimposing, yet instantly recognizable. Jutting out amongst the winding alleyways, the building’s unmistakeable silhouette rises above the surrounding homes. The home is now abandoned, its fire-blackened walls crumbling into the hallways. There are few indications that it used to be a place of learning; looking from the outside, it appeared to simply be a burned-out shell of a building. Yet the piles of desks and faded chalkboards at the head of several rooms made the building’s former purpose clear.

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Where Does the Confederate Battle Flag Belong Today?

Political pressure is mounting for the removal of the Confederate battle flag that flies on the state grounds of South Carolina in the wake of the Charleston Church shooting. In recent years, public debate over the flag that symbolizes racism to some and heritage to others has intensified. The divergent views towards the flag inflamed intense public dialogues about racism, culture and history ever since the mid-1950s. Under this circumstance in 1993, United States Senator from Illinois Carol Moseley-Braun claimed “it is a fundamental mistake to believe that one’s own perception of a flag’s meaning is the only legitimate meaning.”

As Moseley-Braun suggested, people should not impose one’s interpretation of the flag to others, and seeking to understand why people are offended by it and why people preserve it are actions that are necessary to take as educated citizens. In order to fully comprehend the implications that the flag gives to a diverse public, understanding the entire history of this symbol would become necessary as people from different backgrounds from a wide range of generations view the flag from a variety of perspectives.

Unlike common belief, during the Civil War the Confederate battle flag did not explicitly symbolize racism nor slavery. Among the southern white population, less than 5% were slave owners, and thus, the majority of the Confederate soldiers did not own slave property. Racism prevailed both in the Union and the Confederacy as both parties did not give African Americans the right to vote and fundamental human rights. In fact, historian James McPherson argues that the main Confederate “cause” of the Civil War was to preserve their country and the legacy of the Founding Fathers, which derived from southern nationalism. As Lincoln recalled in his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, that slavery was “somehow the cause of the war,” the modern debate arguing that the Civil War about slavery, and therefore, the battle flag represents slavery is a mere simplification of history. The war was centralized on the issue on slavery, but one cannot naively generalize that all Confederate soldiers were committed to slavery and supported going to war for that cause.

The history of the flag does not end with the Civil War, but expands after World War II with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. To many people’s surprise, the proliferation of the Confederate battle flag happened after 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional via the Brown v. Board of Education case. Although segregation was illegal, many southern states were reluctant to integrate schools. To show their resistance against integration, the Confederate battle flag came back in the public sphere.

The following year of the Brown case, George Wallace, governor of Alabama, raised the flag as part of his “Segregation Forever” campaign and endorsed it as a symbol of resistance. Not only political figures, but also segregationists brandished the flag to contest integration. It was at this time when the flag entered American popular culture as a symbol of opposition to integration, as Jonathan Daniels, editor of Raleigh News & Observer, lamented in 1965 that the flag had become “just confetti in careless hands.”

So, how should governments, corporations and individual citizens cope with a cultural icon that ignites intense debates? One must acknowledge the difference between public and private display of this flag. Public display of the flag (e.g. on the South Carolina state grounds) should be prohibited with the understanding that this flag symbolizes racism for a wide majority of the public. A governmental institution should not naively display a symbol of racism and show innocence in front of people who are offended by it. One must ask: “what would it be like for a Black citizen living in a state where a symbol of racism waves on the state ground?” Confederate flag images can harass or intimidate citizens and the government must not endorse such figure on its public ground. Moreover, the presence of the flag on the state ground excludes and ignores the population who do not honor it.

On the other hand, it is essential to distinguish between the flag as a memorial and the flag as a symbol of exclusion. The Civil War is undeniably a fundamental part of American history and culture, whose events still fascinate many Americans today. The history of the Confederacy is as valuable as the history of the Union, and no one can erase the four years that the two parties had fought. It is necessary to acknowledge that for many southerners, the Confederacy is part of their family history and the flag is a tool to honor their ancestors. Confederate heritage organizations have the right to privately use this symbol with the understanding that explicit use of the Confederate battle flag may offend others who are uncomfortable with it.

We live in a country where people come from different cultures, nationalities, and family backgrounds, and therefore, it is natural that there is a variety of perspectives on how one considers the Confederate battle flag. Many Confederate descendants look at the flag as a symbol of heritage, but this does not make the flag an honorable icon for everyone. A large number of people view the flag as a symbol of racism, but no one can assume that everyone who raises the flag is a racist. However, a governmental institution must consider the negative implications that this icon gives to the public. Even in private settings, no one can naively use this powerful symbol without considering the message that this flag might give to a wide public. In sum, seeking to understand the diverse meanings of the flag and engaging in honest dialogues would lead us to a better understanding of the proper place of the Confederate battle flag in modern day society.



Edward Pessen, “How Different from Each Other Were the Antebellum North and South?” American Historical Review 85 (1980): 1119-49.

James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Cambridge, MA : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).