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We cannot delicately handle history

It has now been somewhat over a year (but seems like much longer) that our country has been gripped by the most recent round of fury, protests and counter-protests regarding minority rights and grievances.

In the course of that time, we’ve witnessed statue toppling, occasional violence, and lots of anger, and been subjected to a parade of terms new to many of us: woke-ness, Black Lives Matter, systemic racism, 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory, police defunding, Antifa, Proud Boys, Juneteenth, and so on. Capped by the outrage of Jan. 6, which, while not directly related, did not help tempers any.

One salient feature of the period, has been the degree to which the fury has focused on symbols: flags, statues, building names, songs (including the National Anthem), the Pledge of Allegiance, acceptable and unacceptable historical terms (“enslaved person” vs. “slave,” for example), and so on. Another major area of discussion — the teaching of U.S. history — while not exactly symbolic, is once again closely tied to how key people and elements in our past are viewed. If I was to advise the activists who continue to push these issues (I am not, and they wouldn’t listen if I did), I’d tell them it was time to let up on symbols, for a number of reasons.

First, you’ve won about all the battles you’re going to. The Confederate battle flag has been driven about as far underground as it’s going to go, short of a repeal (God forbid) of the First Amendment. Various statues have been defaced or removed, often with little rhyme, reason, or discussion, in various places. At least some additional attention to the darker corners of U.S. history — not that they weren’t already getting a fair amount — has been garnered. A new, and worthy, holiday — or those lucky enough to get federal holidays — has been created. The easy victories–and easy victory, is why anyone ever focuses on symbolic change, in the first place–have been had.

Second, by continuing to pound on symbols, you tick many of us off. I like my symbols, and the history that enfolds them. I like the flag, and its history-evoking ancestor, the Betsy Ross Flag. I like standing at attention for the Star-Spangled Banner, and publicly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. When I go to Washington, I like seeing monuments to the great men of our past, such as the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial. I like my memories of grade school history textbooks, with watercolor pictures of Native Americans greeting Pilgrims. I have an attachment to all these things that is emotional, as well as rational.

You may disagree. You may believe my attachments are not only misguided but hurtful, and are evidence that I am a Bad Person (too many of the arguments on these issues are over people’s motives — by definition unknowable — rather than about their positions). You may feel I can and should change. But the reality is, I’m not going to. And you’re unlikely to get your way, in the face of opposition from me and people like me.

There are too many of us, and we write letters, we show up at town council and school board meetings, and we vote. And, thanks to an “unchangeable” clause of the Constitution (two senators per state), we (small-town or rural, non-coastal, small state, conservative-leaning voters) have an outsize voice in choosing the U.S. Senate. Like it or not, you are stuck with us.

Third, there are more important issues to address, and you may need us to do so. All the furor of the past year has barely touched the real circumstances and problems that minority or poor Americans face. Suppose you were to come to me, and tell me that the real key to improving things is reparations for slavery. Or rigid racial quotas for elite colleges. Or an end to all drug laws, so that no more young minority men are jailed for dealing. Or vast new anti-poverty programs. On any of these issues, I am going to be skeptical; it is going to be a hard sell. But at least we are now in the real world, talking about measures that would have a real impact, for better or worse, on peoples’ lives. Lay out your arguments and your data, and let’s talk.

Conservatives tend to be skeptical of the ability of government to solve problems; in fact, in the American context, that is pretty much our definition.

We believe in individual responsibility, rather than collective guilt. We are quicker to worry about the country as a whole, than about individuals or groups within it. We value our history, and want to convey a reasonably positive view of it to our children. We suspect that the disappearance of the traditional American family (we are way past decline at this point) is more to blame for many of our social woes, than are racism, sexism, genderism, etc. And we still suspect that There Is No Such Thing As a Free Lunch, and that the deficits rung up by multi-trillion-dollar programs will eventually come back to haunt us, or our grandchildren. (Why we have not yet ignited potentially ruinous inflation is a mystery to me, as well as, apparently, to economists.) But conservative (or liberal, for that matter) doesn’t have to mean deaf, blind, or intractable. Our country has problems, and there may be ways to ameliorate, if not solve, them.

One reason why Franklin Delano Roosevelt — perhaps America’s greatest liberal, in the modern sense — is among those with monuments in downtown Washington, is that he knew just how far out in front of the American people he could get, and still lead. It’s not always about dollars, or about strident righteousness. Sometimes it’s about persuasion. Let’s talk.

Joseph Kimpflen is a Tupper Lake resident.

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