Retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page is a Minnesotan of distinction — a jurist and community icon of strong principles and measured words, usually found over long years of public service persuading rather than provoking.
But Twitter doth make trash-talkers of us all, it seems. Recently Page tossed off a tweet that, in its way, is an eloquent expression of a hollowing out of heart and soul in America today.
“Naive silly me,” Page tweeted on June 12. “Until this latest kerfuffle it never occurred to me that military bases were named after Confederate generals. Who names military bases after losers?”
It’s a witty taunt, I suppose — at least, one presumes it’s meant that way. Despite the old South’s many sins that inspire myriad calls for consigning its heroes’ names to oblivion, it is seldom seriously denied that Confederate military commanders proved skillful on Civil War battlefields considering their large disadvantages in troops and materiel. Anyhow, Grant thought so.
But Lee and Picket, Beauregard and Bragg certainly were “losers” in the end. And when one stops to think about it — if one ever stops to think — Page’s question really is a puzzler.
Who does name forts after losers? Who honors losers in any way? And not just everyday losers, mind you, but failed insurrectionists who dared to rise up against the dominant order. What kind of an all-conquering civilization turns its enemies, even its traitors, into almost a cadre of posthumous heroes?
America does things like that. Or used to. Today, we seem to be losing — disowning, really — the American genius for forgiving and forgetting. Forgetting the most painful parts of the past, or at least allowing them to fade a bit in the mists of time.
Even before the final end of one of humanity’s bloodiest civil wars, President Abraham Lincoln urged his countrymen to “bind up the nation’s wounds ... with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
That was expecting too much. But the answer to Justice Page’s query is clear enough: It is a nation trying to heal and to reunite that does things like naming military bases after “losers.”
There is no denying a more shameful truth about Civil War reconciliation. America made peace with itself in no small part by making peace with a white supremacy that changed little for a century after the abolition of literal slavery. And the journey toward full racial justice in this country still has a long way to go, as we’ve been scarringly reminded in recent agonized weeks.
But are we, then, entitled to judge our forebears as harshly as we do? History is complicated. Life is complicated. Society is complicated. Justice is complicated. “Moving on,” in every sense, for better and worse, is a tradition with the deepest possible American roots.
Born as a “nest of traitors” against the British crown, America moved on and has enjoyed a “special relationship”with the nation its founders repudiated for about 200 years now. It is arguably the strongest alliance in the whole history of nations.
At the end of World War II, America invested massively in rebuilding war torn regions of Europe and Asia, not least in the lands of our vanquished enemies, Germany and Japan, nations that had inflicted monstrous tyrannies, aggressions and genocides on the world. Those losers, too, have become close allies of America.
And despite the excruciating history involved, we honor innumerable places and things with American Indian names — from “Minnesota” itself, to Shakopee, Wabasha, Winona, Waseca, Koochiching and Bde Maka Ska, among so many more. We’ve even of late attached a former Dakota designation — Bdote — to, well, a military site, Historic Fort Snelling.
Why do we do all that? Were the Native American tribes any more victorious than the Confederate armies in their struggle for full independence? Or is it simply that something in an earlier American ideal dreamed of more reconciliation and community than reality usually delivers?
Are we better off without even the yearning to heal divisions?
Swelling ranks of today’s iconoclasts seem to think so — insatiable as they are to denounce and discard traditional symbols and names. Christopher Columbus was long ago made into an ersatz American hero in hopes of helping once-marginalized Italian immigrants feel more like real Americans. Today, his statue is unlawfully toppled to express the undiminished alienation of Native Americans.
Readers are likely to wonder how all this applies to the statue of Twins’ founder Calvin Griffith, toppled by the team just Friday for his racist remarks decades ago. One can only say that Griffith’s ugly attitudes had become abnormal by the 1970s in a way they weren’t in the mid-1800s. And Griffith is no symbol of a civilization or a heritage.
At any rate, it seems a truer test may soon come of just how far the woke left’s boundless indictment of American history and culture will be allowed to go.
A member of the Minnesota House, Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, tweeted June 11 that she wants the portrait of Lincoln removed from its place of honor in the House chamber behind the Speaker’s rostrum. Lincoln’s offense is that he authorized the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato in December 1862, for their role in that summer’s conflict. (He had cut the condemned list down from 303.)
Fact is, few events in American history benefit more, on all sides, from being left behind a forgiving veil of vagueness than Minnesota’s 1862 Dakota War. But if the story is to be regularly revisited, the whole story must be told. It’s odd how those calling for facing up to the harsh truths of history tend to be selective about those truths themselves.
Kunesh-Podein’s tweet says the condemned were hanged in Mankato because “they tried to feed their families.” It doesn’t mention the killings that summer of hundreds of settlers, as progressive tellings of the story often don’t.
To truly confront the naked facts of the past — like those of the present — is to better understand why Americans have often gone to outlandish, even “silly” lengths to honor “losers” and overlook dark chapters, and to move on from tragedies and wrongs, or at least behave as if we had. A vast and varied society may not have been able to hold together any other way.
Forgetting can go too far. But a future of malice toward all and charity for none is not a promising prospect, either.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.