To borrow from Santayana’s formulation about failure to remember the past, those who refuse to accept it are also destined to repeat it.
>YORKTOWN, Va. — Nearly 240 years after the battle that helped birth a nation, the siege-line earthworks dug by George Washington’s soldiers here don’t look like much: Long mounds of grass-covered dirt, separated by walking trails designed to keep visitors from adding to their deterioration.
It’s impossible, though, for anyone with an open mind and a true appreciation for history to walk the fields around Yorktown and not be in awe of what transpired here in October 1781. As pitched battles go, it wasn’t a particularly bloody one; estimates of combined Colonial and French losses suggest 88 combat fatalities, while the British losses were roughly 300 lives. But the battle here quite literally changed the fortunes of the world for the next 2½ centuries, and continues to shape geopolitical-economic events today.
You can probably guess at this point how I feel about the recent displays of orgiastic destruction that have been turned on memorials to the likes of Washington himself. To borrow from Santayana’s formulation about those who don’t remember the past, I’d suggest that those who refuse to accept the past for what it is are equally destined to repeat it. No amount of vulgar graffiti, no length of rope or cable, no throng cheering wanton destruction of a tribute to historical figures, will change a second of that past, or any of the contributions made by those who created it.
The nation currently suffers from a uniquely destructive form of presentism, the arrogant view that people who lived centuries before us should have adhered to today’s social mores and practices. For those who ascribe to such sclerotic thinking, to the modern version of iconoclasts
we must suffer today, a few questions:
- If Washington were the misguided tyrant some hold him out to be, what alternative existed to confront Cornwallis at Yorktown? Please specify the historical figures (Loyalists, perhaps?) and the resources available to them that would have resolved the complaints of a rebellious people against an overweening king 3,000 miles away?
- Are you suggesting America should have remained an English colony? Please explain the social, cultural and economic benefits that would have accrued for your benefit today under such an arrangement.
- The Colonials were fighting to defend a shared ideal—someone actually wrote this down somewhere, a few years before Yorktown, as I recall—“that all men are created equal.” Please explain why that ideal was not worth fighting for.
- Once you’ve done your homework and produced intellectually honest answers to those questions, here are a few more that flow from some of the recent bad behavior we’ve seen around the country:
- “The System” is flawed, biased, unfair and oppressive, you say. Please explain which parts can be torn out at the root, and what constructs would replace them to ensure greater equality. Please do not overlook the consequences of personal decisions made by those who fail to finish high school, engage in illegal drug trade or use, have and raise children in single-parent households, or those who consider meaningful employment “selling out to The Man.”
- If the U.S. has an incarceration problem, why did rates of violent crime fall precipitously for a generation after Congress passed get-tough legislation in 1993, and why have those rates skyrocketed since the Baltimore Effect became the Portland Effect, the Seattle Effect and the Minneapolis Effect?
- If capitalism itself is the problem (full disclosure: I’m on board with those who say it’s being corrupted by some to serve their personal interests), which economic system is superior? Please produce authentic, reliable and verifiable metrics (read: not state-sponsored propaganda) that demonstrate said superiority.
- If national unity is your goal, please explain how sweeping racial generalizations as defined by concepts like White Privilege are not divisive in nature.
If you have answers to those questions, and suggestions for creative ways to address problems with any of those topics, as opposed to the blind rage of destruction, I’m all ears. Tens of millions of voting-age Americans would probably like to hear what you have to say, too.
But I won’t hold my breath waiting for thoughtful ripostes. I’m not sure any of us here today will live long enough to see polite, rational responses to each of those questions.
While I’m waiting to hear them, though, I think I’ll start working on plans for next summer’s vacation. I’m thinking south-central Pennsylvania. I hear the history around Gettysburg is worth exploring …