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  • August 26th, 2017

UP AGAINST THE WALL

By Joel M. Vance

Ronald Reagan famously said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” And the wall got torn down and today a chunk of it stands in Fulton, Missouri, at the Church of St. Mary Aldermanbury, restored from having been bombed out in London by the Nazis during World War II. It stands as a memorial to the death of communist rule in East Germany. The Fulton restoration is where England’s great leader, Winston Churchill, equally famously declared that a wall was descending between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world— an Iron Curtain is what he called it. Now we have a leader of our own who’s calling for a wall that, in my mind, has disturbing echoes of what the Communists did in Europe and in Berlin.
Trump wants to shut us off from Mexico and shut the door on immigrants from any country that offends his sensibilities, if indeed he has any. There also is a growing call to tear down the monuments that are remembrances of the Civil War of 160 years ago that tore the country apart for five long years. Should we endorse the destruction of these statues that depict those who lost the Civil War? There is no doubt that the Confederate flag, a symbol of rebellion against the union, has no place in a world where the Stars & Stripes are the only national flag, but what about bronze figures of those who led the Confederacy?
Today’s president, Donald Trump, and his extreme right wing allies are as divisive today as any of the extreme states righters and Confederacy advocates of 160 years ago. The danger today is not that we try to erase the vestiges of the Confederacy, but that we let those old wounds reopen and continue to divide the country, possibly beyond repair. There is no doubt in my mind that Trump will go down in history as our worst president, assuming that he makes it through one term.
Unfortunately, even if Trump is impeached or quits, we will not gain much. Mike Pence is not much of an improvement. He just happens to be smarter than Trump (no great accomplishment) but he is in his own right, a danger to the country. When he recently compared Trump to Teddy Roosevelt as an example of a great president, I shuddered all over. There is as much difference between Trump and Roosevelt as between the other president Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. Teddy was everything that Trump is not and to compare the two exhibits a profound hypocrisy that reveals the flawed human that Mike Pence is.
Even if the country dumps Trump, and somehow gets rid of Pence, the next in line is Paul Ryan. This would be a case of history repeating itself as when Nixon and Agnew both were sidelined leaving the honest, if bumbling Gerald Ford as the interim president. Ford was not much of a president but he was light years more preferable for the office than Paul Ryan would be.
Somehow the Democratic Party has to find spokespeople who can articulate the dire need for unity when the Republican Party and especially the extreme right seems dedicated to splitting the country apart, no matter the consequences. I don’t think Democrats have done a very good job so far of discovering the charismatic leader who can unite the people. It seems to take a national calamity to summon forth a leader with the ability to survive the catastrophe and unite the country behind him or her. George Washington was a product of our war for independence, Lincoln sprouted forth from the turmoil of the Civil War, FDR was the man for the job during the depression and World War Two.
I spend much time chewing over the question of whether or not we should erase Civil War monuments as a way to heal racial divide and I have mixed feelings about it. The problem is not statues of Robert E Lee or Stonewall Jackson, but rather whether we are a nation divided by race, religion, ethnic background or any other contentious aspect of our community.
We have only to look at Missouri’s own history to discover the confusion that seems to be gripping the country today. Quantrill, perhaps the most sociopathic killer of the Civil War, a Confederate, is buried in a Missouri cemetery dedicated to the Confederate dead. And in my hometown of Keytesville we still celebrate Sterling Price day, dedicated to a Confederate general.
Yes, there is a statue of Price in the Keytesville city Park. Price’s plantation, Val Verde, was just south of Dalton, the town where I grew up. For some strange reason the county has honored me by naming a dead-end rural road Joel Vance Avenue. In a strange parallel the next road east, not a dead end, is Val Verde. I even was honored during Sterling Price day several years back as a distinguished citizen of Chariton County and got to ride in the back of an open convertible and wave at a less than adoring crowd. I didn’t feel that I was contributing in any way to racial disharmony nor did anyone else. Sterling Price day, in the minds of everyone, has no relation to anything except a chance for locals to get together and have fun. In yet another historical parallel, my great-grandfather, a Union militiaman, was captured by Price’s Army, paroled and sent home to do no further damage to the Confederacy (or, for that matter to the Union–he was a farm boy, not a soldier).
None of this has any bearing on today’s racial problems. Removing Price’s statue would do no more good toward ameliorating racial tension than would removing statues of Lee and Jackson, wherever they stand. History is fact and you can’t change fact by erasing it. The Taliban tried it by destroying cultural landmarks that can never be resurrected. While I don’t equate the removal of Confederate statues with the actions of the Taliban, there is an uncomfortable feeling of parallel. We should accept the warts of our historical panorama as well as its beautiful aspects. Our country is littered with actions that are unacceptable today— the treatment of Native Americans is every bit as repulsive as slavery.
The United States turned away a boatload of Jewish refugees during World War II, forcing them to return to almost certain extermination in Europe. And we interned American citizens, who just happened to be of Japanese origin, during that same war. Now, we are in danger of doing the same thing to, in many cases, immigrants from Mexico, or from other countries that Donald Trump deems a danger, for reasons that escape reason itself.
The Civil War was five years of national insanity which resulted in more American deaths than all the other wars in which the country has been involved combined. The brutality on both sides, North and South, is almost beyond belief. There should be shared shame within every state involved, and they must resolve never to let it happen again. Nothing about the Civil War is a cause for celebration. But neither, should we forget the long shadows cast by that detestable event in our history. Toppling monuments is a silly and ineffective way to remember the darkest spot of our history as a nation.
In Columbia, the Guitar house, one of only two remaining anti-bellum mansions in the county, was built by a Confederate Captain whose brother happened to be a Union general and who saved the home from being burned by the Union Army— but who also was a slave owner who felt that the Union was more important than secession. Robert E Lee was offered the command both of the Union and Confederate armies and came down on the side of his native Virginia. Many of the generals in the Civil War had been classmates as well as close friends at West Point and during their pre-Civil War army careers.
Early in his career, Sterling Price defended Mormons against prejudice and persecution by angry Missourians. But he also was a commander against Mexicans in the Mexican war and narrowly escaped punishment for continuing to fight after a treaty had been signed. Later still, he was governor of Missouri and reportedly a very good one. Originally, he opposed secession but took up arms against the Union when Union forces occupied the state. After the Confederates lost, Price remained unregenerate and took a ragtag remnant of his army to Mexico and offered his services to Emperor Maximilian— a curious finale to a military career which essentially started by fighting Mexicans and ended by volunteering to ally with them.
And we might consider that Arlington National Cemetery, the resting place of the nation’s honored military dead, also was the home plantation of Robert E Lee. No one would seriously propose that we dig up all those honored dead and re-bury them in neutral territory, although Trump probably would if he thought it would gain him some points with his Ku Klux Klan supporters. The idea that by erasing history we can solve the problems of division within the country is futile. We need cross pollination of ideas and goodwill among both sides—liberal and conservative— before we can even begin to solve the underlying problems of job loss, crumbling infrastructure, shaky economy, unequal wealth, racial tension, and any other social problem that plagues the nation today.
All too often politicians on both sides merely smear salve on the problems rather than looking for the medications that cure the illness. I’ve long thought that we need a revival of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, both of which were bipartisan programs that did much to solve so many of the problems created by the Great Depression. They gave jobs to people who needed them, they built infrastructure and other amenities of social good that exist to this day. If World War II had not come along to steal away all those eager young workers, perhaps those two programs still would be contributing to the common good.
Thank God we have young people (compared to me, everybody is young) who are thoughtful and able to articulate the problems that plague us and avoid the pitfalls of letting idiots like Trump and Limbaugh do their thinking for them. That’s not thinking anyway— that’s just obscenity in words of more than one syllable.
The adage that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it has never seemed more applicable than it does today. I just got a long article forwarded from Canada to an outdoor writer friend of mine about studies in Canada that indicate that chronic wasting disease, a terrible disease threat to antlered animals, possibly can be transmitted to human beings. It is invariably fatal to infected animals and could lie dormant in human beings for years.
A rabbit biologist once told me that when rabbits overpopulate their habitat they develop ulcers and die off. Perhaps the same thing could happen to humanity if CWD becomes endemic in humans and nature takes its course. Then the division between the extreme right and the extreme left politically wouldn’t mean a damn thing. Something to think about.
I don’t mean to be an alarmist. I don’t think we’re on the verge of another Civil War, nor do I think that humanity will be wiped out by chronic wasting disease. In any event it won’t happen in our lifetime. All we can do is to work toward solutions of the immediate problems not the potential ones. Wiping out the traces of history is not a solution, it’s just a feel-good aspirin toward the pain of social unrest.
Meanwhile I hope that Steve and those like him who don’t accept the superficial thinking of most politicians and, for that matter, the voting public, will continue to think and disseminate that thinking to others. If we all start putting our minds to it, maybe we can come up with some sort of communal agreement and start living what we like to call the American dream.

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