Alistair Cooke said in one of his Letters from America (which was broadcast on the BBC for 58 years) that it was a cruel mistake to judge a man outside his time.

Regrettably, in both South Africa and America, it has become common to do just that. Worse, there is seldom any mention of how times have changed, often for the better.

Today, in the United States (US), there is angst about and even rejection of founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on the grounds that they owned slaves, that because they were racist their attributes are suspect and should be minimised.

What is not said, presumably because it is politically incorrect, is that in the 18th century most Europeans in America were racist. In the mid-19th century at the time of the Civil War that was still the case. Abraham Lincoln was politically savvy in framing the war as a fight to preserve the union. He did not describe it as a campaign against slavery because he knew few northerners would rally to that cause. Only two years into the war, after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, did America’s Civil War become an anti-slavery crusade.

The contemporary attack on statues and history that is deemed problematic began with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Its American analogue is hauling away Confederate monuments under the Black Lives Matter rubric. In both cases, chaos and mob violence is excused in the name of a higher calling for racial justice.

A new set of winners

George Orwell wrote that ‘history is written by the winners’. In both South Africa and the US, the statue vandals reveal a new set of winners. South Africa’s political elite, the African National Congress, did almost nothing to challenge University of Cape Town hotheads who argued that Rhodes, as the paramount colonialist, had to go.

In the US, the revisionist winners are black local officials and their liberal white allies who displaced the Confederate sympathisers and their successors who had held sway in the south for a century.

The revised narrative emphasises the evils of slavery and continuing white privilege. Slavery is equated to Nazi genocide. Few voices rise in honour of the 750 000 men who served the Confederacy, 90% of whom did not own slaves.  

Robert E. Lee, now reviled as a treasonist defender of slavery, had been revered as a man of honour and dignity. Before the outbreak of fighting, President Lincoln had offered Lee the command of northern armies. Dwight Eisenhower displayed his portrait in the Oval Office.

The American Civil War was just that, two halves of the same country taking up arms against each other. Unionists and Confederates were Americans who, for 80 years, owed allegiance to the same constitution, which itself codified the institution of slavery. The declaration of independence was the work of a southerner, Thomas Jefferson.

Northerners were hardly paragons of virtue. William Tecumseh Sherman, after Ulysses Grant the most illustrious Union general, refused to allow black soldiers to serve as combatants in his army. He scorned the proposition of racial equality.

Considered contraband

Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, escaped slaves entering Union lines were considered contraband – property with a cash value. Free blacks enjoyed only limited freedoms in the north and could vote in only six of 25 northern states.

Just as removing Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus did nothing to improve the black pass rate at the university, the toppling of Lee and other Confederate statues will not ameliorate police brutality or redeem George Floyd. On the contrary, destruction of property by protesters prompts calls for law and order.

Racial equality has not been fully achieved but the advances in both South Africa and the US are huge. Apartheid is long gone, majority rule a reality. In the US, a black man was twice elected president, holding office for eight years until 2017. Eighty percent of the immigrants seeking refuge in the United States are not white. Progress is palpable.

Redress for a past some find distasteful should not be an angry assertion of identity politics. Rather, there should be a contextualizing of old statues and putting up new ones.

Denies the past

Civil War scholar James Robertson argued that removing Confederate monuments obliterates history and denies the past. ‘We live,’ he said shortly before his death in November 2019, ‘in an age of idiocy where intolerance triumphs over reason.’

‘Any nation,’ he warned, ‘that forgets its past has no future.’

George Orwell, a man of the left, wrote this warning in his dystopian novel, 1984: ‘Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered.’

Orwell’s words should be heeded and all of us should look deeper into history.

*Five of Barry Wood’s forbears served the Union in the American Civil War.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Barry D. Wood
Washington writer Barry D. Wood for two decades was chief economics correspondent at Voice of America News, reporting from 25 G7/8, G20 summits. His earliest reporting included covering key events in South and southern Africa, among them the Portuguese withdrawal from Mozambique and Angola and the Soweto uprising in the mid-1970s. He is the author of the book Exploring New Europe, A Bicycle Journey, based his travels – by bicycle – through 14 countries of the former Soviet bloc after the fall of Russian communism. Read more of his work at econbarry.com

8 COMMENTS

  1. Most Americans do not know or refuse to accept that the civil war was not about slavery. The so called Border States (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri) were on the side of the Union but they were slave holding states. Lincoln’s infamous Emancipation Proclamation applied only to the Confederate states, it allowed the previously mentioned Border States to maintain slavery. Slavery ended officially only in December 1865 with the 13th amendment.

  2. The yanks are learning a lovely lesson, the more you give, the more they want. Their demands will never end. We have had that lesson since the first dutch landed in the cape, and it has not stopped since. Even Trump is now considering legalizing the illegal aliens in america…. I wonder what it will take for reason to return, but if we judge by history, leftist revolutions are usually only defeated by armed conflict that kills millions.

    • It has been said (and probably not often enough) that you can vote your way into Socialism, but you inevitably have to shoot your way out.

  3. Firstly, Black Lives Matter is a racist movement. It has nothing to do with correcting racial lines of the past and present. It is an extreme Left organized thug element used to overthrow the Right by using criminal elements of the black and white population and install Black sentiment. Global elites play people like pawns, continuously moving from left to right and back whenever it financially suits them. This time a more Socialist environment suits their financial interests.
    Barack Obama, being one of those on the left, used by global elites to fulfill the agenda, is NOT BLACK. He is of mixed race so to call him black would be discriminating against his white ancestry.
    If we look at the history of black tribes, it is far from peaceful. Continuous wars, conflict and genocide including slavery. They have never been united and never will be. Many black tyrants like Shaka, Dingane and Mzilikazi are revered as heroes. This after murdering nearly 2 million black people. That’s a genocide. Why aren’t those statues being destroyed ? More hypocrisy.
    US terminology is often racist. African American, used for black Americans, is racist. Only a person born in Africa can be African and it does not apply to black people alone. Black, brown and white people born in Africa are Africans. Charlize Theron is an African American. A Native American is anyone who was born in North or South America. This term is incorrectly used for the first tribal people there. Those that allow this terminology are contributing to segregation.
    Mandela was and is a highly controversial figure. He has been made an icon by the left and mainstream media. Did he stand for freedom for all ? I think not. Wherever he went he showed the fisted clench of Black Power. Imagine if a white leader went around the country showing the open hand White Power sign ? Lots of hypocrisy here. His Black Power also never extended to all black people. It was specifically meant for ANC black people as we can see today and not even all ANC black voters are benefiting. He made sure that all his Comrades became very well off during his term as president and the ANC became one of the most wealthy political parties in the world.
    The ANC began studying Marxist and Maoist Communist ideology from the 1950’s which has been carried with its comrades up until today. This is why it will never truly understand Democracy.

  4. Thank you. I fully support you. Just look at Africa, way did they not develop as the rest of the world ? Can see the reason also in South Africa, In 25 years they bring a first develop country to a fall and bankrupt.

  5. I reckon the main reason for the idiocy of today is that it is easier to attack a statue than to take on a person who will talk or shoot back. At the same time, these left wing fools believe that freedom and democracy are burdens instead of opportunities to rise and shine on the global stage, and the only reason they worship the demonstrably bankrupt communist philosophy is because they’ve never lived under communism and were never tortured by the people they look up to. I did both, having been born in Romania, and spent 12 years under communism where at the age of 11 I was made to watch as 20 of my friends were tortured before they finally worked on me (I had started an anti-communist intelligence organisation), and 2 years under a neo-communism (both of which periods were more corrupt and violent than anything the ANC has managed to achieve to this day) before coming to South Africa. Had this happened to the buffoons of BLM and #RhodesMustFall in Russia, I think they would have forgotten about Robert E. Lee’s statues and focused instead on those of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, Lenin and Stalin. But hey, when a fool is born in a relative heaven, what does he know about utter hell?

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