John Burris: Avoiding The Shallow Debates

by John Burris ([email protected]) 283 views 

Most every year, political parties in Arkansas host dinners for the purpose of raising money for their preferred candidates. They do this by honoring men from the past, mostly of high regard who contributed significantly to their cause.

Next week, Hillary Clinton will speak at the Democratic Party of Arkansas’ Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner. I congratulate them in advance for what I’m sure will be a successful event.

Meanwhile, who the parties choose to honor might say a lot about them, since, as of late, some have chosen to narrowly apply superficial and partial meanings to things from history, like flags. If superficial things matter – and many liberals think they do – Democrats should have a problem.

Republicans honor Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. Democrats honor Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Republicans honor the man who ended slavery. Democrats honor men who profited from it. It’s odd, given the liberal obsession over measuring progress in the most superficial terms.

The past few weeks we’ve seen press conferences, editorials, and other demands to remove the Confederate flag from public buildings. That’s fine and should have happened many years ago. See Jeb Bush for a good example that very few are talking about.

But it is in many ways an underwhelming response to an overwhelming tragedy. It’s shallow and overly simple. It’s the political equivalent of Coach John Wooten’s diagnosis of mistaking activity for achievement.

That type of activity is what makes a Democratic dinner – named for Jefferson and Jackson – so frustratingly inconsistent. If liberals wish to purge any unpleasant remnants from all of history – like the Confederate flag – they should start with the things they themselves control, like the name of their dinner.

Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves most of his adult life. He freed a few, but many were sold to pay off his debt upon his death. Jackson built a fortune from slave labor, and also helped pass and gladly carried out the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Are those really the values that today’s Democratic party should choose to honor? Why not FDR, JFK, or LBJ? They have easy to spell names, and are liberal legends. Instead, many Democrats seem content to lecture the rest of the world about problems from the past while seemingly uncomfortable with confronting their own.

Reality is, of course, more complex than a surface level, whether it’s a flag or a man. Jackson and Jefferson lived in conflicted times, so their roles in that time are conflicted when compared to today’s standards. Both did things worth honoring. Jefferson – despite his personal slave ownership – advocated strongly for abolishment. Jackson was the original populist and a war hero.

That’s what makes the overreaction to things like a Confederate flag so simple. As most hyperbolic reactions do, conversations of the flag have snowballed into the surreal, since superficial conversation leads to superficial outcomes.

In Arkansas, the flag was removed from the Pea Ridge battleground. The National Cathedral in Washington D.C. is replacing its murals of the Civil War. The “Dukes of Hazzard” was dropped by TV Land.

Are these really accomplishments, or is it about feeling good about the appearance of accomplishment?

I’m not defending the Confederate flag. I’ve never owned one, and it shouldn’t be used as a political statement at taxpayers’ expense. But its history is not solely racist, just like Andrew Jackson was not simply an Indian-killer, or that Thomas Jefferson was not merely a slave owner.

History is more complicated. We should all be comfortable admitting that, accepting it, and then having a serious dialogue about our present problems, rather than a shallow political one.

Our past isn’t something to be ashamed of. There was never anything uniquely wrong about the United States. There were some things wrong with the world, and the people who lived in it. Our country has slowly blazed the path of change, sometimes painfully. We can be proud of the struggles of our past. It can help us remember how far we have come.

In the meantime, those who enjoy press conferences should be forced to consistently apply their rules for analyzing historical symbolism. Some Democrats refusal to live up to their own standard of superficial interpretation is hypocritical and elitist.

If they care about the perception more than the reality, they should choose to honor the man who ended slavery, not celebrate ones who profited from it. That’s what the Republicans do.

It would be courageous, and certainly more consequential than worrying about re-runs of the “Dukes of Hazzard.”