, , , , , , , , , , ,

I finally had my own personal brushes with the History Wars this past week, receiving a first-hand reminder of the complications entailed in presenting the American past with accuracy and therefore with true integrity. Nothing I experienced has shaken me of the conviction that most of the nation’s Confederate monuments shamefully honor traitors (I discussed some of the exceptions here), and should be removed (lawfully) from public places. Ditto for displays of Confederate symbols on private property – although such displays should remain Constitutionally protected by the First Amendment. But what about dealing with these affronts on a personal level? That, it became clear to me, is another matter altogether.

My encounter with the History Wars resulted from a two-day trip my wife and I took to Staunton, Virginia, a picturesque town of about 25,000 located between the Blue Ridge Mountains and recent History Wars battlefield Charlottesville. We went to the area to check out a big regional book sale, and to take in two plays staged by the town’s renowned Shakespearean theater.

And we scored a deal: a package from a local hotel that included not only two nights’ stay, but two performances and a sumptuous breakfast. What could have been better? Here’s what. The hotel was the “Stonewall Jackson” – named of course after the famous Confederate general.

By the time we put one and one together, it was too late to cancel without a charge (yes, how convenient), so we held our noses and took the trip. The hotel was in all other respects exemplary – including a very friendly, helpful staff. It employed some African-American workers as well, and we saw no signs of dissatisfaction on their part. Moreover, the town lying beneath the (big) “Stonewall Jackson Hotel” sign seemed perfectly pleasant as well. True, we saw very few African-American pedestrians or working at local businesses. On the other hand, Staunton features tony restaurants with fashionable farm-to-table menus, as well as a (quintessentially progressive) fair trade products shop.  In other words, a hotbed of racism and reaction it isn’t. 

I thought of sharing (politely) my opinion of the hotel’s name with the staff, but wound up keeping my thoughts to myself. After all, it’s the owners’ views that really count. I probably will communicate my feelings on Facebook in hopes of persuading them to change – and will let them know (regretfully) that unless they do, I can’t in good conscience stay there again.

History Wars encounter Number Two was much easier to deal with – my visit to the town’s Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, located in Staunton because the 28th president was born in the town (and lived there briefly during his infancy before his family moved to Georgia).

Although Wilson held deplorable racial views even for his time, and although he is among my least favorite presidents (overwhelmingly because of his disastrously naive foreign policies), the decision was a no-brainer for me on moral grounds. For as I’ve explained previously – and as with similar figures like the Founding Fathers – Wilson’s role in American history far transcended his record on race. And he didn’t take up arms against his own country.

Moreover, the facility handled these issues very appropriately. In addition to the exhibits describing Wilson’s re-segregation of the Federal government and paternalistic – at best – views of his fellow black citizens, the guide who conducted the tour of the actual Wilson family home forthrightly told our little group that the former president’s parents employed three house slaves – rented from a local farmer for Wilson’s father, a minister, by his congregation. And she made plain as day how low the living standards of these slaves were.

Encounter Number Three came on our drive back, when we decided to take local roads (including one dubbed the “Stonewall Jackson Memorial Highway”) part of the way and came upon the kind of big antiques store that my wife can’t resist. I find these places eminently resistible, but as usual, gave it a quick once over. I wasn’t offended by the Nazi memorabilia I saw. (They can be genuine collector’s items – as with the Japanese sword a childhood friend’s father took back from his World War II service in the Pacific. That didn’t make him an Axis supporter.) Ditto for the “George Wallace for President, 1964” sign displayed in a side room. (The arch-segregationist then-Alabama governor made his first run for the White House that year.) For the record, my wife was much more creeped out by these items.   

What did offend me was the conversation I heard between the young man at the cash register (who was unfailingly polite toward both of us), and two other customers. On top of dredging up the usual canard about Confederate memorial opponents wanting to “erase history” (What? You never heard of history books or museums?), they made the kind of remarks about the Holocaust so ignorant that they were surely in part willful (though they obviously were not Deniers).

As I was in earshot, I was sorely tempted to interject. But I decided that no useful purpose educational purpose would be served. Indeed, far likelier that I would have reinforced any prejudices they had about rude, self-righteous Yankees. Or Jews. Or both.

Since I have no reason to believe that the employee owned the store, or that the owners condoned his views (or even knew about them), I don’t at this point have any issue with patronizing that store again. And getting the cashier in trouble seems way over the top – especially since he didn’t initiate that exchange and could well have been agreeing with his customers largely to be polite, and make sure he completed the sale.

My wife wound up getting some truly beautiful items there. In fact, she considers it one of the best antique stores she’s ever seen – both in selection and price terms. We also still love central Virginia – its countryside is mostly stunning. But as we continued back north on the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Highway, heading toward I-81 and home, we both realized more than ever, how long America’s History Wars, and the collective and individual challenges they pose, are bound to last.