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Truth and Its Consequences

Chivington bad. But Lee good?

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, January 05, 2005.

In Longmont, Colorado, a local furor has become something bigger: still petty, still annoying, but getting bigger.

There is a street named Chivington, and area “activists” wanted it changed because Chivington was the guy who led the attack on Black Kettle’s village in 1864 at Sand Creek. Even at the time it was considered illegal and a massacre of innocents by both Congress and the US Army.* Longmont neighbors probably have no real emotional tie to Chivington but they don’t like - as I would not like - people from another city coming and telling them what they can and cannot do insofar as naming a street. There was a vote, and the name stayed.

It is excused because: not only was Chivington an actual baby killer and a genuine hypocrite – he was a minister of Christ – but he was also a Civil War hero for beating the Rebels at Glorietta Pass in New Mexico previously. Surely it’s okay to honor heroes of the Civil War? In fact, the surrounding streets are also named for other such heroes.

Especially in Colorado this iffy stuff is okay. For decades our International Airport was named for Denver Mayor Ben Stapleton, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

So a compromise was suggested. Keep the name, but put a permanent marker in place, showing a soldier shooting an innocent and hopefully beautiful Indian mother and child as a memory. Well, you can just imagine. Idiots of every stripe are out and on this.

But it raises a painful and chronic question. What portion of a person’s life do you honor? And do you actually cover up the bad portions – a term than can change with the wind and ratings of networks in need of made-for-television movies – by emphasizing or exclusively showing the good?

For example, Woodrow Wilson was a borderline pacifist and worked very hard for peace in his time and ours, and he signed meaningful legislations that helped people, and he tried hard to leave the country in better shape. But Wilson was a Southern racist, and for the first time since Lincoln, the White House was segregated and denied employment to Blacks. There was no denying this, and there was no denying his efforts to prevent war and to keep us out of it should it happen. He fought for his good views, often alone and unloved by anyone. Where does he fall between hero and pariah?

Michelle Malkin, a Daddy’s girl of a panderer to the conservative right, has written a book that says the internment of the Japanese during WW II, including her relatives, was okay and excusable and not racist but logical. Paul Campos shreds that in his new column, pointing out the quotes that pretty much prove the opposite: it was racial. And powered mostly by whites in California who wanted all that valuable farmland the Japanese descendents had developed to profit. The Governor of California, a conservative Republican, signed the internment and never apologized. It was a reason that Dwight Eisenhower appointed him to the Supreme Court later.

But is Earl Warren a fascist for imprisoning American citizens without trial and stealing their property as California Governor, or is he a borderline commie and traitor for overturning Jim Crow and segregation and fighting for the rights of citizens against their various governments and making it more open, integrated, and decent when he was Chief Justice?

Is FDR a hero for saving capitalism and this nation or for threatening to overturn the constitution by packing the Supreme Court? What about the Atomic Bomb he approved? What about his refusing to accept Jewish refugees and sending them back to die?

Is Winston Churchill a hero for saving his nation when they needed him? Or for squandering millions of lives in two world wars?

It’s easy to dwell on men because for much of our history women have had a more subtle role, but is Susan Sontag a heroine for her lifetime of mostly brilliant and insightful work or a patsy and tool of liberals for her condemnation of the US after 9-11? Is Helen Keller a hero? Or another traitor for her outspoken socialist beliefs and politics?

Did Henry Ford show how the common man could have mass individual transit or was he a vicious bigot and traitor like Lindberg, who sided with the Nazis? Is Ezra Pound a great poet or a fascist mouthpiece and traitor?

We’ve settled on Benedict Arnold, our best revolutionary war general but a definite traitor. But what about John Paul Jones, once a revolutionary hero and then a mercenary for Russia, where he died, and we forgave him. But how come we forgive Robert E. Lee and not Arnold? Who was worse? Lee, by men killed and damage done, was the greatest enemy in our history, betraying West Point, his Army, his country. And us. Yet…….

So, this Chivington thing isn’t really an honest debate, just one of posing and posture. For the truth is, Native Americans slaughtered each other just as fiercely as the white man did. It was considered an honor to accumulate a necklace of baby hands in some instances. Not because they enjoyed killing enemy babies, but because it proved the warrior had defeated opponents defending that which was most precious to them, and here was the proof. Much of the Plains Indian life was nothing more than ego tests for the men, all others be damned.

So, if Chivington is correctly damned by his own as a murderer, fine. But why do we honor as patriotic heroes those guilty of much the same, simply because they’re Indian? After all, Chivington was a demonstrative patriot as well.

*Sand Creek was not fought by the federal Army, but by Colorado militia.