The political storm that hit the United States, and the world at large, has never really subsided, although it has been two weeks since it struck.
On August 12, 2017, in the American city of Charlottesville, a slew of far-right, anti-immigration, anti-diversity, neo-nazi white nationalist held a rally in support of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The City Council had planned to remove the statue given the controversial history of the subject.
Lee was a Confederate general, or better yet, the Confederate general.
In the civil war that engulfed the then young nation of America, he represented one-half of the conflict. The American Civil War was essentially between two parties that either wanted slavery of all-black subjects to continue, or to cease. Where we have the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant on the one side, the good side, Lee was the most prominent figure representing the less (far less) righteous spectrum. Lee, essentially, fought to keep black people in chains.
Charlottesville is only one of many other Southern cities to decide to remove monuments, statues and other ingratiating symbols dedicated to such pro-slavery figures. A move that unavoidably angered certain bullheaded Americans that were rather proud of this embarrassing past.
But people like this exist everywhere. When the rally degenerated into violence, with counter-protesters who were rightly protesting idiosyncratic support for such a figure, although it did generate media attention, it would have still not gotten me to write about it.
But an interesting thing occurred three days after the protest. US President Donald Trump appeared before the media, and thus the world, to address the issue for the third time. He was not, it should be noted, scripted on the issue, or adequately prepared.
When the questions from the mainstream media started flooding in, the world flabbergastingly looked as Trump, whose moral campus has never really pointed to the north, argue that there was blame on both sides. He even added there were some good people among the protesters, some of whom were screeching “Jews will not replace us”.
The president’s main point of argument was that, although Lee did carry out some questionable deeds, he was a Southern hero who fought for his people. Furthermore, if cities are willing to remove statues of every historical figure who kept a slave, a phenomenon that was pretty usual in the early 19th century, then they should do the same for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
The statement was condemned by the international community, as most of Trump’s comments are. There is no way a “good” person could belong to such groups and organisations. There is no excuse for people with these types of ideologies. Some things, sometimes are just black and white, they are either good or bad. Period.
But, Trump, incredibly enough, had a point.
What about Washington and Jefferson?
After all, they did own slaves. They may have been against the general idea, Jefferson might have penned the famous line in the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal”, but obviously, although they stood for principle and country, they have failed to put their money where their mouth is.
This is not to say statues of Washington and Jefferson and Lee are the same. Lee’s statue exists because he wanted slaves to exist. The former US presidents’ statues exist because of their contribution for the country’s independence.
But still, something does not fill right. Yes, these men founded the US, and yes, they paved a road towards true equality between men and women of all creeds and colours, but they did own slaves.
Here in Ethiopia, we also have our founding fathers. The three most important figures that paved the road to modern Ethiopia are the emperors Tewodros II, Menelik II and Haile Selassie. All three are highly regarded for their effort to restore Ethiopia to its Axumite era glory, with a bigger territory and more subjects. They also fought to create homogeneity, to unite a heavily divided country along a single banner and name, Habesha.
All over Ethiopia, there are posters and monuments depicting their likenesses. There are streets named after them, buildings and cafes christened in their honour. They are considered the very definition of men, legends that died for country, prevented invasions and subsequent colonization, challenged foreign powers, impressed the world at large and officially put Ethiopia on the map.
But, I feel like, the respect they are awarded often goes undisputed. No one can legitimately deny these men did not do many good things, but were they perfect?
Did any of these men give us democracy, or at least try to lead us on a road in that direction?
I guess it could be argued that no other leader has ever given us democracy, not truly. They have all glossed over it, and they have all tried to take advantage of the political, social and religious environment to exploit their people, stay in office or palace as long as possible.
Time absolves, history is never really scrutinized, not by the mainstream, but skimped. All everyone wants are the easy answers, because they are obvious, instead of a deeper analysis which may distort a reality everyone agrees on.
In dealing with our past, the reality out ancestors existed in, we should be careful to observe it objectively, just as later generations should do the same. Otherwise, we will not learn, we will not see the evil or the bad in today’s leadership. We should be careful, and always doubtful, of so-called “grand achievements” or tour de forces. For if they fool us once, it is on them. But if they fool us twice, then maybe it is our fault.
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