henry ford, square dancing, and epistemic closure

Last night, while idly cruising through Facebook, I came across a video posted by a person I like and respect. The video claimed:

Square dancing has a secret, super-racist past.

Okay. You have my attention. I love secret histories. And it’s not hard to imagine square dancing as having a racist past, since so much of American history does have a racist past. And, again, it was posted by somebody whose opinion I respect. So what the hell, I watched the video.

Watch it for yourself, of course. But here is what I took away from it.

  • Henry Ford was a racist and an anti-semitic crank. Absolutely true. It’s pretty well-known that Henry Ford was a bigot of the ugliest kind.
  • Henry Ford believed jazz music was morally destructive AND a Jewish creation. Also absolutely true. Well, it’s true that he believed that. Again, Ford was a racist and an anti-semitic crank.
  • Henry Ford promoted square dancing. Again, absolutely true. Ford grew up with some form of call-and-response dancing. Probably not what we think of as square dancing now, but a form of it. Ford even belonged to a dancing club in the 1880s, when he was a teenager. He met his wife at a dance. And in the mid-1920s, he started a program to encourage ‘old style’ dancing among the public.
  • Therefore, since Henry Ford was a racist and anti-semitic crank, square dancing has a secret racist history in which it’s actually “a powerful weapon in a war against…a Jewish jazz dance conspiracy.”

That last bit? I don’t know…it seemed a bit of a leap to me. Is it possible? Sure. Henry Ford was a racist and an anti-semitic crank, after all. But I figured it was also possible the whole ‘secret racist history’ was just clickbait bullshit.

I would have ignored the whole thing except that this morning I came across two other people on Facebook — again, people I like and whose opinions I respect — posting that same ‘secret racist history’ video. So I thought I’d actually look into it.

Noted racist and anti-semitic crank Henry Ford square dancing in evening wear.

Eventually I found a 2010 article in The Journal of the Society for American Music entitled Henry Ford’s Dance Revival and Fiddle Contests: Myth and Reality, by Paul M. Gifford (who apparently also wrote a well-received book on the hammered dulcimer). The link will take you to the article, which is painfully long and detailed, so read it at your own risk. Gifford basically says that even though Henry Ford (who, this always bears repeating, was a racist and an anti-semitic crank) was an enthusiastic folk dancer as a teen and young man, he put all that aside for about 40 years while he was designing cars and inventing assembly lines and getting stupid rich. After he gave up control of his car company in 1918, Ford spent a few years being a racist and an anti-semitic crank in politics, which didn’t work out for him. Then in the mid-1920s, he returned to his interest in dancing, only to discover he couldn’t remember much about the dance moves and steps. He didn’t even remember much about the music.

So, since he was obscenely rich, he hired folks to go out, learn what they could about the music and the dancing, and teach it to him and his friends. One of these folks was a local dancing instructor named Benjamin B. Lovett. They sought out fiddlers and other folk musicians, picked their brains, made notes about the music and the dance steps. And they sort of re-invented call-and-response square dancing (which, as the video correctly points out, has its roots in slave communities). Lovett eventually published a book: Good Morning: After a Sleep of Twenty-five Years, Old-fashioned Dancing is Being Revived by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford. (A quick aside: the video claims Ford and his wife wrote the book; they didn’t. The title just reflects Lovett’s krypton-grade sucking up. It does, though, include an intro by Ford, which includes a racist and anti-semitic crank comment about “a revival of that type of dancing which has survived longest amongst the northern peoples.”)

Ford promoted the hell out of square dancing. He got local Michigan schools to teach it, he held dances for his employees, he gave interviews to newspapers and magazines about square dancing. He included a record of square dancing music with copies of Lovett’s book on square dancing.

Ford employees square dancing

The question, though, remains. Was Henry Ford’s promotion of ‘Old-fashioned Dancing’ a “powerful weapon in a war against…a Jewish jazz dance conspiracy”? Gifford, after his laborious research, thinks not. Why? Because Henry Ford was a very vocal racist and anti-semitic crank. He wasn’t at all shy about declaring his racist and anti-semitic crank views with the public. He even started a newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, as a venue for feeding his hateful shit to the public. And yet, when he was interviewed about square dancing, Henry Ford (a racist and anti-semitic crank) never associated it with his ugly nativism. According to Gifford, Ford saw square dancing “as part of a regimen that balanced work with leisure.” Ford, of course, could have been lying. But it doesn’t seem likely, given he was so open about being a racist and anti-semitic crank.

But here’s something that gets ignored. Henry Ford (have I mentioned that he was an avowed racist and anti-semitic crank?) basically stopped promoting square dancing in the late 1920s. But in the mid-1930s, a Colorado school principal named Lloyd Shaw introduced square dancing into his school as part of the physical education program. He later created a troupe of square dancers and toured the US promoting square dancing as healthy exercise. In 1949, the American Academy of Physical Education said square dancing was “a noteworthy contribution to physical education.”

Modern, western-style square dancing of the sort promoted by Shaw.

Shaw, it seems, got permission from Henry ‘Racist, Anti-semitic Crank’ Ford to include some of the dance moves from the Lovett book in his own book on square dancing. That seems to have sparked the claim that Ford ‘funded’ Shaw’s square dance movement. There doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence of funding from Ford, but it’s worth mentioning. Where Ford promoted an old-fashioned folk tradition form of square dancing, Shaw promoted a newer Western-based style. You didn’t see cowboy boots and kerchiefs at Ford square dances.

Shaw died in 1958. And here’s the kicker: the movement to make square dancing the national dance — the movement that resulted in so many states making square dancing official state dances — didn’t begin until 1965, with the National Folk Dance Committee. So the notion that Ford, even though he was a racist and an anti-semitic crank, was attempting to insert his racism and anti-semitism into the American bloodstream through square dancing seems (to me, at any rate) even less likely.

It comes down to this: Henry Ford was a racist and anti-semitic crank who promoted square dancing. But that doesn’t mean Henry Ford promoted square dancing because he was a racist and anti-semitic crank.

Why am I nattering on about this? I mean, who really cares about square dancing? Not me. What I DO care about is epistemic closure.

What the hell is epistemic closure? Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. Epistemic closure basically refers to the condition in which we limit what we learn/know based on what we already believe. If, for example, you believe the accordion is the most melodic musical instrument ever invented, and you join internet groups that celebrate the accordion and follow the twitter feeds of accordion lovers, then all the information you receive about accordions will reinforce your belief.

You’ll find that almost everybody agrees with you, with the exception of those rare accordion haters out there (and they can safely be ignored). You’ll get involved in vitriolic arguments about which accordions are better than others, and wonder why some people are unable to understand why your accordion of choice is the best. You’ll shy away from interacting with those folks who hold false beliefs about the best accordion, further limiting what you can learn. And those ignorant fuckers who celebrate bagpipes are barely human and should be either locked up or exterminated. I mean, c’mon…bagpipes?

Epistemic closure is why FoxNEWS viewers remain ignorant. Whether you call it epistemic closure, or the bubble, or the echo chamber, it’s dangerous for folks to accept information simply because it seems to conform to what they already believe. Most of us accept that the US was built on the backs of slaves. Most of us accept that modern culture has racism baked into it. So when somebody says square dancing is part of a white supremacy conspiracy and has a secret racist history, we’re likely to just nod and say, “Yeah, that makes sense.” Because let’s face it, it’s totally possible.

But in this case…I don’t think so. Despite the fact that Henry Ford was a racist and an anti-semitic crank, I don’t think there’s enough evidence to support the notion that square dancing is a tool of white supremacy. You, of course, may arrive at an entirely different conclusion.

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alchemy, hermetically-sealed trump, zosimos of panopolis, and other stuff

A lot of folks I know are baffled by Comrade Trump’s apparent popularity among Republicans. As of this week, 84% of Republicans approve of his job performance. That’s huge. How is it possible, they wonder, for them to support a president who blatantly tells lies, who has repeatedly cheated on his wife, who routinely bullies and vilifies his critics, who brags incessantly, who claims to be a Christian but is ignorant about Christianity, who deliberately undermines the nation’s law enforcement and intelligence services for his own political purposes? How the hell is that possible?

The simple answer is…wait. Hold on. Have you ever known me to give a simple answer? No fucking way. So allow me to digress. And I mean seriously digress. I’m going to explain Comrade Trump’s apparent popularity by turning to Zosimos of Panopolis.

Zosimos of Panopolis, with an alembic.

You’re almost certainly asking yourself (well, you’re actually asking me, but…wait, never mind), Who the hell is or was Zosimos of Panopolis? He was an Egyptian alchemist and mystic who lived at the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th century AD. Zosimos wrote one of the earliest books on alchemy. In it, he describes several devices invented by an earlier alchemist known as Mary the Jewess (who was also known as Mary the Prophetess…because apparently only men can be prophets, which is a whole nother thing I haven’t time to get into, along with that whole ‘Jewess’ business). One of those devices was a…okay, wait, I feel another tangent coming on. The early alchemical practices were known as the ‘hermetic arts’, for Hermes, the Greek god of science and art. One of the devices invented by our Mary — not the one I’m going to mention in a bit, but a different apparatus — was an airtight container. This is where the phrase ‘hermetically sealed’ comes from. Cool, huh? I now return you to the original digression.

Zosimos’ book credits Mary with inventing the alembic (although this is probably not so). What’s an alembic? It’s a sort of gourd-shaped container with a hollow half-ball thingum on top, from which a tube runs…well, hell, just look at the illustration below.

An alembic.

An alembic basically works like a moonshiner’s still. You put a liquid in the container, heat it until it creates steam or vapor, the steam rises into the upper ball where it cools by contact with the walls and condenses, the condensation then drips down the tube into another container. This is the process of distillation, and it works whether you’re trying to create alcohol or perfume or medicine.

That distilled liquid is the essence of the original liquid. If you take that essence, put it back into the alembic and distill it again — and do it a total of five times — you end up with a quintessence. A very pure form of the original liquid.

Right. Now apply that concept to political parties. In 1944, 38% of U.S. registered voters identified as Republican (41% were Democrats, 20% were Independents). As of July 11th of this year only 26% of voters identify as Republican. Although the numbers have fluctuated, there has been a steady decline in Republican numbers (as well as a more gradual decline in those identifying as Democrat (30%), with a corresponding increase in Independents (41%)).

We’re talking political distillation here. A slow process of separating out impurities. Both political parties have been distilled, though Democrats, who’ve historically been more tolerant of ideological impurity, remain considerably less pure. Both parties have boiled off Independents, though at radically different rates.

But here’s the thing: after the distillation process — after all the good stuff has been boiled away — there’s still stuff left in the bottom of the alembic. That, you guys, is the modern Republican party. After a few decades of boiling, Republicans are left with a residue of mostly older white Christian uber-nationalist racists. Among whom Comrade Trump is immensely popular.

Faust, with an alembic and your basic homunculus.

Oh, and back to our boy Zosimos of Panopolis for a moment. In his book, he includes a series of mystical dream/vision sequences (remember, we’re talking 3rd and 4th century Egypt here; they were hot for that dreamy-visiony stuff). In his dream, Zosimos meets “a priest of inner sanctuaries” who proceeds to chop Zosimos up. boils the bits, and from the steam he creates a creature that is “the opposite of himself.”

The idea of an alchemically-created homunculus is said to have influenced an alchemist named Johann Georg Faust, who was possibly the inspiration for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s drama of a man who made a pact with the devil. The notion also intrigued another alchemist named Johann Conrad Dippel, who was born in (and I swear I am NOT making this up) Castle Frankenstein in the village of Darmstein. Dippel was almost certainly the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s character Victor Frankenstein, who created the monster that…well, this could go on forever, couldn’t it.

The residue left at the bottom.

Anyway, it’s all down to alchemy, Zosimos, Mary the Jewess, Mary Shelley, and…and at this point I’ve totally lost track of my point. But that’s why Comrade Trump is so popular.

okay, we still have to do something about syria, again

“We HAVE to do something about Syria!”
“Okay. Why?”
“Because the Syrian government used chemical weapons against their own people!”
“Okay. But hasn’t the Syrian government been killing their own people for…wait. Wait a minute. Wait just one goddamn minute. Didn’t we already have this conversation? This exact conversation? Five years ago, didn’t we have this same conversation?”
“Yes. But this time I’m serious!”
“Okay. Has anything changed in the last five years?”
“Yes! We have a new president!”
“Okay. And is he better equipped to handle delicate, highly nuanced, incredibly volatile international situations?”
“Are you fucking crazy? It’s Donald Trump!”
“Okay. So we’re still fucked, then?”
“Yes, that’s correct! Massively fucked! Fucked all around!”
“Okay. And knowing all that, your position is…?”
“We HAVE to do something about Syria!”

julius caesar, the foreskin of jesus, time to dance

Time is weird. No, wait…that’s not right. Time isn’t weird; the way people mark time, that’s what’s weird. For a big chunk of Western history, the new year began on March 1. Which makes actual sense, if you think about it. I mean, that’s pretty much the season in which life begins to re-assert itself after winter has stopped tossing its weight around.

The reason — one of the reasons — we celebrate January 1 as the first day of the new year is because Julius Caesar (yes, that Julius Caesar) decided people had fucked up the calendar, and he was just the boy to fix it. The problem was the early Roman calendar was a lunar calendar and only had ten months, ending in December (from the Latin word decem, meaning ten). Six of the months had thirty days, the other four had thirty-one. Why did some months have an extra day? Nobody really seems to know. There had to be a reason, but it was a long time ago — people forget. And really, who cares? It was fucked up, right? That’s why our boy Julius had to fix it.

Anyway, you can see the problem. The Roman year only had 304 official days. So they periodically added in a few extra days here and there (usually for political purposes), and they included a sort of block of unorganized winter days (and we all know what that’s like — it’s cold, it’s dark, one day is pretty much as miserable as another, and they all sort of blend together), and now and then they’d toss in an intercalary month of twenty-seven days. Sometimes twenty-eight days.

On with the dance! let joy be unconfined; No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet to chase the glowing hours with flying feet.

Really, considering how organized the Roman empire was, it was a terribly sloppy way to deal with time. Seasons got weird, holidays would begin too early or too late, harvest festivals would be scheduled before the harvest was ready. Nothing made any sense. Folks complained. So one day Julius said, “Okay, this shit really has to stop.” He hired a guy from Alexandria, Sosigenes, who told him, “Dude, let’s just do what the Egyptians do. Chuck that whole lunar thing and base the calendar on the sun.”

So that’s what they did. They had to create a few new months, and add in a few extra days, but they banged together a new calendar and in the year 45 BC they said, “This is the first day of January, named for Janus the god of beginnings and endings, the god of gates and passages and doorways, the god of duality and transitions. And from now on, this is going to be the first day of the new year. Party on, people.”

The people partied on, but they still pretty much celebrated March 1 as beginning the new year. I mean, c’mon…tradition. And common sense. Who feels like celebrating in the middle of fucking winter? Even after the Roman Empire (and most of the Western world) went all over Christian, January 1 wasn’t treated as the beginning of the new year. Basically, it was celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. Which was a pretty big deal back then. You see, eight days after Jesus was born, his folks held a bris, a mohel nipped off his holy foreskin, they gave him his name, then everybody had a nice meal. Christians didn’t go in for all that; they skipped everything but the meal, but they still thought it was a fine thing to honor the day Jesus was separated from his foreskin. (Religion is also weird.)

Eventually the Julian calendar was supplanted (if ‘supplanted’ means what I think it means — I can’t be bothered to look it up) by the Gregorian calendar, and the Gregorian calendar got refined, and science weighed in, and time was more tightly ordered, and the world became more secular, and relatively few people wanted to celebrate the circumcision of Jesus, and now when you buy a calendar at the book store it begins in January. It’s not entirely universal, but January 1 has generally become accepted as the first day of the year.

When buds are breaking and birds singing merrily, dance with me.

But it’s basically all bullshit. Thomas Mann had it right when he wrote:

Time has no divisions to mark its passing. There is never a thunderstorm to announce the beginning of a new month or year.

Really, this is just another day. A lot of folks still have to go to work, the cat’s litter box still needs to be cleaned and the dog needs to be walked, food has to be prepared and dishes have to be cleared away and washed, the snow will still fall and have to be cleared off the sidewalk, people will still be people, and you’re still the same person you were yesterday.

It’s just another day. Nothing has really changed. But so what? Sometimes what we need is a symbolic transition. A point at which we can tell ourselves this is where things begin to change. This point, right here, this is the line. From this point forward, things will be different.

Doesn’t have to be the beginning of the year. Could be a birthday. Or an anniversary. It doesn’t even have to be a temporal point. It could be any symbolic point. Once I get my own apartment, once I get my first real job, once I can run a 5K, once I graduate, once I get married, once I can afford a ticket to Spain, once I get my driver’s license, once I get divorced, once the kids have grown up and left home, from that point on things will be different. That decisive point, whatever it is, it’s worth celebrating.

Now I think of it, I’m beginning to believe there’s actually something admirable about reaching that point on the first day of January. There’s something defiant choosing a day in the middle of the least hospitable, most bitter, darkest fucking season of the year. There’s something cheeky about shouting out, “It’s January First, bitches…and it’s time to dance.”

tsunami tweets

I have a long-ignored Twitter account. Between July of 2011 and August of 2013 I made 121 tweets; that’s an average of about five tweets a month, which suggests I basically ignored Twitter even before I ignored Twitter.

But with the election of Comrade Trump, I find I’m checking Twitter on a semi-regular basis, just to confirm that Trump actually made the tweets I see reported in the news. They’re often so juvenile, so bone-ignorant, so chaotically destructive that it seems unlikely they’d be the work of the President of These United States. I’d call it ‘inconceivable’ but Vizzini ruined that term for everybody. Still, time after time, the tweets are actually there. They’re actually real.

Okay, bear with me a moment. I’m about to go on a bit of a tangent. Or maybe more than a bit. But I promise, I’ll come back to Trump and Twitter.

On the 9th of July in the year 869 (or, to use the Nipponese calendar, the 26th day of 5th month, 11th year of Jōgan) a massive earthquake took place off the coast of Honshu, followed by a devastating tsunami. A history of Japan written about three decades later describes the event:

[A] large earthquake occurred in Mutsu province with some strange light in the sky. People shouted and cried, lay down and could not stand up. Some were killed by the collapsed houses, others by the landslides. Horses and cattle got surprised, madly rushed around and injured the others. Enormous buildings, warehouses, gates and walls were destroyed. Then the sea began roaring like a big thunderstorm. The sea surface suddenly rose up and the huge waves attacked the land. They raged like nightmares.

In the aftermath of the destruction, coastal communities began to erect ‘tsunami stones’ marking the furthest extent of the inundation. The stones served three purposes; they were historical markers, they were memorials to the dead, and they were a warning to future generations. The stones often included messages or advice:

Do not build your homes below this point.

Earthquake is an omen of tsunami. Watch out for at least one hour. When it comes, rush away to higher places. Never reside on submerged land again.

Hundreds of these stones were carved and set up along the coast; a lot of them still remain. But over time people grew accustomed to the stones and ignored the warnings. By 2011 a lot of communities could be found below the 869 inundation line. And as you know, in 2011 an earthquake of a similar magnitude struck off the same coast of Japan, creating an equally devastating tsunami. Nearly 16,000 people were killed, and another 2500 remain unaccounted for.

Not surprisingly, the towns and villages that heeded the old tsunami stones remained largely intact. In fact, the tsunami actually stopped around 300 feet below the tsunami stone in the village of Aneyoshi.

Right, this is where we return to Trump and Twitter. I think we can view Comrade Trump’s tweets as a form of tsunami stone. They comprise a historical record of his thoughts and behavior. In the future I hope they’ll serve as a memorial to the social and environmental policies the Trump administration are in the process of destroying. And I hope they serve as a warning, both to us in the next election and to future generations of voters.

This administration is an unfolding, ongoing disaster. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Even though he’s already a weakened president, he’s still capable of — and intent on creating — a great deal of destruction. Civil liberties, race relations, the economy, foreign policy, the environment, the sweep of destruction caused by the Trump administration is deep and wide.

We need to establish our own tsunami stones, which include Trump’s tweets. We need to establish the inundation line.This is how bad it got. This is how much of our society was damaged or destroyed. People shouted and cried, lay down and could not stand up. Huge waves attacked the land. They raged like nightmares. Do not build your houses below this point. Never reside on submerged land again.

 

 

no effect at all

Last night Comrade Trump once again inflicted himself on the public. He read a speech (and damn, it’s physically painful to watch that guy struggle with the written word — and it’s pathetic how often the written word exceeds his ability to read it) in which he gave a vague outline of an approach to the colossal ongoing fuck-up in Afghanistan.

But let’s ignore the excruciating delivery of last night’s speech. Let’s also ignore the lies and bullshit peppered throughout the speech (though the lies and bullshit are deserving of attention). Let’s just look at Trump’s central point:

We will break their will, dry up their recruitment, keep them from crossing our borders, and yes, we will defeat them, and we will defeat them handily.

Yeah, no, none of that is going to happen. We won’t break their will. The British didn’t; they fought three wars against various Afghan factions over a period of 80 years — from 1839 to 1919 — and never broke their will. The Russians didn’t; they fought a really brutal war against the Afghans for almost a decade — from 1979 to 1989 — and never broke their will. The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001 — nearly sixteen years — and we haven’t broken their will yet. It just ain’t gonna happen. We need to accept that reality.

And no, we won’t dry up their recruitment. An ongoing war that’s often depicted as a war against Islam is, by its very nature, a self-sustaining recruitment campaign. The fact that Comrade Trump his ownself reinforces the notion that it’s a war against Islam only bolsters their recruitment. We need to accept that reality too.

And no, we won’t keep them (whoever they are) from crossing our borders. Even if we enact some truly abhorrent and draconian immigration laws, it’s impossible to fully protect the borders of the U.S. The border with Mexico is about two thousand miles long; the border with Canada is about twice that. And those are just the land borders. Getting into the U.S. is even easier from the sea. One more reality we need to accept.

Acceptance doesn’t mean we should give up. It just means we need to set realistic goals. It’s stupid to make public statements that we’re going to absolutely do something we absolutely can’t do. So no, we won’t keep them from crossing out borders, we won’t dry up their recruitment, and we won’t break their will. All of which is to say no, we won’t defeat them either, no matter what Trump might say.

There are a LOT of reasons why the U.S. can’t win a war in Afghanistan, but there’s one overarching reason — and it’s actually something Comrade Trump alluded to in his speech (well, the speech somebody wrote for him). He said the U.S. cannot allow our Afghan enemies to:

…believe they can wait us out.

But they already believe they can wait us out. And they’re right. They can wait us out. The same way they’ve waited out every attempt to invade and conquer the region over the last couple of thousand years. There’s a reason Afghanistan is known by historians as the ‘graveyard of empires’.

Alexander the Great invaded it some three hundred years before the Common Era and managed to hold parts of it…for a while. Genghis Khan did the same in the 13th Century and managed to rule parts of it…for a while. Tamerlane did the same a century later, and the Mogul emperors after that, and the Sikhs after that. They all held various bits and chunks of the territory…for a while. Then the British noodled in, and we know what happened to them. Then the Russians. Now the U.S. is there.

Same shit, different invader. In almost every invasion, the Afghan tribes have been outgunned, out-technologied, out-resourced, and often out-fought. But they’ve never been out-waited. Never.

Why? Because they’re operating on a radically different understanding of time and place than the invaders. They live there. They know the invaders, regardless of who they are or where they’re from, will eventually want to leave. The simple fact is the Afghans don’t need to win; they only need to persist. If it takes a generation or two of low intensity guerrilla warfare until their enemies get fed up and find a reason to go home, they’re okay with that. They’ve done it before.

“Afghans will secure and build their own nation, and define their own future.”

That’s from Trump’s speech, and it’s a classic case of stupidity fed by willful blindness. The Afghans have been securing and building their own nation for a couple thousand years. They are defining their future. Right now that definition includes killing U.S. and NATO troops and booting us out of their country. There’s yet another reality we need to accept.

Trump read a speech — he read it very badly, not that it matters — and that speech will have as much effect on the outcome of the Afghanistan conflict as his troop increase. No effect at all, except to extend the pain a bit farther into the future.

The world has changed, of course. The U.S. isn’t going to suffer any apocalyptic Retreat from Kabul, we’re not going to face any Battle of Maiwand. We’re just going to face a slow episodic bleed — and the bleeding will be contained within the small proportion of the citizenry that volunteers to serve in the military. Which means most folks won’t care.

So there it is. No effect at all.

statues & memorials

I really wish things were simple and obvious. I sometimes really wish there was no need for a nuanced understanding of…well, of anything. At times I really wish the world wasn’t complex and complicated.

Except, of course, I don’t really wish that at all. The world is messy and irrational and down at the bone, I like it that way. But lawdy, it does confuse things.

So then, let’s go ahead and talk about war and statues of Confederate generals and war memorials and what should be done with them. Let’s start with this: when it comes to war, there are essentially three groups of people involved. There are the politicians who declare war, who develop the policies of war, who determine the political goals of war. There are the officer classes, who are in charge of actually prosecuting the war based on the politician’s policies and goals, who determine the strategies used by the armies and the broad range of tactics to fight the battles. And then there are the poor bastards who fight the war — the ordinary people who have nothing to do with strategies, who have little or no voice in the politics, but who do the fighting and the killing and the dying. This is true of all wars in all the nations of the world over the entire scope of history.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee — this must go.

Why is that important? Because it’s important to distinguish between statues and memorials. Statues are built to honor the specific politicians and the senior officers who start the wars and prosecute them. Memorials, on the other hand, are generally built to honor the nameless mass of soldiers who get mutilated or killed fighting those wars.

For the last several years there’s been a movement to remove and/or destroy statues honoring Confederate politicians and military officers. Over the last few days we’ve seen that notion expand to include essentially all symbols of the Confederacy. Statues, memorials, flags — get rid of them all.

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, War Criminal and Indian Killer — should this go?

I totally understand that feeling. I just disagree with it. Well, I disagree with chunks of it. I have no problem with removing the statues of Confederate leaders. I don’t want to see them destroyed, but I think it’s a fine idea to remove them from public land and place them either in storage or in museums. Destroying statues of people we dislike or whose beliefs we disagree with — that’s what ISIS does. It’s vengeful, it’s small-minded, and at heart it’s an attempt to color over the past. Remove them, and if they must be displayed, display them with context.

The problem, of course, is where you draw the line once you decide to remove the offensive statues. Which statues do we keep; which ones do we remove? Clearly, the statue of William Tecumseh Sherman in Manhattan would have to go. Even if we ignore his scorched earth actions during the Civil War (which would make him a war criminal by modern standards), his actions against native Americans after the Civil War were horrific. And what about the statues of John Brown, the abolitionist who believe a violent armed insurrection was the only way to insure the end of slavery? His cause may have been just, but should we ignore his extra-judicial murders? Should we remove his statues? I don’t know.

Civil War memorial — do we remove this? Is it Confederate or Union? How much does the answer matter?

In any event, I’m adamantly opposed to removing/destroying Confederate war memorials. Or any war memorial, for that matter. Soldiers enlist for any number of reasons, but they don’t necessarily fight for the reasons cited by politicians to start the war. The U.S. fought a war in Vietnam to stop the spread of communism; how many of the troops on either side really cared about communism? Both of my older brothers fought in Vietnam, both came back damaged; neither of them really had any notion of communism as a political system. They enlisted for the same reason I did: it’s what the men in my family have always done. We were raised to believe we have an obligation to serve — the nation, the state, the city, the community.

Civil War memorial — do we remove this? Is this Confederate or Union? How much does the answer matter?

I mention Vietnam for a couple of reasons. One, obviously, is because there are Vietnam war memorials all over the U.S. They’re not there to celebrate a war against the expansion of communism into Asia; they’re just there to honor the fact that people fought and died — even if the cause was wrong, even if the cause was pointless. I also mention it because I used to live in D.C. and I’ve visited the Vietnam memorial dozens of times. I always tried to visit in on the day my oldest brother was wounded, the day some of his buddies were killed. But I also visited it once with a fellow graduate student, a Vietnamese-American woman. I knew she’d been born in Vietnam, but I knew nothing about her history. I just assumed she and her parents had immigrated to the U.S. during the war. In fact, she’d immigrated as a child with her aunt and uncle; her parents had both died, killed by U.S. troops. She didn’t tell me how or why they were killed; maybe it didn’t matter if they were collateral damage in a bombing or whether they’d been involved in the actual fighting. The thing is, she blamed the death of her parents on the war itself, not on the troops.

Civil War memorial — do we remove this? Is it Confederate or Union? How much does the answer matter?

The statues of Confederate politicians and generals were (and still are) political statements, honoring the men (they’re all of men) and the cause they fought for. Their removal is justified and warranted. The memorials to the soldiers who fought, on the other hand, are an acknowledgement that ordinary people die in wars. I see them as a reminder that war — even a just war fought for valid reasons — is wasteful.

Does it matter if they cause they died for was just or unjust?

I know a lot of folks will disagree with me on this. I’m okay with that. This is just my opinion, and I recognize that other folks will have different and equally valid opinions. Like I said at the beginning, the world is messy and irrational. I like it that way.

I only wish there were memorials dedicated to all the civilians, the true innocents who die and suffer in war.