A Long Way to Go

A giant Rebel flag—the Stars and Bars battle flag, not the official Confederate flag—has been flying high beside I-65 between Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama, since 2005. Although it’s the most recognizable Rebel symbol today, the battle flag was used on the battlefield like other flags that displayed various Confederate states’ regimental colors, never earning official recognition by the Confederate government. Still, according to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the group that erected the huge version beside the interstate, the battle flag is the perfect symbol to celebrate Southern “heritage” in its stated campaign to insure “that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved,” in part, by asserting that Confederate soldiers “personified the best qualities of America,” that the war was the result of the South’s determination to preserve “liberty and freedom,” underscoring its “belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” despite the fact that Confederate states completely disavowed the U.S. Constitution by seceding from the Union and going to war.

In Texas, the school board recently decided that the state’s history schoolbooks require updating, that the term “slave trade” is outdated and needs to be changed to the “Atlantic triangular trade,” that Thomas Jefferson has no place on the list of great Americans, that Senator Joe McCarthy was an American hero rather than the paranoid, communism-obsessed lunatic whose witch hunts ruined countless lives, that Confederate president and slave-owner Jefferson Davis must be taught favorably alongside Abraham Lincoln. There’s more, but you get the gist.

In several countries including the U.S., some groups assert that Nazi Germany never waged war to exterminate Jews. These groups insist that no gas chambers, no mass executions, no experimentation, no torture, no starvation—that nothing against the Jews was ever perpetrated by the Nazis, that the Holocaust is myth.

For decades in Japan, nationalist groups have portrayed the country as the primary victim of World War II because of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings while maintaining that the country’s invasion of China and involvement in the war were justified reactions to Western imperialism. During his term in office, Japan’s recent prime minister, Shinzo Abe, rejected claims that the Japanese military had forced Korean women into sexual slavery even as legislators denied the six-week massacre conducted by the Japanese military in Nanking, China, in 1937-’38. Observers have long condemned the Japanese government and educational system for not addressing these and other issues in Japanese textbooks.

Of course, historical revision like these examples is nothing new, in part because so many of us are unwilling to question authority even when we know something is wrong. In my short story, “Contrition,”  Eiichi Takada, a WWII Japanese veteran, is struck by a car as he crosses the street to visit Yasukuni Shrine, which honors as heroes Japanese military men who committed heinous acts during the war, including those in China and Korea. Eiichi is unsurprised that he’s uninjured. He’s grown used to surviving otherwise fatal injuries. Having served in a unit that enslaved and tortured women during the war, Eiichi has since forced himself to forget, succumbing to popular revised accounts of history, but fate refuses to allow him to die until he accepts responsibility and atones for his actions. As he visits the shrine, fate sends him a stark reminder of his crimes, the vengeful ghost of a woman he tortured and killed. Of course, that’s fiction. Fate isn’t so proactive in real life.

After the invention of the cotton gin, the American South moved increasingly toward a one-crop economy, relying heavily on slave labor, solidifying a stratified class system that had little interaction between the classes, while the North progressed into a society in which cultures and classes worked increasingly together. As the federal government asserted more power over states, Southern states promoted the view that state’s rights superseded federal power. With America’s expansion, especially after the Louisiana Purchase, a political battle erupted over whether new states admitted to the Union would be slave or free. Then came the Dred Scott Case, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, all fueling the Abolition Movement, and Southern leaders grew increasingly defiant and afraid that the federal government would attempt to outlaw the very thing on which the Southern economy so heavily relied. The election of Abraham Lincoln, whom Southern leaders feared would free the slaves in preference of “northern interests,” spurred seven states to secede from the Union even before he took office, while four others seceded after the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1861. Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States, declared that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.” The Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865. More than 600,000 people lost their lives.

Perhaps groups or individuals who fly the battle flag truly believe the Civil War had little or nothing to do with slavery. Perhaps some Japanese believe the country never invaded Nanking and never enslaved Korean women. Perhaps Texas politicians believe that rewriting textbooks can change historical fact. Perhaps Joseph Goebbels was right when he said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” echoing Lenin’s more concise declaration, “A lie told often enough becomes truth.”

Perhaps.

Reality isn’t privy to the ghosts of fate found in fiction, but real life conjures up its own ominous specters to remind us of mistakes past. That shrine in Japan, those altered books in Texas, the campaign to deny the Jewish holocaust, and that flag flying beside I-65—no matter their stated or perceived reason or justification—symbols and acts like these serve as stark reminders that authority must always be questioned, that truth must be sought and its lessons learned to avoid the mistakes of the past, that movements and their symbols purported to celebrate heritage instead serve most starkly as testaments of how far we still have to go.