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Finley: The risk of scrubbing history

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

America was able to put itself back together after a bloody and bitter civil war in part because it allowed the South to suffer its defeat with dignity.

Southerners, broken by the horrors of war, were permitted to indulge their fantasies of honor and gentility and cling to the notion that their cause was noble.

So instead of a lingering underground rebellion, the Confederacy quickly morphed into a syrupy romance novel that glossed over the darkest passages of the story.

It was a historical distortion, but it worked. The South could have become a permanent separatist movement along the lines of the Quebecois, Catalans and Irish Catholics. Instead, its citizens became among the nation's fiercest patriots.

But 150 years after the war ended, the South is being asked to at last wallow in shame.

What started as an appropriate debate over whether a flag of rebellion and oft symbol of racism should fly over public buildings has become an obsessive purge. The rebel banner is suddenly deemed so traumatizing that it's unacceptable even in the silliest settings — "Dukes of Hazzard" reruns were yanked off the air -- and in historical contexts — pressure is mounting to remove the flag from national battlefield parks and cemeteries.

As could have been predicted, the Confederate flag is just the beginning. Across the South demands are being raised to scrub away all antebellum remembrances that suggest any measure of Confederate heroism or glory.

That standard, if applied universally, requires that no figure associated with America's past racial atrocities be publicly celebrated.

George Washington led America to independence, but he owned slaves. And yet the nation's Capitol bears his name, as do countless cities, schools and streets. Thomas Jefferson gave democracy a voice, but he owned slaves, too, and may have fathered children by one. And yet he's also celebrated throughout the land. Andrew Jackson gave America its vastness, but he started native Americans on the trail of tears. And yet he, with Jefferson, is honored in annual fundraising dinners as the patrons of the Democratic Party.

Closer to home, the propriety of having Orville Hubbard's statue grace the lawn of Dearborn's City Hall is under question because the longtime mayor was a notorious segregationist.

America was built by great men and women, many of whom had great flaws. But on the scales of history, the goodness of the country they helped produce outweighs the failures.

We can choose to judge these clay-footed heroes as products of their times, or deny them as irredeemable. There's risk in the latter choice.

While in Georgia during the height of the Confederate flag debate, I saw a stunning number of the banners streaming from porches and truck beds. Take down one flag and dozens of others rise.

America recognized in its post-Civil War reconciliation the danger of driving the rebellion into the shadows, where it could fester unchecked. Allowing it to become a nostalgic indulgence helped knit the country together. In abandoning that approach after a century-and-a-half, we risk widening today's divide.


Follow Nolan Finley at, on Twitter at nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.