Vanderpeeps, you'll appreciate this. The rest of you, just play along.
A long, long, time ago, at a small private university far, far away (about 500 miles or so), a professor named Jonathan Farley was very angry about a building called "Confederate Memorial Hall." Traitors such as the Confederates, Farley thought, should not be memorialized in stone on such a great campus. He wrote a piece in the city's main newspaper, the Tennesseean, decrying the hall's name (article here from a small SF-based paper). A young commentator read this piece and found it interesting and sensible, except for one little part - sentences that stated that Confederate soldiers should have been summarily executed at the end of the Civil War. In agreement with the thrust of the article but disturbed by such a casual statement of destructive anger, the young commentator included a sentence about Farley's irresponsible comments in an article commemorating Martin Luther King Day.
Farley, unfortunately, became a victim of subtle censorship and was forced to move on (ironically, to a better job at Harvard). The commentator graduated and moved to North Carolina, assuming the whole issue was behind both he and Farley.
So the commentator was surprised when, on July 4th, 2005, he received a phone call from Dr. Farley. The professor, it seems, was irate about my description of his article as being "imbued with a violent rage." (One wonders why he didn't bring it up in the two and a half intervening years.) He was seeking a retraction to that sentence. Apparently, he feels it has been damaging to his reputation.
Dr. Farley, you're not getting your retraction. Even though, in the intervening years, I have come to understand that the neo-Confederate push to honor the Southern rebellion is almost always accompanied by a healthy dose of racism (read anything James Loewen wrote for a good overview of this). Even though I agree that Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and most other Confederate leaders were traitors and worthless bigots of the worst sort. Even though I understand that the black person in America is dealing with a system that is stacked against him, and even though I understand the rage that such a situation would engender.
Sure, it feels good to want to go back in time and kill the people who fought to keep you in chains. But what positive purpose does it advance? What point is there beyond simple revenge? And what about the 75% of Confederate soldiers who didn't own slaves? Or the fact that white Northerners were really just as racist as white Southerners? And what about Confederates like James Longstreet, who was involved with the Republican reconstruction of Mississippi after the war and who stuck his neck out for the rights of African-Americans at the expense of his own reputation?
I'm not saying there's no cause to be angry, or even that we shouldn't be angry. But there are two types of anger - constructive and destructive. Farley's anger, and the anger of those like him, is destructive. It serves only to divide further, to alienate those who would otherwise agree with you. But the anger of Dr. King, and of late-in-life Malcolm X, was constructive anger. Both channeled their anger into generating positive change, be it instilling pride within the black community or winning respect in the larger community. Some black militants didn't like King, but it's hard to argue with his results. I doubt segregation would have ended had Elijah Muhammad been in charge.
I understand the urge to seek revenge, to talk and act violently. I feel it whenever I see a neo-Nazi, or whenever I hear someone talk about vast Jewish conspiracies and the like. But if change is our goal, if we want to turn our world into something more just and better for all, then we must push aside those urges. We must realize that you rarely change someone's mind by insulting them, but you can by engaging them. Sadly, Farley failed to understand this. And that is why I cannot retract what I have written about him.
Let us now bury these little hatchets of ours and work on convincing people, not through words of violence and hate but through arguments, through facts, and through helping to uncover the truth.