Daily WTF: The “It’s Tradition!” Excuse

Our nation has a pretty storied past, whether it’s killing millions of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears, condoning slavery for a bare minimum of 200 years, using tiny children as factory workers, or putting our own Japanese-American citizens into internment camps. We as a nation have done things that we should not be proud of.

However, the great thing about time and social progress is that we will eventually have the opportunity to try to correct our past misdeeds. Some efforts like issuing monetary reparations to descendants of slaves might be difficult and take some planning, but others, such as issuing apologies to people that were sent to internment camps, taking down statues of renowned slave owners, and removing openly racist symbols or words, are relatively easy. Can these actions make up for genocide, police brutality, slavery, or rape? No, absolutely not, but they at least acknowledge that what we did as a society was wrong and that it needs to never, ever happen again and we need to take steps to help the people we so grievously hurt. It is the bare minimum required to help people heal.

And yet, there is one phrase that stands in our way: “It’s tradition.” This phrase has allowed Lexington to keep up statues of Confederate Civil War veterans (despite the fact that Kentucky was not a Confederate state), convinced people it’s a good idea to keep the Confederate flag on top of the South Carolina capitol building, and, most recently, allowed the town of Whitesboro, New York to vote to keep a town seal that obviously shows a white man choking a Native American man. The follow-up is that we wouldn’t want to ignore our history by simply getting rid of things that are now problematic. I mean, we need to know where we came from, right?

Wrong. So fucking wrong.

If you want to know about the strained European-Native American relations in 17th century New York, you don’t need to have a town seal with a white man choking a Native American. Rather, go to your local library and look up information. Better yet, talk to a member of the Oneida Indian Nation of central New York and ask them – I’m sure they’d love to tell you.

You can apply the same tactic to learning about slavery because, fortunately for us, we live in a highly literate society that has gotten better and better at preserving written history. You can read first-hand accounts of slaves, freedmen, and slave owners to learn about how fucking horrible slavery was. You can read diary entries from Civil War veterans. You can read Gone with the Wind or Little House on the Prairie. You can go to any number of museums and see actual artifacts. Hell, you can spend a long weekend watching North and South. So even if we took down every single statue of a Confederate Civil War “hero” tomorrow, you would still very, very easily be able to learn about the Civil War and slavery.

Because the point of town seals, statues, mosaics, etc. isn’t necessarily educational. Yes, they can start a conversation, but unless someone knows the background to the piece, you’re probably not going to get good information. You will still have to do some research or talk to someone who has. No, the point of town seals et al is to glorify something. It memorializes something. It says, “Hey, you! Look at this! This is important! Stare at it! Feel how important it is!” And then you show your friends who show their friends, and you all feel proud of yourselves because you saw some important thing – whatever it was.

So when we take down Confederate general statues or change our town seals to show a white and brown hand clasped together, we are not rewriting history. We are just not glorifying violence, racism, and hate anymore. We are saying, “Sorry for reducing your population by 90% over the course of 10 years. That was really fucking shitty of us. Here’s what we should have done instead.” We are saying, “I understand why you’re upset. I understand my country did something wrong. I won’t glorify that anymore.” We are taking crucial steps to growing as an enlightened society.

So if your tradition involves racism, dismissing people’s valid feelings, and glorifying bullies, then fuck that tradition. Get a new one. We are a land of individualism and opportunity. There is nothing more American than starting new. So go be a good American, buck tradition, and create a better future.

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