Wei-Chi (Advance and Retreat)

Retreat Wall Art | RedbubbleBy Frank Blechman

Last week, the Virginia Supreme Court cleared the legal path for the Commonwealth to remove the last remaining Confederate statue (General Lee) on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. Also last week, US forces officially withdrew from Afghanistan. It is appropriate that they coincide.

Even Union General Ulysses Grant (who was famous for pressing forward) knew that sometimes a tactical pause or adjustment was needed. Neither Lee nor Grant believed that a “forever war” was a good thing. Both knew that retreating under fire was never going to be pretty.

Today, some Americans need to revisit those lessons. We prefer to believe that progress will always go forward, our children will always be better off than we, and every investment will grow. Sadly, not all of our ventures will succeed. Not all of our children will be “above average” (as they say in Lake Woebegone). We, as a whole, will not move steadily toward perfection.

If we abandon hopes that the march toward righteousness is automatic, that does not mean the opposite, that progress is impossible. . . . Incremental, day-by-day, small steps toward the future leave too much room for nostalgic revisionism. . . . By clearing the deck, it is now possible to move toward what comes next. The future will be built on the past and the present. Inevitably, it will not be that much different, at first. And it will not be a steady march in one direction. But it will be different because we tried something different.

Yet, if we abandon hopes that the march toward righteousness is automatic, that does not mean the opposite, that progress is impossible.

In this column, I have avoided making grand pronouncements about the future, or debating national policies. With a few exceptions, I don’t know enough to have more than a partially formed opinion. However, here I will violate that principle. I think President Biden is right when he argues for big, bold action. Surely, he knows he will not get everything he proposes. And not everything he gets will work out as he has envisioned. Nonetheless, incremental, day-by-day, small steps toward the future leave too much room for nostalgic revisionism. As a wise woman in South Carolina once said to me, “Like the old folks say, ‘You can’t backslide on barbed wire.’”

Presidents Truman, Clinton, and Obama all tried to negotiate compromises to expand health care, while opposition grew day-by-day. Under the last president, some yearned for the good old incandescent bulbs, which ceased production in the face of more energy-efficient LEDs, and pined for gas-guzzling cars (vroom, vroom). Today, President Biden faces the charge that somehow if we stayed in Afghanistan (one more day, forever), somehow that effort would pay off.

It was past time for the Lee statue to come down. It was past time to shift our relationship with Afghanistan. By clearing the deck, it is now possible to consider and even move toward what comes next. The future will be built on the past and the present. Inevitably, it will not be that much different, at first. And it will not be a steady march in one direction. But it will be different because we tried something different. Will have gotten to “maybe.” Maybe, it we try something else, we will get better results.

We have to try.

 



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