It appears there are plans afoot to “reimagine the Alamo” as something other than an iconic reproach to Mexican ambition, cruelty and incompetence. It is not clear, but this could involve reimagining Santa Anna, no longer as a sadistic and cowardly Napoleon without tactical genius, but as a sort of Abraham Lincoln who had come to free the slaves.
Imagine that! It’s not hard. Many Texans already do.
David Zincavage thinks that “people in Texas need to stop this,” but I think Zincavage (a good egg, so far as I can tell) needs to look a little closer at the congeries of discordant peoples who now constitute “people in Texas.” Among these “people in Texas,” what we might call the people of Texas are a rapidly shrinking ethnicity. It is true that, to the people of Texas, the Alamo is a national shrine, on the order of the Hill of Tepeyac in the valley of Mexico, but to most other people in Texas, it is either a rather dull sideshow to the San Antonio Riverwalk, or a hated symbol of White Supremacy.
“Remember the Alamo” was a battle cry that was first raised by Texan militiamen on the eve of the Battle of San Jacinto, after their General, Sam Houston, had reminded them of the Mexican massacres of their compatriots at San Antonio and Goliad. “Remember the Alamo” has survived in our cultural memory (until now, at least), but it was originally paired with “Remember Goliad.” Both were battle cries that served to bolster the courage of frightened men on the eve of a desperate battle, by making them mad as Hell at Mexican atrocities (and also scared as Hell of what the Mexicans would do to them if they surrendered).
When this battle occurred, Mexico was neither small nor poor. It was, naturally, chaotic, but it had a population of around seven million (as opposed to twelve million in the U.S.) and its capital was called the “city of palaces.” Mexico was, in fact, trying to maintain a highly-centralized empire, with provinces such as Texas very much under the thumb of Mexico City. While it is true that the Texans were for the most part emigrants from the United States, and so remembered Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and the national struggle against the British Empire, it was their struggle against the Mexican Empire that gave the people of Texas their national myths, their national monuments, and their national battle cry.
Nowadays, all of these are very hard to sustain as meaningful symbols because the people of Texas are but one of the peoples in Texas. Actual descendants of the original Texans (some of whom were ethnic Mexicans) are, of course, a small minority. The total population of Whites, from whom recruits to the Texan mythos might be most easily drawn, are rapidly approaching minority status; and among these Whites, a good many are indifferent, and not a are few are scornful, to the whole “Texas thing.”
The truth of the matter is that there are now a whole lot of people in Texas who have forgotten or would like to forget the Alamo. And there are not a few who would be more than happy if we all would remember it in a very different way.
You see, for a great many of the people in Texas nowadays, the Alamo is what I recently called an alien myth. It is a story that serves to bolster the morale of another people, about whom they do not really care, or for whom they may even feel a lively hatred. In any case, as should not surprise us, these people came to Texas with their own national myths, because “what exile from himself can flee?”
The Alamo is today being “reimagined” to take it out of the hands of the people of Texas, and place it in the hands of the people in Texas. To do this, it must be changed from a national shrine into a historical monument. The essential difference between a national shrine and a historical monument is that a shrine recognizes a single emotional response, whereas a monument invites ambivalence. Emotional ambivalence is what those people who are now reimagining the Alamo are aiming to inspire by providing what they call “context.”
And yet “context” is precisely what those frightened Texan militiamen were driving out of their minds when they first shouted “Remember the Alamo.” When Sam Houston rallied his men beside White Oak bayou in April, 1836, he did not ask them to consider the history of New Spain, or the just claims of Mexico, or the fact that, in Spanish, the word alamo means a “cottonwood tree.” He asked them to remember the bloody bayonets of San Antonio, and the firing squads of Goliad, and from these narrow reflections to grow strong and single-minded in their courage and resolve.
As I explained some time back, in the early stages of the great erasure of Confederate monuments, modern iconoclasm works by converting shrines and relics into mere historical artifacts. It neutralizes them with context. After describing some old-fashioned ax-wielding iconoclasm by sixteenth-century Dutch protestants, I wrote
“If the vandals of Antwerp had been modern iconoclasts, they would have expelled the numen of the crucifix by declaring the curious carving a “cultural artifact” or “work of art.” The docents at the museum in which they would have carefully hung it would have told visitors who had carved it, and when, and out of what wood. Then perhaps they might have mentioned, with a chuckle, a groan, or a sneer, “what people used to think it meant.”
This method of the modern iconoclast is derived from the modern attitude towards history. Moderns think it surpassingly important to preserve the corpse of history: to collect and catalogue its artefacts, to protect its buildings, to arrange its facts in prodigious books. But they are at the same time scared of the ghost of history—of the very idea that there might be traditions to which men owe a debt and feel a duty.”
They are not above inventing scary ghost stories to peddle as history, but they are deeply afraid of raising the real ghosts of history. And this is why they are telling us to forget the Alamo.