I am never quite sure whether I am really a Southerner. Texas was in the Confederacy, but West Texas is a lot more Albuquerque than it is like Birmingham. I have never felt any sympathy for the Lost Cause. If I were building monuments to figures from that era, I’d choose Frederick Douglass, Thaddeus Stevens, or, if I’m in a mood, John Brown.
Southerners — and some conservative sentimentalists — tell themselves two convenient lies about the Civil War. One is that the Confederate cause was an honorable one, the other is that the war wasn’t really about slavery. Neither of those stands up to very much scrutiny, and the former is mostly false in no small part because the latter is almost entirely false.
There were honorable men fighting on the Southern side, to be sure, and their fight was an honorable one to the extent that risking life and limb on behalf of one’s home and people is generally honorable. General Lee is widely considered to have been an honorable military man, and so was Field Marshal Rommel. But General Lee’s cause was destroying the United States of America to facilitate slavery. The historical record, including practically every Confederate document explaining Southern separation, makes that clear enough. That the abolitionists were imperfect in their commitment to the liberation of the slaves and that there were Southern men of conscience who detested slavery and yet fought on behalf of its preserver does not change any of that. The War Between the States wasn’t about cotton tariffs.
Many of the monuments and statues now being abominated and disassembled were not erected in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War but some years after, often in reaction to such modest advances in the political and social condition of African Americans as the early 20th century produced. Some were nothing short of consecrated shrines to white supremacy erected to Southern political powers in league with such miscreants as the Ku Klux Klan. To the extent that today’s reaction against these monuments is in essence Democrats cleaning up their own mess, there is some justice to it.
But there would have been some justice to it in 1938 or 1964 as well. The current attack on Confederate monuments is only another front in the Left’s endless kulturkampf. The Left is committed to always being on the offense in the culture wars, and, with Donald Trump and his white-resentment politics installed in the White House and Republicans lined up queasily behind him, the choice of going after Confederate totems is clever. It brings out the kooks and the cranks, and some respectable conservatives feel obliged to defend them. Getting Republicans to relitigate the Civil War is a great victory for the Democrats, who were, after all, on the wrong side of it as a matter of historical fact. Rather than embrace their party’s proudest and finest legacy, Republicans are now trying to explain away President Trump’s insistence that there were some very fine gentlemen among the tiki-Nazis in Charlottesville. President Trump’s schoolboy forensics is here particularly embarrassing. From Abraham Lincoln to Donald Trump: Evolution runs backward for American political parties.
We should not, in any case, accept the fiction that what is transpiring at the moment is a moral crusade rather than political opportunism.
Monuments have a way of being repurposed: Rome is an overwhelmingly Christian city, and its most famous monument is the Colosseum, where Christians were put to death for sport and for political gain. (It was, however, more common for martyrs to meet their fate at the Circus Maximus.) A famous Roman obelisk, originally brought from Egypt by Caligula as a symbol of imperial power, today stands in St. Peter’s Square, crowned by a small reliquary believed to contain fragments of the True Cross. The Roman Catholics might have proceeded in the same way as the Taliban with Buddhist monuments, smashing every relic of their pagan forebears. The Christian world has undergone such paroxysms from time to time: Iconoclasm is puritanism in vandalism.
The alternative mode is that associated with the ongoing — 492 years and counting — fight over the Babri mosque in India, which was, according to Hindu tradition, built on the site of a temple to Rama. In 1992, Hindu activists sacked the mosque, setting off riots that claimed the lives of at least 2,000 people. In April of this year, India’s supreme court reinstated criminal conspiracy charges against a number of politicians involved in the episode, including L. K. Advani, a major national figure who cofounded the current ruling party. They’ll fight another 500 years over it. And Babur’s empire was a slave empire, too.
The older and wiser cultures learn to absorb, to repurpose, and to allow the patina of age to cover up the lingering pangs of historical wrongs. Which is good: You cannot walk 25 feet in Rome without seeing a monument associated with some ancient horror or a statue of some god-awful emperor, but it would be a shame if they’d all been knocked down for political or moralistic purposes. And not all of these are important works of art: Some of them are simply old.
But conservatives have a soft spot for old things. We might look at those monuments the way Chesterton looked at a fence, trying to understand why they were put up in the first place before we decide to knock them down. They were not always put up for good reasons, but the conquering North indulged Southern jealousy of Southern honor for a pretty good reason: the desire for peace. The Civil War had been brutal, and the South was — this part of the story is not as widely understood as it should be — desperately poor, and remained essentially a Third World country within the United States until the post-war era. No sense poking them for no good reason.
The older and wiser cultures learn to absorb, to repurpose, and to allow the patina of age to cover up the lingering pangs of historical wrongs.
Anti-Southern sentiment among Democrats has grown, predictably, with the migration of Southern voters to the Republican party, a very long process that began in the early days of the New Deal and was confirmed only toward the end of the 20th century. (Mississippi had one Republican governor in all the 20th century.) As the country moved politically in a more conservative direction, and as the locus of conservative power moved south, anti-Southern invective became more common among progressives who a generation or two before had been all too happy to do business with a William Fulbright or a Woodrow Wilson. National panics over Confederate revanchism, like New York Times crusades against homelessness, tend to coincide with Republican presidencies. That is not coincidence.
The war on statuary serves two purposes: The first is to humiliate Southerners in retribution for their support of Republican politicians and conservative causes, particularly religious and social causes. The second is to help Democrats win elections without white men. If only whites voted, the last Democratic president would have been Lyndon Johnson. If only white men voted, Mitt Romney would have won 45 states and 501 electoral votes in 2012. Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 showed Democrats that political math behind the Obama coalition — assembling enough groups of aggrieved minorities to create a majority — is no guarantee of victory in the Electoral College, especially when the charismatic young black man is replaced by a degenerate little old lady from Park Ridge. Keeping non-whites in a state of panic and agitation is necessary to Democrats’ political aspirations. Twenty years of economic prosperity and social peace would do grievous damage to the Left: The Reagan boom, which lasted from the early 1980s until nearly the turn of the century, reduced the Left to little more than a few deans of students and had Bill Clinton complaining that he’s been forced to become an Eisenhower Republican to win and keep the presidency.
The war on statuary serves two purposes: The first is to humiliate Southerners in retribution for their support of Republican politicians and conservative causes
The Democrats’ motives here are tawdry and self-serving, for the most part. As cheap and silly as Southern sentimentality can be, the desire to reduce and humiliate one’s fellow citizens is distasteful. We would all do better to take Abraham Lincoln’s advice: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” Friends overlook one another’s little vices.
And friends do not terrorize one another by torchlight. Republicans would do well to remember what the alternative to being the party of Lincoln really is.
What ought conservatives to do? They should listen to the oldest and most widely applicable of all the councils of conservatism and do — exactly — nothing. The ancient conservative bias in favor of inertia here points toward the wiser course. There is no need to join in with the vandals and the iconoclasts, even if we sympathize with some of their good-faith reservations about Confederate memorials. But to the extent that the iconoclasm here mainly consists of local authorities making democratic decisions about the disposition of public property, there is a case for political quietism in this matter. This isn’t Yalta. The Left’s vandalism is intended mainly to get a rise out of the Right, in the hopes of getting some Republican to wrong-foot himself over a racial question. Trump’s easy pickin’s for that, but there isn’t any reason actual Republicans have to go along with him. In the words of the conservative philosopher Paul McCartney: Let it be.
Republicans were on the winning side of the Civil War the first time around. There is no need to join the losing side after the fact.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.