Culture

Seeing the Confederacy Clear

Statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis, Tenn. (Reuters photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)
On the terrible issue of monuments and all that

Ed Gillespie, the veteran GOP politico, is running for governor of Virginia. He was born and raised in New Jersey — but he knows his territory, obviously. He is running, at least in part, on the monument issue: the retention of Confederate monuments.

He recently sent a mass e-mail headed “Save Virginia’s Statues.” He said that his opponent had “promised to do everything he can to remove Virginia’s Confederate monuments and statues if he is elected governor.” The issue must poll well for Gillespie and the GOP.

The Democratic nominee is Ralph Northam, currently the lieutenant governor. He says that he recently discovered that some of his ancestors owned slaves. The Virginia GOP issued a tweet — alleging that Northam “has turned his back on his own family’s heritage in demanding monument removal.” After a backlash, the party deleted the tweet, and apologized for it.

If I were a cynic, I would say, The party had made its position clear. More people believed the tweet than the apology.

Is that too cynical for you? Maybe. But such moves are not unknown in politics.

Every now and then, the issue of the Confederacy re-erupts. It did so last month, after violent protests in Charlottesville. I said that I would not wade into the issue, or back into it: because I had written so much about it at the beginning of 2016. I wrote a three-part series called “Living with History.” (Go here, here, and here.) It was spurred by the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement, i.e., the movement to tear down statues of Cecil Rhodes. In my series, I had a fair amount to say about the Confederacy and its monuments.

(Not everyone has time for a series. If you would like a piece — a magazine essay, shortish — go here. My series was an expansion of that piece.)

I have decided to wade back in after all. I have a head full of steam. I think that too many of my fellow conservatives are too defensive of the Confederacy, and too ardent in favor of the Confederate symbols. Unfortunately, the issue has become bound up in PC: political correctness. All of us hate PC. (Well, all of us conservatives do.) The removal of Confederate monuments is PC. Therefore, we’re against the removal of Confederate monuments.

I’m not, necessarily. (Let me stress: necessarily.)

What was the Confederacy? Earlier this week, I recorded a podcast with George F. Will. What he said, spoke for me. “The Confederates tried to destroy our country. That’s kind of a serious business. … And they tried to destroy our country in the name of the ultimate human evil, which is the complete annihilation of freedom we call slavery. So there’s no point in investing the Lost Cause with glamour and romance. It was an execrable movement with a hideous objective.”

If I were a reporter in Virginia, I would like to ask Ed Gillespie, “Are you glad the Confederates lost the war?” Another way to say that is, “Are you glad the United States hung together and that slavery was abolished?” I wonder what he would say — in the home stretch of the campaign, I mean.

Lately, I have taken to adapting a comment I once heard Richard Brookhiser make. My line is, “I come from the pro-freedom, anti-slavery branch of conservatism.” I have no nostalgia whatsoever for the Confederacy or the Lost Cause. I’m glad that the Lost Cause is a lost cause, and not a won cause. I believe that the cause of the Confederacy was evil. (According to Norman Podhoretz, “evil” is “the strongest of all epithets.”) And I count it a great blessing of human history that this cause lost.

All of my life, I have been polite about the Confederacy and its nostalgists and its monuments. This is for a couple of reasons. First, it’s important to be polite. Second, the Confederacy … you know, lost. So one can afford to be magnanimous and understanding. One can afford to play “Dixie,” and have it played. It’s hard to lose a war. And that war was so devastating.

I remember what Barbara J. Fields said. She was my beloved professor, a historian of the American South. Her statement went something like this: “After the fall of Saigon, everyone said, ‘Americans have never before had the experience of losing a war.’ But they were forgetting white southerners.”

Anyway, I am getting less polite, as you can see. I’ve kind of had it.

Not long ago, I was at Washington and Lee University, that beautiful place. An enchanting place. I love its stateliness and grace. I love its lore. It’s sort of like southern Disneyland. Yet I don’t forget what the Confederacy was, and what General Lee was fighting for.

I was being shown around by some wonderful students. One of them mentioned that the Union Army invaded the campus (as I recall). I gave a discreet fist-pump. Just a private little gesture.

A friend of mine was saying the other day how beautiful the Confederate monuments are. Okay. I like beautiful. But what about the Confederate cause? Damn ugly, in my book.

I am told — I have always been told — that only a tiny percentage of people who fought for the Confederacy actually owned slaves. People say this as though they were proving something. I always say, or think, So what? Confederates in general were fighting for the slave system and the right to keep black people as slaves. And as Brookhiser was telling me recently, John C. Calhoun argued that slavery was the great equalizer of whites. It was slavery that made white men equal.

How so? Well, one white man may be a plantation grandee and rich as Croesus, and another white man may be a penniless bum — but they can both look down on the nigger. They can both regard him as subhuman and fit only to be enslaved. That is what united, or equalized, these white men.

I am further told that, in removing monuments, people are “erasing history” or “eradicating history.” Sometimes they are, I think, and that is to be opposed. But sometimes they are doing something else. Remember: Some monuments, or memorials, are meant to record history; others are meant to honor the person being depicted.

In the 1990s, people all over the former Soviet bloc tore down monuments to Lenin and Stalin (and to Hoxha, Ceausescu, and others). Were they eradicating history? Not at all. They know the history all too well. They want the history recorded. It’s just that they thought Lenin and Stalin should not be honored.

And they were right.

What else am I told? Well, I’m told that we can’t judge people in the past by the moral standards of today. I understand the point. But I sometimes answer, There were people for and against slavery. There were lots of Americans before the Civil War who knew that slavery was wrong and, indeed, evil.

For that matter, Moses knew it. Spartacus knew it. Wilberforce knew it. Plenty of people knew it. I can’t be snowed by this shifting-moral-standards business.

Every so often, I’m reminded how bad slavery was. Consider: For generations, Americans had the right to own other people as chattels. They could work them, rape them, torture them, and kill them with impunity. Earlier this year, I interviewed George Walker, a nonagenarian American composer. His grandmother was an ex-slave. She had had two husbands. She lost the first when he was sold at auction.

Walker knew this grandmother, very well. She never talked about slavery — ever. Except for one time, when her grandson’s curiosity got the better of him and he asked her about it. She uttered one sentence, only: “They did everything except eat us.”

That is the reality that the Confederates fought to preserve. That is the reality that they seceded from the Union to preserve. Dress it up all you want — states’ rights and all — but that is the core of it.

William F. Buckley Jr. used to warn against “slippery-slopism,” as he called it. There were always people saying, If you ban Hustler magazine from the public library today, you will ban D. H. Lawrence tomorrow. Bill hated this kind of thinking. It was a kind of anti-thinking. People should make judgments, he said. People should exercise their powers of discrimination.

I, however, have always been soft on slippery-slope arguments. And I make them. But I also think Buckley had a point: People should not be excused from thinking.

If you dishonor John C. Calhoun, do you have to dishonor Thomas Jefferson? If you take Calhoun’s name off a college within Yale University, do you have to raze the Jefferson Memorial? Do you have to change the name of our nation’s capital, because Washington owned slaves? Oh, come on.

Slavery was not central to Jefferson’s life. And he said, thinking of slavery, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” He knew. He knew. And so did Washington, who manumitted his slaves.

But Calhoun? He is famous for slavery. He dedicated his life to a defense of slavery as a positive good, for both enslaving and enslaved (and everyone else). He dedicated his life to the perpetuation of human bondage. I don’t feel the need to honor him. Do you? I’m not that kind of conservative. Are you?

Well, what would I honor and dishonor, if it were up to me? (I’m glad it’s not.) On our podcast, George Will said that honoring Lee is one thing, honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest another. (He was the Reb who helped found the Klan.) I think I would honor the dead, the fallen — memorialize them. But if it were up to me, I would not glorify the Confederate leaders. I would not put them on a pedestal.

True, people have a right to their heritage, their ancestors, their heroes. Their understanding. But remember: There are black southerners too, not just white southerners. They have ancestors too, you know. When they walk by monuments to Rebs, should they say, “Yay, they tried to keep us in slavery! Hurray!”?

And if you’re an American, what do you think of the treason? If the Confederates so loved the U.S. Constitution, as their defenders sometimes claim — why did they write their own?

Now, it’s possible to be moved by other people’s memorials. I have frequently made this point, in my columns. During my travels in the South, I always pause to look at Confederate memorials. I read the names of the dead. I think about them. I am particularly moved by the Confederate memorial in Arlington Cemetery, that woman facing south.

But — may I say it again? — I’m glad they lost. So glad. And I have no illusions about the cause.

For ages, the Republican party was known as the Party of Lincoln. It would be a shame if it became the Party of Lee. Several months ago, my colleague Tim Alberta interviewed Patrick J. Buchanan, who posed in front of a picture of Lee and held a replica of Lee’s revolver in his hands. Yippee! PJB ran for president a couple of times, coming up short. The way he put it to Alberta was, “The ideas made it, but I didn’t.”

These days, when you speak as I have, you’re accused of “moral preening” and “virtue-signaling.” (Often by people who have spent their careers morally preening and virtue-signaling.) I don’t care, frankly. I will not let my hatred of political correctness, and love of tradition, obscure the Confederacy or perfume its symbols. If that makes me a bad conservative — well, tough. You can have your Stars and Bars and your Lee; I’ll have my Stars and Stripes and Lincoln.

But can’t you have them all? Aren’t they all part of American history, and the American family? Of American history, yes. But the Confederates wanted out of the family, right? And for what reason, fundamentally?

Oh, this is a lousy issue. I will not be wading in again — I hope — anytime soon.

 

    READ MORE:

    An Argument to Keep the Confederate Statues

    Why Confederate Statues Should be Removed

    On Confederate Statues, Remember the Good, Discard the Bad

A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.

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