Politics & Policy

Stop Relitigating the Civil War

Police guard a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va., in September. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Please, just stop.

Author’s Note: This mysterious letter was delivered to my office yesterday, along with a request that it be read to the tune of the soulful violin music often found in Ken Burns’s acclaimed PBS documentary, The Civil War. Perhaps it was a case of mistaken address; perhaps it was destiny.

November 2, 2017

Camp Cluttered News Cycle, Somewhere Near Washington, D.C.

My dearest Sarah,

The indications are very strong that, despite the existence of approximately 1 billion other things to discuss, a faction of the American political class wishes to relitigate the Civil War. In the process, many combatants will step on as many proverbial rakes as they can.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, as is the ability of certain political figures to take a simple question and escalate it into a cringe-inducing conflagration. This, in turn, makes many reasonable Americans — Americans who, sure as night shall dawn into the day, merely want regulatory cuts or maybe an end to the death tax or perhaps simply for politicians to kindly zip it once in a while — exasperated enough to feel like throwing their laptops into the nearest washing machine, filling said machine with rocket fuel, and hitting “high temp” followed by “vigorous spin.”

Oh Sarah! It is a mystery that haunts my soul: If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, surely they can also wonder as to why the living are assaulted by increasingly baffling comments about the Civil War? Dearest Sarah, in truth, I would rather listen to hours of huffy television debates about the propriety of various innocuous public Christmas displays. Alas, as the air of winter descends upon my throbbing temples, I suspect those will come soon, too.

Alright, fine, you caught me: This letter did not float into my office. It was not delivered in the talons of one of those owls from Harry Potter. I did not find it, sui generis, hidden inside a giant peach. In the grand tradition of fake Civil War letter writers everywhere, I made it up. But lo, the agony it represents is genuine.

This week, while normal people like me were getting all fired up about the distant possibility of tax reform — well, maybe that’s not entirely normal, but you get my drift — John Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff, decided to gin up a good old-fashioned national Civil War debate on Laura Ingraham’s new Fox News show.  

Why is this happening? What have we done to deserve such torture?

Asked about Trump’s defenses of Confederate monuments, Kelly started out in a fairly reasonable vein, describing the growing anti-monument movement across the country. “I think it’s just very, very dangerous,” he said, “and it shows you what, how much of a lack of appreciation and [sic] what history is.” If he had simply stopped there, perhaps everything would have been fine. No matter how you feel about Confederate statues and memorials — personally, I can see why people want revisionist “Lost Cause” memorials removed — there is a respectable argument to be made that tearing down historical symbols could lead to a slippery slope with no logical endpoint. (We saw hints of this recently, when Christ Church in Alexandria, Va., removed a plaque dedicated to former congregant George Washington, grouping him with Robert E. Lee as “an obstacle to our identity as a welcoming church.”)

Alas, Kelly did not stop there. “The lack of an ability to compromise,” he said, “led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.” As anyone with more than a sixth-grade education can tell you, one side made that stand on behalf of enslaving human beings. In such a situation, “compromise” does not work. Seeming slightly flabbergasted, Ken Burns himself weighed in on Twitter: “Many factors contributed to the Civil War. One caused it: slavery.”

Not to be outdone by Kelly, on Tuesday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders kept making the hole he’d dug deeper. “General Kelly was simply making the point that just because history isn’t perfect, it doesn’t mean that it’s not our history.” That sounds fine, I guess. Perhaps someone could point out that Confederate monuments are generally a local issue and move on!

But unfortunately, Sanders wasn’t done. “I’m not going to get up here and relitigate the Civil War,” she responded to follow-up questions, right before attempting to do just that. “Many people,” she said, “believe that if some of the individuals engaged had been willing to come to some compromises on different things, then it may not have occurred.” Here, I like to imagine Ken Burns hurling various large Civil War–themed books at his TV.

Why is this happening? What have we done to deserve such torture? (Never mind. Don’t answer that.) Last week, we saw similar cluelessness from the other side of the aisle, when a Virginia group ran a political ad showing a racist Republican truck driver murderously chasing down immigrant children. Americans, it appears, are not very good at moderation — but when it comes to botched digressions about the Civil War, our political class has us covered. Please, everyone, try to do better the next time. In the interim, perhaps we can talk about tax reform. The prospect of a boring political discussion never sounded so good.

READ MORE:

Pondering the Question of Confederate Honor

Why the Founders Must Be Memorialized

Is Someone Trying to Blow Up Civil War Reenactors?

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