This week, former astronaut Scott Kelly got himself into hot water with the political Left. How? In an attempt to lament the Republican celebration over the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Kelly tweeted, “One of the greatest leaders of modern times, Winston Churchill said, ‘in victory, magnanimity.’ I guess those days are over.”
This tweet was a problem. Not because it was too conciliatory toward Republicans. Because it quoted Winston Churchill.
Indeed, Kelly soon apologized to his left-leaning fan base, tweeting:
Did not mean to offend by quoting Churchill. My apologies. I will go and educate myself further on his atrocities, racist views which I do not support. My point was we need to come together as one nation. We are all Americans. That should transcend partisan politics.
But, of course, we cannot come together as one nation so long as we engage in the foolish exercise of savaging our civilizational history. Good-faith conversations about American history recognize the multifaceted moral nature of human existence: the fact that George Washington was a slaveholder does not render his status as father of the country moot; the fact that Abraham Lincoln spent most of his career advocating for colonization of black Americans in Africa rather than their full integration into American life does not obliterate Lincoln’s role as the Great Emancipator. Human beings are products of their time — and they are capable of holding viewpoints that resonate down through the ages and the prejudices of their own age. Undoubtedly, a century from now, few will look kindly at even the most broadminded Americans’ views on a variety of issues.
But the process of civilizational development requires us to separate the wheat from the chaff — and to celebrate the wheat.
Take Churchill. Churchill was a bulldog of a human being, stubborn and irascible; he heaped racial scorn on a variety of groups ranging from Indians to Sudanese to Asian tribes. But his racial comments have been taken out of context to slander his achievements during his career. For example, Churchill’s critics have accused him of sanctioning the use of poison gases against Asian tribes (they completely neglect to mention that he was talking about tear gas, not deadly poison gas, in order to keep casualties down); they accuse him of exacerbating the Bengal famine (they refuse to acknowledge his government’s plentiful attempts to alleviate that famine). It’s easier to mischaracterize Churchill’s actions by pointing to his bigoted comments than to analyze his actions in spite of those comments.
But where many on the left are concerned, an ounce of sin washes away a lifetime of heroism. Churchill said mean things about people; this is apparently more important than the fact that he successfully led Great Britain through the most dangerous time in her history, stewarding that tiny island nation not only through Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, but fighting on alone against the ever-increasing tsunami of Hitlerian power.
The war on the history of the West isn’t merely a difference of opinion, to be glossed over with a few words about bipartisanship. America is divided right now between two groups: those who believe that America and the West are fundamentally good and worth fighting for, despite their myriad historic shortcomings; and those who believe that America and the West are fundamentally evil and racist, steeped in structural power imbalances. A house divided against itself cannot stand; those who care for their homes cannot declare unity with arsonists.
There can be no politically unifying moments with history-twisting harpies — harpies who would be speaking German without Churchill. Anyone who insists on wiping away the legacy of good in the West in favor of cynically blustering about the unique nastiness of the West cannot be included in a call for national harmony.