The Corner

Culture

An Unreasonable Attack on History: A Response to Mr. Steorts

In response to The Coalition

I’m going to respectfully disagree with Jonah when he called Jason’s postimpeccably reasoned.” Instead, I read it as an excellent example of the application of anger and ideology to history. I know, of course, that we can never be truly dispassionate and neutral in the face of historical facts. We’re all too human for that. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at least try to understand differing historical perspectives and — at the very least — avoid the temptation to consign historically significant artifacts and memorials to the dustbin of history purely because the writer finds them so distasteful.

For example, I see more anger than reason in the declaration that it’s an “incoherent idea” that the “sovereign authority of the United States might be shucked off at the states’ pleasure.” Given that the colonies themselves “shucked off” lawful British authority and that — prior to the Civil War — there were a number of secessionist movements, including some centered in New England, it’s difficult to reasonably label that concept “incoherent.” In fact, the United States — in the years since the Civil War — has supported breakaway provinces and states in a number of conflicts abroad. I would submit that the question whether a people — acting through a state, a region, or other form of government — have the right to “shuck off” lawful authority is less a question of coherence than cause. If the cause is right, and the means are just, then such “shucking off” is not just coherent but necessary. We of course agree that the Confederate states should not have left the Union, but it should be noted that the notion of secession was hardly universally condemned, even in the North.

Next, I find his rejection of Confederate valor as having any redeeming value to be not only unreasonable but ahistorical. The South’s decision to venerate Confederate valor rather than continue Confederate guerilla resistance — a decision explicitly made by Robert E. Lee just before his surrender and reflected in his message to the Army of Northern Virginia — not only helped knit our nation back together but also nurtured a culture of military courage that has brought incalculable benefits to our nation. This is a point I made in my original essay, and it’s one echoed by Ricochet’s Brian Wolf. Referring to my recent CNN debate regarding the flag, Wolf says:

I am more on the side of David French who debates Bakiri Sellers here. French takes the view that the reconciliation process after the Civil War is important and the South’s military history is important and distinct enough from the racist cause of the war to be worth keeping. Mr. Sellers who, at one point, uses the word “Sheroes” does not even seem to understand what Mr. French is saying. I pray that “Sheroes” has not become a thing in the United States.

That disturbs me because every great nation has to stand up and fight for its survival at times and its martial culture and courage is a very important ingredient to a nation’s survival. It bears noting that the French had everything they needed to resist the German invasion in 1940 except the will to fight. While many French soldiers fought bravely — as well as a very few French Government officials — it was not sufficient to the task of stopping the German army, whose military élan and determination was in much greater supply.

Whether the Confederate Battle Flag continues to fly anywhere or not, must we jettison the important reconciliation we have achieved after the Civil War? Am I — are we — not allowed to acknowledge that even the best and bravest of men can sometimes fight for the wrong cause? Is that lesson not important for us all to learn? If you throw away an entire tradition of marital valor and courage you do not easily replace it. Do people even bother to pause and contemplate that? I fear they do not, and we could easily lose an important part of American culture as a causality of a lone man’s racist attack.

All of us share a tendency to take for granted all that is good in our culture and history while condemning that which is undeniably bad. I am not minimizing one bit the horrors of slavery or the deep injustice of Jim Crow when I say that there were — simultaneously — some important virtues displayed in the South both during and after the war. In fact, this virtue makes the injustice arguably even more painful. The South could have done better. It should have done better.

Finally, as for Jason’s suggestion that there “simply should not exist” memorials for Confederate soldiers, surely that’s a rhetorical flourish and not a proposal to deface or destroy the hundreds of such memorials that fill the South. After all, the proliferation of monuments has historical and cultural significance even apart from their simple reference to Civil War conflicts. These memorials — for good and ill — are indispensable to the story of how the South (part of the “Republic of Suffering,” to borrow Drew Gilpin Faust’s evocative phrase) remembered a loss of life American states had never confronted before and by God’s grace may never confront again.

The South has a history that is uniquely powerful and painful in American life. The blood of slaves stains its soil. It is the only American region to confront total war. It has suffered military loss of life far out of proportion to the national population. It was the epicenter of a Jim Crow regime that once again dehumanized freed slaves. Yet it has also given our nation some of its greatest heroes. Their virtues and their triumphs sprang from the adversity of the injustices and tragedies that haunt us still today. History is worth remembering — in full.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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