In yesterday's post, I did a little rant on historical revisionism, but it's time to get more direct about Trump's rhetoric, because there are some serious problems with how we still deal with the Civil War.
Two of Trump's comments have caught a great deal of attention. The "many sides" refrain, in which he pretended that the Charlottesville incident was one without moral clarity, and his follow-up comments about how there were decent people marching alongside the neo-nazis and klansmen.
The basic point of yesterday's post was to remind everyone that, once you strip away all of the bullshit and look at the actual historical documentation, like the Declarations of Secession, the South seceded to preserve slavery. The abolitionist movement was gaining strength up through the election of 1860, and when Lincoln won, the "slaveholding States" decided to secede. Because they wanted to keep human beings as slaves. There were plenty of moral compromises on the part of the North, but the Confederacy was doing it for slavery. And yet, the confederate apologists keep trying to obscure that. To act as though there were...
"many sides, many sides."
Yes, there was violence on both sides in the Civil War, but the South was doing it to preserve slavery. Period. The historical symmetry here couldn't be more perfect. Confederate apologists have spent... well... a long time trying to kick up a cloud of moral ambiguity around the Civil War by obscuring the fact that their side was fighting for slavery, and now, white supremacists show up to protest the removal of confederate statues, some racist piece of shit murders a woman, and David Duke's hero tries to kick up a cloud of moral ambiguity around the incident itself.
Denying the centrality of slavery to the Civil War-- and the villainy that it implies for the Confederacy-- is "many sides"-ing the Civil War. Put another way, what Trump did to Charlottesville is the same thing that confederate apologists do to the Civil War.
And that brings me to the supposedly-decent people Trump thought were marching alongside the KKK and neo-nazis in Charlottesville. An observation plenty of people have made is that if you find yourself marching alongside klansmen and neo-nazis, you should probably ask yourself if you are marching on the right side. You probably aren't, so how decent could any of those people really be?
That brings me to Robert E. Lee. Let's ask that question about Robert E. Lee!
Why is Lee so important to confederate apologists' mythology? Well, if your side was the side of slavery, then in order to pretend that your side wasn't just total villainy, you need at least one person who can't get into the Hitler Club. And this is where Robert E. Lee fits in. You know the legends about how he supposedly hated slavery, and was such a decent, honorable person and blah, blah, fucking blah.
You know. The confederates weren't all bad people. There were some decent people with them. Just like Trump said. However, if you find yourself marching along with the KKK and the neo-nazis, you should ask yourself if you are in the wrong march, right? Shouldn't Lee have asked himself if he was fighting for the wrong side?
What should have tipped him off? Aside from the fact that he was fighting for the pro-slavery faction. If we are drawing an analogy to those with whom one marches, how about the fact that the other generals were people like Nathan Bedford Forrest, who went on to found the KKK after the South lost the war? I'm going to go ahead and recommend that you don't Google "Nathan Bedford Forrest" if you don't know who he was. Too many bad things can happen when you Google racist shit... Pick up a history book instead. Short version: he was as bad as they come. He was a true believer. The worst of the worst. That Hitler Club I mentioned? Forrest could get in. Somehow, the fact that he was fighting alongside people like that didn't tip Lee off that he was on the wrong side.
If we don't accept Trump's statement that you can be decent and march next to neo-nazis and klansmen, then we cannot accept that Lee had any nobility at all. He fought for slavery next to people like Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The notion of the noble warrior fighting on the wrong side is a nice literary construct. It makes for great works of fiction, but in works of fiction, nobody real gets enslaved or killed.