Recently, some American activists have ignited a movement to usher in an urgent iconoclasm of vile symbols of culture and history, such as the removal of statues bearing the likeness of General Robert E. Lee, inter alia…
There is a lot of good in this essay, but it is marred, in my view, by a faulty premise: the implication that the iconoclasts are operating out of basically the right instincts, but, poor benighted souls, they are just going about it the wrong way. Like his colleague Franck, who he hails as a “more astute thinker” (I am forced to disagree, at least on this topic), Venzor fails to entertain or even consider the possibility that the iconoclasts, the barbarians, are wrong at root, just as the dominant, Northern narrative has been wrong since the ending of the War Between the States.
To recount in brief what I have delineated in far greater detail elsewhere: yes, slavery was a presenting cause for Secession, especially the first wave of seceding states, for whom it was a major feature of their economy (in part due to the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney – a Northerner, ironically enough). But it was not the cause of the second wave of secession, nor was it the cause of the War itself: that was brought about by the determination of the Lincoln administration to return the seceded states to the Union by force: a Union which many or most, both North and South, believed at the time to be voluntary.
And the great figures of that War, on the Southern side, were not fighting to defend slavery, any more than the common soldiers were; they were fighting to defend their homes, and their home states. They were not fighting against the Constitution, they were fighting for the Constitution, against an administration that demonstrated itself willing to run rough-shod over the Constitution, in order to maintain, at all costs, a Union that had previously been understood to be a voluntary Union of sovereign States.
And it was that initial and fundamental evil that brought about all the evils that followed: the horrors of “Reconstruction,” which enriched Northern speculators and further impoverished the war-torn South (and which brought about the formation of the Klan, initially as a self-defense organization against the egregious excesses committed against a South which had already been beaten and crushed by the industrial might and great population advantage of the North); and the subsequent – and consequent – hard feelings and resentments on both sides, which sadly persist to this day.
General Lee (who unlike his Union counterpart, General Grant, freed the slaves he had acquired through his wife) himself believed slavery to be both a great moral and a grievous political evil, but believed that imposing a too-sudden end to it, especially by force, would result in more problems than it would solve – and looking at the century-and-a-half which followed, it is hard to argue with that conclusion. If the war had indeed been about slavery, it is absurd, a bitter joke, to imagine that alone of all the civilized nations of the world, the United States needed a horrific war killing nearly a million of its citizens on both sides to accomplish the end of abolishing it.
But it was not about slavery, and until the publication of the much-vaunted “Emancipation Proclamation” – which freed not a single slave in any location where Lincoln’s writ actually ran, neither in the slave states remaining in the Union nor in those areas of the Confederacy under Union control – no one, save perhaps a handful of radical abolitionists, tried to pretend that it was. It was an economic and political war, fought to preserve both the Union and – perhaps more critically, in the eyes of the Lincoln administration – the North’s access to Southern raw materials, and the Federal government’s access to the tariffs from their export, which in those pre-income-tax days was the chief source of funds for running the Federal government.
There is much more that could be said, but my point is this: the narrative itself is flawed, is erroneous, is – fundamentally – a lie, and it is from that falsehood that stem a lot of the problems we are now facing. People both white and black have been taught to look at the War Between the States as being “about” slavery, about race, and everything, every person, every icon and symbol, of that period has therefore been filtered through that falsehood. That is the key problem, the 900-pound gorilla in the room, as it were.
Similarly, it is erroneous – part of the aforementioned false narrative – to claim that racial animus was the impetus for the erection of Confederate monuments. The fact is, there were two factors resulting in the timing of those monuments’ creation: the first is the amount of time it took to raise the requisite funds in the war-ravaged and impoverished South; the second is the fact that it was at during that time – the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the early years of the 20th – that the “living monuments,” the soldiers who had actually fought in the War, were dying off. It is not a strange or surprising thing that the urge to erect monuments to them reached a critical pitch at that time.
There was a time in our nation’s history when this was more widely understood. What some have called “the Great Truce” or the “Great Compromise” lasted from, approximately, the Spanish-American War to the cultural clashes of the 1960s, and indeed staggered on in a more tenuous form probably right up until the latest attack on Southern culture and identify following Dylan Roof’s execrable murder of Charleston church-goers in 2015. It was an unwritten and largely unspoken “gentleman’s agreement,” and the terms were these:
The South would consider itself fully, loyally, and patriotically part of the Union, send its sons to fight and die for the United States, and do all in its power to protect and defend our united country. But in exchange, it would be allowed to honour and celebrate the heroes and icons of the Confederacy, to take pride in their valour and sacrifices, and to venerate the symbols under which they fought. From the sea of American flags at NASCAR races to the disproportionate number of Southerners volunteering for military service, the South has more than lived up to its end of the bargain.
Only to have that loyalty thrown back in its face: its flags hauled down, it heroes dishonoured, its monuments destroyed, defaced, removed. Can you honestly wonder that there is frustration, resentment, and yes, anger at this? Much is made of the feelings of African-Americans, who supposedly feel oppressed and down-trodden by a handful of statues (though I know quite a few who have actively participated in the defense of those same statues). And I am not unsympathetic, although again, I think a lot of this has to do with the false narrative, dishonestly presented, I mentioned previously.
But what of those Southerners, both black and white, who because they are peaceful, law-abiding citizens (unlike the domestic terrorists of Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and similar organizations), must stand by and watch while their monuments and symbols, and those of their honoured ancestors, are removed, defaced, destroyed? Nor should anyone be naive enough to think that this will stop with Confederate monuments. Where Venzor’s article does shine is in pointing out that this kind of barbaric iconoclasm has a momentum of its own, and once begun, is hard to stop.
“Absent… abatement via rational process, revolutionary acts masked as politics engender one-sided political interest asserting pure will and power. As Cardinal Ratzinger expresses, this creates blind spots in the moral assessments of political realities and history. And blind spots in morals and politics produce unintended consequences—or, perhaps, for the urgent iconoclasts, wholly intended consequences.” With that, I am in complete agreement. We are all at risk from what is transpiring, at present. But we are not helped by virtue-signaling, pandering to political correctness, or in any way pretending that the iconoclasts have any justification whatsoever, historical or moral, for their acts.
P.S. I use the term “War Between the States” and not the “Civil War” because that is another part of the Big Lie: it was not a civil war, which is a war between two or more factions for control of a central government; this was a war between states that wanted to be left alone and a Federal government that refused to allow that. It was a war between states that wanted to separate themselves, peaceably, from the remainder of the country, and a government that invaded to prevent that from occurring.