Thursday, April 15, 2010

Me, Ta-Nehisi & The Ghost Of Bobby Lee

In writing earlier this week about the latest spasms from the Lost Causers claiming that the Civil War wasn't about slavery, I erred in stating that Confederate General Robert E. Lee opposed the vile institution. At least I had some distinguished company because so did Ta-Nehisi Coates, who may have written the most eloquent correction in blog history as a consequence.

I have tried hard to understand the Confederate perspective on a war that took an astonishing 620,000 lives and have largely succeeded while summoning a modicum of sympathy for some of the Southerners who were caught up in the bloodbath. If you want to give that a try yourself there is no better book to read than James M. MacPherson's magisterial Battle Cry of Freedom.

Still, I cannot understand not just why the Lost Causers continue to fight the Civil War some 145 years on, but remain so willfully wrong about the roll that
slavery played in the destruction of their precious South.

Yes, there were other reasons for the war, including states rights and collapse of the two political party system and emergence of the Whigs as personified by Abraham
Lincoln, whose overriding purpose well into the war was to keep the union together and not to abolish slavery.

But there is no other explanation for the fanaticism of Lost Causers than a purposeful ignorance based on a racism that seems almost as powerful in an era when a black man is president of all the people as it was when a president freed all the black people. Not even the seminal work on the subject, Tony Horwitz' Confederates in the Attic, could shake me from this belief, while it reinforced how pathological the multi-generational denial of these people really is.

This is how Coates puts it:

"If the war actually weren't about slavery, I think all our lives would be a lot easier. But as I thought on it, my sadness was stupid. What undergirds all of this alleged honoring of the Confederacy, is a kind of ancestor-worship that isn't. The Lost Cause is necromancy -- it summons the dead and enslaves them to the need of their vainglorious, self-styled descendants. Its greatest crime is how it denies, even in death, the humanity of the very people it claims to venerate. This isn't about 'honoring' the past -- it's about an inability to cope with the present."

That present, of course, is personified by Barack Obama.

Coates touches on the question of how we claim ancestors and astutely notes that exercise is more philosophical than biological.

Our ancestors were a big deal when I was growing up, and what an eclectic
bunch they were: My father's forebears fled Ireland amidst the potato famine. My mother's father was a German Jewish immigrant, while her mother traces much of her lineage to English royalty.

The shortcomings and idiosyncracies of these people were always a part of our discussions, but the Lost Causers allow their forebears no such humanity for all of their very real flaws, instead manipulating them to reconcile their sanctimonious present.

Although this comparison is not perfect, it works well enough: The Germans have fessed up to their history, the Japanese have denied it, while Lost Causers have simply rewritten it.

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