Several years ago I wrote a post about the strikingly different place of the US Civil War and the English Civil War in the collective memories of their respective countries. The other day I alluded in a post title to William Faulkner’s famous dictum “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This things come together in the way the news from Washington was dominated for a few days by an argument over the causes of the Civil War. Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff decided to take up the white supremacist’s burden by claiming that the war was an unfortunate consequence of well-intentioned men on both sides being unwilling to compromise. (Rather in the same way that Polish intransigence over the border issue started the Second World War. Not to mention the SS guards’ well-documented failure to maintain proper air-quality standards in Auschwitz…)
I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which, 150 years ago, was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War. And men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had to make their stand.
It’s one thing to say that people enmeshed in the slave system may be excused for lacking the moral clarity to oppose slavery at the time. It’s something else entirely to say that such a person should be honoured. And then it’s a whole other level to talk about the white “men and women of good faith” in the Southern side with no reference to the other “men and women of good faith” whom they had enslaved, whose consciences may have made a different stand were they free to do so, and whose descendants know exactly what you mean when you go out of your way to praise the good intention of the man who fought to enslave your ancestors. To paraphrase the haggadah, had Robert E. Lee and his conscience had their way then they, and their children, and their children’s children would still be slaves in the South.
This is the most blatant sort of misuse of historical discussion, pretending to opine on a historical event, while actually signalling his ethnic commitments.