Whistling Dixie, or Something Very Much Like It

I really hate talking to people who insist on moralizing over the American Civil War. That conflict was ‘the crossroads of our being.’ Understanding it is part of being an American. That means accounting for both sides without imposing judgments that stem from a 21st century worldview. The myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ is problematic for me. So is the anachronistic and egotistical impulse to denigrate Southern combatants. From 1861 to 1865 the country made an incredibly destructive decision about how it wanted to live. Incredibly intelligent people came down on either side, each deploying a logic that would have made perfect sense to them at the time. I read the First Inaugural in the spirit of an Ohio college professor named James Garfield and it makes perfect sense to me. I read the Declarations of Secession in the spirit of a Mississippi senator named Jeff Davis. The reasoning is equally convincing. I have a great deal of reverence for Robert E. Lee, who resisted secession until what he thought to be his honor demanded that he defend it. I have an equally profound respect for Ulysses S. Grant, who is one of the few people I know whose stubbornness stemmed from conviction in a rightful cause rather than pure arrogance. The distinction comes from my ability to view slavery as it existed. ‘If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.’ Some Americans saw that at the time. Fewer acted upon it. For that the North was as culpable in perpetuating slavery as any non-slaveowning Southern white. Abraham Lincoln knew this better than anyone. Slavery was a national and not a regional sin. That’s why I’m so shocked to hear that there are no statues to Lincoln below the Mason-Dixon line. That man was the best friend the South ever had. Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to read the Second Inaugural as an American. Lincoln treated the War as Nelson did apartheid, or MLK did segregation. Ever since he was a young man, he meant to hit slavery, and to hit it hard. But once he knew it wasn’t going to get back up, he focused on healing the nation rather than nursing animosity. So, yes, I fly the Southern flag in my bedroom. In fact, I fly several variations of them. I do so in remembrance. These things happened. Men fought and died for a cause they believed in. The cause was to defend a way of life that at its core depended upon the institution of slavery. I don’t give a damn for a man who can’t look at the Southern cause in a spirit of moderation and respect while at all times rejoicing in its downfall. At the end of the day, I can think of maybe one or two things over which my head runs so strongly in one direction and my heart runs equally strongly in the other.


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