And we all helped make it…
I wasn’t going to write about Charlottesville— I didn’t think I had anything to say that others weren’t already adding to the chorus, except for one small point… and that point became more relevant with the vandalism in Durham, NC and the coming statuekampf in Lexington, KY (with more cities to come).
The Last War
The Left’s critical weakness at this stage is that it is still fighting the last war. That’s why they decided to have the Virginia police push the Unite the Right demonstrators into the crowd of hostile Antifa— it was a predictable tactic in a university town, where part of the mythology of the post-60s Left includes the memory of Southern and Midwestern cops pushing civil rights and antiwar protestors into the loving arms of union toughs, KKK members, and just normal pissed-off Americans. We shouldn’t fight the last war. And that includes an incorrect narrative about Confederate monuments.
These aren’t just monuments to the South, or to the white race, or to bravery, or whatever, they’re critical pieces of national identity. The United States could have gone two ways after the Civil War: It could have totally crushed the South in all ways, leaving it as a permanently aggrieved partner in a marriage it wanted out of, or we could find a way to remember the Civil War that didn’t involve blame or hatred. (Europe failed to do this after World War I, and with disastrous consequences.) To do this, we put Union monuments on Southern battlefields, honored the bravery & dignity of men like Robert E. Lee, and turned the Civil War into a shared national tragedy.
Less than thirty years ago, this version of the Civil War was still mainstream for a left-leaning institution like PBS, and Ken Burns’s The Civil War (with Shelby Foote, the great poet of America’s tragedy, at its center) reaffirmed that myth for a new generation of Americans, while infusing the black experience into the war’s narrative in a way that wasn’t important before the Civil Rights Movement brought black America into a new cultural position. These never were contradictory, and the note of tragedy, and of a nation formed out of it, was primary throughout.
But this started to change around the same time. The new narrative was that the Civil War was primarily about slavery, and celebration of the white supremacist South of any sort was out of the question. Names have been changing, flags have been morphing, and statues have been coming down for quite some time at this point.
It would be so much easier if we could blame this on new cultural elements in America uninterested in American identity (and certainly the demographic upheaval since the INS Act of `65 has been important), but the charge is being led also by whites of founding stock who should know better. Admitting black Americans into the cultural mainstream was always going to require a renegotiation of the Civil War narrative. Maybe we’d focus a bit more on the economic logic of slavery, or how whatever the pressures that led to secession, people felt honor-bound in that time to defend hearth & home, and so on (politely ignoring the house slave in the room wasn’t going to cut it any more), but we’d figure it out. But we lost interest. And, even worse, the Right lost interest in telling this story. Instead, we either ignored it, or made some arch dismissals, or decided to bury ourselves in the performance art projects of Old White Nationalism or the League of the South. We didn’t take the threat to national identity seriously, or we just didn’t love ourselves enough any more, either.
I grow old, I grow old
The Right is correct to note how much of the Left seems to be consumed with a sort of civilizational death-wish. But we have hardly been immune. The Right has often been consumed with the same sort of reënactor passions the Left has been (the conditions of interbellum fascism or 1776 aren’t coming back any more than “Berkeley in the Sixties” or Actually Existing Communism) and has all-too-often lost the will to tell the story of our nation as it is, and as it should become. No orgy of bloodletting or legal enlightenment will restore us, only the hard work of politics & poetry.