Thursday, May 2, 2013

Civil War Deniers

That hair-raising poll showing 44% of Republicans supporting some sort of potential armed rebellion has me thinking.  Just 150 years ago, this nation was embroiled in a bloody civil war instigated by fire-breathing radicals who claimed the right to secede rather than see the institution of slavery limited.  They gave many pious speeches full of words like "liberty" and "tyranny," the latter a force they claimed to be fighting.  This is the very same thing that today's supporters of armed rebellion claim to fear.

Americans have a dysfunctional relationship with their history.  Because so many, especially in the conservative ranks, wish to see America as an exceptional nation, and one which stands as a "city on a hill" providing an example of freedom to the nations of the world, they refuse to see the ugly side of America's history.

Much like the anti-Semitic cranks who minimize the death toll of Holocaust, America's deniers defend heinous acts like Japanese internment (Michelle Malkin) and McCarthyism (Anne Coulter), and downplay or ignore the horrors of slavery (Michelle Bachmann).  There is perhaps no form of denialism worse than that denying that the Civil War was about slavery, or that the Confederacy was morally in the wrong.  It is a commonly expressed view in much of the white South, and it is  this view of history that makes the current talk of armed insurrection more palatable.  Civil War deniers claim that it was a war over "states rights," or even go so far as to consider it a war to defend the South from Northern tyranny and aggression.  (The new president of the NRA holds this opinion.)

The North was by no means perfect in motive or deed in the Civil War, but neither were the Allies in World War II, who firebombed their fair share of civilian neighborhoods.  In both wars, there should be no doubt about which side holds the moral high ground.  As Stephanie McCurry shows in her recent book Confederate Reckoning, the Confederacy had a specifically and intentionally white supremacist and patriarchal basis, and intended to protect the institution of slavery to the death.  For some reason white Confederate nostalgics get a pass on romanticizing these reckless hooligans, whose actions led to the deaths of over 600,000 people in a brazen act of rebellion against the government.  I don't care if their ancestors wore Confederate gray; "heritage" does not overcome moral wrong.  My ancestors were German Catholics, but I do not defend the behavior of Wallenstein's army in the 30 Years War, or seek to shrug off the horrors of the sack of Magdeburg.

 To deny or minimize the Holocaust makes someone persona non grata today, and with good reason.  Holocaust denial is something obviously rooted in hatred towards Jews, which we as a society hold to be repugnant. That same standard that we apply to Holocaust deniers should also be held in regards to Civil War deniers.  Those who lie about slavery's role, or who try to make the two sides moral equivalents ought to be publicly excoriated and ridiculed.  Their views reflect an animus and resentment towards black people similar to the anti-Semitism of the Holocaust deniers.  To tolerate Civil War denial is to tolerate racism, and costs of denialism have been too high already.

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