Robert E. Lee at Year Zero

In a civil war, the goal of the victor is establishing his peace, which must come with a reasonable—and humble—narrative for those who have been defeated. 

Early this morning, the famous equestrian statue of General Robert E. Lee was unceremoniously torn down in Richmond, Virginia. Maybe “unceremoniously” is not quite the right word for the kinds of orgeistic events; though shot-through with chaos and braying crowds, the Year Zero destruction of America’s history is very much a ceremony of sorts. 

I’ve got no special, personal fondness for the Confederacy, or even for Lee himself. But seeing the images filled me with a visceral disgust, not unlike seeing the Taliban’s erasure of the 1500 year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan in March, 2001. But, of course, I’m an American—so watching the gleeful destruction of my people’s history was far more significant and personal. 

Several very good friends, like the Federalist’s John Davidson, have written persuasively and passionately about the issue of Confederate statues and monuments, with compassion and, more importantly, the consideration of historical memory. In 2017, amid the first stirrings of this new campaign to remove statues, John noticed that,

For the Left, the Confederacy is just a small part of a much larger problem, which is the past. Iconoclasm of the kind we’ve seen this week is native to the Left, because the entire point is to liberate society from the strictures of tradition and history in order to secure a glorious new future. That’s why Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China torched temples and dug up ancient graves, why the Soviets sacked Orthodox churches and confiscated church property, and why various governments of France went about de-Christianizing the country during the French Revolution.

This is all true, and it’s crucial to understand. I wanted to wade into this from a slightly different point of view, though.

I didn’t wake up this morning thinking I’d be writing about Confederate monuments. I’m not a Civil War scholar; the terror and beauty of the 20th Century has always interested me far more than that conflict. 

And, during the 1860s and through Jim Crow, my family was spread out across Eastern Europe. They had different concerns, like staying alive through pogroms in Russia and Basarabia, or how to integrate into cultural life in Transylvania. I’m certain they thought about other things too, and didn’t have much time for what was transpiring a continent away in the United States. 

I’m aware that we’re relatively new Americans, and that my family arrived deep into the American story. I do have strong opinions about American history before my family came to this country, especially about the terrible injustice and cruelty that was both slavery and Jim Crow.

But despising the institution of slavery shouldn’t lead one, necessarily, to fight with great zeal to tear town monuments to those who died in battle 150 years later, long after the conflict had ended.

It is an understatement to say that, over the last half-century, both slavery has been discredited and the systematic discrimination of Jim Crow is correctly recognized as an offense to America’s Founding and its conception of justice. In other words, the cause for which the South fought has long been discredited; the cause was lost, long ago and decisively.

If nobody is defending the cause of the South—slavery and authentic institutional racism—what, then, animates the iconoclasts today?

It’s the Left’s desire to enlist the Civil War into their current partisan conflict. What could be better to use as a propogandistic cudgel? What event looms larger in the American story than the Civil War? They want to illustrate a lineage—an unbroken, ideological chain, regardless of truth—between the forces of Evil in the South and their MAGA enemies today.

The iconoclasts of the woke Left are not targeting the cause; by going after the combatants themselves, they’re tearing at the delicate balance that people like Lincoln and Grant struggled wisely to maintain in order to attain some kind of social cohesion in the post-Civil War period.

Since ancient times, those victorious in war have understood that establishing a long-lasting peace is a tricky business. It is more complicated than simply defeating an enemy on the battlefield. For a victory to stick, you must defeat your enemy comprehensively—without a doubt about the outcome—but that alone is not enough to establish the peace. 

One of the most crucial distinctions in war and establishing the peace is proximity. Possibly because of the interconnected nature of our new, digital life—not to mention the modern dearth of serious writing about war and conflict, military, political or otherwise—this fact has been under-appreciated or forgotten outright. War with a far-off enemy is tangibly different from war with a neighboring state, much less a civil war or a local insurgency. 

Upon victory, some ancient civilizations forcibly replaced the temples of gods and deities of their defeated enemies with their own. A conflict on the other side of the world gives you a certain amount of lee-way. Once you’ve won, you don’t really have to go back there. Of course, in modern times, the conflict can follow you home and back to your shores with the advent of terrorism and easy transportation. But this is still far different than making war on a neighboring state or population.

We remember the Hatfields and the McCoys—or Ushitora and Seibei from Kurosawa’s classic “Yojimo”—because they never really succeeded in establishing a peace, and lived in a constant state of war only yards away from one another. In “Yojimbo” (and the remake, “A Fistfull of Dollars”), all it took was the appearance of a single, mysterious stranger to upset the delicate balance between the rival clans that would lead to their destruction.

Like much else that’s been forgotten, it’s also common sense. In war, the goal of the victor is establishing his peace, which must come with a reasonable narrative for those who have been defeated. When the combatants are proximate, the victor only afford to be so punitive.

This gets far more complicated in the case of a civil war—unless you’re contemplating a horrible genocide, you’re stuck with the children and ancestors of your defeated enemy.

Sherman leveled terrible destruction on the South, but it was in the service of the primary war aim: winning the war in order to reunify the country. As reunifying the United States was the primary war aim, anything must be done in order to prevent continued enmity between the North and South.

Healthy civilizations can only exist with a sense of honor and a reverence for their past, their history and their ancestors. I’ve written previously about the importance of both positive and negative identities for Americans of every racial and ethnic background, and how both of these self-conceptions are crucial to social cohesion.

Despite what you hear in the media and from activists, everyone understands this to be true. In fact, left wing activists are some of the people most in tune to the idea of heritage, belonging and historical memory—even if it’s fictitious. So important is this conception that, during the weird hype around the film several years ago, Black Panther’s supporters even endorsed the idea of American blacks embracing a history that is outright fantasy.  

Lincoln and Grant had a keen sense of history. They understood that, in order to achieve any kind of social cohesion in a large, diverse polity like the then-reunited United States, a distinction between the cause of the South and the honor of the combatants themselves must be separated.

Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln’s rhetoric avoided making demons of his fellow Americans, even as they fought to the death. Similarly, Grant knew that humiliating Robert E. Lee—the general under whom hundreds of thousands of men had served, and whose legend would loom large in the story of their descendants—would set back the course of reintegration. 

Millions of Americans trace their lineage to men who fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy. Contrary to modern historical revisionism—which is nothing more than a cudgel with which to beat contemporary political rivals—those who enlisted to fight in the South had many reasons to do so.

In order to maintain the social cohesion that the Union understood was necessary, some kind of honor amongst the descendants of former combatants must be maintained. We all condemn the South’s cause, but destroying this delicate balance of comity will have negative consequences.

Phil Schaap, RIP

My phone exploded with text messages this morning from friends who also grew up in the New York area and listened religiously to Phil Schaap’s seemingly-endless jazz broadcasts on WKCR. I’ll have more on him tomorrow, and what he meant to me. Until then, enjoy the wonderful New Yorker profile of Phil from David Remnick, who should’ve just stuck to writing about jazz and spared us his political nonsense.

On the Turntable

From the mid-1990s until very recently, the compact disc was the only medium for music in Brazil. And, as streaming replaces the dreaded silver disc, hundreds or thousands of brilliant records have fallen through the cracks in the last several years because they never received vinyl release or re-issue that would introduce music listeners and collectors to these very special discographies. This is a wonderful song from Arnaldo Antunes, who recorded this at a 2012 MTV special. Inexplicably, it never made it to the CD, either. It goes without saying that Antunes’ albums should all see vinyl release in the near future.