Saturday, November 4, 2017

General John Kelly and The Confederacy

I want you to imagine any US general or politician saying that Nazi Gestapo/SD head Reinhard Heydrich, a prime architect of the Holocaust, was "a principled man and skilled violinist who gave up a promising career in the performing arts to serve his country with honor and dedication. Now we may disagree with his principles but that was a long time ago. Things were different then. We shouldn't judge people by today's standards. Heydrich made the decision to soldier for his country. And that's not something to be lightly dismissed".

Such a statement by anyone with anything to lose would probably not be made during normal times because the statement is so profoundly callous and ignorant about the evil that Heydrich committed. But we are not in normal times, as Trump Chief of Staff General Kelly recently demonstrated.

“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly told Ingraham. “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 them make their stand.”

“I think we make a mistake, though, and as a society and certainly as, as individuals, when we take what is today accepted as right and wrong and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say what those, you know, what Christopher Columbus did was wrong,” he said. “You know, 500 years later, it’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then.

This is of course, not to put too fine a word on it, bull****. You can read for yourself here why the South, including Lee, rebelled. It was because the South wanted to keep and expand slavery. The South was also of the opinion that the North was insufficiently dedicated to white supremacy. Lee himself owned slaves, and like most southern whites had a very negative opinion of black people. During the Civil War whenever the Rebels ran across free blacks they enslaved them. The Rebels refused to exchange Black Union soldiers, even at the cost of having their own soldiers continue to remain imprisoned in POW camps. Lee also had slaves whipped. He was sadistic enough to order overseers to put salt water in the bloody wounds in order to increase the pain. When his slaves talked about this they strangely didn't see the honor in Lee's actions. Odd, I know.

The Confederacy has a stranglehold on American consciousness because although the Confederacy lost the war to continue enslavement of Black Americans it won the peace. Unfortunately the rebel leaders and slave owners didn't dance at the end of a rope. If this had happened, just as Germany amazingly had no Nazis after the end of WW2, the White South could have been reconstructed without virulent racism as a dominant factor. The Confederate lie of happy slaves and a tragic war forced upon Americans became the predominant story told, at least among much of mainstream white society. It's only relatively recently, historically speaking, that some white historians have challenged and rejected those lies. Black historians and sociologists have been calling out this crap for centuries. One example of this was W.E.B. DuBois' caustic dismissal of Lee and his defenders.

Each year on the 19th of January there is renewed effort to canonize Robert E. Lee, the greatest confederate general. His personal comeliness, his aristocratic birth and his military prowess all call for the verdict of greatness and genius. But one thing–one terrible fact–militates against this and that is the inescapable truth that Robert E. Lee led a bloody war to perpetuate slavery. Today we can best perpetuate his memory and his nobler traits not by falsifying his moral debacle, but by explaining it to the young white south. What Lee did in 1861, other Lees are doing in 1928. They lack the moral courage to stand up for justice to the Negro because of the overwhelming public opinion of their social environment. Their fathers in the past have condoned lynching and mob violence, just as today they acquiesce in the disfranchisement of educated and worthy black citizens, provide wretchedly inadequate public schools for Negro children and endorse a public treatment of sickness, poverty and crime which disgraces civilization.

It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right. it is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most formidable agency this nation ever raised to make 4 million human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel–not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God
Years before Frederick Douglass made the same point:
Whatever else I may forget, I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery; between those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it,” Douglass said in one of his final public addresses, in 1894 at Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York.
In 1870, when newspapers praised Lee and lamented his death, Douglass wrote an editorial in The New National Era, asking, “Is it not about time that this bombastic laudation of the rebel chief should cease?” LINK
Sadly this sort of thing will continue because too many whites don't think that slavery was that bad. In the same way that modern blacks are under prescribed painkillers because of racist beliefs about drug abuse and pain tolerance, some conservative whites think that slavery was a good deal for blacks. Like General Lee, some appear to believe that slavery was worse for whites than blacks. Of course to believe this you have to ignore the existence of people like Nat Turner, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, David Walker, Harriet Tubman, Gabriel Prosser and many many others who by words and deed showed their utter revulsion to slavery. The Confederacy has long since moved beyond its southern origins to become a symbol for white nationalism and racism worldwide. That is why someone like Trump, whose pimp grandfather didn't even get to the United States until long after the conclusion of the Civil War, can whine about THEM taking down OUR beautiful monuments. 

But it doesn't change the fact that in the Civil War there was a good side and a bad side. And the side that wanted to continue to own and treat black people like animals was the bad side. In their insane struggle for white supremacy they killed more Americans than in any other war. And though they've lost they've never ever given up the idea that they were right-that they are the actual aggrieved victims and martyrs. This poisonous vine is going to continue to flower over and over and over again. We didn't rip it up by the roots when we had the chance. So that's that. There were a lot of responses to Kelly's remarks but I think the simplest and best were those of actor Wendell Pierce.
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