"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Curse Of Historical Revisionism–Erasing The Bits We Don’t Like

Caving in to loud and insistent demands, the University of Georgia plans to ban hoop skirts because of their recollection of the antebellum South.  It is not enough, say university administrators and their supporters, to ban the Confederate flag and statues to Confederate soldiers and to decommission Confederate graveyards, but every trace of the Old South must go. 

Pilgrimage
      www.pinterest.com

In their desire to expunge all traces of Southern history, progressives have conflated all aspects of the South with slavery; and in so doing have begun an assault on everything Southern.  Hoop skirts, of course, had nothing to do with slavery, but were a part of the courtly, Cavalier culture of the South brought with the first colonists from Walter Raleigh’s England.  A distinct Southern culture was indeed implanted - one of aristocratic manners, chivalry, gentility, and refined taste - and while Northern traders and financiers developed a sophisticated taste for music, literature, and the arts, this cultural patronage did not define them the way social culture defined the Southern aristocrat.  Northerners were too busy making money, industrializing, and pushing West.

Image result for image sir walter raleigh
     www.theshakespearecode.wordpress.com

‘Pilgrimages’ – events to showcase restored antebellum mansions and furniture, paintings, and appointments of the pre-war period – are held every year throughout the South.  Columbus, Mississippi, for example, which avoided most of the destruction by Union armies, has a particularly important number of antebellum homes, most restored to their original condition.  Current and past owners have invested in what they consider the patrimony of Columbus and Mississippi, not only preserving three hundred-year homes, but furnishing them with antique pieces of the period and sometimes of the homes themselves.  Pilgrimage is a chance to celebrate the sophistication, elegance, and refinement of the Old South.

Image result for image whitehall columbus ms
   Whitehall, Columbus MS www.pinterest.com

Without a doubt the owners of these plantation houses and urban mansions were slave-owners and traders; or at the very least were cotton merchants, steamboat operators, or agents for the farm machinery.  The cotton slave economy of the Old South involved everyone.  All livelihoods depended on it one way or another.  The Old South was agrarian, aristocratic, and culturally distinct from the North, and although slavery was the engine of the economy, it wasn’t everything.  Gone with the Wind was based on Southern life, albeit one part of it. Yeoman, white hard-luck hill farmers, and slaves are not included at pilgrimage.  It is the particular, unique, transplanted Cavalier culture of the aristocracy which is celebrated.

While one can understand the reasons for removing the Confederate flag, it is much harder to accept the consignment of Confederate dead.  As in most wars, Southern soldiers fought because they were drafted.  In many cases, particularly in the officer corps, they fought for patriotism – my country right or wrong – and followed the lead of their generals and colonels.  More American soldiers died in the Civil War than in any other (as a proportion of the population); and Confederate soldiers died just as courageously and heroically as their Northern brothers.  Why shouldn’t their deaths be honored? Does it take a just war for soldiers to be recognized?

Image result for images confederate cemetery
         Confederate Cemetery, University of Virginia www.cwmemory.com

If a just war were the only criterion, then soldiers who died in Iraq or Vietnam should be given no recognition whatsoever.  Most historians have concluded that the War in Vietnam was a tragic mistake; and many believe the same thing about Iraq.  What about the soldiers who killed thousands of American Indians to make the West habitable for white settlers? Should their graves be moved to some obscure corner of military cemeteries?

Image result for prizewinning photo dying soldier vietnam hue
   Horst Fass image www.dailymail.co.uk

There are Northern liberals who refuse to set foot in the South because of its history of slavery and segregation.  They have written off an entire region. They have no interest in even listening to a Southern perspective on the antebellum period, the War, or Reconstruction.  Many plantation homes have kept meticulous records of former slave owners.  Slaves were both valuable capital and indispensable labor and their owners invested in food, lodging, clothes, and health care to protect their investment. Time on the Cross, a seminal book on the economics of slavery was based to a large degree on these records. Would slavery have collapsed on itself, they ask, thus obviating the necessity of war? 

Slavery first and foremost was an economic system common to Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, and Persia; and so it was in America. If the North had regarded it as such and analyzed it as dispassionately as Northerners Fogel and Engerman had, perhaps armed conflict might have been avoided.  Even if slavery had not collapsed upon itself, it likely would have been crushed by the economic industrial might of the North.

Image result for images cover time on the cross

One can never understand American history without understanding Southern history; and if only to avoid past mistakes, it must be read.

However, Southern history is more than any one comprising element. Southern traditions and culture have played an important part in the works of Faulkner, Williams, Welty, McCullers, Capote, and O’Connor among others.  The blues were derived from the black slave experience; and expunging all traces of slavery would be to deny the roots of the American music.

Image result for images faulkner
         www.olemiss.edu

Southern grace, manners, and gentility were an antidote or at least a complement to the aggressive industrial North.  Every region of the country has contributed something to American culture, and these contributions cannot be denied.

Revisionism itself is wrong because it is subjective. Everyone is ashamed of or embarrassed by some part of their past.  Northern liberals who find out that their New England ancestors participated in the Three-Cornered Trade of sugar, slaves, and rum hesitate to mention them.  Progressives whose relatives worked for Standard Oil or any of the major monopolies of the Robber Baron era pretend they never existed. The violation of workers rights and the de facto enslavement of them in sweat shops and gulag-type factories by great-uncles and grandfathers make any positive contribution meaningless.  The fact that these corporations were the engines of early American capitalism and the models of economic enterprise to this day was irrelevant.  All goods and evils have been thrown into one big bucket.

If revisionists have their way, major highways, military garrisons, public schools, and parks will all have to be renamed.  There is a move to rename the Richard Russell Executive Office Building in Washington because the Georgia Senator was a segregationist.

Ezra Pound and H.L. Mencken were both rabid anti-Semites, but their work was notable.  Immanuel Kant said, “'The Jews still cannot claim any true genius, any truly great man. All their talents and skills revolve around stratagems and low cunning ... They are a nation of swindlers.”


George Bernard Shaw said, “Stop being Jews and start being human beings”. Theodore Dreiser said, “New York is a 'kike's dream of a ghetto,' and Jews are not 'pure Americans' and 'lack integrity”.
Are we to burn their books? Consign them to the trash heaps of literary history?

Once we start judging a person, a region, or even a country on the basis of only one of its contributing cultural factors, we are lost. There is no more point in ignoring the essential, fundamental philosophical works of Immanuel Kant because of his anti-Semitic sentiments than there is of consigning the South to historical oblivion.

We live in era of public apologies for the past.  National leaders are being asked to say they’re sorry for their countries’ activities a hundred or two hundred years ago.  These apologies amount to weak revisionism.  The past might have existed, but given today’s perspective we might have done things differently.

Queen Elizabeth was forced into apologizing for British atrocities in Kenya, convinced by her Prime Minister that such an apology for alleged murders of Mau Mau ‘freedom fighters’ would tighten the bond between the two countries.

The apology must have really stuck in the craw of the Queen, old enough to remember the glory days of Empire, when Kenya was the jewel in crown of British Africa, when her forbearers had brought civilization to the natives and prosperity to the land.  Her advisors of course had to tell her of the even more savage brutality of the Mau Mau who reputedly chopped up British soldiers and grilled them over charcoal in the Great Rift Valley.  The Queen must have had to practice her apology speech very hard indeed and muster all her English self-control to utter it.



The British don’t have to go back very far in history to find other events to apologize for -  the massacres of the Boer War, the Sepoy Rebellion, and Amritsar are just a few.  In keeping with the protocol of this Age of Apology, David Cameron, British Prime Minister, did offer an apology for Amritsar, but stopped short of making it official.  As he explained to reporters in Amritsar, history is history, after all, and you can’t change it.  So in proper British fashion he said ‘Sorry’ without really meaning it.

Amritsar Massacre

Many are still waiting for the Mongolians to apologize for the outrages of Genghis Khan who killed at least 40 million people in his rampages out of the steppes to Europe and the Far East.

In other words public apologies for past events, demands for restitution or reparations, and judging the present by the past are misguided at best and silly at worst.

If we were to airbrush those past Americans who broke the current progressive code of race, gender, and ethnicity, there would be few left in the photograph. Everybody in the past was homophobic, racist, anti-feminist, and hostile to different religions and ethnicities – everyone from cavemen, kings, and factory floor workers. Given the slightest bit of a chance, people will always find someone to hate.

This is not to exonerate anyone from moral judgment.  Everyone should exercise this right daily – but within today’s cultural context. Although theologians have argued that there is such a thing as a universal, permanent, God-given morality that precedes and supersedes any cultural imperative, it is hard to come to this conclusion.  Context is everything, and while Platonic principles should indeed be kept in mind, they will always be conditioned by the times.

Revisionism never makes sense. At best it is a well-meaning attempt to make amends for the past; but at worst it is ignorant, arrogant posturing.















No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.