Monday, September 04, 2017

Supporting Robert E. Lee is no longer an acceptable position

I am a German Jew, a descendant of holocaust survivors.  I am also a Southern boy, having spent my formative years from age 5 through 24 in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.  I tell you this to provide some perspective on what I am about to say: Robert E. Lee had many fine qualities.  So did Adolf Hitler.

Bear with me.

In the aftermath of World War I, the Allies were determined that Germany should never rise again.  So they forced her to disarm, and to accept a harsh regimen of reparations which she didn't have the means to pay.  The result was historic hyperinflation in the early 1920s.  (To this day Germany has a mortal fear of inflation, which is one of the reasons that Euro monetary policy is as tight as it is.)

The value of the Mark had stabilized by the mid-1920s, but not before it wiped out the savings of ordinary Germans and decimated her economy.  Then in 1929 the Great Depression hit.  By 1933 Germany had been hurting badly for nearly 20 years.  Hitler rose to power on a simple, straightforward promise: I will fix this.  (All we have to do is expel the Muslims Jews!)  And Hitler did fix it, in no small measure because he had the brass to tell the allies to take their disarmament treaty and stuff it.  In ten short years, Germany once again became not only prosperous, but the pre-eminent economic and military power in Europe.

But none of that matters, because all of Hitlers achievements and positive qualities are rightly overshadowed by two overarching facts: first, he presided over the holocaust, and second, he decided to invade Russia.  Had he not made that second mistake, Hitler would be remembered very differently today.  Germany likely would have won WWII, and Hitler's history would have been written by happy, prosperous, victorious Germans rather than Jews and Americans.

And all this is as it should be.  It is good and right that Hitler is remembered as the very embodiment of evil, notwithstanding that he rescued the German economy and  loved animals.

For Robert E. Lee things went rather differently.  Like Hitler, he too lost his war, but unlike Hitler his was a civil war, and he was the beneficiary of an extraordinary stroke of luck: just days before the American civil war ended, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  He was succeeded by Andrew Johnson, a Democrat (Lincoln founded the Republican party) and a southerner from Tennessee who was sympathetic to the South.  Johnson oversaw the first four years of the reconstruction process, and helped lay the foundations for 100 years of Jim Crow laws.

Time and the vagaries of politics have blunted the memory of what Robert E. Lee and the Confederates really fought for: Slavery.  You will hear people rationalize secession as being about honorable causes like freedom and states rights, but the truth is it was about slavery.  Don't take my word for it: read what the seceding states had to say about it:
The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.
...
With these principles on their banners and these utterances on their lips the majority of the people of the North demand that we shall receive them as our rulers. The prohibition of slavery in the Territories is the cardinal principle of this organization. ... We refuse to submit to that judgment...
...
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery -- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.
It goes on and on.  Really, you should follow the link and read the whole thing.  It's quite an eye-opener, and it leaves no room for doubt: Robert E. Lee and the Confederate states were fighting to preserve chattel "negro slavery", to use the phrase that the Confederate constitution used to enshrine it as a fundamental right.  The right of white people to own black people as property, to buy and sell and bind and rape and whip and even kill as they pleased.  (Well, you could kill your own slaves.  Killing someone else's slaves was punished as destruction of property!)  There are more laws on the books today protecting animals from cruelty than there were in the antebellum South protecting slaves.

This is the Southern heritage that Robert E. Lee and the confederate battle flag stand for.  There is nothing the least bit honorable about it.  It is every bit as thoroughly and irredeemably shameful as the heritage of Nazi Germany, and the only reason one is remembered fondly and the other is not is two accidents of history, one fortunate, one not so much.

After 152 years it is time to wake up.  No more excuses.  The Declaration of Causes, along with the rest of the South's sordid history is available on line for anyone to read.  The South fought to preserve slavery.  Robert E. Lee fought to preserve slavery.  Not mint juleps.  Not hoop skirts.  Slavery.  Chattel slavery of black people by white people.

I say this to you as a Southerner, because I am a Southerner.  I love the South.  I grew up in Tennessee.  I know all the words to Rocky Top.  Firefox was a book to me long before it was a web browser.  The South is full of natural beauty and cultural richness and good-hearted people.

But there is no honor in the Confederacy.  And there never was.

---

Postscript: I want to give a shout-out to Doug Baldwin who wrote his own essay on the same topic two years ago.  Unfortunately, the original essay seems to be gone, but the excerpts in the CBS Sports story were a big factor in motivating me to write this piece.

BTW, Doug Baldwin is a really impressive dude.  Not only is he a professional football player, he has a B.S. from Stanford.  And he is apparently an exceptionally talented writer.  Props to you, Doug.

34 comments:

Don Geddis said...

Lee wound up fighting for the cause which supported slavery. But Lee himself didn't seem to have particularly strong feelings, one way or the other, about slavery. He wasn't a big slave owner himself, and he seems to have resented the obligation when circumstances forced slaves under his authority. (But neither was he particularly interested in freeing them.)

Lee, personally, seems to have been mostly torn by an internal conflict between loyalty to his country, and loyalty to his home state. For Lee, it doesn't seem to have been especially important which side supported slaves, and which didn't. Slavery wasn't actually his personal concern.

Lee was in the US military, had a long and distinguished career there, and was offered a top posting in the Union army as the civil war broke out. He did indeed choose to join the Confederate army instead, but his stated reason doesn't seem to have much to do with slavery: "I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty." And: "I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?"

Lee himself seems to have been neither for, nor against, slavery. He seems not to have cared about that issue very much. And thus was easily persuaded to join the pro-slavery side (in support of his home state).

Ron said...

> Lee himself seems to have been neither for, nor against, slavery.

And Hitler himself didn't give the order for the final solution. That was all Himmler's idea. Hitler just wanted to deport the Jews.

It is not possible to be morally neutral on the question of slavery. It's not one of those things where you can say, "I wouldn't own a slave, but if you believe that human beings can be held as property if they have a certain skin color, who am I to judge?" Condoning slavery might not be quite as reprehensible as actually practicing it, but it's still pretty fucking reprehensible.

And, BTW, Lee owned slaves. (Are you going to tell me that was OK because he didn't own very many, and besides, everyone was doing it at the time?)

And BTW2, this isn't really about Lee per se, notwithstanding the title of my post. I only singled him out because he's currently in the spotlight. As with Nazi Germany, there is nothing about the Confederacy that deserves to be remembered with reverence and respect. Both were totally morally bankrupt endeavors from start to inglorious finish. It simply doesn't matter that Lee didn't actively condone slavery with unalloyed enthusiasm, just as it doesn't matter hat Hitler was a vegetarian and loved animals.

ash said...

"… and second, he decided to invade Russia. Had he not made that second mistake, Hitler would be remembered very differently today. Germany likely would have won WWII …"

The war between Germany and Russia was inevitable regardless of Operation Barbarossa: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stalin's_Missed_Chance

As for the main point of your post, and looking from the other side of the Atlantic, I don't get all this. Could you please explain why is Robert E. Lee is suddenly in spotlight now? Are there any people who now suggest slavery is okay?

Don Geddis said...

ash asked: "Could you please explain why is Robert E. Lee is suddenly in spotlight now?"

The US had a civil war. In the last century and a half, many government entities in the South erected statues and monuments to Lee.

In the last few decades, some of these local governments have decided to remove some of their public Lee installations.

In the last few months, there have been some organized protests against the Lee removals, from groups composed primarily of white supremacists and KKK members (including group chants of "Jews will not replace us"), but also possibly others with merely historical interest.

In the last few weeks, there was a violent clash in Charlottesville, between a group protesting the imminent removal of a Lee statue, and a group of counter-protesters (who were in favor of the removal). One of the counter-protesters was murdered by being rammed by a car in the middle of a pedestrian march. President Trump responded to the violence by saying that bad things happened "on many sides", and there was "blame on both sides", and that the original (racists) protesters include many "very fine" people.

Trump has received considerable criticism for implying a kind of moral equivalence between the protesters, and the counter-protesters (as opposed to the expected and easy response of condemning the white supremacists, the KKK, and the vehicle murder).

Ron said...

> The war between Germany and Russia was inevitable regardless of Operation Barbarossa

Heh, you learn something new every day. Thanks for that pointer!

> looking from the other side of the Atlantic

Sorry, sometimes I forget that not everyone on the planet is steeped in U.S. politics. Thanks, Don, for that excellent summary.

Peter Donis said...

@Ron: "BTW2, this isn't really about Lee per se, notwithstanding the title of my post. I only singled him out because he's currently in the spotlight"

I don't think this is a good strategy.

I believe I recommended in a previous discussion here that you read "Lee at Appomatox" by Charles Francis Adams (it's available on Google Books in a collection of his essays with the same title). Briefly, Robert E. Lee is primarily responsible for the fact that there was not a protracted guerrilla war in the South after Appomatox. Many, many Southerners wanted to fight on--and indeed some did, led by extremists like Nathan Bedford Forrest. But Robert E. Lee, as Adams relates, told his troops at Appomatox that they had lost fair and square, and now it was time to surrender, lay down their arms, go home, and be good and peaceful citizens. And they did. And a few days later, when word of Lee's actions reached the other Confederate army in the field, led by Joseph E. Johnston, that army surrendered on the same terms. In other words, Robert E. Lee is the reason why it was only "some" instead of "the vast majority" of Southerners who kept on fighting after the formal surrender.

Your response will probably be that you don't care that Lee did something like that, because he was fighting for slavery. In other words, in your moral calculus, some things, like slavery, have essentially infinite negative value, so no finite amount of positive value can cancel them out. But I don't think things work that way. We are all flawed human beings, and we don't live in a world of black and white. The fact that slavery was wrong does not make the South totally evil, and the fact that the Union was fighting against slavery does not make the Union totally good. Somewhere between half a million and a million people died in the US Civil War. Other nations, like Britain, freed their slaves by paying off the slave owners, without killing anyone. Why could the US not do that? Because abolitionists who believed that slavery was so evil that nothing could compensate for it refused to even consider such an option. Are you willing to defend that decision--willing to spend half a million to a million lives so as not to have to bargain with slaveowners? Because if not, I don't think you have a valid argument against seeing the good in Robert E. Lee.

Ron said...

@Peter:

"Your response will probably be that you don't care that Lee did something like that"

It's not that I don't care. I am happy to give Lee credit for surrendering honorably, and place him above Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden in history's Pantheon of villains. But honorable surrender just puts him on par with, say, Rudolph Hess in my book. Do you think we should be honoring Hess?

The problem with putting Lee literally on a pedestal astride a horse is that it emphasizes the honor over the villainy, and leaves some doubt in people's mind over whether or not a historical injustice was done in the South's defeat. There's a reason that the aphorism "The South will rise again" is a thing.

There must be no doubt: the Confederacy might not be the greatest villainy ever perpetrated by mankind (that dubious honor probably belongs to the Holocaust) but it's a serious contender for a place on the podium. Lee's honorable surrender must never overshadow the fact that he was fighting for chattel negro slavery, and that this fact has been deliberately obscured by apologists and historical revisionists for over 100 years.

Enough. This distortion of history is doing real damage.

Peter Donis said...

@Ron: "honorable surrender just puts him on par with, say, Rudolph Hess in my book"

Huh? Hess didn't honorably surrender. He went to Scotland to try to negotiate peace and was arrested on his arrival. All of this had absolutely no effect on the Nazi war effort. I don't see any similarity with Lee here at all.

"the Confederacy might not be the greatest villainy ever perpetrated by mankind (that dubious honor probably belongs to the Holocaust)"

No, it belongs to the Commucaust--Stalin and Mao (I'm not sure which of those two wins the sweepstakes, but they're both well ahead of Nazi Germany).

"This distortion of history is doing real damage."

I agree that there's distortion of history going on, but I don't think you've hit on the worst of it.

I notice that in your quick summation of how evil Hitler and Nazi Germany were, you skated right over the root cause of the Nazis coming to power: that the terms imposed on Germany at the end of WWI were impossible to meet, and everyone knew that, but they did it anyway because their moral absolutism demanded it. So if Hitler and Nazi Germany are in the top three or four in historical villainy, then the Allies at the end of WWI bear responsibility for that. Yet this fact has been deliberately obscured by apologists and historical revisionists for--well, not quite 100 years, but we're getting close.

Also, as I've already noted, you conveniently forgot about the two greatest mass murderers in history in your pantheon of villains. So does our society in general. There is no Commucaust museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Nobody makes Oscar-winning movies about saving people from Stalin and Mao. Why do you suppose that is?

The most dangerous distortion of history that I see happening today is not things like emphasizing Lee's honorable surrender over his fighting for the Confederacy instead of the Union. The most dangerous distortion of history that I see happening today is the delusion that one side is right and one side is wrong, period.

Ron said...

> Hess didn't honorably surrender

It's hard to find a good WWII analogy. Hirohito maybe?

> No, it belongs to the Commucaust--Stalin and Mao

Conceded. Can we agree that Southern slavery is in the top 10? And that it doesn't really matter exactly what its rank is or who is #1?

> you skated right over the root cause of the Nazis coming to power

It was a blog post, not a book.

> The most dangerous distortion of history that I see happening today is the delusion that one side is right and one side is wrong, period.

About the issue of slavery one side was definitely right and the other was definitely wrong.

Do you seriously want to dispute that?

Peter Donis said...

@Ron: I'm not disputing that slavery is wrong. But that's not the only question we're discussing. As I've already pointed out, other countries were able to abolish slavery without killing anyone. The US had to kill between half a million and a million people. The responsibility for that does not belong to one side only. And you can't just separate out slavery from the rest of it; being right about slavery does not give the abolitionists a free pass for every choice they made.

I'm also not disputing that Southern slavery ranks pretty high among "things in human history that were wrong". But I do think it matters that we spend so much time talking about that, and about Nazi Germany, and practically no time talking about regimes that killed ten times as many people, or more.

Peter Donis said...

@Ron: "It's hard to find a good WWII analogy. Hirohito maybe?"

I would say he comes closest, but I'm not sure there really is a good WWII analogy. I don't think the kind of surrender that Lee made at Appomatox was really on the table for either Germany or Japan in WWII. (And the measures that were taken to "cleanse" Germany and Japan after WWII make Reconstruction look tame.)

Publius said...

Alternate History 1

@Ron:
> And Hitler did fix it, in no small measure because he had the brass to tell the allies to take their disarmament treaty and stuff it.

Eh, he didn't re-arm to improve the domestic economy. Spending on military equipment and forces has an inflationary effect, as it creates goods and services that the public can't consume (purchase).

>he [Hitler] decided to invade Russia. Had he not made that second mistake, Hitler would be remembered very differently today. Germany likely would have won WWII, and Hitler's history would have been written by happy, prosperous, victorious Germans rather than Jews and Americans.

Germany was never going to win the war after the United States became a belligerant.

Berlin would have been nuked in August 1945 instead of Hiroshima. Then, perhaps, another German city. After that, one city per month until they surrendered or were destroyed.

Another vignette also illustrates the hopelessness of the German situation. The United States had organized its economy and military such that it could prosecute the war indefinitely. One example of how this worked is fighter pilots. An American pilot who became an Ace were returned to the U.S. to train future pilots. The U.S. Air Force had set up a system were it could supply air crews indefinitely. German fighter pilots, in contrast, fought until they died, as Germany could not supply replacements to let them be assigned to training.

Publius said...

Alternate History 2

@Peter:
>>> The most dangerous distortion of history that I see happening today is the delusion that one side is right and one side is wrong, period.

@Ron:
>About the issue of slavery one side was definitely right and the other was definitely wrong.

Do you seriously want to dispute that?


I don't see Peter disputing the moral status of slavery, which you both agree. Peter is discussing the solution to ending slavery in the United States. Was war the only solution? Is war a moral solution to ending slavery?

The United States had made considerable progress in peaceful, political solutions to ending slavery before the Civil War. The Declaration of Independence (1776) famously has "All men are created equal" in its final form, but it also had this passage in its initial draft (condemning George III):

"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another."

In 1778 Virginia banned the importing of slaves into Virginia. The federal government prohibited shipbuilding and outfitting for the slave trade in 1794. This was followed in 1800 (strengthend in 1803) by a law prohibiting investment in slave ships, and to be employed on a slave ship. Congress then outlawed the international slave trade in 1808 by prohibiting the importation of slaves. In addition, all states except South Carolina had followed Virginia's lead and prohibited importation of slaves by 1808. In 1820, importation of slaves was made a capital offense. In 1819, the U.S. Navy joined with the British Royal Navy to blockade the slave trade from Africa, a relationship that was strengthened by treaty in 1842 (the U.S. Navy would continue with the blockade until 1861). The Missouri Compromise (1820), Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), and the undergound railroad represent domestic political efforts to abolish slavery. Slavery was clearly on its way to being abolished in the United States (and worldwide).

Robert E. Lee wrote that he opposed slavery and would surrender all of the slaves to preserve the Union. He stated his reason for joining the Confederacy was to defend Virginia. At that time, people felt a stronger connection and loyalty to their home State instead of the Union. One could argue that Lee didn't support war as the solution to ending slavery in the United States. He particularly didn't support war against Virginia as the solution.

Now let us consider the alternate history in which Robert E. Lee won the war for the Confederacy and later became President (much as Grant did in the actual history). As President, he then initiates and achieves the abolishment of slavery in the United States. Do you build a statue for him then?

Ron said...

> Peter is discussing the solution to ending slavery in the United States. Was war the only solution?

The South shot first. And they did it because the peaceful, democratic political solutions were working! No, war was not the only solution. But the Confederacy forced the hand of the United States of America when it initiated a traitorous armed insurrection against her.

> Is war a moral solution to ending slavery?

When the enslaver is the instigator of the war, then yes, absolutely.

> let us consider the alternate history

Let us not. We should base our actions and moral judgements on what actually happened, not what we wish might have happened.

The idea that there was something honorable about the Confederacy is an "alternate history" which has been the dominant narrative for 100 years. But it's a lie, an attempt to whitewash the brutal truth that it was all about slavery. Slavery slavery slavery slavery slavery. After 100 years of "alternate history" it will be a long time before that word is spoken too often.

Peter Donis said...

@Ron: "the peaceful, democratic political solutions were working!"

Only if violating the law and the Constitution is a "peaceful, democratic solution". The Constitution had an explicit provision requiring fugitive slaves to be restored to their owners. The peaceful, democratic solution to that would have been to amend the Constitution--but that wasn't done until *after* the Civil War. The actual solution, for decades leading up to the Civil War, was to violate that provision of the Constitution, and the laws enacted to uphold it.

Of course the people who violated the fugitive slave laws believed they were right, and that violating the law was justified. But that doesn't make their solution peaceful and democratic. It just means that, if you have enough force on your side, you can get away with just violating laws instead of amending them through peaceful, democratic processes.

Peter Donis said...

@Ron: "The idea that there was something honorable about the Confederacy"

Just to be clear, you didn't title this post "Supporting the Confederacy is no longer an acceptable position". You titled it "Supporting Robert E. Lee is no longer an acceptable position". A key point I am making (I think Publius is too, but I'll let him speak for himself) is that equating "supporting Robert E. Lee" with "supporting the Confederacy" is not justified. You haven't quoted a single thing Robert E. Lee actually said, or addressed what his actual beliefs were. You've just assumed, without argument or evidence, that Lee must have believed and supported everything in every Confederate State's constitution and everything every Confederate politician wrote. That doesn't seem justified to me--not in a post where you specifically chose Lee as a Confederate poster child. If your beef is with the Confederacy, then that's how you should have titled the post.

Ron said...

> The actual solution, for decades leading up to the Civil War, was to violate that provision of the Constitution, and the laws enacted to uphold it.

Hogwash. Yes, there were *individuals* who engaged in civil disobedience and failed to repatriate slaves, and even smuggle them out of the country. But that is not at all the same as the *government* violating the Constitution. To the contrary, the government passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 in an (unsuccessful, obviously) effort to appease the South. (Funny how history repeats itself. The phrase "Peace in our time" suddenly comes to mind.)

Social progress in the U.S. has always been messy. Today, for example, marijuana possession is theoretically a federal crime, but it is fully legal at the state level in eight states plus D.C. There are more states where it is fully legal than fully illegal (i.e. not even legal for medical use). Or consider present-day "sanctuary cities" which are in open -- but nonetheless peaceful! -- rebellion against federal immigration law. That's just how things work here.

You should read this:

http://time.com/4659391/sanctuary-cities-fugitive-slave-act/

> Of course the people who violated the fugitive slave laws believed they were right, and that violating the law was justified.

And do you not agree with them?

> But that doesn't make their solution peaceful and democratic.

I didn't say that there wasn't any violence. There was, obviously. What I said was that the peaceful democratic solutions were working. The proximate cause of secession was the election of Lincoln on an abolitionist platform, and in particular on a pledge to keep slavery out of the territories. The result of that would be more free states admitted to the union and ultimately the end of legal slavery in the U.S. The South saw that writing on the wall, and turned to the gun when they no longer believed that they would prevail at the ballot box.

Ron said...

> Just to be clear, you didn't title this post "Supporting the Confederacy is no longer an acceptable position". You titled it "Supporting Robert E. Lee is no longer an acceptable position".

That's true, and maybe if I had to do over again I'd change the title. But that seems to me to be splitting a fine hair. Maybe Lee shouldn't be vilified as much as Hitler and Stalin. But *if* he is going to be honored (and that's a big, big if) it has to be in the larger context of the fact that the cause he chose to fight for was pure, unalloyed evil. Until we're clear on that point, nothing else matters.

Peter Donis said...

@Ron: "there were *individuals* who engaged in civil disobedience and failed to repatriate slaves, and even smuggle them out of the country. But that is not at all the same as the *government* violating the Constitution."

So all of the Northern state governments that passed laws violating the Fugitive Slave provision in the Constitution, and all of the Northern state courts that refused to convict those who helped fugitive slaves to escape, don't count?

"That's just how things work here."

State laws that contradict federal statutes is one thing. State laws that contradict an explicit provision of the Constitution is something else.

"Social progress in the U.S. has always been messy."

Yes, I agree. I just think my standard for what counts as "peaceful and democratic" is stricter than yours.

Ron said...

> I just think my standard for what counts as "peaceful and democratic" is stricter than yours.

Do you really think quibbling over terminology is going to be productive? Suppose I concede that it was not "peaceful and democratic." Then what? I don't see how that changes anything.

Peter Donis said...

@Ron: "Do you really think quibbling over terminology is going to be productive?"

It's your terminology. If you didn't mean "peaceful and democratic", why did you use those terms?

Basically, it looks like you want to be able to take advantage of the positive connotations of certain terms when it suits you, without having to defend them when challenged. I agree that's not productive, but I'm not the one doing that.

If you insist on having my statement rephrased so it isn't just quibbling over terminology, how about this: I think my standard for what kinds of conduct allow one party in a conflict to claim the moral high ground is stricter than yours. To you, the abolitionists meet that standard; to me, they don't.

Ron said...

@Peter

I really did mean "peaceful and democratic." But if you're going to focus on that, then you need to go back and re-read the context in which I used that phrase.

"The South shot first. And they did it because the peaceful, democratic political solutions were working!"

You countered by pointing out that there was violence and constitutional violations on the abolitionist side. But that is a non-sequitur. My statement does not imply the non-existence of non-peaceful non-democratic processes. It just makes a claim about the peaceful and democratic processes that were also going on at the time, namely, that those processes were working.

Exhibit A is the election of Abraham Lincoln on an unambiguously abolitionist platform and a promise (threat!) to keep slavery out of the territories and hence out of new states. That South believed (correctly, I believe) that this would ultimately lead to the end of slavery. All of that would have been peaceful and democratic. The fact that civil disobedience and Constitutional violations were happening in parallel is irrelevant, except insofar as it illustrates how strong the feelings were on the abolitionist side.

And think about this: the Holocaust was legal, just as slavery was. People who helped Jews escape the Holocaust were BREAKING THE LAW. But these people are rightfully regarded as heroes today, while those who obeyed the law and turned Jews in to the Gestapo are considered despicable. Do you think history got this wrong? Or do you think that there's a line to be drawn somewhere between the Holocaust and chattel slavery that makes one transcend the law and the other not?

Peter Donis said...

@Ron: "Exhibit A is the election of Abraham Lincoln"

I don't think it's valid to pick out one event which was peaceful and democratic, while saying that all the other things that went on that contributed to that event happening are "irrelevant". Peaceful and democratic processes "worked" in the election of 1860 because of the history of non-peaceful, non-democratic processes that preceded them.

"do you think that there's a line to be drawn somewhere between the Holocaust and chattel slavery that makes one transcend the law and the other not?"

No. I don't think "transcend the law" is a useful way to look at either of these situations. I don't see things in the black and white way you appear to.

The Holocaust was wrong. Slavery was wrong. But the conflict between the North and South that led to the Civil War was not just about slavery, and the events that led to the Holocaust were not just about the Nazis persecuting the Jews. Human history is more complicated than that, and I see the natural human tendency to paint things in terms of simple black and white, evil and good, wrong and right, as a bug, not a feature.

As for "the law", I don't think there's a hard threshold at which it becomes justifiable to "transcend the law" in the service of some greater good. Every person has to make that choice for themselves. And when judging those choices after the fact, we need to take into account everything that's relevant, including what other choices were or were not open to them at the time. We know there was at least one other choice open to get slavery abolished: pay off the slaveowners. We know that because it happened--just not in the US. So in judging the abolitionists, we can rightly ask why they didn't make that choice, and they can rightly be held responsible for the consequences of not doing so.

In the case of Nazi Germany, however, once they were in power, I don't see any other reasonable choice that people could have made to save Jews from the Gestapo. The time for making some other reasonable choice was much earlier--when the Allies after WWI were deciding what punishment to impose on Germany. The people who chose to impose such harsh terms in the Treaty of Versailles can rightly be held responsible for the consequences of that, but obviously someone who saved Jews from the Gestapo didn't have such alternatives open to them.

Ron said...

@Peter:

> I don't see things in ... black and white

> The Holocaust was wrong. Slavery was wrong.

Do you not see the irony here?

It is not that I see things as black and white. It is the exact opposite in fact. Shoplifting is wrong, but that doesn't mean that you can draw a moral equivalency between shoplifting and slavery despite the fact that they are both wrong. There are degrees of wrongness, with shoplifting near one extreme and slavery very near the other.

Slavery is not just wrong, it is so wrong that calling it simply "wrong" is an abuse of the language. It is so wrong that it allows you to cut through vast swathes of complexity in human affairs. Shoplifting is wrong, yes, but it allows room for nuance. Maybe stealing a load of bread to feed your starving children is OK, despite the fact that stealing is wrong as a general rule. Slavery is not nuanced. It really is black-and-white. (In the case of negro chattel slavery as practiced in the American South it was *literally* black and white!) There is no moral justification for slavery.

> But the conflict between the North and South that led to the Civil War was not just about slavery

According to the people who started it, it was *primarily* about slavery. Not just slavery but "negro slavery." Their words, not mine.

> We know there was at least one other choice open to get slavery abolished: pay off the slaveowners. We know that because it happened--just not in the US.

You have to be very careful about extrapolating things that happened in other countries. U.S. culture was and remains very different from the rest of the world. Case in point: Australia was able to institute a ban on personal firearms in 1996 by paying off gun owners. If you think that would work here in the U.S., well, we'll just have to agree to disagree.

The American South could not have been bought out because they saw negro slavery as a fundamental right. How do I know this? Because they wrote it into their constitution, and instigated a war to defend it.

Yes, many historical questions are complex and nuanced. But not this one.

Peter Donis said...

@Ron: "many historical questions are complex and nuanced. But not this one."

I guess we'll just have to disagree. I think all historical questions are complex and nuanced. Yes, slavery is much more wrong than shoplifting; but as I said before, it wasn't just about slavery. Yes, if you read what the Confederates wrote in 1860--after decades of both sides hardening their positions and failing to recognize the other side's point of view--it looks like it was primarily about slavery. But that just means you're ignoring all the complexities and nuances. Of course things look simple if you do that.

Peter Donis said...

@Ron: "Do you not see the irony here?"

It might look that way on the surface, but notice that I didn't say Nazi Germany was evil, and I didn't say the South was evil. I just said that particular things they did were wrong. Do you not see the key distinction here?

Ron said...

> But that just means you're ignoring all the complexities and nuances.

No. It means *they* were ignoring all the complexities and nuances. *They* said that they were going to war primarily to defend the white man's inalienable right to hold negro slaves as property. This is not speculation on my part; they wrote it down. They enshrined it in their constitution. All I'm doing is taking them at their word.

Peter Donis said...

@Ron: "All I'm doing is taking them at their word."

You're picking out one particular set of words, written, as I said, after decades of both sides hardening their positions and refusing to see the other side's perspectives. Yes, that means both sides, during those decades, were ignoring complexities and nuances; but you're doing it too, by ignoring that whole process and focusing just on the very end of it.

Ron said...

> You're picking out one particular set of words

Yes, that's true. But I'm not picking them arbitrarily. I'm picking the words that the Confederacy formally published as their rationale for going to war. I think it's fair to judge them by those words, just as I think it's fair to judge the Nazis on the basis of what is written in Mein Kampf.

> after decades of both sides hardening their positions and refusing to see the other side's perspectives

Well, let's see.

On one side the perspective was that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

On the other side the perspective was that negroes were livestock and hence white people had an inalienable right to own them as property.

I really don't see much room for nuance there. Maybe you can explain it to me?

Peter Donis said...

@Ron: "I really don't see much room for nuance there."

You're leaving out a lot. Let me add some things:

On one side the perspective was that the power of the Federal government should be expanded to do things that, at least arguably, the Constitution does not allow it to do; that the desire to do something that somebody thought was a good idea was sufficient to justify the Federal government doing it, whether it was Constitutional or not.

On the other side the perspective was that the Federal government was explicitly intended to be a government of limited, enumerated powers, and that any expansion of that should be done through the explicit process of amendment that was provided, and that in the absence of such an amendment, powers not explicitly delegated to the Federal government should be left to the States--exactly as the Tenth Amendment explicitly says.

On one side the perspective was that the Union was some mystical thing that should be preserved at any cost, whether it was still the kind of Union the Founders intended or not.

On the other side the perspective was that the Union was a compact entered into for specific purposes, and that if those purposes were no longer being served, the compact needed to be changed--or else dissolved if change proved unworkable.

Also, the perspectives you do describe were the ones of 1860, not the ones of decades before. Nor was the Union perspective even in 1860 truly "all men are created equal". Many Northern states had laws forbidding free blacks from voting, holding jobs, or in some cases even entering the state.

In short, it's not that I think the South was right; I simply don't see the Northern cause as having the moral high ground, as you appear to.

Ron said...

> I simply don't see the Northern cause as having the moral high ground, as you appear to.

I don't believe I ever said that the Union had the moral high ground. I think the Union was on higher moral ground than the Confederacy, but that's a pretty low bar. In fact, my whole point here is that that it's about as low a bar as it gets. There were certainly moral (and legal) failures in the North as well, but I don't see how that's relevant to the question of whether Robert E. Lee deserves to be commemorated. Stalin was not exactly a saint (to put it mildly) but I don't see how that's relevant to the question of whether Hitler deserves to be commemorated.

Peter Donis said...

@Ron: "There were certainly moral (and legal) failures in the North as well, but I don't see how that's relevant to the question of whether Robert E. Lee deserves to be commemorated."

You didn't just say Robert E. Lee didn't deserve to be commemorated. You said that supporting Robert E. Lee--just expressing the viewpoint that he did deserve to be commemorated--was no longer an acceptable position.

The problem with that is that we're supposed to live in a country that has freedom of speech, and that includes everybody, including people who hold beliefs and express viewpoints that you find morally repugnant. Otherwise freedom of speech means nothing. If the City of Charlottesville votes, through their ordinary democratic process, to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee, that's their right. And if white supremacists want to peacefully protest that action, that's their right. And if counter-protesters want to peacefully protest the protesters, that's their right too. That's how this country is supposed to work.

(Yes, there was violence during the protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville. But you didn't say it was no longer acceptable to support Robert E. Lee only if you did so using violence.)

Ron said...

> You said that supporting Robert E. Lee--just expressing the viewpoint that he did deserve to be commemorated--was no longer an acceptable position.

That's right. But I meant that it should be *socially* unacceptable, not that it should be *illegal*.

> The problem with that is that we're supposed to live in a country that has freedom of speech, and that includes everybody, including people who hold beliefs and express viewpoints that you find morally repugnant.

Freedom of speech doesn't mean what you think it means. It means that you can say anything you want (modulo slander, libel, conspiracy, and perjury) without fear of being jailed. It does not mean that you can say anything you want without fear of social consequences.

> Otherwise freedom of speech means nothing.

Yes, I completely agree. And there are many points of view which I find personally find morally repugnant but which I nonetheless don't hold to be socially unacceptable. For example, the idea that the Bible is a reliable source of moral guidance is repugnant to me. I don't see how any reasonable person who has read the Bible can believe that. And yet people do believe it, and I'm not going to throw someone out of my house for professing to believe it.

But if someone tells me that they think Adolf Hitler was a stand-up guy you damn well better believe that they will not be welcome in my house.

> If the City of Charlottesville votes, through their ordinary democratic process, to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee, that's their right. And if white supremacists want to peacefully protest that action, that's their right. And if counter-protesters want to peacefully protest the protesters, that's their right too. That's how this country is supposed to work.

Sure. So why are you so worked up about *my* exercise of free speech here?

> (Yes, there was violence during the protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville. But you didn't say it was no longer acceptable to support Robert E. Lee only if you did so using violence.)

This has nothing to do with the violence in Charlottesville. This has to do with the fact that (IMHO) chattel negro slavery is morally comparable to the Holocaust, and so the Confederates should be remembered with the same contempt as the Nazis, and for the same reason: both initiated war to defend the morally indefensible principle that some humans are less than human.

Peter Donis said...

@Ron: "I meant that it should be *socially* unacceptable, not that it should be *illegal*"

Fair enough. If someone who supports Robert E. Lee is not welcome in your house, for the reasons you've given, of course I have no problem with that. It's your house. And if 99.999999% of the population feels the same way you do about who they will and won't let into their house, that's fine too. You gave references to the particular things that led you to your opinion. We can argue, and have in this discussion, about various aspects of our respective opinions, but if it's just a matter of who we're going to let into our houses, neither one of us has to convince the other. We just have to know what each other's boundaries are.

"Freedom of speech doesn't mean what you think it means. It means that you can say anything you want (modulo slander, libel, conspiracy, and perjury) without fear of being jailed. It does not mean that you can say anything you want without fear of social consequences."

Agreed, as long as the boundaries of "social consequences" are understood. See above.

"So why are you so worked up about *my* exercise of free speech here?"

I have no problem with your exercise of free speech. See above.