As I'm sure you've probably noticed, there's been a lot of debate recently surrounding the protests in Charlottesville and opposition to statues of Confederate leaders. I couldn't help but jump into the fray on Twitter with the goal of injecting some reason into the public discourse on these subjects. In the process, I encountered a lot of unfounded viewpoints and irrational arguments that I'd like to underscore and discuss in this post. So in no particular order, let's just jump right into it.
Paul Joseph Watson—Infowars editor and crackpot, conspiracy-theorist extraordinaire—posted a picture of the Egyptian pyramids which said:
"Historical symbols of slavery must be torn down."
While clearly a lot of people thought this was a brilliant comparison, that this was a devastating illustration of the absurd path we would be led down if we put this mindset consistently into practice, it's actually quite a foolish point if you ask me. As I wrote in my reply,
"Structures built by slave labor [are not the same thing as] statues honoring Confederate leaders who seceded & fought a war to preserve slavery. Use your brain, [people.]"
And yes, I know, that's asking quite a bit from your average Infowars fanboy who hears a rustle in the grass and thinks there's a conspiracy behind it.
Next, we're gonna take a close look at one particular conversation I had about slavery, secession, and the Civil War. It all started when CliffBell888 wrote:
"The statue [memorializes] men killed in a war. It doesn't celebrate slavery. That's the kind of BS thinking that is causing death and injury."
I responded to this by saying:
"Statues are erected to honor people. People who seceded and fought a war specifically to *preserve slavery* don't deserve that."
Somebody's reply to this post set off a debate about the root causes of Southern secession and the Civil War. RealTikiTorch wrote:
"Not why the war was fought."
And believe me, this guy is not alone in his view. The amount of ahistorical obfuscation and Confederate apologia that you encounter online when discussing this topic is frankly astonishing. Here is just a small sampling of what I saw people saying:
"lol another person who thinks the civil war was just about slavery."
"the civil war wasn't even about owning slaves."
"The war wasn't about slavery. It was about states rights. Slavery was an added issue, but not the reason."
"The Civil War wasn't about slavery as much as it was about which region would control the country."
So my response to RealTikiTorch saying "Not why the war was fought" was:
"Exactly why the war was fought. Any decent American history book will tell you that. Let's hear your take, though..."
I then provided him with two quotations from an American History textbook supporting my position. As America: A Narrative History, by Tindall & Shi writes,
". . . they elected Mississippi's Jefferson Davis as president [of the Confederate States of America] . . . with Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia as vice president. Stephens left no doubt about why the Confederacy was formed. 'Our new government,' he declared, 'is founded upon . . . the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior [white] race, is his natural and normal condition.'"
The book also writes:
"To argue that the Civil War was primarily a defense of liberty and the right of self-government . . . ignores the actual reasons that southern leaders used in 1860–1861 to justify secession and war. In 1860, for example, William Preston, a prominent South Carolina leader, declared: 'Cotton is not our king—slavery is our king. Slavery is our truth. Slavery is our divine right.' The South Carolina Declaration on the Immediate Causes of Secession highlighted 'an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery.'
Yes, southerners asserted their constitutional right to secede from the Union, but it was the passionate desire to preserve slavery that led southern leaders to make such constitutional arguments. It is inconceivable that the South would have seceded from the Union in 1860–1861 had there been no institution of slavery. As Abraham Lincoln noted in his second inaugural address, everyone knows that slavery 'was somehow the cause of the war.'"
Furthermore, as written on LiveScience.com, in an article entitled "6 Civil War Myths, Busted,"
". . . in its declaration of secession, Mississippi explained, 'Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world . . . a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.'
In its justification of secession, Texas sums up its view of a union built upon slavery: 'We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.'"
Let's be clear about something, however: There were other significant differences and sources of strife between the North and South during the antebellum period. For example, as Tindall & Shi write,
"Southern society remained rural and agricultural long after the rest of the nation had embraced urban-industrial development . . . By the 1840s, the North and South had developed quite different economic interests and political tactics. The North wanted high tariffs on imported manufactures to 'protect' its new industries from foreign competition. Southerners, on the other hand, favored free trade because they wanted to import British goods in exchange for the profitable cotton they provided British textile mills."
So it's not like the only historical issue of contention between the North and South was slavery. But the issue that actually prompted secession was slavery. To reiterate the key point from that earlier passage,
"It is inconceivable that the South would have seceded from the Union in 1860–1861 had there been no institution of slavery."
So RealTikiTorch responded to those first two quotes by saying:
"Two of the fourteen states seceded out because of slavery, that is true. The north's solution was military occupation,"
"The south's was democracy. The north instead occupied the entire south and put a trade embargo of them, which is why the south felt [oppressed]"
First off he's just wrong about the numbers. There were 11 Confederate states—not 14. But more importantly, he's wrong about the causality and the historical timeline here. The northern occupation, the blockade, these were military tactics implemented once the war had already started. This wasn't the cause of the Civil War—this was a part of the Civil War strategy. As written in America: A Narrative History:
"General Winfield Scott, the seasoned seventy-five-year-old commander of the Union armies, devised a three-pronged plan that called first for the Union Army of the Potomac to defend Washington, D.C., and exert constant pressure on the Confederate capital at Richmond. At the same time, the Federal navy would blockade southern ports and cut off the Confederacy's access to foreign goods and weapons. The final component of the plan would divide the Confederacy by invading the South along the main water routes running from north to south: the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers. This so-called 'anaconda' strategy would slowly entwine and crush the southern resistance, like an anaconda snake strangling its prey."
And we don't even need to consult the history book that I'm referencing; even the very source that he chose to provide to support his perspective says the exact same thing in the very first sentence:
"The Union blockade in the American Civil War was a naval strategy by the United States to prevent the Confederacy from trading."
And the reference that he provided also presents a timeline that runs counter to his explanation. It says that:
"On April 19, 1861, President Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Blockade Against Southern Ports"
And when was the battle of Fort Sumter, which basically initiated the actual Civil War?
"The Battle of Fort Sumter (April 12–13, 1861) was the bombardment of Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina by the Confederate States Army, and the return gunfire and subsequent surrender by the United States Army that started the American Civil War."
So the blockade that he argues started the Civil War was implemented a week after the first battle of the Civil War.
How much more embarrassingly wrong could a person get? What better indication is there that your position is unfounded if the best sources that you can think to support your position actually completely refute it?
And I don't know where he gets this number 2 from, that only two Confederate states seceded because of slavery, because slavery was the overarching issue that motivated secession and brought all of the Confederate states together.
He attempts to substantiate his perspective by providing me with some diary entries from two random, Confederate grunts—saying "Not a mention of slavery or particular hatred for blacks"—as if these provide some kind of concrete insight into the motivations for secession. But this is just completely misguided; it's not like these are expositions of the motivations for secession; these are simply random Confederate soldiers writing down what happened on certain days during the military campaigns. "We went to battle. This happened. We marched here. Etc." What else would you expect to find in a Confederate soldier's diary entries? Complex, philosophical musings about the ethical foundation for slavery and a detailed explanation of the rationale behind secession?
So I responded by saying:
"Direct quotations from reputable history book & Confederate leaders? Nah, no way.
Cherrypicked diary entries from random grunts? The truth."
It's important to distinguish between a few different things here: the motivations of Lincoln, the motivations of the Confederate leadership, and the motivations of individual Confederate soldiers. You could point out the fact that many Confederate soldiers weren't primarily motivated by a desire to preserve slavery; perhaps they instead enlisted simply because they felt like their homeland was under attack. But what inspired individual soldiers is completely separate from what inspired the actual Confederate leadership to secede.
By analogy, imagine that the United States government declared war on Mexico because they wanted to acquire more of their territory. If, after the war was declared and the battles began, a Mexican battleship bombed an American city, killed thousands, and thus motivated great numbers of people to enlist as soldiers, the fact that these soldiers would be motivated because of their outrage at the attack on their city doesn't negate the fact that the war was originally declared out of a desire to acquire more Mexican territory. What caused the war to begin and what motivates individual soldiers fighting the war are completely separate things.
The motivations of Lincoln also need to be considered independently. realTikiTorch posted a link to an article and wrote, sarcastically, "But Lincoln's motivations were against slavery, right?"
The article features a quote from Lincoln which says the following:
"If I could save the union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would do that . . . "
It is true that he was willing to placate the South regarding slavery if it meant that the union would remain intact. As written in America: A Narrative History:
" . . . a peace conference met . . . in Washington, D.C., in February 1861. Twenty-one states sent delegates . . . The only proposal that met with any success was a constitutional amendment guaranteeing slavery where it existed. Many Republicans, including Lincoln, were prepared to go that far to save the Union, but they were unwilling to repudiate their principled stand against extending slavery into the western territories. As it happened, after passing the House, the slavery amendment passed the Senate without a vote to spare, by 24 to 12, on the dawn on Lincoln's inauguration day. It would have become the Thirteenth Amendment . . . but the states never ratified it."
Yes, Lincoln, at the outset of secession, had the primary goal of preserving the union of the nation; he didn't go into the Civil War as this raging opponent of slavery completely determined to eradicate the institution from our country. But Lincoln's motivations in responding to secession and rebellion are, once again, separate from the motivations that inspired the Confederate leaders to secede. So even though we have a situation where many individual Confederate soldiers may have been motivated to fight the war by issues other than slavery, and even though Lincoln might have went into the war primarily striving to preserve the union of the nation, it is still correct to say that the war was caused by slavery—because slavery is what motivated Southern secession, and Southern secession is what precipitated the warfare. So the root cause was slavery.
Now, you might be asking yourself, if it is true that Lincoln was so willing to pacify the South on slavery, then how could it be that Southern leaders viewed him as such a grave threat to slavery? It's a good question, and to answer it, let's once again consult America: A Narrative History:
"In 1860 . . . [Lincoln] emphasized his view of slavery 'as an evil, not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because of and so far as its actual presence among us makes that toleration and protection a necessity.'
. . . The Republican party platform [which Lincoln ran on] denounced . . . the Supreme Court's Dredd Scott decision allowing slavery in all federal territories . . . It also promised 'the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions.' The party reaffirmed its resistance to the extension of slavery . . .
Soon after Lincoln's election, the South Carolina legislature called for a state secession convention to meet in December to remove the slave state from the Union . . . the special state convention, most of whose 169 delegates were slave owners, unanimously endorsed an Ordinance of Secession, explaining that a purely sectional (Republican) party had elected to the presidency a man 'whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery,' who had declared 'government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free' and that slavery 'is in the course of ultimate extinction.'"
So they had their reasons.
At another point in the conversation, believe it or not, he goes on to once again misread, misunderstand, and misrepresent his chosen sources. I ask him to provide me with quotations from a reputable history book which argues that the Civil War was not fought over slavery, and he provides me with a link to a History.Gov article on the blockade implemented against the South. He apparently expected me to just take him at his word, but I read the article and it was instantly clear that it simply did not contain the information that he claimed it did.
I ask for quotes from a reputable historical source which supports the view that the Civil War was not fought over slavery, and he just links me to an article on the Southern blockade. No quotes or anything, he just throws it out there and he's like "Boom, bitch. How ya like them apples?" So of course I called him out on this, and after I prodded him a second time because he initially dodged the point, he admitted, in a rare moment of debating honesty, that I was right. Music to my ears.
He also tries to argue that it contradicts my position that 4 of the 11 Confederate states didn't secede until after the Battle of Fort Sumter, but this is just a silly argument. Yeah, not all of the states seceded at the exact same time; but they did all secede within just a few months of one another. Yeah, not all of the Confederate states seceded before actual warfare began; but once it did, the 4 remaining holdout states quickly chose a side and seceded. Nothing about this timeline indicates that slavery was not the driving force behind secession.
So I finish off our exchange by summarizing my position as follows:
"These are the facts: secession was to preserve slavery, & secession precipitated the Civil War. Any other take is ahistorical & inaccurate."
He responds with:
"That is correct, but there were other motivations and reasons"
Oh, so now it is correct that secession was to preserve slavery, and now it's just that there were simply other, additional motivations behind secession. Recall the initial claims that started the debate. I said: "Statues are erected to honor people. People who seceded and fought a war specifically to *preserve slavery* don't deserve that."
His response was: "Not why the war was fought." His opening line is him disagreeing with my claim that the Civil War was caused by the South seceding specifically to preserve slavery. But his closing words contradict this opening argument of his.
So what we have here is a guy who presents a radically unconventional and ahistorical take on the Civil War. When I ask that he substantiate his position, he provides me with a couple of diary entries from random Confederate soldiers, and also uses, as citations, references that don't even remotely support his position—a position that he apparently also disagrees with by the end of the discussion. What. The fuck.
Something else I saw in my perusal of Twitter was that many people were eagerly jumping to conclusions about things—in a very cheap, partisan manner—without supporting evidence. For example, Twitter user Battle Beagle posted a picture of the vandalized Lincoln memorial, writing:
As we can see, this received hundreds of likes and retweets. He also posted a link to an article about the incident which said the following:
"It was not immediately clear if the vandals were caught on surveillance cameras, the NPS spokesman said . . . Anyone with information on the recent crime is asked to contact U.S. Park Police at 202-610-7515."
So in other words, we don't have a clue who is actually responsible for this act of vandalism, and thus, we don't know anything about their political views. But this didn't stop this person from saying "vandalized by leftist," and this didn't stop hundreds of people from re-Tweeting this unjustified assertion. This is a great example of how corrosive partisan politics can be: "Who cares about the truth? Who cares what the facts are? I can use this opportunity to smear the other team."
So I responded to this Tweet by saying:
"And how, exactly, did you discover that a "leftist" was responsible for this act of vandalism that nobody has been arrested for yet?"
I also added:
"If the raving anti-Confederate group is mostly *left* wing, wouldn't it be more likely that a *right*-winger defaced the *Lincoln* memorial?"
Lincoln, of course, opposed the Confederacy, and these anti–Confederate statue protesters also oppose the Confederacy, so why would they deface the monument of a person who is their de facto ally? This would make no sense. It would, in fact, make much more sense if somebody who's pro-Confederacy, somebody who's on the opposite side of these protesters, was responsible for the vandalism of the Lincoln memorial. But ultimately, we don't know who was responsible. We can speculate, but asserting, as if it's an established fact, that somebody on the left did it, simply is not justified.
I would also argue that it's a mistake to frame these protests as a purely left versus right phenomenon—as many people are plainly doing. For example, Paul H Jossey said:
"The Left will not stop with [Robert] E Lee."
Here, he's implying that it's simply "the left" that is opposed to statues of Confederate leaders in the public square. If there is one thing that I could change about our political discourse, it would probably be this ubiquitous, reflexive distillation of every political debate into a sharp, left versus right divide. You see this everywhere.
Much more rarely encountered is a careful consideration of what subset of what political groups support or oppose the question at hand. Rarely do you see even the most prominent and respected public intellectuals and political commentators saying "Well, hold on a second, before we move on, let's take a minute to carefully determine what percentage of the group we're discussing actually believes the thing that we're talking about."
Instead, the starting point of so many political discussions is: "The left is doing this; the left thinks that," and people just take this for granted and move on with the conversation from this point. Our political discourse would be greatly improved if we took advantage of the available polling information and used it to speak with precision. Careless generalizations are the easiest thing in the world to manufacture, but often times, all it takes is a quick Google search to actually become grounded in reality and have your portrayal of a group's views match up with the facts.
So on that note, let's take a look at some polling data provided by Gallup.
They asked, in 2015, whether it's acceptable to display the Confederate flag on government property or on special license plates available in the state. 67% of Republicans said "Yes, this is acceptable," compared to 27% of Democrats. So while there clearly is a pronounced, partisan, 40% difference here, note that 33% of Republicans are opposed to such Confederate flag displays, and conversely, 27% of Democrats condone them.
So for both Democrats and Republicans, there's about a 2:1 ratio of people who do and do not agree with the view that some people ascribe to the group as a whole. That is to say, 1 out of 3 people in those groups are on the opposite side of the argument that we would expect them to be if we accepted the left versus right, dichotomous framing that we've been presented with.
I am not asking a lot here. Speaking with precision does not require us to bend over backwards and make a Herculean effort spending the entire night researching. It doesn't convolute our language, either; it enhances our language. Instead of saying "the left supports X," look at the polling data, and all you have to do is say "2/3s of the left supports X."
Returning to this polling data, while Confederate flags on government property or license plates are not the exact same thing as statues of Confederate leaders, I think it's reasonable to infer that we would see similar data for Confederate statues.
I also find it interesting that only 13% of Republicans, or 18% of conservatives, view the Confederate flag a symbol of racism.
It's called the Confederate flag—not the Southern pride flag. I have to wonder if the people who view it simply as a symbol of Southern pride are aware of what the Confederacy stood for and fought for? Could you imagine somebody proudly toting a Nazi flag, and trying to argue that it's merely a symbol of his Germanic pride? The Nazis have so much negative baggage associated with them, the organization represented and was responsible for so much evil, that attempting to portray their flag as a politically and racially neutral symbol is a completely futile absurdity. And so it is, I would argue, with the Confederate flag.
Don't get me wrong: It's not like I bag on people for waving around a Brazilian flag at a soccer game or something. I'm perfectly fine with people selecting and displaying a symbol of geographical pride; that's not the issue here. The issue is these people voluntarily associating themselves with the Confederacy, and saying "this has nothing to do with race," when the Confederacy itself had everything to do with race.
And yes, I've heard the counter-argument that the Confederate flag that we talk about today wasn't actually the one waved around by the Confederacy during the Civil War era. That doesn't change the fact that it's still called the "Confederate flag." If I designed a new flag that I called "the Nazi flag" which wasn't actually used by the Nazis, would I be able to reasonably evade criticism by saying "Well, didjya know that the Nazi flag that I'm waving around—and that I am choosing to describe as a Nazi flag—wasn't actually historically used by the Nazis during WW2?" I don't think people would find this persuasive; I don't think too many people would say "Ah, well, now that you say that, all is forgiven."
(Edit: It turns out that the Confederate flag we talk about today actually was used during the Civil War. As written in a HistoryNet article entitled "Embattled Banner: The true history of the Confederate flag,"
"The commanders of the Confederate army in Virginia . . . sought a distinctive emblem as an alternative to the Confederacy’s first national flag—the Stars and Bars—to serve as a battle flag . . . Confederate commanders in the east used the square battle flag from 1862 until the war ended."
I should have originally researched that claim instead of assuming it was accurate. My mistake!)
We're going to close this post by taking at a look at what I think was ultimately a pretty good conversation—a fruitful exchange—between myself and Twitter user FowlCanuck. He started out by saying:
"I didn't think Trump's suggestion was all that outlandish. G. Washington did have slaves. How long before SJWs get out their knives for him?"
And in case you're unaware, he's referring to the following statement by Donald Trump:
"You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very very important statue, and the renaming of a park, from Robert E. Lee to another name . . . George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we gonna take down statues to George Washington?"
My response was:
"Owning slaves, while despicable, [is not equal to] seceding from the nation and fighting a war *specifically to preserve* the institution of slavery."
So a lot of comparisons have been drawn lately between the Founding Fathers and Confederate leaders, but there is a very clear distinction between people who owned slaves within an existing system that sanctioned such a practice, and people who seceded from their nation and fought a war with the explicit, core goal of defending the institution of slavery.
As I said in another response to that Tweet,
"Go back not very far in history & virtually everyone held some odious views by our standards—but we can still discern differences&gradations."
Curtis responded to my points as follows:
"I'm not saying the comparison between the two is just valid. Just that it's reasonable that SJWs go after the founding fathers after this."
And I replied with two things:
"It's a fair concern. A line does need to be drawn somewhere. Who's to say which odious views are bad enough to warrant statue removal, etc?"
And I think that is a difficult question to answer. There's clearly a slippery-slope argument to be made here: That if we start with Confederate leaders, how long until we move onto another, lesser evil, and then onto another one from there? Where does the trend stop? What is the dividing line between views and actions that are or are not contemptible enough to warrant statue removal and building renaming? And whose decision is this to make? Will a simple majority suffice? Will legislation first be required to sanction the statue removal? How, exactly, would such a process work, and what would be the criteria that we use? These are all perfectly reasonable questions to ask and explore.
And this leads us to my other response:
"I don't mourn the removal of statues of Confederate leaders, but if/when lots of people move onto lesser evils, I might object. Just depends."
And when I say "it depends," I mean it ultimately depends upon what the particular views and actions in question were, and how representative those views and actions were of the person as a whole. I think viewing their beliefs and actions relative to the average person around them, and relative to the best people among them, is also important.
Curtis went on to say:
"Yep. I think the slippery slope concept is valid here. Do we start scrubbing presidents from history because they opposed gay marriage?"
He also said, in response to a previous post of mine, that he has "no admiration for traitors who lost a war. [He's] Just worried these people will try to scrub any uncomfortable history from the books."
And here, he exaggerates dramatically and conflates two different things. "Scrubbing presidents from history"? Who is sanctioning that? Who is calling for the removal from history books of any mention of Confederate leaders? Nobody is saying: Erase them from history and no longer publish books about them or encourage people to learn about them. People are simply saying: Do not allow statues of these people—memorials which honor them—to stand in the public square. These are two completely separate things, and to conflate the two is to misunderstand and overstate what it is that people opposed to these statues actually believe and are calling for.
As I wrote in my response,
"I see the point, but it's important to realize that removing *memorials* =/= "scrubbing from history." Hitler books abound; statues don't."
We can and do learn about despicable people in history. In fact, it seems like there's some kind of historical axiom, where, the more despicable a person or organization's actions were, the more notoriety they will have, the more interest people will have in learning about them, and the more resources will be available to educate us about them. It seems like a new documentary is released about Hitler and the Nazi regime every 15 minutes. People oppose Nazis in the modern world but don't say "Ban the historical teaching of what Nazis did."
So anybody who talks about these efforts to remove Confederate statues from the public square as if this some part of a broader campaign to erase history altogether is just not thinking or talking intelligently about the subject.
Curtis responded by saying:
"Fair enough. It's just kinda creepy though when these people start sharing commonalities with the Taliban."
And he also shows a picture of a Buddhist statue that extremist Muslims destroyed.
My closing response to the conversation was:
"Sure, but not all statue destroying is equal (e.g. toppling Saddam's). A case-by-case basis is needed because different motivations exist."
And the finale of this discussion prompted Twitter user dylansbeard to say: "Finally. Civil dialog"