15 August 2017
'You're changing culture'
The President probably had yesterday's demonstration in Durham NC, where a mob toppled a Confederate statue, as well as the weekend's carnage in Charlottesville in mind when he spoke combatively with the press today. While he had valid points to make, particularly that there was violence from what he called the "alt-left" as well as the alt-right in Charlottesville, he jumped the shark when he denounced the peaceful removal of Confederate monuments. He perceived a slippery slope taking us from the disappearing, so to speak, of Robert E. Lee to the purging of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. If Confederates must be removed from the theoretical public square because they owned slaves, Trump reasoned, won't Washington and Jefferson inevitably be taken as well? To remove Confederate monuments, he argued, somehow was to rewrite or distort history. "You're changing culture," he complained, and that brings us back to Thomas Friedman's column of last week, in which the New York Times writer advised Democrats that not all Americans with "gut" cultural concerns about immigrants, Muslims, etc. could be written off as white supremacists. Friedman's column begged the question of where the line was to be drawn; to what extent should we tolerate and address people's cultural concerns, and at what point can we criticize their suspicions as bigotry? Trump has shown us where he'd draw the line, arguing that one can revere the Confederacy, and object to its purging from public history, without being a white supremacist. The President was most likely correct to say that not everyone who protested against the Charlottesville statue's removal was a white supremacist on the odious level of the Klan or the neo-Nazis. But can there really be a value-free embrace of the Confederacy on the abstract "heritage" level, presumably meaning that you think it cool, and nothing more, that great warriors once lived where you live now? It's possible, I suppose, as long as you have no idea at all of what the Confederacy was about. Only the ignorant could fail to draw important distinctions between Founding Fathers and Secessionists -- including ignorant people on the left who may well think exactly as Trump presumes. I'd like to think that I could make even Trump understand the difference. How would he feel, and what would he do, had some crazy Californians actually carried out their post-election threat to take their state out of the Union rather than have Donald Trump as their president? I'm pretty confident that the way Trump would feel is exactly how most Americans from Abraham Lincoln to the present day feel about the Confederacy. You can cut through all the neo-Confederate sophistry regarding the relevance of slavery to secession or the subsequent war by noting that a bunch of privileged crybabies took their states out of the union, without really consulting their constituents, solely to protest an election. Many states seceded before Lincoln had a chance to do any of the supposedly unconstitutional things they feared -- before he was even inaugurated. Theirs was the #notmypresident movement of their day. Does Donald Trump really want to endorse that? Does he really think that people who fought for that cause are heroes? Is the Confederate heritage really a core part of the American culture he expects everyone to defend? It's up to the President's northern supporters to say otherwise. They should be as hostile to Confederate idolatry as an internal poison as they are to any perceived external poison. On a cynical level, I can understand why the President, no doubt contemplating reelection, can't take the lead here. But if northern Trumpists don't feel the hostility toward the Confederacy that they should as a matter of heritage, I'd like to know why.