Confederate History: An Exchange


A regular "right-wing" reader objects to my characterization of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's historical and political errors. Here's our brief e-mail exchange.

This reader e-mails:

I think you had it right about the governor when you said he should expect this scrutiny as a big time REPUBLICAN. Anybody ask Jim Webb about that speech he gave at the Confederate War Memorial in 1990? Might be an interesting time to do so, no?

Here's the thing that rubs right wingers raw about this stuff. It's the instinctive, knee-jerk hatred of the white southerner that is exhibited by most of the lefty elite media. It's pathological really. It's a similar, but much more intense form of the loathing displayed towards the white working class, and for similar reasons. You guys are the ones that hear dog whistles, not us.

It's not that we believe in the romanticism of the "Lost Cause" or don't recognize the evils of slavery. Those evils are self evident. But we feel compelled to point out that those Tennesse, Georgia, Arkansas and Texas boys (among others) that filled out the line units of the Army of Northern Virginia were not in fact monsters, they weren't the moral equivalents of Nazis as they are often portrayed, and a lot of them did in fact fight for reasons other than the right to own slaves, since the vast majority of them didn't own any at all.

When people like Senator Webb (D-VA) talk(ed) about the gallantry and honor of the Confederate soldier, they aren't defending the practice of slavery or the plantation class that started the war. Nor are they running down the civil rights of blacks that flowed from the Union's victory. What they are talking about are the pure steel balls it took for those men to form up and mount a Pickett's Charge after you've eaten nothing but shoe leather for a week. It's the same sort of balls, duty and honor that has motivated these same southern boys to serve disproportionately in every American war right up to present day. That shouldn't be pissed on.

Those Confederate men fought for various reasons, many of them flawed and some of them evil. Didn't make those men 100% evil or the Union 100% virtuous. You guys are all about nuance, complexities and shades of gray right?

My response:

I hear what you're saying.

But the unfortunate thing is that the histories aren't equal in moral weight; nor is the Confederate version all that accurate. This [stuff]is far more hurtful to black people than it is helpful or sustaining to white Southerners.  That's the reality of history. You can accept it, or ignore it because you don't want to give in to political correctness. Fine. But don't complain that your side isn't being taken as seriously. You can't have it both ways: you celebrate Confederate history openly AND you'll be called on the carpet for it. Intentions matter less here than perceptions. Sometimes the opposite is true, but it is undeniable the the symbolism is very hurtful to one class of people, even as it means something different to another class of people.

Webb was scrutinized by Democrats for his racial views. This isn't that. This is a proclamation that went out of its way to deny and ignore history even as it purported to celebrate it.

The reader's reply:

Yeah, that's fine. Let me make one point though. It's not about celebrating Confederate history, for me anyway. It's about honoring a unique element of honor, pugnaciousness and fortitude that is exhibited by the common white southerner and that this country still benefits from to this day. It's about the legacy of the Scotch Irish, not plantations and mint juleps. Link to Webb's speech at least. I doubt many of your readers know of it or will like it, but it gets at what I'm talking about.

So why not celebrate Scotch Irish heritage

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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