Next year is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. Which is all fine and good. But this war seems to have never ended. I am sure all of you have heard that South Carolina southerners are already trying to sell the good old Lost Cause before the celebrations begin.
For those unfamiliar, the Lost Cause began right after the war ended. It goes essentially as follows: 1) the war wasn't over slavery. In fact, in the earliest tellings of the Lost Cause, the slaves actually preferred to be slaves and were deeply protective of their masters. Most today don't suggest that. They say that slavery was wrong, but that the south didn't fight over slavery. Or at least, over slavery alone. 2) Built on that last point, Southerners fought for honor and family, not for slavery. After all, most who took up arms for the Confederacy didn't own slaves. 3) They never had a chance to actually win. They were always out-manned and out-gunned, and it was a miracle that they accomplished what they did.
One other key point of this mythology is that Confederates saw themselves as fighting in the same spirit as the American Revolution. They were fighting for their "freedom."
I am no military historian, but I am not convinced that the South couldn't win. They came damn close. They certainly had some of the best trained generals Americans had at the time--many of whom learned their brutality and skill in the Mexican war (which included massacres of Mexican soldiers fleeing battle).
But I am as convinced as I can be that the South fought over slavery. Their secession documents say it explicitly. They scream that they are leaving the union because the North wants to take away slavery. They say that Thomas Jefferson was wrong--as were any critics of slavery. They affirm absolutely the morality of slavery and their right to do that. That was their freedom.
I kind of get those guys. They were immersed in a culture of white supremacy mixed with an underlying fear of slave rebellion. You can see that in the responses to any kind of uprising. It is total warfare and total destruction. Those slaves who dare to rebel are killed and burned and dismembered. There is fear and rage there. South Carolina, where most of this stuff comes from, was a majority black state.
So I get those guys. The very idea that slavery could be wrong would make them monstors. But I don't get the modern defenders. Or I have a hard time with it. I tire of the "south as victim" lament. Enough. The south was more wedded to their slaves than they were the American Revolution, and the North knew it. They could not make slavery an issue in the 1760s or the South would side with England. Think of that the next time you hear a Southerner waving the flag. Either one.
One clue to this stance came last week during a very thoughtful conversation with a friend about how good people can do bad things. This friend noted an ex who had cheated in their relationship, but could never accept responsibility. It violated, according to my friend, how the ex saw themselves and their morality. Cheating simply didn't match their view of themselves.
Sullivan notes a reader's response on the Haley Barbour story that goes right in hand with that, arguing that it is a tribal instinct to not see your tribe as capable of that kind of evil.
What saddens me at both the personal and the national level is that this kind of psychological denial simply keeps people from health. It keeps the cheating spouse from ever coming to grips with their moral failing and moving beyond it. And it keeps so many in our nation from ever coming to grips with the evil of our past. It doesn't have to be that way. Acknowledging the past fully without "but" is a good way to make the past relevant only to historians and buffs.