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Monday, May 03, 2010  

Lost Causes

My observance of Confederate Heritage and History Month this year consisted of reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's justly-celebrated Team of Rivals. As a northerner with at least one ancestor who fought for the Union, I am a flaming and implacable partisan on the issue. The war was fought over slavery, even if it could have been avoided or ended with slavery kept intact. And while all decent neo-Confederates nowadays will say that their nostalgia has nothing to do with slavery, the fallback principle of the war--that losing an election grants you the right to bust up your nation and fight a war against its government--is not much more noble than the principle that white people can rightly own black people. I can't think of anything to commend the southern position in 1860.

What has gone missing in recent discussions of the morality of Confederate nostalgia is how unusual and unlikely the whole "lost cause" mythology is in the first place. Quite apart from the moral wretchedness involved, the secessionist party led the South into total disaster. The human costs were nightmarish all over the country, but the South suffered considerably more, thanks to its retrograde economy and the Northern blockade. The politicians and generals, so confident of victory when secession fever struck, managed not just to lose but to do so in a fashion that made preserving slavery or even the shadow of the idea of state sovereignty completely impossible. They actually hastened the end of the institutions for which they embarked on tearing the country apart! From Jefferson Davis on down, these men were not merely villains, they were failures. And yet they are celebrated still throughout the region they brought to utter ruin. Imagine every other street in Berlin named after Kaiser Wilhelm and his subordinates and the fantastical quality of this state of affairs becomes more clear.

Despite its self-image, the fact is that the South was better at politics than at rebellion. Within two decades of Appomattox, they had made a pretty good start at reconstituting slavery in many respects. The U.S. Senate and its hallowed counter-majoritarian procedures returned to its traditional antebellum role as the home of Southern political power and the guarantor of white supremacy until the 1960's. If Lincoln and the Republicans had had their way in 1860 and merely halted the spread of slavery, slavery would probably have lingered for decades more and Southern political power would have been robust and mostly unmolested.

It is not a bad rule of thumb to be wary of any ideology that celebrates defeat. There is something to be said for celebrating people like Barry Goldwater or George McGovern. They were certainly men of principle--Goldwater of the principle that the federal government has no role in securing the rights of black Americans, McGovern of the principle that begging for peace was better than prolonging a vicious and pointless war--and while it may that no one in their places could have won, they lost so brutally because they were fundamentally bad at what they did. One of the more pernicious roles ideology plays in politics is weaving a sort of safety net underneath historical failure. Thus the foolish and reckless company that led the nation into an unsurpassed bloodletting and their own party to catastrophic defeat are transformed into the chivalrous stalwarts of a noble enterprise. People who revere losing have no grounds for surprise when they lose.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:13 PM
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