Governor McDonnell of Virginia triggered a firestorm this week with his proclamation (link sent by Mendip) honoring the most monstrous, violent, and bloody act of treason ever committed against the American nation and Constitution. To be sure, that was not his intent. He released the proclamation last Friday by placing it, without fanfare, on his website, suggesting that he hoped it would not attract media attention. The point about it which sparked the most immediate outrage was its omission of any reference to slavery, which is a bit like issuing a proclamation in honor of the 9/11 hijackers without mentioning jihad. Later, under a barrage of criticism even from some of his allies, McDonnell apologized for the omission, calling it a "mistake" -- assuredly a startling one, since previous such proclamations by earlier Republican governors had included mention of slavery.
Whether this was just a crass, clumsy blunder or a crass, clumsy wolf-whistle, no one but McDonnell truly knows. However, he has in a way done the country a service, by drawing attention to the issue of Civil War history and its modern abuses.
David Frum cuts through the dishonest rhetoric which so often clouds this topic:
But the Civil War is a subject about which it is impossible to be bland, and in urging Virginians to remember, the proclamation engaged in some creative forgetting. It claimed that Confederate soldiers “fought for their homes and communities and Common-wealth.” None of those things was endangered in 1861. What was endangered was slavery.....
Oliver Willis puts it more bluntly:
When you celebrate the confederacy you support the idea of taking up arms against the United States in defense of the conti- nued enslavement of black people. To celebrate the Confederacy is to celebrate human bondage and treason. Period.
Citizen K reviews the revival of racism and terrorism after the war, and Beekeeper's Apprentice (who lives in Richmond) looks at the ongoing modern efforts to rehabilitate the Confederacy.
Frum and Willis are right. If any one action in American history met the standard of "levying war against" the United States (the Constitutional definition of treason), the secession of the South and the launching of the Civil war was it. The fault-line dividing the country was, and already had been for years, slavery. Certainly a Confederate victory would have kept slavery in existence much longer, probably decades. To claim that this was in any sense a noble cause, or that the people who fought for it were heroes, is an unspeakable outrage. To claim that embracing such an attitude and displaying the flag of treason is somehow compatible with American patriotism is bizarre.
I am not one of those people who looks down on the South, as the South. There are plenty of Southerners who are patriotic and non- racist, and there are plenty of racists and people with a nauseating disdain for patriotism in other parts of the country. The Constitu- tion itself says that "no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood" -- people are not responsible for the actions of their ancestors. But the Confederate fetish is an insult to the United States. It's also dangerous because it's divisive, in two ways.
Most obviously, of course, it insults black Americans, because the Confederacy fought, and indeed was established, to prolong the ghastly abuse of their ancestors.
Perhaps less obviously, it underhandedly legitimizes a kind of seditious talk which has become fashionable among extremists. Mutterings about secession do crop up here and there on the far right, and even the governor of Texas was caught making such remarks. Of course, there is not going to be another secession or another civil war, but that doesn't mean that this couldn't be a problem. Do we really want to let a version of Canada's endlessly-distracting Quebec issue arise in our country?