My article on the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument and the old southern rewriting of history sparked a reaction from Rev. Steve Wilkins, pastor of Auburn Avenue church in Monroe, Louisiana. His post, “The Rewards of Selective Indignation,” targets evangelical Christians who wrote in support of removing the Lee monument, who criticized the southern leaders who fought to maintain the institution of slavery, and who said specifically we should not “try to re-write history.”
I am not sure if he had me in mind in particular, but since he also aimed at “hip coolsters who know which way society’s winds are blowing,” and I try really hard to belong to that group, I’m going to assume he meant me anyway.
The heart of Wilkins’s post is that with our outrage at southern leaders and our demand to remove monuments of them due to reasons such as slavery and racism, we are engaging in “selective indignation.” Why “selective”? His argument:
But what if I told you that Abraham Lincoln believed blacks were inferior (by nature) to whites? What if I told you that Robert E. Lee freed more slaves than the Great Emancipator? What if I pointed to the fact that Lincoln plainly stated, more than once, that he thought the best solution for slavery was to ship all the African slaves back to Africa so that America could be what America (in his mind) was intended to be: a white/European country? What if you learned that Ole Abe was not an Abolitionist?
Here’s the oddity: In spite of the fact that all of the above statements are absolutely true (and well known to everyone who is familiar with Mr. Lincoln), we have yet to hear any demands that all the statues of Lincoln come down forthwith. There have been no denunciations of our Great Liberator. No demonstrations against his overt hypocrisy. No outrage. No editorials. Not even, heaven help us, a single blog post.
“Heaven help us”? No, Steve, you don’t need a prayer for this one. Just a search engine. Here is just a quick sample of few articles in which I have denounced “our Great Liberator” equally:
In short, Wilkins simply was not paying attention; or, perhaps not trying very hard.
To be sure, since I have not gone the additional mile to demand “statues of Lincoln come down forthwith,” let me get this out of the way now, as an aside, and be clear:
We should also remove every monument and statute of Abraham Lincoln throughout the nation.
Hypocrisy aside—which criteria would lead to the removal of every statue of every politician—I want them removed because I am in general morally opposed to any taxpayer funding for public monuments. These should be funded and owned privately, and built on private property. Simple.
Back to the point. Why is it that Steve makes such sweeping claims about my position—“not even . . . a single blog post”—when in fact the opposite is true and easily discernable?
I think the problem may be that we are a little too touchy about our allegedly beautiful Southern heritage, and way too defensive against those who point out the obvious. This angst to protect the virtues of the lost cause manifests in just this variety of misguided criticism, southern self-victimization (as I originally argued), and a particular fallacy known as ad hominem tu quoque.
The hastiness and one-sidedness of the complaint is actually quite representative of most of the Southern apologetics I’ve seen. It goes like this:
So, let’s see if we understand the rules here: We’re not allowed to point out that it was the North that practiced the truly damnable slave trade – and practiced it up through the beginning of the War? We’re not allowed to observe that slave owners in the North did not free their slaves but sold them for profit (and then condemned the buyers for being money-grubbing, immoral, heartless, man-stealers)? We’re not allowed to point out that the Confederate Constitution was the only modern constitution to outlaw the slave trade? We’re not allowed to observe that the Emancipation Proclamation was a merely a cheap piece of political maneuvering – that it did not free a single slave and was never designed to do so? That the Proclamation’s true message was not that one human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own another unless he is loyal to the United States?
Your rule is that Southerners are not allowed to re-write history – and we happily agree with that – but the rule also says it’s ok for the Northerners to do so.
Some readers will be pained by reading much of this, not because there is a lot of truth in it, but because there is also a good bit of liberty taken in rhetoric that creates a good bit of insensitive falsehood as well. That aside—assuming that every bit of this were true—this is where that same level of not paying attention comes into play. Who in the world said you’re “not allowed” to point out these things?
If most of the Southern apologists I have seen were half as well read as they pretended, they would know that the first, most ardent, most consistent, and most thorough writers on all the topics of Northern hypocrisy and alleged tough questions of American racism and slavery have been the liberal scholars themselves, and often black ones.
Rest assured, that once my book finally gets out, I will be writing supplementary articles and responses left and right highlighting every single instance of this. For just a taste, start with the obvious. Probably no one has written more about the hypocrisy of the North than the original abolitionists did. Frederick Douglass hammered on it. William Lloyd Garrison famously said things like this:
Whatever may be the guilt of the South, the North is still more responsible for the existence, growth and extension of Slavery. In her hand has been the destiny of the Republic from the beginning. She could have emancipated every slave, long ere this, had she been upright in heart and free in spirit. She has given respectability, security, and the means of sustenance and attack to her deadliest foe. She has educated the whole country, and particularly the Southern portion of it, secularly, theologically religiously; and the result is, three millions and a half of slaves, increasing at the appalling rate of one hundred thousand a year, three hundred a day, and one every five minutes—the utter corruption of public sentiment, and general skepticism as to the rights of man—the inauguration of Mammon in the place of the living God—the loss of all self-respect, all manhood, all sense of shame, all regard for justice—the Book styled holy, and claimed to be divinely inspired, everywhere expounded and enforced in extenuation or defence of slaveholding, and against the Anti-Slavery movement—colour-phobia infecting the life-blood of the people—political profligacy unparalleled—the religious and the secular press generally hostile to Abolitionism as either infidel or anarchical in its spirit and purpose—the great mass of the churches with as little vitality as a grave-yard—the pulpits, with rare exceptions, filled with men as careful to consult the popular will as though there were no higher law—synods, presbyteries, general conferences, general assemblies, buttressing the slave power—the Government openly pro-slavery, and the National District the head-quarters of slave speculators—fifteen Slave States—and now, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and the consecration of five hundred thousand square miles of free territory forever to the service of the Slave Power!
And what does all this demonstrate? That the sin of this nation is not geographical—is not specially Southern—but deep-seated and universal. “The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.” We are “full of wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores.”
Sorry Steve; your pulpit’s good, but on Northern hypocrisy and racism, you’ve not yet risen anywhere near the level of Garrison. If the old preachers of the South had been such men of integrity, bravery, and uncompromising truth, they would have sided with Garrison.
Likewise, on a wide range of issues such as the apparent counter-narrative point of black slave owners in the South. It was none less than Carter G. Woodson, the father of black history, who first took up that issue in the academic journals, way back in the 1920s. His thesis has been improved since then. Today, one of the most outspoken voices on that issue is none other than Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Obama’s “beer summit” fame. He’s also a current expert on the African end of the slave trade, too—you know, where southern apologists say things like, “You know it was your own people who sold you all into slavery to begin with? Don’t blame the white South!”
Yes, the North ran many of the slaving ships that delivered slaves to the South. You know who has put the most effort into exposing that sad history? The liberals in the northern universities themselves. For one, in 2003, Brown University launched a whole panel of scholars for an official report on the school’s deep entanglement with the slave trade, and much more.
These liberals seem to know at least a first step in repentance. Why don’t we?
Likewise, on northern hypocrisy, one could correct one’s mistaken notions quite quickly by reading A. Leon Higginbotham, Leon F. Litwack, Leonard P. Curry—liberals, all (why they’re all named “Leon,” I don’t know).
Not to mention scores of others. I have, literally, a thousand pages of journals on my desk, well over sixty books on the topic, and probably fifty more I had to check back into the library by now. And it’s just a scratch on the good scholarship that’s available. And, this is not even counting the mountains of original sources.
Neglecting this huge swath of material leaves one looking not only silly but naïve when they make complaints about all the stuff critics of American racism and slavery allegedly don’t say. Not only have we said it, we’ve said it far more and far better than anyone else.
But worse yet, even if we didn’t say it, even if we neglected every mention of it, that would still never, not in a million years, exonerate the South or her complicit leaders. The argument would still at best amount to a tu quoque fallacy—that is, the most childish of retorts: “you did it, too!”
Yes, much of the North did hold slaves, sold them off selfishly and called it “emancipation,” passed black codes before Jim Crow was ever around, and was as hotly racist as the South ever was for a long time. And much more. Yes, it’s all true. So what? That makes it right?
Does that make it right that Lee fought in court to keep slaves he inherited, who should have been freed by act of will, as slaves instead? Does that make it right that the South tried to maintain an official form of slavery that everyone—even Dabney in his off-camera moments—conceded was fraught with rape, rapine, and the merciless tearing apart of tens of thousands of slave families? Does that make it right that South Carolina led secession with slavery as the first and foremost cause (and all the states followed with slavery as an official cause)? Does that render acceptable the black codes in the South, KKK terrorism, Jim Crow, lynchings, the convict lease system, and “nigger” through 1965 and well beyond? Forget the Civil War. How about targeting blacks for “convict” labor in 1920? Or, 1940? How about the extreme reactions to civil rights for blacks in which Southern whites systematically erected “Confederate” monuments in the 1960s, or later—clearly in reaction to black equality?
Is all of this—is any of this—right because Lincoln and Sherman were racists, too?
We could go on with a thousand cases. In every single one of them, the condemnation will fall upon that purported nation and people, it’s leaders, and its defenders, that fought through every legal and many extralegal means to keep the status quo as proslavery and anti-black as possible. No amount of saying “Lincoln was a racist, too,” will ever take away the South’s own sins, or even make them as slightly moderated as the North’s.
No amount of “you too” can absolve a single point of this, and no one who fought for the stated goal of preserving a single point of it deserves a monument anywhere, certainly not state-funded. And every one that exists is an affront to the Gospel, God’s law, and the belief that all men are created equal—they should be removed. If that means toppling one more Lee off his marble perch, I’ll climb into the cab of the crane myself and wreak havoc, Bible in hand. Just call me.
(I’ll arrange for the bronze and marble to be scrapped and sold off, with the proceeds going to fund solid Christian, free-market education in the inner cities—no extra charge.)
For whatever his flaws, tyrannies, and personal racism were—and they were bad enough—Lincoln at least did not fight to preserve that system. In the course of a wholly crazy crisis and war, he gave the Proclamation which sounded a note that could never have been unheard afterward. The Thirteenth Amendment was only the logical conclusion of it—and the unreconstructed Southerners hated that, too.
In an interesting take, Washington Post columnist Radley Balko suggest that maybe we should keep all those Confederate monuments. After all, who wants to forget the depths of depravity so much of our nation once tried to defend? They just need a little more special treatment:
I was recently in Moscow to give a talk, and I think the answer might be to look at how that city and a couple of others have dealt with the legacy of Lenin, Stalin and the Soviet Union. In Moscow’s Gorky Park, right next to the state art museum, there’s a stretch of green space called Fallen Monument Park. It’s populated with monuments to Stalinism and Leninism erected during the Soviet era. It’s pretty striking.
Each monument includes a plaque explaining when it was erected, how it was funded and that it has been preserved and installed in the park not to celebrate Stalin or Lenin or their ideas but because of its historical significance.
One statute of Stalin stands — minus its nose — in front of a harrowing sculpture depicting dozens of human heads stacked behind barbed wire. It’s a monument to the victims of totalitarianism. It isn’t difficult to imagine a similar park where a statute of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis or Nathan Bedford Forrest might stand in front of a monument to victims of lynching.
The bottom line remains from my original post: the South was wrong, and you cannot rewrite that. The full facts will never exonerate those who fought to preserve that old system, despite the attempts of many to rewrite a type of Lost Cause mythology ever since.
Don’t get upset when someone more consistent and more thorough than you points that out. And don’t blame northern revisionists for allegedly not saying it: they’re way further ahead of the curve than you are, even on your most cherished subject.