By now you will probably have seen White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s predictably bad take on the Civil War.
Kelly, if you somehow missed it, told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that, sadly, the war happened because of “the lack of an ability to compromise,” and that “Robert E. Lee was an honorable man” who “gave up his country to fight for his state.”
The historical and moral idiocy of this thesis is pretty self-evident. It’s just as moronic as it was when Kelly’s boss floated it earlier this year. It leaves out the near-century’s worth of compromises that the white men in charge of the United States made to keep slavery and the country intact at the same time. (One of them was literally written into the Constitution, John!) Even Lincoln was initially eager to have some sort of compromise over slavery. Turns out the Confederacy wasn’t so into that. It leaves out that Robert E. Lee was actually a very bad man. And it leaves out that maybe slavery is something you shouldn’t want to compromise over.
But you know all this by now. The morning has been filled with threads from Ta-Nehisi Coates and others tearing Kelly’s argument to bits. I want to concentrate on something else Kelly told Ingraham about history more broadly:
I think we make a mistake, though, and as a society and certainly as, as individuals, when we take what is today accepted as right and wrong and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say what those, you know, what Christopher Columbus did was wrong. You know, 500 years later, it’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then. I just think it’s very, very dangerous, and it shows how much of a lack of appreciation of history and what history is.
We have seen some version of this argument repeated over and over again during the endless debate over America’s racist monuments: How can we go back and judge people from the past based on something as crazy as what we know now?
The answer is simple: How can we not do that? There is virtually nothing else about which someone could say, “How dare you apply anything other than 16th century standards to this” and not be laughed out of the room. And yet this is an acceptable debating point when it comes to the extremely well-established historical record of our world. It’s unreal.
It boggles my mind that the John Kellys of the world bleat about “a lack of appreciation of history and what history is” when they tell us that we can’t stop worshiping at the feet of blood-soaked slaveowners. It’s Kelly, not his critics, who is failing to appreciate history when he calls Lee “honorable.” It is Kelly who is pushing a distorted view of the past when he wonders why we’re spending time pointing out that Christopher Columbus was no hero. The people demanding that monuments be taken down are the ones urging us to see our history for what it actually is—to tell the true story of the past, not the version blinkered racists like John Kelly would prefer.
But of course John Kelly and his kind don’t want to see history as it truly happened. That would mean taking slavery seriously as the crime that it was. It would mean taking white supremacy seriously as the crime it continues to be. It would mean, in short, the end of the world as John Kelly understands it. Better to keep lying, and to try and force us all to believe his nonsense.
Update, 3:05 PM: Sarah Huckabee Sanders was repeatedly asked about Kelly’s comments at today’s White House press briefing. Here is one thing she said:
All of our leaders have flaws—Washington, Jefferson, JFK, Roosevelt, Kennedy. That doesn’t diminish their contributions to our country. And it certainly can’t erase them from our history. And General Kelly was making the point that just because history isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it’s not our history.
Here is another thing she said:
I don’t know that I’m going to get into debating the Civil War, but I do know that many historians, including Shelby Foote and Ken Burns’ famous Civil War documentary, agree that a failure to compromise was a cause of the Civil War...I’m not going to get up here and relitigate the Civil War.
Here is another thing she said:
There’s pretty strong consensus—people from the left, the right, the North, and the South—that believe that if some of the individuals engaged had been willing to come to some compromises on different things, then it might not have occurred.
Because you don’t like history doesn’t mean that you can erase it and pretend it didn’t happen...to try to create something and push a narrative that doesn’t exist is just frankly outrageous and absurd.
Excuse me while I tear all of my hair out.
Sanders left the briefing as White House correspondent April Ryan asked her if the Trump administration thought “slavery was wrong.” I’m gonna go out on a limb and say the answer to that is...maybe?
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