I know that I must attract a certain amount of wonder when I write lengthily—as I did last time—about gross misconceptions concerning the causes of the American Civil War and, specifically, the hypocritical ascription of brutal motives to the South by the North. I think I’ve explained some of my purpose before. Most of my ancestors wore gray (though the clan’s dark sheep, General Thomas, donned the blue), and perhaps I sense an obligation to respond for them as their statues are defaced and their names execrated. In a broader sense, as a Caucasian of Southern extraction, I have long since grown annoyed at the presumption that love of enslavement runs in my DNA, just as many Merkel-weary Germans refuse to concede that the support of Nazism runs in their blood. Those who fling such charges our way, interestingly, are guilty of racist thinking of a literal and precise kind (as opposed to the “you’re arguing with me, and I happen to be brown” variety).
Yet, upon reflection (and I reflect upon this a lot as I age), I’m convinced that much more is at stake than simply defending Colonel Dixieland’s statue in Town Square. At the highest level, the issue is this: we incur great risk as human beings when we consent to view the past in merely linear fashion, forcing an a-b-c causality upon complex events. We thereby process history’s curious artifacts to become so many sandbags for shoring up our personally preferred view of the present—which naturally leads into our vision of the future. We transform the past into fodder for propaganda. Already our academics are well embarked upon an intellectual era of (in Hamlet’s words) “nothing’s either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”… or (in Pirandello’s) “so it is, if so it seems to you”. Having accepted that the real past is inscrutable within its layers of irrecoverable context and irretrievable tastes, we allow the version to pass that best suits our current endeavors.
Need I say that this was the very sort of slovenly Pyrrhonism which has caused us to picture the Civil War as no more than the advocates of slavery fighting it out with the friends of freedom? Again, though, the greater issue is the danger and the evil of strictly linear thinking, which always assumes that the past’s meaning must rest in where we are (or fancy ourselves to be) right now. That the Confederate flag does in fact represent racial supremacy to many of the few redneck idiots still actively “klanning” among us is a travesty… but it’s more folly, honestly, than outrage. That we consider ourselves, as a nation, to be blazing into a future a course of slavery-eradication scouted by that eagle of emancipation, Lincoln, is far more hazardous to our spiritual health. Most Americans, for instance, have forgotten that Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to join Russia and were not in fact “invaded” by Putin. We appear ready to pounce, there and elsewhere, on behalf of democracy and liberation because… well, because that’s what the children of Lincoln do. Isn’t it?
The treatment of Hitler by historians from the cathedra to the armchair is actually very instructive. Why is Hitler a demon escaped from Hell while Stalin and Mao are virtual saints in “educated” circles? Isn’t it entirely because the latter, though their butcher’s bill was much longer than the Fuhrer’s, were trying to create an idyllic utopian state and unfortunately broke some eggs as they whipped up their human omelet? The Nazi program, on the other hand, explicitly fashioned its propaganda so as to resurrect glories of the past (most of which never existed). The over-the-shoulder gaze of fascism apparently disqualified it from satisfying the linear march of progress… or seems to have done so to the inattentive.
The truth is that the fascist, too, is a progressive “linearist”. He cries (in that Nietzschean fashion which remains quite audible in the Green Movement), “Bourgeois capitalism has degraded us into puny insects, into identical manikins! Cast off convention! Leave your manners and your clothes behind, and return to the primal glory of Man the Hunter!” The romantic scenario offered here is linear insofar as it rates our present position as “negative progress”: we had to proceed a certain way along this path to discover that it leads into the abyss. Now we know better. Now we can move forward by backtracking.
If Hitler had vilified Jews as guardians of a suffocating patriarchal past rather than as financiers and engineers of a cruelly dynamic future, would his project of extermination have drawn such ringing damnation from the Left? Hasn’t the Left, indeed, “updated” anti-Semitism to vent just such hostility to the Jewish tradition’s non-linear patterns of thought?
For (to wind up what might otherwise become a very long excursion) Judaism is probably the preeminent example in our culture of a closed system—a “classical” worldview: fixed human nature governed by fixed laws and undermined by the same old temptations under fluctuating surfaces… nothing new under the sun. Even Christianity, these days, must constantly resist (and seems constantly to be scrapping all resistance) to the ascending line of progress. We contemporary Christians are exhorted to forgive, practice charity, and abstain from destructive behavior not to prepare the soul for a higher reality, but to create a more perfect society—a utopia—here on earth. (If I may call but one witness, consider Pope Francis’s outspoken promotion of gun control.)
The one kind of thinker absolutely not tolerated in our sophisticated company is the thinker in cycles: the spiritual nomad lingering in this sad world who understands progress as intensely personal and oriented to immaterial dimensions. To such a one, Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee are not steps on a staircase, the former representing the Genius of Progress and the latter the Demon of Past Privilege in some insipid morality play. They are, rather, individual human beings like you and me, their virtues and flaws magnified thanks to display on a very public stage but not in the least alienated from movements we may spy in our own hearts as we go through our day. They live in us, not as heroic runners in a relay race’s first leg who have lately handed off the baton, but as equal brethren—as next-door neighbors whose old house, after their funeral, is now being completely remodeled. We remember them as if we had spoken to them yesterday… for they were rocking on their rickety porch just two years ago. And maybe we miss one of them much more than the other; but it’s because of the kind of person we divined in each of them, and not because they mentioned us in their will.
Yes, that’s it: that’s the real reason I keep wanting to say, “Wait a minute,” when yet another figure of the past is burned in effigy. I knew that man. Through my own heart, I knew him. You say he was dead before I was born? But he left words, written and spoken, as well as deeds (which are said to surpass words in authenticity, but which often require words if they are to be properly deciphered). You, on the other hand, yet live… but do I know you better, just because you live? Does life not indeed provide more opportunities to obfuscate than death?
I know this much: if you respect those who can no longer speak in their own behalf, then I’m much more likely to take you as you present yourself. If, instead, you manicure the graveyard so that it provides a grand setting for your gateway just around the next lifting turn, then I have reason to believe that you won’t handle me with great care, either; for each of us, even among the living, is always just an instant away from permanently ruptured friendship and petrification in another’s “gallery of progress”.