Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Historical Revisionism

Historical revisionism has become rampant in our society.  While sometimes the term is used when new evidence overturns what used to look like truth more often it's used for the more dangerous purpose of whitewashing our past so that we cannot learn from and old evils can be perpetuated in a new era.

The Civil War seems to bring out the worst strains of this in our country.  As has been often said, while the Civil War is not just about slavery there's no Civil War without slavery.  There's a strong strand of historical revisionism trying to use pride in a myth of the Civil War purged of its evils to push a new agenda, mostly having to do with State's rights though I detect a distinct undercurrent of populism against liberal northern elites.

The New York Times has been running a great series on the Civil War that gives good history in easily digestible chunks.  Today's posting does a good job of detailing how slavery was an essential issue and how it mobilized people in the South to fight, you can't really get away from the issue in any honest history of the South.

The harsh truth is that the Civil War was a wholly retrograde movement with nothing to redeem itself except the bravery and beliefs of individual men and women, there is nothing in the collective action that should be held up pridefully.  Which is not to say that the North was a shining beacon or that mistakes were not made in other areas, these are other sins however and not celebrated.  The South has much to be proud of, many of the Founding Father's were from the South and its role in history was noble in many other ways.  If events from the Civil War must be honored than honorable men like General Lee or the sufferings of citizens in places such as Atlanta are worth honoring and commemorating.

However, the Civil War itself was nothing more than an elite trying to hold on to its privileges despite its weakness and the increasing horror of the world at their actions.  If the war had been won by the South it is hard to see what good could have come from it, an ever more powerful landholding class exploiting both white and black?  Would they have become like Prussia or Russia or another state where the landholders did win?  This was nothing but a war of an elite against the passing of their time in power, there's nothing to be proud of here.  Be proud of victories and of contributions to the good of mankind, don't try to whitewash sins.


  1. In college we learned about the Myth of the Lost Cause as part of Southern Rhetoric/ speech writing. Generally, historical revisionism about the Civil War is some reinvention of it. I think it might be helpful if this were taught in Southern high schools. Maybe through education it might die off.

  2. I hope so. But I think the historical revisionism exists largely because certain groups find it very convenient for their agendas so until either their power is reduced or they no longer find it useful it will remain with us.