Saturday, April 30, 2011

I'd like a higher caliber drivel, please

Rick emails to point out the latest drivel from the Washington Post's Richard Cohen.  Now, he was never on the Intellectual Left A-Team  - his function was not to dig deeply, laying a solid foundation for a persuasive argument; rather, it was to spout reliably orthodox leftie doctrine for the Post's reliably orthodox leftie readership.

And so it comes as no surprise that he's spouting nonsense.  It's interesting in that it's nonsense on a topic I've been meaning to post about for a couple of months, and also interesting because of the shockingly low quality of the nonsense he offers.  In a sense, he's managed to capture the entirety of my argument that the left has become intellectually enfeebled over the past decades.  As a "teachable moment", let's look at where Mr. Cohen goes off the intellectual rails.

His topic is the evils of Robert E. Lee:
It has taken a while, but it’s about time Robert E. Lee lost the Civil War. The South, of course, was defeated on the battlefield in 1865, yet the Lee legend — swaddled in myth, kitsch and racism — has endured even past the civil rights era when it became both urgent and right to finally tell the “Lost Cause” to get lost. Now it should be Lee’s turn. He was loyal to slavery and disloyal to his country — not worthy, even he might now admit, of the honors accorded him.
Well, then.  What triggered his astonishing rant is the release of a new Lee biography, which takes a revisionist view of the man.  Seems he wasn't very nice:
All over the South, particularly in his native Virginia, the cult of Lee is manifested in streets, highways and schools named for him. When I first moved to the Washington area, I used to marvel at these homages to the man. What was being honored? Slavery? Treason?
Notice how it is simply incomprehensible to Cohen that someone might find something to admire and respect in Lee's character.    Cohen makes no argument on actual historical dilemmas faced by the participants of the day; rather, he repeatedly (if inadvertently) condemns his own lack of intellectual capability.  For example, on the subject of Lee's decision to fight for his state, rather than for the Union:
He was not, as I once thought, the creature of crushing social and political pressure who had little choice but to pick his state over his country. In fact, various members of his own family stuck with the Union.

“When Lee consulted his brothers, sister and local clergymen, he found that most leaned toward the Union,” Pryor wrote. “At a grim dinner with two close cousins, Lee was told that they also intended to uphold their military oaths. . . . Sister Anne Lee Marshall unhesitatingly chose the Northern side, and her son outfitted himself in blue uniform.” Pryor says that about 40 percent of Virginia officers “would remain with the Union forces.”
At the risk of sounding like a crotchety, get-off-my-lawn old crank, let me say that this particular topic was covered in depth, starting in grade school.  Cohen is even older than I, and so it's a dead certainty that he learned the same history that I did.  He's forgotten it all - and it's an interesting thought that we'll come back to in a bit.  But in the spirit of "teachable moments" for Mr. Cohen and others like him, let me address the points that they've forgotten:

1. As to many of Lee's family fighting for the North, I learned that the War Between The States pitted "brother against brother, father against son."  This was the basic lesson we learned in class.  Cohen's a smart guy, or he wouldn't be writing for the post.  He must have learned this well enough to get a good grade on the test.

2.  The cause of the war is nowhere as simple as Cohen makes out, and this was taught in school, too - even way up in Yankeeland.  There were two primary points of conflict which - interestingly - both sides in the debate try to reduce to one.
a. Slavery was indeed the root source of the trouble.  Certainly it was an evil - Cohen is right on this point, and people (mostly southerners) who stick up for the Confederacy often sweep this under the rug.

b. However, it is clear that if the states hadn't thought they had the right to secede, the Constitution never would have been ratified.  Cohen (and those on his team) sweeps this under the rug.
And it's that last point that is the root of Cohen's intellectual enfeeblement.  The left has controlled the intellectual discussion for so long that they've sent much of the history I learned as a wee lad to the Academic Gulag.  State's right of secession?  Why that would imply powers outside of a centralized, Progressive state.  That would imply that the beauteous Progressive vision might be thwarted by annoyances like individual or state's rights.  Can't have that.

So rather than argue their point, they disappear the opposing views.  In Cohen's world, it's simply inconceivable that Lee could have thought that his State was more important than the Union.  It's a divide-by-zero error, outside the universe of what he can even think about.

And so documented historical facts like Shelby Foote's monumental history of the War are simply irrelevant.

"Before the War it was said that 'The United States are'.  Grammatically, it was spoken that way, and thought of as a collection of independent states.  After the War, it was always 'The United States is' just as we say today, without being self-conscious at all."

Or consider the correspondence between Lord Acton and Lee in the aftermath of the War.  Acton, of course, is remembered for his dictum that Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Acton strangely didn't recognize that he was writing to a monster:
Without presuming to decide the purely legal question, on which it seems evident to me from Madison's and Hamilton's papers that the Fathers of the Constitution were not agreed, I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.
Compare to Cohen:
L.P. Hartley’s observation that “the past is a foreign country” cautions us all against facile judgments. But in that exotic place called the antebellum South, there were plenty of people who recognized the evil of slavery or, if nothing else, the folly of secession. Lee was not one of them. He deserves no honor — no college, no highway, no high school. In the awful war (620,000 dead) that began 150 years ago this month, he fought on the wrong side for the wrong cause.
The poverty of imagination on display is epic.  As is this choice bit, where Cohen seems to think he is crushing the old view of Lee:
He owned slaves himself and fought tenaciously in the courts to keep them. He commanded a vast army that, had it won, would have secured the independence of a nation dedicated to the proposition that white people could own black people and sell them off, husband from wife, child from parent, as the owner saw fit. Such a man cannot be admired.
He does not seem to realize that his words apply equally to George Washington.  The piece is simply chock-a-block with examples where Cohen condemns his own poverty of intellect, like here where he is simply mystified that men of the day admired Lee:
He is always dignified in all those photos of him, dour, a perfect pill of a man yet somehow adored by his men. They cheered him when he left Appomattox Court House, having just surrendered to the far more admirable U.S. Grant. They shouted, Hooray for Lee! Hooray for what?
By his own admission, he just doesn't get it.

Richard Cohen is representative of the class of lefty pseudo-intellectuals that no longer knows how to think.  The correct answer is already known, and so there are no difficult decisions to be made, either now or in the past.  Those that make the wrong choice (translation: choose other than the reliably orthodox Progressive nostrum) are not people struggling with difficult choices; no, they are evil, to be dismissed for their moral failings.  And in Cohen's example here, compared to Nazis*.

Of course, history isn't simple.  Cohen seems impervious to the irony of him cautioning against making facile judgements as he makes nothing but.  It's only in the lefty dominated Academy that all of history's difficult problems can be reduced to a morality play, and that is only because history is selectively purged and rewritten to get rid of embarrassing, you know, facts that demolish this facile vision.

For example: The problems of National Socialism were due to Evil Men. The problems of International Socialism were due to What problems?

See? Easy!

Except anyone with a brain and a basic understanding of the World and its history knows that this is not just drivel, but astonishingly low caliber drivel.  Me, I'd like a higher caliber drivel.

* Seriously, comparing Robert E. Lee to a Nazi?  Really?  Wow.


Sean D Sorrentino said...

"Richard Cohen is representative of the class of lefty pseudo-intellectuals in that he no longer knows how to think. The correct answer is already known, and so there are no difficult decisions to be made, either now or in the past."

That covers it much better than I could have. It's as if they all know the right answer, it's just their job to force the rest of us to come along with them. They never waste a moment's thought on whether or not they are actually correct.

Six said...

Destroying the left's smug superiority one delusion at a time. Well done BP.

Jehu said...

By the time of the surrender, didn't Grant still own slaves and hadn't Lee's already been freed by him? The Union had several slave states that never seceded. The Civil War is FAR messier than the left narrative of it.

Borepatch said...

Jehu, absolutely. Maryland was a slave state, and IIRC the slaves there weren't freed until the 13th Amendment. It didn't take effect until December 1865, and so three was 8 months after the end of the War and the emancipation of the slaves.

Messy, indeed.

Quizikle said...

Raised a northern Yankee...of southern Unionist - or at least anti-slavery - ancestors.

I find the concept of slavery an offense against the concept of the inherent liberty of the individual (but in many ways, having an overly strong similarity to factory labor). The issue of slavery perverts any discussion of the pros and cons of the Confederacy. How can one contemplate the ideas of the Confederacy without the issue of slavery? Yet much had nothing to do with the "right" to own slaves.

Even when I was a Yankee child educated in the north, General Lee was presented as an honorable man torn between two beliefs - and as it seemed, a trait shared by many of the Southern leaders.

Now-a-days, as an amateur student of history and an observer of modern politics, it seems that slavery was an excuse to overturn many of the provisions of the Constitution regarding weak Federal powers and State's Rights. Could not the victorious Federal Government simply declared an end to slavery under the premise of "all men are created equal" without the perversion of other rights also granted by both the Declaration and the Constitution?

Apparently not.

There is no sign the black man was welcomed into the society of free men after the victorious end of slavery - quite the contrary.

I was also raised to believe Lincoln was a "Great Man". I suppose he was for the believers of centralized power - though Johnson probably had more to do with the permanentization of centralist authority than Lincoln. But perhaps ... maybe ... Lincoln - had he lived - would have truly become a Great Man in the direction he supposedly would have led the country in the years following. One can only speculate...and picture the country's path had Johnson (D) not been the man he proved to be...(an interesting note: all elected presidents - Johnson wasn't elected - were Republican from Lincoln in 1861 through Arthur in 1885. A time of profound change in the nation)

But since the Confederacy also ended up tilting towards centralized power in a Federalist-type system, maybe we only project our feelings of "what-if" in a dream of what-might-have-been.

..comment longer than the post...


Bag Man said...

"...having just surrendered to the far more admirable U.S. Grant."

I'm somewhat tickled that he would call one of the most evil and ruthless sons of bitches to ever be called an American General "admirable". He obviously has never actually read about Grant or he might think twice about that particular statement.

wolfwalker said...

Quizikle: "Now-a-days, as an amateur student of history and an observer of modern politics, it seems that slavery was an excuse to overturn many of the provisions of the Constitution regarding weak Federal powers and State's Rights."

I would put it differently: the passage of amendments 13-15 were intended strictly to eliminate slavery and try to cushion the aftermath of the war. But they had a number of unforeseen and unintended consequences. Based on what I know, I don't believe the Radical Republicans intended to destroy the federalist system and create a tyrannical central government.

I could be wrong, of course.

As for General Lee, my opinion of him goes to neither extreme. I think he was an honorable man, and his conscience suffered greatly from his actions in repudiating the Union and his commission in the US Army. On the other hand, I think his reputation as a commander is somewhat exaggerated. He benefited enormously from facing grossly incompetent enemy commanders, on ground of his own choosing. When the enemy chose the battleground and/or used it well, Lee was beaten more often than not.

Anonymous said...

He owned slaves himself and fought tenaciously in the courts to keep them.

Really? This does not square with what I have heard -- i.e., that Lee was opposed to slavery, which got him run out of Texas.