Many of us hoped that this type of rhetoric, at once syrupy and ugly, would pass away as fleetingly as one of Bush’s smirks after Obama was elected and something like sanity was restored to our government. But then came the Tea Party and the libertarian chic, which make Norton look like Spengler. With the sesquicentennial of the Civil War this month, the Right-Wing Noise Machine was belching out smoke and revisionist narratives of that foundational event in US history.
The stage had already been set by libertarian Opa Ron Paul who based his half-baked candidacy for president on the half-baked idea that the Civil War was “unnecessary”. His wonderfully lightsome theory is that the North could have just bought all the slaves. Problem solved. You could almost hear him say under his breath: “Lincoln the warmonger.”
If this sounds like libertarian chic (market solutions!), it is. Paul got his peculiar historiography from the ever-off-kilter Von Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank given to the idea that traffic lights cause traffic. Paul’s former chief of staff, Lew Rockwell, was part of the coterie of Neo-Confederates at the VMI, who like Norton, were sympathetic to the South, and deplored the North’s worst facts -- that of using federal power to form that demonic presence that haunts the troubled minds of all Tea Partiers, “Big Government.”
Paul seemed to open the flood gates of Neo-Confederate revisionism as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approached. This took literary form in a book by John Avery Emison, an environmental scientist and crank historian, entitled "Lincoln Uber Alles: Dictatorship Comes To America." This bible of the Neo-Confederates reads like a hoax got up by Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin as a high school history teacher. It was published by Pelican Publishing Company, an eerily pro-South outfit with a weakness for nostalgia and conspiracy theories. Last year, the governor of Virginia, Bob “What Slavery?” McDonnell, proudly declared April Confederate History Month, and assiduously avoided mentioning the “bad facts” plaguing the secessionists’ up-with-states-rights narrative. This was something the black residents of Ol’ Virginie didn’t much appreciate. Not to be outdone, the goofy Sons of Confederate Veterans decided to throw a “Secessionist’s Ball” in that vortex of political weirdness, South Carolina (remember family-values conservative Mark Sanford, AWOL and tangoing with his Latina mistress in Argentina?). Typical of Tea Party types (remember Palin’s “blood libel”?), with their absurd sense of entitlement, the response to the controversy was worse than the initial hullabaloo. Mark Simpson, a spokesman (called “commander”) for the aforementioned Sons defended the Ball with this wonderfully Nortonesque feint:
"War and death is never something to celebrate. But we do celebrate the courage and the integrity of 170 men who signed their signatures to the Article of Secession – the courage of men to do what they think is right."
In one fell swoop, the secessionist South is purged of any responsibility for the bloody institution of slavery, and emerges as a lovely if unlucky gem, the glorious martial efforts of courageous men doing the right thing against all odds and Northeastern bureaucrats. The problem is it’s all too clear that the Tea Party and the Neo-Confederates also think the secessionists were right.
There is no point in rebutting this abhorrent narrative. The scholarship is clear. (You might want to read The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, edited by James Loewen, which exposes the weirdness of it all). This isn’t really about the genesis of the Civil War, but the malignant cultural fantasies of the Tea Party, with its sickly adoration of the rich, indifference to the exploitation of the poor, and unheimlich hatred of the federal government, which conservatives trace back to Lincoln, that most unteapartyesque of all presidents, for siding with the powerless and being willing to use the full force of US government to that humane end.
So we should be thankful – if the Civil War didn’t end in the hanging of Robert E. Lee (I think it should have, since he was personally responsible for the deaths of half a million Americans), at least the 150th anniversary is allowing the Tea Party types to hang themselves with their own rhetorical rope. They've used the occasion to admit that bad facts or no, in their overwrought minds, the South really was right.