March 11, 2003
Media critics have been dumping on the new Civil War movie Gods and Generals, based on the novel by Jeff Shaara, in proportion to how jubilantly they've welcomed the HBO series Six Feet Under.
The former is depicted as being in stilted Victorian language and a "shameless apologia for the Confederacy as a divinely inspired crusade for faith, home and slave labor," according to Newsday, "nauseating in its gruesome sentimentality" and "eager to whitewash the Southern cause," according to Jonathan Foreman in the New York Post, or an amoral historical narrative, according to NROnline.
But the latter is a consciousness-raising event. The high point of Six Feet Under, we are told, is the sensitive depiction of the interracial homosexual relation between a thirtysomething funeral director (who has just practiced diversity by accepting as a partner a young Hispanic) and an emotionally tormented black former police officer. Although Six Feet Under's meandering plot manages to touch on every pc cliché, "arts commentators" are agog over this adult drama. La Times feature writer Howard Rosenberg wrote (March 7, 2003) that "TV's other high achievers are wilted roses measured against Six Feet Under, which continues to be heroically smart, tender, and witty."
By contrast, the arts community–joined by Establishment conservatives, what Steve Sailer has called the "righteous Right" — are incredulous that Ron Maxwell would script, produce and direct a movie on the Civil War that does not condemn the Southern side nonstop. In NROnline, this film, which dares to go on for four hours, is contrasted by M.T. Owens to one of George Will's favorites, Glory, which presents "a deeper truth," by offering a lesson on racial equality.
I consider Gods and Generals to be one of the most inspiring and finely-crafted movies I've seen. The figure of Stonewall Jackson as depicted by Maxwell and actor Stephen Lang is a Protestant approximation of an Homeric hero.
But I believe the film's critics are right to hate it. What it illustrates is telluric patriotism,—as epitomized by the opening line of the "Bonnie Blue Flag":
We are a band of brothers
And native to the soil...
Jackson and Lee are not defenders of slavery; both in the movie express reservations about it. Moreover, the vast majority of those who fight with them do not own slaves and treat blacks as least as decently as do those on the other side. They are commanding armies against the invaders of their state. Long before the U.S. became a "propositional nation," conceived in New York and Washington, it was a collection of provinces, in which long-established settlers thought exactly like Lee and Jackson.
One cannot restore that world. And the American globalists who are venting on Maxwell and his movie would certainly have no desire to do so. But it is utterly presumptuous for these propositional globalists and/or multiculturalists to pretend they are the real Americans—while Robert E. Lee, the grandson of Martha Washington and the son of Harry Lee, who had dedicated his life as an officer to his country, was morally inferior because he would not take up arms against his own state. Lee's family had been Virginians long before the federal union had been created.
Another complaint about the film: blacks are not shown rebelling against their condition. Thus Jackson's manservant, Jim Lewis, although indignant about slavery (which Jackson, who taught blacks to read the Bible, never defends), stays by his side and refers to himself and Jackson as "men of Virginia."
But this reading of history is justified. After the Emancipation Proclamation, in January, 1863, there was no wholesale defection of blacks from Southern farms. If anything testified to the wrongness of slavery, it was the decent, diligent way that most Southern blacks stood by their masters and their by-then defenseless women and children. [VDARE.COM note: This was exactly the point made by Booker T. Washington in his 1895 Atlanta Exposition speech— famous for outlining his strategy of black self-help, with his complementary appeal for protection against immigrant labor market competition totally forgotten.]
Gods & Generals depicts this during the battle of Fredericksburg, where a slave family stays behind to defend their owner's house from looting Union troops (portrayed with disturbing frankness). We know that blacks signed up to fight for the Confederacy, when they were allowed to, in return for their freedom.
As Gene Genovese underlines in his works on master-slave relations in the antebellum South, there was often a strong social bond between the planter class and their "servants," which survived even the obvious abuses of the slave system.
It is also not clear to me, unless one assumes that plantations were precursors of Auschwitz, why Southern blacks would have chosen to side with those who were invading and pillaging the South. It might have seemed better to go on serving those whom they knew and to try to use the war situation to improve their status.
A last point: why the Southern commanders keep referring to their struggle as "our second war of independence." Neoconservative critics are prompt to respond that this was not a second revolution because it was not really "conceived in liberty." It defended slavery, whereas the original revolution was dedicated to universal propositions contained in the Declaration of Independence.
The problem here is that too much is being made of a particular passage drawn from a particular text that at the time was used as propaganda—to justify the resistance to British authority by thirteen North American colonies. What fueled this uprising were specific grievances, like paying what were considered onerous taxes to the British government and having Southern plantations burnt down by British Hessian mercenaries.
For most Southerners, who entered the rebellion only after the British began to pillage them, their resistance was indeed that of a "band of brothers and native to the soil." They were not fighting for global democracy in 1777—any more than they would be in 1861. And as far I can recall, slavery existed in the rebelling colonies at least as widely as it did in the antebellum South.
Moreover, having to pay about 80 % of the tariffs that the federal government was then collecting, as Thomas DiLorenzo and Charles Adams both note in relevant works, left Southerners feeling at least as oppressed as had those who launched the first War of Independence.
In my opinion, what our cultural elite finds most offensive about Maxwell's art is that it portrays white, Christian gentry and their loyal black servants fighting for ancestral land, against an armed progressive creed.
I'm not sure that those who are booing the Confederates would like Abraham Lincoln's WASP nation-state any better. But at least it is something out of which they can imagine that their own global (non-nation) nation evolved.
Because the Union crushed those Southern secessionists, we are led to believe, it became possible to move on to the world of the Wall Street Journal and to that of the politically correct HBO series.
The Whig historical view lives on—even among yuppies.
Paul Gottfried is Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the author of After Liberalism, Carl Schmitt: Politics and Theory, and Multiculturalism And The Politics of Guilt: Toward A Secular Theocracy.