BY HANK REICHMAN
My title alludes to an identically titled 1904 pamphlet by Lenin, one of his more tedious, in which the one step forward was the Russian Social Democrats’ Second Congress held the year before and the two steps backward the emergence of the great factional split between Lenin’s Bolsheviks and the opposing Mensheviks. But today I’m not thinking so much of the Communist past as the conservative present. For if in the wake of the horrific events in Charlottesville I had some reason to hope that American conservatives were taking a step forward in renouncing racism, the appearance a few days ago of an atrocious piece on the website of the National Review suggests I was overly optimistic. For in “Confederate Statues Honor Timeless Virtues — Let Them Stay,” Arthur Herman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and Charlottesville resident, takes at least two steps backward.
I won’t engage Herman’s shoddy and unconvincing arguments for retaining monuments to the Confederacy, since far more capable and knowledgeable historians have already done so, if not directly in response to his pathetic screed. (For starters see here, here, here, here, and here.) But I want to highlight a few of his statements that indicate how shockingly he, and by implication the National Review, construe our current political moment, irrespective of attitudes toward the monuments, how frighteningly out of touch with reality they apparently remain.
Let’s begin with Herman’s explanation for why the Charlottesville events even took place: “all this happened because our city council decided in June it could score some liberal points by having the statue of Robert E. Lee removed from a park downtown, and by changing the name from Lee Park to Emancipation Park.” That’s right, there was violence in Charlottesville not because a bunch of “alt-Right” neo-Nazis descended on the city with rifles, torches, and hatred. No it was all the fault of a liberal city council, seeking to “score points” (in what game, one might ask). If only those tiresome liberals would just keep quiet then we wouldn’t have to worry about armed racists, don’t you see?
But that’s not all these dastardly “liberals” are guilty of. According to Herman, here is “the best argument that those who want these statues gone can make: that the ‘reconciliation’ between North and South was done on the backs of blacks, and that the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow were the price America paid to have peace in the aftermath of civil war.” That argument, Herman acknowledges, is “almost convincing, even though what American blacks suffered under segregation was nothing compared to what liberalism has inflicted on them since the 1950s, as it destroyed their families, their schools, and their young men and women’s lives through drugs and guns and the gangster-rap culture ‘lifestyle,’ which is really a death style.” (italics added)
That’s right, you read this passage correctly: a hundred years of Jim Crow, of being lynched, denied education and the vote, subjected to all sorts of everyday indignities and discrimination while barred from benefits widely available to whites, all this pales in Herman’s account before the supposed horrors imposed since by “liberals,” with their Civil Rights Act, their Voting Rights Act, their War on Poverty, their affirmative action, their Obamacare, and, of course, their “gangster rap” (a cultural passion apparently associated, at least in Herman’s mind, with, say, the Kennedy brothers). If only the liberals had allowed black Americans to remain in the paradise of segregation, they’d be so much better off, he assures us. What kind of moron believes such nonsense? Even William F. Buckley Jr., the National Review‘s founder, eventually acknowledged that his opposition to liberal civil rights legislation had been a mistake.
Since Herman as a “conservative” always looks backwards, he can’t resist hearkening back as well to the red-baiting of the 1950s, that conservative golden age before the “liberals” imposed drugs, guns, and hip-hop on black people:
Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and sundry activists who gathered to do battle in Charlottesville that day believe that there are no intrinsic human virtues, only politics and power. They are our totalitarian Left: Their ideological roots run much deeper than Ferguson. Reared on Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, they see America as the Evil Empire and the Confederacy as a face of that evil. The people who led the destruction of the statues in Durham, for example, were members of the World Workers Party, a Communist faction that supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The party’s latest cause happens to be defending North Korea. Tearing down statues of dead Confederates is just one more means to their Marxist end.
Who knew that Kim Jong-un even had a position on the Confederacy?! And put aside that it’s the Workers World Party (which Herman gets right a few paragraphs later) and that it’s a minuscule sect. He’s just getting started. For Herman’s broom sweeps wide. Not only does he lump Black Lives Matter, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky together with an obscure Communist grouplet, for good measure he adds — get this! — none other than Andrew Cuomo, who is guilty of ordering the removal of the names of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from New York street signs. According to Herman, “while Cuomo, Black Lives Matter, and the Workers World Party claim to hate racism, what they really hate is America.” Wow! I’m not a big fan of Andrew Cuomo, but — let me go out on a limb here — I find it hard to believe he hates America. When you make that accusation against an established and rather mainstream politician like Cuomo you’ve crossed into Joe McCarthy territory, for sure.
At any rate, you get the picture. But what is most disturbing about Herman’s insane rant is that there had been some signs that even the National Review was beginning to acknowledge reality. So, for instance, on August 14 Rich Lowry, the publication’s editor since 1997, published “Move Confederate Monuments to Museums and Some to the Trash,” albeit not in his own publication. Wrote Lowry:
The monuments should go. Some of them simply should be trashed; others transmitted to museums, battlefields and cemeteries. The heroism and losses of Confederate soldiers should be commemorated, but not in everyday public spaces where the monuments are flashpoints in poisonous racial contention, with white nationalists often mustering in their defense. . . .
For supporters of the Confederate monuments, removing them from parks and avenues will be a blow against their heritage and historical memory. But the statues have often been part of an effort to whitewash the Confederacy. And it’s one thing for a statue to be merely a resting place for pigeons; it’s another for it to be a fighting cause for neo-Nazis.
Lee himself opposed building Confederate monuments in the immediate aftermath of the war. “I think it wiser,” he said, “not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” After Charlottesville, it’s time to revisit his advice.
Then there was a promising piece last week by a young Review intern, Elliot Kaufman, “Campus Conservatives Gave the Alt-Right a Platform.” He argued that campus Republicans who invite speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos do so not out of principle but simply to provoke those they deem leftists: “the left-wing riots were not the price or downside of inviting Yiannopoulos — they were the attraction.” His piece is worth reading, if only because its simple sanity contrasts so sharply with the paranoid fantasies pushed by Herman.
Alas, however, Lowry and Kaufman notwithstanding, the National Review continues to promote people like Herman, with his absurdly fantastic tales of America-hating extremist liberalism. It’s disappointing, given that under Lowry the journal has taken pains to distance itself from the Milos and the Spencers of the “alt-Right.” Nevertheless, Buckley and his successors, Lowry included, bear some responsibility for the racist Right we saw in Charlottesville. That their journal now criticizes the movement they helped create does mark a step forward, but if they’re going to keep publishing crap like Herman’s piece, they’ll be taking at least two steps backward.