Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Union and Absolution

Mark Bauerlein, in his insightful piece “A Less Perfect Union”(January), states that the “Southern generals became idols after the war, and rightly so.” Lee and ­Jackson were far superior to the Union generals, especially in the first years of the war. His comments, nonetheless, called to mind my favorite quote from Ulysses S. Grant: “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” Statues of Lee and Jackson, and of other Confederate generals, were erected precisely to commemorate their valor and the suffering they endured, of which Grant ­eloquently speaks. Presently, however, those statues are being removed, not ­because they did not fight valiantly, but because their cause was one of the worst for which a people ever fought. Whether those monuments will be replaced by images of more worthy men and women is yet to be seen.

Thomas G. Weinandy
Washington, D.C.

As Mark Bauerlein points out in his wise piece about Abraham Lincoln’s legacy, our sixteenth ­president left us with soaring ­ideals that we can rarely if ever reach, and we now live in a time of angry indictments of the whole country every time somebody somewhere in America fails to live up to his vision. All this self-condemnation is now dividing us, which is the last thing Lincoln wanted.

We would do well to remember another part of Lincoln’s legacy: forgiveness. Lincoln was a great believer in second and third chances, largely because he knew we are all imperfect creatures.

He was, for example, famous for pardoning soldiers who committed transgressions like falling asleep on picket duty or running away in battle. After the battle of Gettysburg, he wrote a blistering letter to ­General George Meade for not following and destroying Lee’s ­army. On second thought, he filed the letter away without sending it. He often bemoaned his commanders’ missteps, but he reminded himself that they were acting in the fog of war. “I do not know that I could have given any different orders had I been with them myself,” he ­admitted.

Lincoln, like the country, was devastated by the Civil War, but when it was over, he wanted to be as lenient as possible with the South. Lincoln viewed Confederate leaders as traitors and slavery as evil, but his largeness of spirit enabled him to see Southerners as tragically wrong, rather than as terrible human beings. He steadfastly referred to them as his fellow countrymen.

When he gave his Second Inaugural in March 1865, many in the North wanted the South to remain on its knees for a long time. Lincoln, in some of his most famous words, called on Americans to treat each other “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” It was his final vision for a fractured nation.

Before castigating our country or our fellow Americans for failing to reach our highest ideals, perhaps we can pause and remember those words. As Bauerlein says, there is no perfect union. But Lincoln’s legacy of forgiveness can help us in our duty to make things a little better.

John Cribb
Spartanburg, South Carolina

Mark Bauerlein replies:

Thomas Weinandy cites a powerful statement by General Grant, and it fits the encounter at Appomattox as Grant recorded it in his memoirs. Lee entered the courthouse in a new uniform, “in faultless form,” Grant says, with a precious sword at his side, while Grant waited in a worn corporal’s uniform with the straps of lieutenant-general attached. They spoke of “old army times” before getting to terms of surrender. As Lee rode away with Grant’s promise to feed his starving soldiers, word of the surrender spread among Union troops, who began a hundred-­gun salute in honor of victory until Grant ordered it stopped. He explained later, “We did not want to exult over their downfall.”

What a different attitude we find as Weinandy turns to the recent case of Confederate statues, which, he says, are taken down “because their cause was one of the worst for which a people ever fought.” I think that’s too broad. Many Rebs were on the battlefield because they wanted to uphold slavery, but many were not. Instead, the latter fought for their homeland and regarded the Yankees as the aggressors, an invading force. Lincoln’s sacred notion of “Union” would have struck them as ridiculousand tyrannical.

The statue-topplers have other motives. I don’t give them much credit for historical understanding. Righting a past wrong is but a surface gesture. That moral impulse is a pretext for a different spirit, a nihilistic attitude toward forebears, especially those of a heroic sort. If you asked the vandals and the public officials who back them some specific questions about Lee and Jackson, slavery and secession, you wouldn’t get specific answers. They don’t know. If they did, they might not target so many non-­Confederate memorials, including those to ­Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln himself. The dismantling is not about correcting the record; it’s about eliminating the record. It doesn’t aim to drag villains from a pedestal they don’t deserve. No, it prevents any memorialization of one individual above others for his presumed superiority. Whom do they revere? Nobody. They are motivated by envy, vengeance, and ressentiment.

John Cribb’s letter returns to ­Lincoln for an answer to the vindictive spirit of so called “anti-racism” in America. It’s a good correction to my complaint about the burden of Lincoln’s “Union” that we still bear. Cribb’s advice is to accept that burden but maintain the forgiving impulse of the Second Inaugural. I agree, though from what I’ve seen, a merciful, generous attitude will never arise among the Woke. For my part, I shall withhold my own forgiveness for the damage they have done to the civic sphere until they have been defeated and contained, soundly and permanently.

Note: I live on Lee Street, just a few blocks from where ­Robert E. grew up. He was wrong. He chose the wrong side. But it is part of our tragic human condition that greatness is so often morally ­compromised.

Scapegoat Olympics

I welcome Geoff Shullenberger’s attention to Peter Thiel’s investment in René Girard’s theory, particularly the notion that social organization is rooted in sacrificial practices, be they conscious or not, tribal or broadly institutional (“The Scapegoat,” ­January). The reviewer’s report on this is commendably accurate and compact. I write with concern about only one false note, namely, the author’s concluding identification of Thiel as a scapegoat. Girard was fond of quoting G. K. ­Chesterton’s insight that twentieth-century culture would be marked by “Christian ideas run mad.” Labeling Thiel a scapegoat is a case in point; it is a specimen of what pundits have called “virtue signaling,” as it evokes the ironically enviable position of being the victim of an angry, violent mob, a position hallowed by the crucifixion and hollowed out by contemporary polemics. This ascription trivializes Girard’s thought, as he himself predicted in I See ­Satan Fall like Lightning, and fulfills his prophecy that “second-order scapegoating” would emerge, where the victimary position is perversely valued over and against all critics, detractors, accusers, and so on; where it becomes the object of stridently moralizing competition; where, in sum, it is ­weaponized. A homeopathic dose of Thiel’s own notorious strictures against runaway competition, ­triggered by mimetic rivalry, is in order here.

Andrew McKenna
Loyola University Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

Geoff Shullenberger responds:

As Andrew McKenna notes, René Girard warned us of the dangers of a “second-order scapegoating” in which the “victimary position is perversely valued [and] becomes the object of stridently moralizing competition.” His critique of my identification of Thiel as a scapegoat, which risks according a certain honor to him on that basis, may have broader implications than he himself ­acknowledges. My assertion, broadly, was that Thiel has recently fulfilled a scapegoat role for a political and media elite that, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, believed it had lost control of the national narrative. But, of course, this is only part of a larger picture. While the notion of an “oppression Olympics” is often used to ridicule the prestige attached to the victim in liberal spaces, a comparable dynamic obtains in the right-wing spaces in which Thiel looms: ­Victimization by the mainstream media, liberal politicians, and so on, of the sort that Thiel has been subjected to, becomes a mark of honor—and therefore an object of competitive striving. Thiel, as ­McKenna suggests, is uniquely attuned to the dangers of such patterns. His ideological fellow travelers might benefit from heeding his warnings.

Neo-Imperial Future

Joel Kotkin’s essay (“Our Neo-Feudal Future,” January) and his recent book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, are a valuable expansion on themes found in the alarming (and prescient) scholarship of political scientists Robert Putnam and Charles Murray. What their work shares is the (accurate) observation that the sociological and economic divide between America’s elites and everyone else is becoming increasingly acute and entrenched, which in turn is undermining republican self-government and expanding our underclass.

The elites—who control the nation’s corporations, media, academia, and entertainment ­industry—have consolidated their wealth in “super-zips,” those U.S. zip codes with the highest per capita income and college graduation rates, while “flyover country” languishes as a by-product of globalizing trends that obliterate its jobs and send its young to distant wars. Those same elites also monitor membership via adherence to a progressively rigid, arbitrary, and coercive set of dogmas tied to identity politics.

This trend, Kotkin rightly notes, is exacerbated by the elite’s feckless handling of the pandemic, now entering its third year, which has vitiated American small businesses and made millions of citizens more dependent on the government. In this sense, one might describe America’s underclass as “serfs” with diminished economic opportunities, access to elite institutions, and opportunity to flourish.

Yet the more Kotkin compares medieval feudalism to our contemporary crisis, the less I find the analogy helpful. While Kotkin is surely right that America’s “­nobility” (wealthy elites) are strategically allied with the “clerisy” (journalists, entertainers, credentialed professionals, and teachers), medieval secular rulers and the Church were constantly jostling for power. One could cite the investiture controversy (the fight over who had the authority to install bishops), the martyrdom of prominent clerics by the state (such as St. Thomas Becket and St. Stanislaus), and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s lifelong battles with the papacy. There existed in Europe a complex balance of power between Church and state, and the two sometimes worked for common goals, such as crusading or curtailing heresy, which was viewed as both religiously and politically destabilizing.

Moreover, I wonder if Kotkin ­realizes that the origins of a vibrant, pluralist public square or a robust middle class can be traced in part to such medieval developments as the university, guilds, and the monastic system. The monasteries in particular served as important engines of educational and economic ­vitality—indeed, the Protestant-led dissolution of monasteries, which had provided many social and economic services to the poor, facilitated the consolidation of political power in Tudor England and aggravated the poverty of the English peasantry.

Most saliently, the medieval feudal world was oriented toward a telos that united (and humbled) all classes before a transcendent, merciful God. Our current secular technocratic regime, in contrast, is built on worship of the self and disdain for the proles, a paradigm that shares more in common with late-imperial Rome than with twelfth-century France. Perhaps Kotkin could direct future analysis to that analogy, instead.

Casey Chalk
Reston, Virginia

By Heart

At the end of his moving meditation on memory (“The Claims of Memory,” ­January), Wilfred ­McClay, citing George Steiner, laments Americans’ growing disinterest in memorization. “[T]here is nothing more charged,” Steiner writes, “with the detonators of dreams and action than the word, particularly the word known by heart.” As ­McClay adds, “The power of memorization lies in the fact that the poem, or prayer, or speech that is committed to memory becomes one’s own, alive in one’s mind and spirit.” The power of memorization in cultivating the moral personality struck me just this past month. I was at a school celebration for my nine-year-old son, our first such family occasion as recent immigrants to Israel. His grade of young men and women had completed studying the book of Exodus with their teachers. Hundreds of parents had gathered in the school’s sun-kissed playground for a socially distanced ceremony marking the occasion. The joyous event did not include individual artwork displayed upon the walls or a short address by student representatives in the manner so typical of American school settings. Rather, the students recited two of the book’s most seminal ­passages: the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:2–17) and God’s thirteen Divine Attributes (Exod. 34:6–7). While all the proud children held copies of the Bible in hand, only some cracked it open. Most recited the passages from memory. According to Jewish law, only a select few of those children will ever read those passages from a Torah scroll in synagogue as adults. Yet committing those passages to memory and knowing how to recite them properly is essential to Jewish education. We recall the story of the Exodus itself, of course, every year at the Passover seder, as well as numerous times during the daily Jewish prayers. Thirty-six times the Bible reminds us to love the stranger, because we were strangers in a strange land. The Jewish tradition has always taught, as McClay emphasizes, that recalling “the right things” is key to our ability to “­recall ourselves,” that is, our national and collective memory. While my nine-year-old’s recitation of Jewish and Christian moral principles and of God’s attributes of mercy doesn’t guarantee that he will become an exemplar of God’s love, he, at the very least, will have taken those immortal words to heart.

Stuart Halpern
Yeshiva University
Modiin, Israel

Wilfred McClay replies:

I am grateful for Stuart ­Halpern’s kind words, and even more for the beautiful story he relates, full of portent and hope, carrying lessons for all sorts of people, from many walks of life and ­many faiths. It suggests that the task of remembering who we are, and thereby recovering who we are in a time of grave confusion, is not as complicated a task as we sometimes make it out to be. The Jews have not survived and thrived over the millennia because they devised all sorts of amusing video games and graphic novels that enabled them to pass their faith along to the young. It was because successive generations trained their minds and hearts to take full possession of those precious words and stories, and consecrated certain occasions, such as the Passover seder, for the task of remembering them once again, and again, and doing so together. We can spend a whole lifetime walking into the meaning of those words and stories, and never get to the end of them. Yet even as we do so, we are never walking alone. We know that there are others, too, who remember what we remember, and walk as we do.