West’s Anti-Confederate Absurdities
West is a proficient pyrotechnist. The prolific Harvard professor
never lacks crisp intonation and sports a ruminative countenance
bordering on histrionic. Advocacy enters the realm of performance
for West, which accords with his affection for Jazz. (One of his
exemplars is John Coltrane.)
is a potentiality in any performance, and West suffers no dearth
in this area his February 3 appearance on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal
case in point. West opined on the barbarity of capital punishment,
corporate unaccountability, and other topics befitting a self-described
"radical democrat." (Fellow black public intellectual
Michael Eric Dyson of DePaul University also describes himself as
a radical democrat. Both are involved with the Democratic Socialists
of America. Robin D.G. Kelley of New York University more bluntly
describes himself as an anticapitalist.)
most interesting parts of West’s appearance were when he discussed
the Confederacy vis-à-vis Attorney General John Ashcroft
and Georgia’s recent state flag alteration. That West did not consider
the Confederacy meritorious is no surprise. (For a counterpoint,
see Professor Walter Williams’s interview in the Fourth Quarter
1999 issue of Southern Partisan yes, the same publication
that received so much limelight during the Ashcroft hearings.)
described the Confederacy as "an attempt to snuff out American
democracy" and "an organized, violent insurrection to
overthrow the US government." He added, "The Capitol that
we now see would have been burned down [had the Confederacy prevailed].
It would have been in Richmond."
is embellishment and beyond. While West’s hyperbole may be dismissed
as extemporaneous extravagance, concern for historical integrity
calls for a closer look.
misrepresents two key matters: the nature of secession and the Confederacy’s
objectives. With regard to the former, West conflates a state’s
withdrawal from the Union with revolution against the Union.
conflation is erroneous. As Garry Wills (no pro-Confederate) observes
Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government,
"Secession differs…from revolution…The revolutionary does not
withdraw from the state and leave it standing. He overthrows it
at its base." In this vein, Wills writes of colonial withdrawal
from the Crown:
American Revolution was more properly an act of secession than
a real revolution. We did not remove King George from his throne
or dissolve the Parliament in London. We did not replace them
with a new government of our own creation. We simply took our
colonies out of the empire which continued on its course without
us as twentieth-century nations have seceded from colonial powers
Southern withdrawal from the Union did not contemplate Lincoln’s
removal from office. On the contrary, it was aversion to Lincoln’s
presidency that sparked secession. Sanguinary subversion was precisely
not what motivated the secessionists, rather separation from the
Republican administration. Lincoln’s presidency continued in the
South’s absence, as did the Union.
misrepresentation of Confederate objectives is no less severe. By
his lights, the Richmond government sought hegemony over its opponents an
Empire of Dixie, as it were.
Davis summarized the Confederate cause in his Message to the Confederate
Congress on April 29, 1861: "[W]e seek no conquest, no aggrandizement,
no concession of any kind from the States with which we were lately
confederated; all we ask is to be let alone; that those who never
held power over us shall not now attempt our subjugation by arms."
Indeed, Robert E. Lee invaded Northern territory, but this counteroffensive
aimed to hasten cessation of hostilities and secure an autonomous
Confederacy; it was not a prelude to an imperial campaign. Had Confederate
independence been recognized through a peace settlement, Washington
and Richmond would have coexisted just as they did during the war.
(The desirability of such coexistence is discrete from the relationship
between the two governments; the upshot here is that U.S. recognition
of the Confederacy would not have meant sovereign forfeiture, i.e.,
political subjugation by the Richmond government.)
of secession’s character and the Confederacy’s political aspirations
does not entail endorsement of Southern secession or the Confederacy.
However, discourse over the resonant and watershed period of 1861-1865
cannot occur when these rudimentary elements are distorted. West’s
contributions only reinforce falsehood.
Kantor lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.