For me, it's the same as always: the absolute refusal to consider the difference between sympathy for the South and principled opposition to war and killing makes the conversation useless. The essay is of a piece with everything Coates writes on the subject; again and again, I want to see a stance proffered on moral resistance to the act of intentionally taking human life, and instead it's a constant return to the old refrains against romanticizing the antebellum South. Well: yes, every facet of romanticizing the Confederacy is wrong and offensive. And there are many versions. But the refusal to condone killing out of a conviction that killing is always wrong is an entirely separate issue than supporting the "Lost Cause" or any other ugly trope about the South. Are Quakers allowed to oppose the killing that occurred in the Civil War? Are pacifists? Is there a moral difference between that kind of opposition and the kind that laments the loss of the Confederate way of life? I don't know, even though I've read thousands of words from Coates on the subject.
"But our general sense of the war was that a horrible tragedy somehow had the magical effect of getting us free. Its legacy belonged not to us, but to those who reveled in the costume and technology of a time when we were property."
And what of those who revel in precisely nothing about it? What of those who find the condition of slavery tragic, and any and all consequences of it necessarily tragic, including the war that ended that condition? What of those who are invested in the Greek meaning of "tragic," the sense in which unhappy events are played out inevitably as a result of a flaw in character? What about those who simply do not confuse a moral conviction about killing with attitudes towards "costume and technology?"
"But we have stories too, ones that do not hinge on erasing other people, or coloring over disrepute."
This, is so powerful to me. Yeah, I want to be a part of this team.
Coates and his supporters are free to argue on whatever terms they want, but they also have to live within the confines of conventional language. And when they say that he has proven that "the Civil War was not tragic," I have to say, no, he hasn't. He has in fact refused even to consider the question beyond the narrow scope that he has defined, which is common to much of his work. And he and his supporters have shut down any proposed broadening of the discussion while basking in praise for having undertaken it. Whatever success in argument he's achieved has happened with distortion and sleight-of-hand, by insisting that principled opposition to war is the same as regard for the South when it isn't, or saying that tragic means "really sad" when it doesn't, or by acting as if proving one thing is the same as proving another. The more that a question is insisted away, the more pressing it seems.
I wish that I could articulate how this article reverberated in my soul. Better, I wish that you, TNC could feel that reverberation, and I could read how you described it.
Now there are a whole host of ways that Coates or anybody could attack the pacifist's position. Opposition to violence, after all, is far, far less popular than support for violence, particularly in politics and particularly online. I am perfectly used to mockery, dismissal, and invective for what I think, and anyone antagonistic to my views can rest assured that the vast majority of people out there will belittle my beliefs. (Hey, there's one in the comments now.) But the issue remains separate from antebellum romanticism.
Figuring out how to say what you're saying, without sounding whiney and petulant is a testament to your strong intellect and to your solid commitment to following the truth wherever it leads. Nice job.
BTW: Just for myself; for my part in any of it; knowingly or otherwise - and not because I think it's what you wanna hear, but for what it's worth, TNC - I'm sorry.
I have said before that I find the cult of personality he's created at the Atlantic a self-congratulatory creep show. If it were merely a case of someone on the Internet residing in a bubble of affection, hey, who cares. That's perfectly common. What disturbs me is that his defenders, largely white, express their support in terms so close to condescension, or offer praise so wild that it can't meaningfully regard the work at all. When I argue about this subject, his coterie inevitable says "for him, this is personal." That, to me, is a slap in the face, the kind of thing you say about someone who you think is incapable of defending himself. And it has everything to do with race, with a set of guilty white readers who are eager to be absolved of that guilt, and so seek really to deny any responsibility for their role in a racist society.
"For that particular community, for my community, the message has long been clear: the Civil War is a story for white people—acted out by white people, on white people’s terms—in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props."
I suspect that a substantial minority of Coates's considerable following is made up of people who do not, actually, think highly of him, though they suppose they do. I suspect that he attracts admiring white people who experience discussion of race as a kind of panic. I suspect that he fulfills for them the role of a racial avatar, someone to hold opinions on race for them, so that they neither have to engage in the hard work of fixing our racial inequalities nor feel indicted by his own observations on race in America. I suspect that for them Coates is not fully human, that he is another in a parade of black symbols who assuage their guilt and massage their egos, that he is a stock character, a prop, but never a human being to be evaluated and thus capable of being truly valued.
The world is a strange place. In the last couple weeks I saw bloggers who Coates will break bread with arguing in support of The Bell Curve, a text which argues (if one bothers to actually check) that the large majority of black people are significantly less intelligent than the large majority of white people. As was inevitable, apologies were offered and friendships maintained, all without the repudiation of the text itself. Historical inquiry is important and I value it, but surely the opinion that black Americans today are inherently inferior is of greater meaning for the future of justice. And yet there is a regard for race science that people can live with, in a way that they can't live with the idea that war is universally tragic. It's no wonder that so many white people find solace in arguments about the Civil War; in them, they find the opportunity to take stands on race that cannot possibly harm them in their day-to-day. They enjoy conviction without consequence, much as they enjoy the promise of the exoticized object, which is to be understood without being judged.
TNC says what he thinks and it is a great pleasure to hear what he says. This essay ties up loose ends in my understanding of the Civil War like nothing else has. Not that there is any end to it. Slavery is the original sin in the New World. The Civil War was a step in the direction of obviating that sin. But we are still in process and always will be. I suspect that TNC has some well thought out views of Abraham Lincoln and look forward to hearing of them. He embodies all of the conflict and yet is above all of it.
I wonder about Coates. When he reads this endless commentary from white people trying to outdo each other in praising him, as the reach deeper and deeper for hyperbole, as they stretch their vocabularies to bless him with their benevolent white approval-- does he get embarrassed, at all? Does it become unseemly to him? Does he question where this all comes from? I imagine he must. Something is off, here. No one needs to have any sympathy for my convictions to say so. I find no value in universal assent, and beyond the poor optics of a bunch of people agreeing, I fear that it's exactly in those times-- in the deadening warmth of proud unanimity-- that something corrosive slips in the back door.
Update: I'm appending a link to this post by Tedra Osell, with bonus condescension from Belle Waring.