Kelly’s Heroes

The Civil War is over, the South lost, and Slate’s Aisha Harris can prove it:

The same night that Tiki torch–bearing white supremacists rallied around a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, 1,500 moviegoers at Memphis, Tennessee’s Orpheum Theatre came out for another nostalgic vision of the old South – Gone With the Wind, still arguably the most popular film of all time. In the coming weeks, the theater found itself at the center of a national controversy, after it announced that it would not be showing Gone With the Wind next summer, ending an annual tradition it had upheld for most of the past 34 years.

Yet prior to the Unite the Right rally, and the violence that led to the death of Heather Heyer, the president and CEO of the theater, Brett Batterson, had already decided to leave the film off the upcoming 2018 program. According to the Memphis daily newspaper the Commercial Appeal, he had determined, after consulting with a couple of local university professors, that Gone With the Wind was no longer a good fit in the lineup given the current political climate. In a press statement, the theater said, “As an organization whose stated mission is to ‘entertain, educate and enlighten the communities it serves,’ the Orpheum cannot show a film that is insensitive to a large segment of its local population.”

In short, the South lost, for good reason. Get over it. Watch some other movie, but no one wanted to do that:

Batterson’s decision was criticized by everyone from Fox News commentators, who called it “cultural cleansing” and the work of “culture jihadists,” to French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, who described it as an “alarming suppression of artistic expression.” The controversy boiled over and out onto the opinion pages, reigniting the decades-old critical debate over what we should do with a film like Gone With the Wind – one that perpetuates the whitewashed myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, indulges the racial stereotype of the “mammy,” and seductively depicts the antebellum South as a land of genteel charm and jolly, complacent servants. (Most of the essays agreed that yes, the movie is indefensibly racist, but censorship is bad and our sins must be preserved to remind us not to commit them again.)

In short, the movie is indefensibly racist, but it’s a great movie, and Harris goes on to discuss all this in great detail – an argument about an old movie that’s really an argument about something else entirely – but this really is over:

Amazon Studios is picking up stakes from its current home in Santa Monica and moving to the Culver Studios, the historic lot in Culver City where classic films such as “Gone with the Wind” and “Citizen Kane” were filmed.

These things happen. Anyone can buy everything imaginable on Amazon, Amazon just bought Whole Foods Markets, their CEO bought the Washington Post a few years ago, and now they’ll be making their original movies, for streaming, at the Culver Studios Mansion (Tara) and Bungalows, and in all the old soundstages out back. The back lot where they filmed the Burning of Atlanta is now a community college campus. NPR’s West Coast Studios are across the street. The Civil War is over. Get over it. Tara was out here in Culver City. That was just a movie.

There are those that don’t believe that was just a movie, even if the South lost. That was more than a movie. There’s what that movie really means to many people now. Scarlett O’Hara refuses defeat. Total losers become the real winners. They always do. All you need is a good lost cause.

That notion has kept many in the South feeling good about themselves for a hundred and fifty years or so. There’s something in the thick sweet air down there. Deep in their bones they know they lost that Civil War – that’s rather obvious – but they want to be seen as noble losers in a good but righteous cause, in a tragic but romantically heroic way. The American South is filled with such people, flying their Confederate flags and weeping at the gallant sacrifice of the Flower of the South, the true gentlemen of long ago. It’s that Lost Cause of the Confederacy thing. They won’t let it go. They can’t let it go. That’s who they are, and it’s no coincidence that the 2010 Tea Party crowd was heavily white and Southern, and now they’re the core of the Republican Party – Trump’s angry base.

That’s not all about Trump of course. The Republican Party is often called the Party of the South. Some of that has to do with Lyndon Johnson aligning himself with Martin Luther King and pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and actually saying those three dangerous words – “We Shall Overcome” – in a joint address to Congress. Advisors told him he was giving the South to the Republicans for at a generation. All the Dixiecrats would become Republicans, and they did, but that lasted more than a generation. That seems permanent now, although the sense of white grievance has shifted. Now it’s resentment of Muslims and Mexicans (but not Cuban-Americans like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) and the Chinese, stealing our jobs.

White grievance is, however, only one lost cause. The sixties, with easily available contraception and the legalization of abortion, should never have happened – and mandatory state-sponsored Christian prayer should be back in schools, not yoga classes. Gay marriage should have never been legalized either. God hates that. God also hates arugula. The list goes on and on, but there’s no going back. These are all lost causes, and smart politicians know that – but Republican politicians also know their constituency, in love with heroic lost causes. They’ll provide a dazzling array of those, all designed to fail – because, as with building Trump’s wall and repealing Obamacare, and now maybe tax reform, they will fail – but that’s good thing. That generates even more grievance and resentment. That keeps things going. That gets them reelected again and again.

That’s either cynical and manipulative or brilliant politics, but the Lost Cause of the Confederacy is a winner, even if that war – either the Civil War or the War of Northern Aggression – take your pick – seems irrelevant now.

It’s never irrelevant. That well never runs dry, and Trump’s man just went back to that well:

If, by appearing on Laura Ingraham’s show on Monday night, John F. Kelly was trying to do damage control after the indictments of Trump associates earlier in the day, it did not work.

Instead, Mr. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, resurrected the debate over Confederate monuments – previously fueled by his boss, President Trump, over the summer – and the Confederacy itself. He called Robert E. Lee “an honorable man who gave up his country to fight for his state,” said that “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand,” and argued that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”

That would generate even more grievance and resentment on the right and keep things going for Trump, being hammered by the Mueller stuff about Russia, and he got the reaction he wanted:

The reaction was swift and unforgiving, with many commenters ridiculing Mr. Kelly for suggesting that slavery was an issue on which a compromise could or should have been reached.

Within less than two hours, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice King had weighed in on Mr. Kelly’s description of Robert E. Lee as “honorable,” calling his comments “irresponsible” and “dangerous” and criticizing him for making “fighting to maintain slavery sound courageous.”

Sure, but Scarlett O’Hara refused defeat, and another woman refused defeat too:

On Tuesday, the White House did not back down. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, said there was “pretty strong consensus” among people from “the left, the right, the North and the South” that a failure to compromise contributed to the war.

That consensus, she said, holds that “if some of the individuals engaged had been willing to come to some compromises on different things then it might not have occurred.”

Sarah Huckabee Sanders is not a student of history:

Many pointed out that, in fact, many attempts were made to avert the Civil War through compromise – that is, by agreeing to allow slavery in some places.

The Missouri Compromise, in 1820, admitted Missouri to the union as a slave state; in exchange, it admitted Maine as a free state and barred slavery in most parts of the Louisiana Purchase territory north of a specified latitude. The Compromise of 1850 eliminated the slave trade from Washington, D.C., but also required citizens of the free states to aid in the capture of fugitive slaves. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which replaced the Missouri Compromise in 1854, let citizens of Kansas and Nebraska decide whether to allow slavery.

And, of course, there was the compromise that aided the very passage of the Constitution: the Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of congressional districting.

“If John Kelly isn’t a complete idiot,” John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public policy research organization, tweeted late Monday, “he’s at least 3/5ths of the way there.”

In a lengthy series of tweets, the author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that the “notion that Civil War resulted from a lack of compromise is belied by all the compromises made on enslavement from America’s founding.”

Coates wasn’t alone:

“That statement could have been given by former Confederate general Jubal Early in 1880,” said Stephanie McCurry, a history professor at Columbia University and author of “Confederate Reckoning: Politics and Power in the Civil War South.”

“What’s so strange about this statement is how closely it tracks or resembles the view of the Civil War that the South had finally got the nation to embrace by the early 20th century,” she said. “It’s the Jim Crow version of the causes of the Civil War. I mean, it tracks all of the major talking points of this pro-Confederate view of the Civil War.”

It seems that historians weren’t happy with Kelly:

Both McCurry and David Blight, a history professor at Yale University and author of “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” broadly reject all of these arguments.

“This is profound ignorance, that’s what one has to say first, at least of pretty basic things about the American historical narrative,” Blight said. “I mean, it is one thing to hear it from Trump, who, let’s be honest, just really doesn’t know any history and has demonstrated it over and over and over. But General Kelly has a long history in the American military.”

Kelly’s framework is “also rooted, frankly, in a Lost Cause mentality that swept over American culture in the wake of the war, swept over Northerners,” Blight said, “this idea that good and honorable men of the South were pushed aside and exploited by the ‘fanatical’ – ironically – first Republican Party.”

Blight noted that Lee wasn’t simply defending his home state of Virginia against Northern aggression.

“Of course we yearn for compromise, we yearn for civility, we yearn for some common ground,” he added. “But, look, Robert E. Lee was not a compromiser. He chose treason.”

And there’s that other matter:

Both historians held particular disdain for the idea that putting state over nation was the essence of the fight.

“My God, where does he get that from?” Blight asked. “That denies the very reason to be, the essential reason for the existence of the original Republican Party, which formed in the 1850s to stop the expansion of slavery and ended up developing a political ideology that threatened the South because they really were going to cordon off slavery.”

There is that, but the original Republican Party died long ago. The Republican Party is now the Party of the South – the Confederate South – the Party of Lost Causes. Kelly is speaking for that party now, and Ed Kilgore adds this:

Growing up as a white kid in the Jim Crow South, this is very much what I was taught, both in school and by a Confederacy-saturated culture. No high-school football game was complete without a rebel-yell punctuated performance of “Dixie,” with Confederate battle flags flying. We were told that the War Between the States (as it was then called throughout the region) was a battle of moral equals (more or less – though the chivalrous, aristocratic Confederates were less crude and more stylish than the Yankees, as anyone comparing the “incomparable” Lee to the shabby Grant could attest), who fell into war because some Southern hotheads were provoked by the Republican victory of 1860, which reflected the emergence of an uncompromising fanaticism in the North. Fortunately, with the “failure” of Reconstruction, the “people of good faith” on both sides were able to reconcile, and peace throughout the land was restored.

I am not sure where the Boston-bred Kelly learned this moonlight-and-magnolias version of Civil War history; I should hope he didn’t learn it during his long military career, since one would hope that Confederate leaders are principally remembered by the military as traitors.

They aren’t remembered by the military as traitors. They are remembered as good military men, doing their duty. Long ago, American Flyboys respected the Red Baron. Those young men saluted each other as they shot each other down. Professionals respect other professionals. This may be no more than that, but Kilgore sees more than that:

Kelly’s miseducation might not matter that much were it not for the fact that the Confederate legacy has become a live political issue – for example, as the subject of intensive messaging by the Republican Party’s candidate for governor of Virginia. How is Kelly supposed to curb his boss’s claim that “the history and culture of our great country [are] being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” when local communities are also trying to remove vestiges of neo-Confederate propaganda?

Kelly feels the same way Trump does, evidently. Monuments to Lee, like women, were once sacred, but no more. As Trump would put it: sad.

Kelly is Trump, and the New York Times’ Peter Baker sees that as sad:

For all of the talk of Mr. Kelly as a moderating force and the so-called grown-up in the room, it turns out that he harbors strong feelings on patriotism, national security and immigration that mirror the hardline views of his outspoken boss. With his attack on a congresswoman who had criticized Mr. Trump’s condolence call to a slain soldier’s widow last week, Mr. Kelly showed that he was willing to escalate a politically distracting, racially charged public fight even with false assertions.

And in lamenting that the country no longer holds women, religion, military families or the dignity of life “sacred” the way it once did, Mr. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general whose son was killed in Afghanistan, waded deep into the culture wars in a way few chiefs of staff typically do.

Josh Marshall echoes that:

Why is John Kelly talking about Robert E. Lee? Let alone praising him or attacking him, why is Lee even a topic of discussion? Kelly is an Irish Catholic from Boston born in 1950. He is not someone born in the Deep South who was reared in the Lee cult and coming to grips with that legacy or unable to shake it fully. Why is this even something we’re talking about?

Kelly did another notable thing. He pledged he would “never” apologize for his comments about Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL). This is despite the fact that it has been repeatedly and clearly shown that his central claim about her was false. We can give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his memory was faulty on the first take. I think we should. But sticking to the claim in the face of clear and irrefutable evidence makes it a clear lie on the second and third and every subsequent take. He also thinks Mueller should be investigating Secretary Clinton.

Marshall sees two things going on here:

One is what we saw in Kelly’s attack on Rep. Wilson. Kelly is not an adult in the room. He’s an example of what we might call Total Quality Trumpism, Trumpist ideology in a more disciplined, duty-focused, professional package. The core ideology and beliefs about reclamation and rectitude are the same. It’s not an accident that he ended up in the tightest circle of Trump’s orbit. The other is that, once again, Trump damages everything he touches.

But there’s something subtly different about Kelly compared to all the others who cozied up to Trump and saw their reputations and dignity destroyed through a deep inner weakness, desperation or lack of character – Christie, Pence, Tillerson, Priebus et al. Kelly’s eyes appear wide open. His tie to Trump seems to be based on a deep commonality of belief and a desire to sand away the rough edges of Trump to ensure the core goals of Trumpism succeed.

Perhaps so, but Greg Jaffe and Anne Gearan see this:

Kelly’s public stumbles highlight the downsides of relying heavily on current and retired military brass to fill political jobs traditionally filled by civilians. In addition to Kelly, Trump has turned to an active-duty three-star general, H.R. McMaster, to act as his national security adviser and a retired Marine four-star general, Jim Mattis, to serve as his defense secretary. The White House’s national security staff, meanwhile, is made up of an unusually large number of current and former military officers.

Kelly, though, has been pressed into a far more political role than the other top brass. Those who served with him in the Pentagon describe a general who was often maddened by politics and viewed members of Congress as self-serving. “He was pretty cynical and thought that a lot of politicians were full of hot air,” said Derek Chollet, a former top official at the Pentagon during the Obama administration who worked with Kelly. “It was always a puzzle how this was going to work out. Trump is not a process guy. And this position is all about politics.”

Kelly may just be the wrong man for this job:

“He violated the first basic rule of the chief of staff, which is not to make yourself the news of the day,” said former defense secretary Leon E. Panetta, who worked with Kelly in the Pentagon and also served as White House chief of staff. “I have no idea what he was trying to say because history is not on his side… John is a great Marine but he is not a politician, and one thing he lacks is the ability to look at the big political picture and understand what you should and shouldn’t say as chief of staff.”

But that’s okay:

So far, the White House and Trump, who has a far different take on political discourse from his predecessors, are backing Kelly… One former White House adviser, who still works in government and spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said Kelly’s higher public profile and more overtly political stance have been welcomed by Trump and taken as marks of success. There is a “bunker mentality” around the president, this person said, and Kelly is seen as “shooting out.”

That is, Kelly is inside the bunker “shooting out” – fighting in service of lost causes, that when lost, once again, will generate even more grievance and resentment that will keep things going and get everyone reelected again and again. It’s a plan, but there’s this:

“Donald Trump has an unblemished record of making everyone around him look a little worse, and I don’t think John Kelly is immune to that,” said Chollet, the former Obama Pentagon official.

A retired officer, who served alongside Kelly in the Pentagon, offered a similar view.

“It breaks my heart that it got to this,” said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so that he could speak frankly. “I worry about him since he took the job.”

He’s worried? Everyone should worry. America can’t keep fighting the Civil War. That’s over. The South lost and now those Amazon hipsters just moved into Tara. And total losers are never the real winners. They just won this time.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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