Victor Davis Hanson is one of the most lauded and applauded historians of the “conservative establishment.” Honored by President George W. Bush, a regular writer for National Review, spoken of in hushed and admiring tones by pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, Hanson is rightly regarded as a fine classicist and military historian, especially of ancient warfare. But like other authors who tend to cluster in the Neoconservative orbit, Hanson strays far afield into modern history, American studies, and into current politics—fields where his fealty to a Neocon narrative overwhelms his historical expertise.
And like other well-regarded writers of the Neocon persuasion—the far less scholarly Jonah Goldberg (in his superficial and wrongheaded volume, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning) and Dinesh D’Souza (in his historical mish-mash, The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left)—Hanson when he writes of contemporary politics or modern American history, writes with an agenda. But, unlike them, his arguments are usually more firmly based and less fantastical.
Like Goldberg and D’Souza and other putative Neocon historians, Hanson is at pains to create a “usable past,” to construct a history and tradition that buttresses and supports current Neocon ideology. Thus, he strains to defend the concept of an American nation conceived in and based on an idea, the idea of equality and “equal rights.” And because of that, like D’Souza and Goldberg, he must read back into American history an arbitrary template to demonstrate that premise.
It follows that, as for other Neocons, the Declaration of Independence becomes a critical and underlying document for this historical approach. The words—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”—become irreplaceably essential. Avoiding the contextual meaning of the phrase and the meaning clearly intended by the Founders, which was aimed specifically at the British parliament and the demand for an “equal”—just—consideration for the colonists from across the pond, the Neocons turn a very practical bill of grievances into a call for 18th century Rationalist egalitarianism, which it was not. As the late Mel Bradford and more recently, Barry Alan Shain, have convincingly demonstrated, such attempts to read current ideology back into the Founding, runs aground on factual analysis.
But facts have little to do with Neocon ideology. What is demanded is a usable past to support present practice and to give legitimacy to the current narrative. It follows: if the American nation was founded on the “idea” of equality, then any successive deviances and variations from that idea are wrong and immoral, and, therefore, in some way, “anti-American.” Thus, those Southerners who “rebelled” against the legitimate—and righteous—government of the sainted President Lincoln are become “traitors,” who not only engaged in “treason” against the legitimate government of the Union, but through their defense of slavery, were enemies of the very “idea” of America—equality.
How many times in recent days in the debates over Confederate monuments and symbols have we heard echoes of such a refrain from the pages of “conservative” publications like National Review or The Weekly Standard? Or from certain pundits on Fox News?
And, more, those Southerners—more specifically, Southern Democrats—who opposed the “civil rights” legislation of the 1960s, who questioned various Supreme Court decisions on that topic (beginning with the atrociously-decided Brown decision), who enforced those evil “Jim Crow” laws, are not and never could have been real defenders of the “American [egalitarian] idea,” and therefore, never could be considered “conservatives.”
Confronted by unwashed, rednecky “Southern conservatives,” most Neocons seek desperately to protect their left flank from criticism from those of the farther Left. They continually and in “alta voz” protest of their bona fides, of how strongly they supported Martin Luther King’s crusade for equality (King was actually a “conservative,” you see), of how they stood on that bridge in Selma with the noble demonstrators—well, at least in spirit!—against the “fascist” Billy club-armed police of “Bull Connor, and how they really do support “civil rights” for everyone, including “moderate” affirmative action, “moderate” feminism, yes to same sex marriage, and yes to transgenderism. Their fear of being called out as and associated with anti-egalitarians far outweighs their fear of confirming the cultural Marxist template, which, in their own manner, they both sanctify and thus, assist to advance.
The Neocon narrative stands history on its head. Not only does it fail as competent history, it simply ignores inconvenient facts, historical context, and the careful investigations and massive documentation of more responsible chroniclers and historians of the American nation, if those facts and documentation do not fit a preconceived narrative. All must be written, all must be shaped, to demonstrate the near-mystical advance and progress of the Idea of Equality and Human Rights in the unfolding of American history. Thus, the incredibly powerful and detailed contributions of, say, a Eugene Genovese (for example, his The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview, and various other studies), go basically for naught.
Victor Davis Hanson, in a recent essay, adds his own contribution to this historical rewrite, examining what he calls Hollywood’s irrational fascination with what he labels “Confederate Cool.”
It is not the first time he has offered criticism of the Confederacy and Confederate history. In 1999 he authored a strenuous defense of “Sherman’s March” to the sea and through the Carolinas, declaring: “As for the charge that Sherman’s brand of war was amoral, if we forget for a moment what constitutes ‘morality’ in war and examine acts of violence per se against Southern civilians, we learn that there were few, if any, gratuitous murders on the march. There seem also to have been less than half a dozen rapes, a fact acknowledged by both sides. Any killing outside of battle was strictly military execution in response to the shooting of Northern prisoners. The real anomaly seems to be that Sherman brought more than sixty thousand young men through one of the richest areas of the enemy South without unchecked killing or mayhem.”
These comments are as outrageous as they are untrue. Hanson ignores the findings of the very detailed and scholarly study, commissioned by the state of North Carolina, Sherman’s March through North Carolina, by Drs. Wilson Angley and Jerry Cross (North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 1995), as well as W. Brian Cisco’s impressively researched, War Crimes Against Southern Civilians (Pelican Publishing, 2007), and Karen Stokes’ A Legion of Devils–Sherman in South Carolina (Shotwell Publishing, Columbia, South Carolina), plus contemporary accounts, that give the lie to his cavalier dismissal of pillage and savagery by Northern troops along the march.
In his most recent foray into Confederate bashing, “The Strange Case of Confederate Cool,” his argument goes, if I may summarize it, as follows:
–Throughout the 1920s until at least the 1960s (and even beyond), Hollywood and the entertainment industry were kind, even partial, to the South, and in particular, to the Confederacy;
–But Hollywood and the entertainment industry are on the Left;
–Therefore, there were obviously certain elements of the Confederacy and the Old South that were consistent with a Leftist worldview.
Here is the kernel of his argument in his own words (I quote):
Can Shane and Ethan Edwards [“The Searchers”] remain our heroes? How did the Carradines and the Keaches (who played Jesse and Frank James) survive in Hollywood after turning former Confederates into modern resisters of the Deep State?
The answer is a familiar with the Left: The sin is not the crime of romanticizing the Confederacy or turning a blind eye to slavery and secession per se. Instead what matters more is the ideology of the sinner who commits the thought crime. And how much will it cost the thought police to virtue-signal a remedy?
Folksy Confederates still have their charms for the Left. All was forgiven Senator Robert Byrd, a former Klansman. He transmogrified from a racist reprobate who uttered the N-word on national television into a down-home violinist and liberal icon. A smiling and avuncular Senator Sam Ervin, of Watergate fame, who quoted the Constitution with a syrupy drawl, helped bring down Nixon; that heroic service evidently washed away his earlier segregationist sin of helping to write the Southern Manifesto.
Progressives always have had a soft spot for drawling (former) racists whose charms in their twilight years were at last put to noble use to advance liberal causes — as if the powers of progressivism alone can use the kick-ass means of the Old Confederacy for exalted ends….
Literally, it would take a fat book to unravel Hanson’s farrago of misplaced asseverations.
First, in impressionistically reviewing American film history in the 1930s until the upheavals of the 1960s, he makes an assumption that Hollywood was dominated and controlled by the same ideologically cultural Marxism that owns it today. That assumption is not exact. Indeed, there were Communists and revolutionary Socialists working and prospering in the Hollywood Hills during that period—the “Hollywood Ten” and Communist writers and directors like Dalton Trumbo stand out as prime examples. And during World War II, such embarrassing and pro-Communist cinematic expressions as “Days of Glory” (1943) and “Mission to Moscow” (1944, and pushed hard by President Roosevelt), proliferated.
But the fiercely anti-Communist studio bosses back then, Jack Warner (of Warner Brothers Studio), Carl Laemmle (Universal Pictures), Howard Hughes (RKO), Herbert Yates (Republic Pictures) and Walt Disney, were anything but sympathetic to the far Left. They were much more sympathetic to the power of the almighty box office dollar.
And the Hollywood Screen Actors Guild (SAG)—especially under the leadership of Ronald Reagan—attempted to root out Communist influence. It was not uncommon to find dozens of prominent actors supporting conservative or Republican candidates for public office until the 1960s. For instance, during the 1944 election campaign between Roosevelt and Governor Tom Dewey of New York numerous celebrities attended a massive rally organized by prominent director/producer David O. Selznick in the Los Angeles Coliseum in support of the Dewey–Bricker ticket. The gathering drew 93,000 attendees, with Cecil B. DeMille as the master of ceremonies and short speeches by Hedda Hopper and Walt Disney. Among those in attendance were Ann Sothern, Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, and Gary Cooper, plus many others.
A majority of entertainment personalities did support FDR, just as did a majority of the American voting public, in those years. But, significantly, it was not considered a “social crime” or “cultural sin” for a famous actor back then to openly support a conservative or a Republican.
Hanson views an earlier sympathy of Hollywood for the South as the expression of some Leftist fascination—and a certain identification—with the South’s agrarian, anti-establishment, and populist traditions, and its opposition to an oppressive Federal government. Thus, he asserts the songster Joan Baez could make popular “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and more recently, post-Vietnam, director Walter Hill could, in “The Long Riders” (1980), turn “the murderous Jesse James gang… into a sort of mix of Lynyrd Skynyrd with Bonnie and Clyde — noble outlaws fighting the grasping northern banks and the railroad companies.” And, torturously, he draws out a Leftist meaning.
He misunderstands the history. Hollywood’s fascination with the Old South and its more or less successful effort sixty or seventy years ago to portray the Confederacy with some degree of sympathy reflected the general tenor of the times then, of the desire for a united nation, of binding up old wounds—and especially when the nation was apparently threatened by external forces: Nazism and Communism.
But that desire for unity and that respect for the Confederacy and Confederate heroes would evaporate in the 1970s.
And the nature of the Hollywood Left would also significantly change. The cautious leftward movement of the 1950s—which mostly did not affect Hollywood Westerns (most studios had their own separate “ranches,” separate from any main studio “contagion”)—was transformed by the growth of a fierce and all-encompassing cultural Marxism in the ‘60s and ‘70s, just as academia and society as a whole were radically transformed. The modern anti-Southern, anti-Confederate bias and hatred emitted by Hollywood and by our entertainment industry today must be seen in that light, and not as simply the seamless continuation of an older ambiguous relationship with the South.
Constructing this narrative permits Hanson and other Neocons to write off the older, traditional South and the Confederacy, while defending their precious narrative of the egalitarian idea of America: “See,” they tell us, “the far Left actually identifies with that anti-democratic, anti-American Southern vision which undermined our progress towards greater unity and progress and”—of course—“equal rights.” The Neocon narrative and version of history is, thus, kept unsullied and ideologically pure, while the attempts by the farther Left to lump them in with associated “neo-Confederates, racists, and the extreme right” are repelled.
The problem is—that view actually undermines a clear understanding of our history and perverts the American Founding and the intentions of those who cobbled together this nation. It is a myth built on a poorly-constructed and poorly-interpreted bill of historical goods. Or, as they say in eastern Carolina, “that dog don’t hunt.”