The recent remarks by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, show the fundamental disconnect between reality and wishful thinking when it comes to American history.
We all wish America were a country that was founded and developed by honorable people with the best intentions. We pine for a history that does not include genocide, oppression, misogyny and murder. We wish, most of all, that America's long, violent embrace of the institution of slavery was not the foundation of our society.
Alas, slavery and the cruelty that accompanied it form the very basis of America's wealth. That is the truth, and that's why it's so troubling that Kelly would appear on Fox News to say that the Civil War was fought by “men and women of good faith on both sides (who) made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”
No, Gen. Kelly. That's not what happened. The South fired the first shots of the Civil War out of greed, hatred and a mass delusion that blacks were subhuman and destined to serve whites. To be blunt, the Confederacy was not composed of people of good faith who were driven by conscience. Like many of their neighbors in the North, they were racists. But there was one key difference. The Confederates were willing to die for their belief in white supremacy.
That is the hardest of truths, but it is the truth just the same. No amount of flowery language can change that. No monument can transform it. No revisionist history can make it anything other than what it is — pure unadulterated racism.
Kelly doesn't see it that way, and he was unashamed to share his views with conservative firebrand Laura Ingraham on the debut of her Fox News talk show.
“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly said in response to a question about removing Confederate monuments. “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it's different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”
It was a comment reminiscent of Donald Trump's claim that both sides were at fault when a rally by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly, resulting in the death of anti-racism protester Heather Heyer.
Back then, America looked at the discomfort that filled Kelly's face as the president spoke, and we believed Kelly opposed the president's misguided views on race. Now it appears that Kelly did not dispute Trump's views. He simply opposed Trump sharing those views in the immediate aftermath of deadly racial unrest.
That, more than anything, grieves me. Because I now know America was misguided in hoping that Kelly would bring order from the chaos of the Trump White House.
Kelly, it seems, is part of the problem. Not only because Kelly called traitors such as Robert E. Lee people of good conscience, but also because Kelly does not appear to have much conscience of his own.
If Kelly were a man of conscience, he would admit that his statements honoring violent racists who ran the Confederacy were divisive and hurtful. He would tell us that he is not comfortable with Trump's vision of an America that is split along the lines of race and class. He would tell us that America was not driven to civil war by an inability to compromise, but by an inability to see beyond its obsession with money and race.
But Kelly won't do that, because the same racial animus that led to the Civil War drives racial attitudes today.
Just as troubling is Kelly's refusal to apologize for falsely accusing Rep. Frederica Wilson of lying about a project she helped to get completed in her home state of Florida.
Wilson, you might remember, is the black congresswoman who feuded with Trump over his alleged comments in a phone call to a Gold Star widow. Wilson helped to get a building named for two FBI agents who died in the line of duty. Kelly wrongly claimed that Wilson took credit for funding the project. Video of Wilson's remarks on the project showed that Kelly was wrong.
But we are living in a time when the White House is the driving force behind worsening racial attitudes, when our leaders refuse to apologize, and when wrong is presented to us as right.
I only hope history will view this moment through the critical lens of truth.
That's far more than John Kelly has done thus far.
Solomon Jones is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.