WASHINGTON -- What is so wrong about Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell declaring April to be Confederate History Month? Can't we respect Robert E. Lee's high-minded sense of honor? The average Confederate soldier's outnumbered stubbornness?
Americans can appreciate these things, and do. But when a public official celebrates Confederate history without mentioning slavery, there is a problem.
The historical context of secession was the defense of slavery -- what Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens called the "cornerstone" of the Southern cause. Downplaying this context, as McDonnell initially did before later amending, was a sin of omission. When a Virginia governor speaks of the Civil War, he has a positive duty to disavow the racist sentiments that find refuge in Confederate nostalgia. Context matters.
This principle of responsible leadership has broader application. We have entered a national debate on the role and size of government, intensified by the passage of health care reform legislation. It is not quite Antietam, but many Americans feel that their deepest beliefs about liberty and self-government are being undermined. Passions run high. Activists slip easily into reckless talk of tyranny and revolution.
In this context -- on the day health reform became law -- Sarah Palin wrote to her Twitter tribe: "Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: 'Don't Retreat, Instead -- RELOAD!'" In a moose-hunting culture, these words probably carry less menace. Palin was not trying to incite violence. But she was careless about the context of her words and ignored a positive duty to confront political extremism.
A few years ago, the historical context was different: Opposition to an unpopular war seemed to justify any rhetorical excess. At anti-war rallies, George W. Bush was routinely compared to Adolf Hitler. A film was made contemplating Bush's assassination. In his article, "The Case for Bush Hatred," The New Republic's Jonathan Chait stated, "I hate President George W. Bush. There, I said it."
Some political leaders ignored this toxic context as well. Sen. Harry Reid called Bush a "loser," a "liar" and alleged that he had "betrayed the country." Al Gore termed Bush a "moral coward." Concerning the 9/11 attacks, Howard Dean speculated that Bush might have been "warned ahead of time by the Saudis."