John Kelly, there is no compromise with slavery

Story highlights

  • Jill Filipovic: Kelly's remarks about Civil War and compromise were terrifying revisionist history; a window into Trump White House
  • Filipovic: War was about slavery, about which there's no compromise. Kelly is churning up debate on this ugly fault line in US

Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi, Kenya, and the author of the book "The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness." Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Was the American Civil War caused by seditious traitors who decided the hill they would die on was the one defending the racist enslavement of human beings, or was it that a simple inability to compromise led an honorable man who gave up his country to fight for his state? According to White House chief of staff John Kelly, it's the latter.

Jill Filipovic
What terrifying revisionism -- and what a window into the Trump administration and the conservative ideology undergirding it.
"I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man," Kelly told Laura Ingraham, a conservative radio and television host, on her show last night. "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."
    That last bit of his argument is familiar to anyone who has ever been sucked into a debate about, say, how in the heck anyone could have believed an admitted sexual predator with no political experience but a long history of racism and sexism would make a great president, or whether black lives matter enough that police officers should be held accountable for shooting unarmed African-Americans, or whether the government should be able to legally deny women the right to decide what happens in our own uteruses.
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    "Men and women of good faith on both sides" can agree to disagree, the argument often goes; better to understand each other and to compromise than to judge as right or wrong little things like basic human rights.
    Kelly's argument shows the total moral bankruptcy of that position.
    As writer Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out on Twitter, there already were compromises on slavery. One of them, the three-fifths compromise, was written into the United States Constitution. And Kelly does sort of have a point: the Civil War was fought because neither side would compromise on slavery.
    One side thought enslaving other humans was morally reprehensible and should be outlawed. The other claimed keeping darker-skinned human beings as chattels -- forcing them into a life of hard labor, beating them for the tiniest perceived infraction, raping them at will, tearing their children away to sell on the market -- was not only economically necessary, but natural, culturally vital, and God's stated will.
    There was no compromise that could have worked. There were not, in fact, men and women of good faith on both sides acting out of conscience. There were men and women on one side fighting for absolute evil, an evil they believed in so fervently they were willing to undermine the country for it. The word for these people is "traitors," not "honorable men."
    And it's not like they were simply people of their time who didn't know any better. The Civil War was fought, after all, because there were a whole lot of Americans who wanted to abolish the institution of slavery. Slaveholders and their supporters knew there was another option, but they were white supremacists who wanted slaves and believed black people were not deserving of human rights.
    Debates drawn along these same fault lines (and remarkably similar electoral maps) churn on in the United States, and still, we hear the same excuses for those who do not support the full human rights of women and people of color. An alarming number of such people work in the Trump White House; others put Trump in the White House.
    Now, as in the thoroughly dishonorable Robert E. Lee's day, the divide won't be bridged by an easy compromise, because what divides us isn't (or shouldn't be) up for negotiation: Are African-Americans people deserving of full human rights? Are women?
    Here is our deepest modern shame: A century and a half after the Civil War, monuments to traitors remain, and we still live in a country that does not unanimously answer those questions in the affirmative.