An Apologia for Civil Horizon

We sometimes don’t know why we do what we do; we may even hold tight to perspectives about our motivations that others – or even we ourselves – will later rightly conclude did not reflect reality.

For a poignant example, consider the Civil War. Most of the soldiers in blue fought to save the union as, initially, did President Lincoln; though he hated slavery, Lincoln saw the possible dissolution of the union as a more immediate evil. And if, in 1860, he had issued a call for volunteers to fill an army to eradicate slavery, few would have signed up.

Reciprocally, in most of their minds, the Confederates fought to defend their states against ‘the War of Northern Aggression’ under the banner of states’ rights – the theory being that if a state could freely join the union, it could surely leave it too (a theory now being revived by some particularly crazy Californians). Only about 15% of the Confederate soldiers were from slave-owning families, so surely it wasn’t (consciously) for that segment of society that 18% of all Southern men of military age gave their lives.

Even so, historians have unambiguously and, in my view, entirely correctly concluded that slavery was the casus belli. Consciously or otherwise, one side was fighting to end slavery sooner or later, the other to keep it. This simple perspective on what each side stood for enables us to see through the fog of the respective sides’ other motivations and self-delusions, but it also obscures the all-too-human, multilayered complexities behind the enormous sacrifices bourn by each side. To see the Confederates as simply evil obscures their humanity and the nobility, by their own lights, of what they thought they were trying to accomplish against steep odds.

Happily, not all self-delusions result in bloodbaths.


I have been corresponding by email with a Civil Horizon reader whom I have met once.

He’s a very smart guy, an academic, roughly my age. I had thought that my situation as a libertarian-oriented conservative living in the heart of Progressiveland was beleaguered, but I’ve got nothing on him. He and I are in the same neighborhood philosophically – but as a conservative academic his is truly a voice crying out in the wilderness – he finds himself utterly alone, arguing with his professional colleagues for more political evenhandedness than they can stomach.

Not long ago, he sent me copies of some emails he had written to his colleagues objecting to their agenda-driven approaches to their jobs. (As a matter of interest, he told me that he had received only pro-forma responses to these notes, i.e., the addressees had resolutely refused to debate him on the merits of his points).

I suggested that he depersonalize the emails he had sent to his colleagues, and repackage the content as a guest post for Civil Horizon. I figured that you might find his points both fascinating and compelling, since such a post would constitute an authoritative, first-hand account of the politicization of the academy. Also, my new friend writes with clarity and force; perhaps unwisely, I suggested that he tone down some of the forcefulness of the original emails, noting that the readership of this blog is certainly majority-progressive, so I am in no sense preaching to the choir.

His response was to question whether I am in fact trying to persuade the “the NYT-reading, WP-editing, NPR-listening non-choir to which you are careful not to preach”. He went on to ask whether I believe that I have persuaded anybody or changed any minds.

Excellent question, that. My answer – probably not – forced me to ask myself why I write these posts; am I just whistling into the wind? Over the years, ignoring the Fun Stuff posts about the ride across America, etc., I have written about 300 posts that by their own terms were surely designed to convince you, dear reader, of something. 300 posts times more than three hours per post makes, maybe 1,000 hours of work. For what? Am I as deluded as the soldiers who went off to war for reasons other than what they imagined?

My more considered answer to my own question – for what? – is that writing these posts has been, and remains, a learning experience, for me and (I hope) for you. For me, because the knowledge that a post will be read by others forces me to crystallize my thoughts to a much greater degree than I would otherwise do. I have also learned that … persuasion via argumentation is really difficult. I have received an enormous amount of feedback to my posts, but only and exactly once has anybody ever told me that they found an argument I had made persuasive contra what they had previously believed. This from about 35,000 aggregate readings of the various posts.

Moreover, very few who have disagreed with my points have engaged intellectually to the point where they have debated me, online or off. Most people, I now believe, do not actually want to be argued into changing positions on anything. If their opinions are to change, it will be glacially, in response to innumerable stimuli, with peer pressure figuring prominently. People are very defensive about their opinions; they seek affirmations (via confirmation bias) rather than contradictions.

So if I have largely given up on convincing readers of particular points, how is it that I still hope that reading these posts is a learning experience for those of you who are progressive in your political orientation?

I am all too well aware of the stereotypes of conservatives and libertarians that are promoted endlessly in what passes for mainstream American culture. Watch any American movie, read any novel or just follow the news as presented by “the NYT-reading, WP-editing, NPR-listening non-choir” and you will not find it difficult to Spot the Bad Guy. Those who argue for the policy positions that I support – and business people, of whom I am also one – are invariably presented as ignorant, bigoted knuckle-draggers. Deplorables, even.

I hope to introduce those who stumble across these posts to a principled opposing perspective to the culturally dominant, progressive catechism, and to do so in a manner that by virtue of the posts’ clear logic, occasional erudition and unfailingly civil and respectful tone, refutes the unhinged but all too common stereotypes about those who share my views. In a sense, then, the tone of my posts is the message.

As I have written before, I don’t hate progressives; in many cases I’m quite fond of them and in some, I love them. I just don’t think (they know that) they feel the same way about people who think as I do. Perhaps, reading these posts will open their minds to that possibility.

It won’t always work, of course. Whenever I write a particularly controversial post, like the recent one in which I expressed my growing hope the President Trump will prove to be a good president, a few subscribers – even old friends – fall away.

But it’s still worth trying. Especially if, like me, you like the sound of whistling.


M.H. Johnston

3 comments to An Apologia for Civil Horizon

  • Aaron Trehub  says:


    You quite courteously didn’t out me, so I’ll out myself. I’m the guy who asked you that question. I’m genuinely curious as to the answer. I don’t think I have changed any minds among the people–colleagues, friends, and family–with whom I have corresponded privately on these matters. For the most part, I haven’t had much success in even getting them to engage. Could be me, of course. Since you have gone public (and props to you for doing so, by the way–it takes courage), I was wondering if your experience has been different.

    But: how can you or I know for sure? I suspect you are right when you say that minds change slowly and incrementally (if at all) and that debate has little to do with it. Your fellow New England-based blogger Neo-Neocon has written quite eloquently about her own political evolution: It took a while for her to get from where she was to where she is today, and it was mostly a private process.

    As for the blog: No apologia or apologies needed. You write good stuff, and your posts are a welcome oasis of civility and thoughtfulness in an increasingly rancorous landscape. We can’t always know whether we’re having an effect, but there is satisfaction in stating one’s beliefs as clearly and honestly as one can. Bearing witness, as it were. Please keep posting. I’ll certainly keep reading, and I’ll try to do a better job of commenting.

    Best regards,

    Aaron Trehub

  • Doug McCaig  says:

    Sounds like Aaron is a ‘little’ man (who cares? – unless he is in fact 6’7″) with a big heart. I like the idea that the same percentage of confederates who owned slaves is the same as BMW owners today. Interesting perspective on Southern Slavery owned by the 1% of the Democrats in the South. Tough to reconcile.

  • Aaron Trehub  says:


    A mere seven inches shy of 6’7″.

    I’m a transplanted Yankee from western Massachusetts who has lived and worked in Alabama for almost 14 years. Never thought I’d wind up in the Deep South, but somehow I did. I love it here. It reminds me of New England in some respects. Of course I don’t mean the politics. Apart from a two-county-wide blue band across its midriff, Alabama is a solid red state. (We’ll find out just how solid in a couple of weeks.) No, I mean the weight of history. The late British military historian John Keegan wrote: “Pain is a dimension of old civilizations. The South has it. The rest of the United States does not.” Keegan was right about that, but New England comes the closest.

    This goes to your and Mark’s points about slavery and self-delusion. One still encounters “War of Northern Aggression” apologists down here, but all of the Southerners I know recognize that slavery was the immediate cause of the war and the source of the toxins that persisted in institutionalized form for at least a hundred years after 1865. Oddly enough, those same people don’t like being lectured on their history or required to denounce their ancestors by sanctimonious Northerners whose own record in this area is nothing to brag about. As a Massachusetts native who attended UMass in the 1970s with guys from South Boston, I’ve sometimes had to remind my Southern colleagues that their region did not and does not have a monopoly on bigotry in this country. As Mark said, life is full of “all-too-human, multilayered complexities”.



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