What's wrong with being a traitor?

In this thread, there’s some talk about how we need to not honor Confederates because they’re traitors.

It seems to me that their crime was standing for the wrong ideals, not that they were traitors.

Isn’t George Washington a traitor? Don’t we appreciate traitors from the USSR who defected to America?

It seems to me that “traitors are bad” is just a state-approved “snitches get stiches” policy, which punishes people for failing to follow rules and accede to those in power, and which is utilized by all institutions to resist change and challenges to the status quo.

I think it’s important in the situation of the rebel southerners because the resistance to their removal or any criticism of them at all really is often rooted in supposed patriotism, so reminding their supporters that they were rebels rebuts that part of the argument.

Nothing wrong with being a traitor if you don’t love your country. The problem here is that people who want to honor these Confederate traitors think they’re good patriotic Americans. Obviously, a good patriotic American has to condemn those who took up arms against our nation.

One man’s traitor is another man’s hero, but that isn’t the point.

The point is that they were fighting… ever so gallantly, I’m sure… for the right to to maltreat and exploit black people.

I don’t think the country they were traitors against should commemorate them. Simple enough.
With one exception - if the traitors turned out to be on the right side of history, then they deserve it. I don’t know if the guy who tried to blow up Hitler got a memorial, but he deserves one. These traitors in support of slavery don’t.

I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s possible to become a traitor to one’s government specifically because one loves one’s country; though it’s an awfully tricky line to draw.

(I’m reminded of a line I remembered as being from Jefferson Airplane, but when I looked it turns out to be from Phil Ochs: “Just before the end even treason might be worth a try / This country is too young to die”.)

The classic line about treason and patriotism is, What’s the difference between a traitor and a founding father? Who wins the war.

Now some people do become traitors for personal gain; that’s a different issue. And of course some people fought for the Confederacy for personal gain, or at any rate to avoid personal loss: they didn’t want to lose what they thought of as their property rights in other people.

And I agree that there’s a contradiction in people claiming, today, simultaneously to be patriots of the United States of America and to be thinking of Confederate generals as deserving of honor. If they’d had their way, there wouldn’t be any United States of America; or, at least, the states of the Confederacy wouldn’t have been part of it. They were traitors to the country we did wind up with, even though, had they won the war, they’d have been founding fathers (I doubt they’d have recognized founding mothers) of a different country entirely.

    Treason doth never prosper. What’s the reason?
    For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

       – Sir John Harington (1561-1612)

You’re missing a key point. It’s one thing for a country to honor somebody who betrayed another country. But it’s foolish for a country to honor somebody who betrayed that country itself.

The United States can honor George Washington but there’s no reason why the United Kingdom should. The United Kingdom can honor Benedict Arnold if it wishes, but the United States should not.

Same thing with spies and defectors. The United States can honor the Russian Peter Deriabin and Russia can honor the American George Koval. You get honored by the side you switched to not the one you switched from.

Confederates turned against the United States. So they should not be honored in the United States.

I think what you describe in the OP is what “traitor” means. It isn’t Washington who we call a “traitor,” but Benedict Arnold. A “traitor” is someone who betrays us, or at least the cause we think is good. As such, it should be obvious why, from our perspective, that is bad.

You aren’t labeled a traitor if you refuse to follow bad rules. As such, I don’t think it glorifies “always following the rules.”

Actually the United Kingdom has honored George Washington; there’s a statue of Washington in Trafalgar Square in London. The British chose to honor Washington not because he was a “traitor” to Britain (although, strictly speaking, he undoubtedly was) but because nowadays nearly all British citizens would agree with the political and philosophical ideals for which Washington “betrayed his country”:

(The Washington statue has actually been the subject of controversy recently, but not because Washington was a “traitor to Britain”, but because he was a slave owner.)

This is a good point, and the statue to Washington is made specifically because the British eventually realized that they were in the wrong.

Should we come to the conclusion that the north was actually in the wrong in the Civil War, then we should start honoring the confederate generals as well.

I’m fairly unlikely to accept that conclusion.

That may be stretching the point a bit. The statue was presented by the Commonwealth of Virginia in the aftermath of WW1: I’m not aware that anyone in national or local government actively sought it out (unlike the statues of Lincoln and FDR elsewhere in London). And given that he shares a space with one of our less admired kings (James II), it’s not that emphatic a statement.

Better put, indeed. I couldn’t think of that quote at the time; and couldn’t find a clear cite for my version.

Agreeing with that.

– and, you know, seems to me that’s why we’ve got the current argument. Because a significant percentage of the people who want the statues kept up do think the North was in the wrong. Why else call it the War of Northern Aggression?

Many, maybe nearly all of them, will deny that they mean that the South was in the right about slavery. And for some that won’t just be a noise that they make in public. But it sure looks to a whole lot of people on the other side of the argument like they’re saying that the South was in the right.

Fair enough. Still, if some English town sought to present a statue of Benedict Arnold to the United States, to be displayed in Washington, D.C., I rather imagine the U.S. would have declined the honor entirely, not just stuck General Arnold’s statue off next to a statue of Millard Fillmore or something like that.

At any rate, Washington isn’t generally reviled as a “traitor” on either side of the Atlantic, both because he won, of course, but also because his cause is considered admirable or at least respectable. Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis fail on both counts.

I’ve thought about this before. This sort of traitor talk sounds suspiciously similar to the concept in some Islamic circles where you are automatically a Muslim by virtue of being born into Islam, and if you convert to another religion, you are an apostate and religious traitor. Even if you loathe Islam and never chose to be in it. The concept says more about the person making the accusation than it does about the person being accused.

One cannot really be born with automatic allegiance: as Kim Philby said when he was accused of treason, “To betray, you must first belong.” Furthermore, it is clearly possible to take actions one genuinely believes are ethical, legal, and in the supreme interest of one’s country and yet be branded a dirty traitor by some faction.

By contrast, if you have been happily working for The Cause, believe in it, took oaths, and so forth, but turn around and actively fuck everybody over in exchange for a briefcase full of money, that betrays a certain lack of integrity.

Resigning or leaving your tribe/nation/religious order/ethnic group is not really treason, though people have done such things where their family felt betrayed and never spoke to them again.

The United States that you and I pledge allegiance to is not the same country that existed prior to 1861. It more closely resembled the Hanseatic League or the Common Market than a large nation-state; its foreign policy was driven more by trade than, say, naval might. It’s kind of why the US was less prone to get involved in European wars before the Civil War than after.

The point is that Confederate apologists don’t get to brand themselves as a different sort of patriotic American.

The Confederacy was a treasonous, virulently racist anti-American movement. Its officers should have been tried, jailed, and/or hung like Nazis at the Nuremburg trials. Its land should have been occupied and administered by the US military for an indefinite period of time. In the current day its symbols and banners should be banned as the Germans ban Nazi imagery, backed up by jail time. Sympathizer groups like Sons of the Confederacy should be outlawed and disbanded. Terrorist groups like the KKK should be hunted down and executed by military tribunal.

This may seem harsh, but a state of war still exists regarding the Civil War because Confederate sympathizers are still in a state of rebellion. It won’t be over until we start treating these people like the enemies of the state that they are, and start disbanding their groups and jailing their leaders as necessary. The government has never acted with sufficient clarity about who and what these people were and are.

Much of that is unrealistic now that we’ve coddled the traitors for a century and a half. The least we can now do is point out that you’re lying if you wave a Confederate flag and call yourself an American patriot. The two are mutually exclusive.

The other thing about treason is, it isn’t always evil, but it is always serious. It’s no small thing to betray one’s country: If you do so, it’s because you believe really strongly in something. So then we must ask: What is it that you so strongly believe in? Washington believed strongly in democratic self-representation of a people. That’s a good thing to believe strongly in. Lee believed strongly in the idea that human beings are property. That’s an evil thing to believe strongly in.

Which isn’t relevant to what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about men who, prior to their treason, swore of their own free will to serve and defend the United States.

Oh, and just to get it out of the way, but Lee wasn’t acting out of loyalty to his state, either. He was also a traitor to Virginia: The supreme law of the state of Virginia defined his actions as treason.

I think the reason that the Union didn’t try, at the time, to impose the sort of terms you’re proposing was exactly that they were hoping to prevent a state of war continuing to exist. I doubt the South would have surrendered on those terms, and if they had formally done so I doubt even more that they would have done so in practice. And I additionally doubt that the US military of that time would have had the ability to manage the entire South as occupied territory indefinitely; this was before the country had large standing professional armies, and most of the survivors of both armies probably wanted pretty badly to go back home.

Reconstruction might have gone a good bit differently if Lincoln had survived; that might have helped.