Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Don't Know Much About History...

The New York Times published an article sure to provoke incredulity, or something, when it noted that many Southern states and jurisdictions are just about ready to celebrate the Civil War. Not commemorate, but celebrate, and to do it without acknowledging what the war was all about—slavery. This is b.s., and the Times engages in a bit of false balancing by choosing to use “liberal sociologist” James W. Loewen as opposed to, you know, scholarly consensus.

It’s a puzzler to hear quotation after quotation like this in the article:
“We in the South, who have been kicked around for an awfully long time and are accused of being racist, we would just like the truth to be known,” said Michael Givens, commander-in-chief of the Sons, explaining the reason for the television ads. While there were many causes of the war, he said, “our people were only fighting to protect themselves from an invasion and for their independence.”

Yeah, for their independence for keeping slaves. It’s fairly amazing how common the belief that the Civil War was not fundamentally fought over slavery—I’d say practically every history class I’ve been in that’s touched on the Civil War has featured at least one contentious disquisition about how, yes, the Civil War was actually fought over slavery. Amazing because discouraging: it takes a certain willful blindness and lack of empathy to insist that the War was some sort of noble enterprise on the part of the South, and while it doesn’t directly cause discouraging attitudes towards black people, it’s of the same piece as those attitudes. They say war is written by the victors, but really it’s written by the powerful, and the persistence of this narrative confirms that Southern white narratives are more powerful and more truculent than their competition.


  1. I think your underlying point that discussions like these tend to downplay the true horror of slavery is a good one. I also don't have any comment on the current commemorations or people celebrating secession, who are as alien to my life and concerns as the people on cable news. I think however that there's much more to the common morality play of the Civil War that you refer to if not endorse outright: Southern society was fundamentally wrong, they therefore deservedly lost the war, and Southerners are still bitter to this day – and still wrong.

    For one thing, saying that the war was fought over slavery as so many do is about as technically correct, succinct, and unhelpful as saying that War and Peace is about Russia. Slavery was the key issue no doubt, but it wasn't really an ideological issue – it was more like the essential condition that divided the two regions economically, politically, religiously, etc. As I'm sure you probably know in more detail than I do, it was all about the fight for land, resources, and political power in westward expansion, with each side feeling like if they didn't one up or at least contain the other then they would be overwhelmed and their way of life destroyed. Slavery was the backdrop to all this, but hardly anyone cared about the slaves themselves, with both North and South so highly invested in racial ideology and white supremacy – yet today of course the South bears the brunt of these characterizations.

    For another, Southerners had the correct sense of themselves as the underdog in the fight – an agrarian rural society in dispute with a much more industrialized urban one. The distribution of slaves at the time was as dramatically skewed as the distribution of wealth today in the U.S. - individual plantation owners controlled huge percentages of the slave population. There were significant numbers of indentured servants and destitute, illiterate white sharecroppers working with the slaves, and while it's difficult to emphasize the poverty of their lives because they were alongside people literally considered objects of property, for practical purposes their existence was only a step or two, if that, above that of slaves - and they were the class of people doing the fighting for the South. Then there were members of the educated elite like Robert E. Lee, who in effect was on the verge of flipping a coin between either side before deciding that duty to his home state was more important than continuing with the U.S. Army – to boil that down and say that his decision was made based on slavery is an impossible explanation.

    So when you talk about the resiliency of the Southern white narrative today, that sense of being the underdog – seemingly doomed from the start yet willing to fight on – is a big part of it, very powerful, and people like to wallow in that sense. Telling them they're wrong to feel that way only adds to their conviction. And one more consideration is to look at the types of people who are driving these sentiments – through history one of the more seemingly unusual things is that the people who are economically disadvantaged themselves and would seem to be closer to the plight of slaves than the capitalist elite – white sharecroppers in the South, dockworkers in the North, etc. - have been some of the biggest proponents of racial rhetoric, which points to how closely aligned it has been at times to economic concerns, but also I think in some way to how easily misled people who are illiterate, uneducated, and rooted to one location and way of life by economic necessity can be.

  2. In closing I'd say this: the average person today, and especially the average self-identified white person, is highly sensitive in public to matters of race, but this just as often as not takes the form of finding other people and proving them insensitive in order to raise their own spot in the ladder of understanding or “getting it” - while the real issues are skirted around, avoided, and remain misunderstood. With articles like this I always imagine a scenario like that - a liberal readership gleefully pointing their finger at someone else, so stupid in their eyes that they would even bring up these issues in public or even appear to be the slightest touch “insensitive”. In these cases there's just as much misunderstanding and deliberate lack of empathy on their part as there is, and as you point out, with the willfully ignorant attitudes of the subjects they are ridiculing.

  3. Damn, I think it ate my earlier post, must have been offensive in length.

  4. Hm, yes, it did. Odd; disappointing. But I saw the original post in my e-mail.

    You talk about how the Civil War is often seen as a morality play in which the North fought to free slavery, and how that is equally as untrue as denying slavery played role. I agree with that statement, of course; I hope my original post wasn't too unclear on that point. The North wasn't really fighting, initially, to free all of the slaves.

    That said, the South most certainly was fighting to preserve slavery, both implicitly and explicitly. They feared that Lincoln was a radical who wanted to free all of the slaves, they wanted the fugitive slave act enforced vigorously and comprehensively, and generally talked about the importance of slavery. That was certainly the view of the Southern elite. The majority of Southerners and the footsoldiers had, as befitting a mass group of people, a muddle of different motives and views. But they probably don't go to war without the encouragement and leadership of the Southern elite, and their motives were slave-centric, so I think it's fair to say the Civil War was primarily about slavery.

  5. That's right of course, I was just trying to point out something often misunderstood: that southerners generally saw the war, and still do today, as a fight to preserve their way of life - which crucially depended upon slavery - rather than a racist crusade for the institution of slavery itself, since even many slaveholders themselves recognized it as an evil yet offered tepid moral justifications for it to mask their real inability to let go of their self-interest bound up in it. Similarly the north, who mostly saw slavery not as a moral issue first and foremost but as a dire threat to the dissolution of the republic and their own self-interest. Slavery was the crux of the war yet somehow also still a background issue, since wars are never fought on behalf of poor disenfranchised people. The markers of historical achievement that we hold up today like the Emancipation Proclamation weren't moral victories at the time of their making, since Lincoln didn't set out to free all slaves on moral grounds but as a key strategic move - to sow discord among the Confederacy, raise more troops, and turn public opinion in the North's favor.

    Yet today it seems that the only way people look at it is through the moral lens of right and wrong, while trying to position themselves with the right and distance themselves from anything remotely resembling the wrong. I can't stand the people you reference in your post who stupidly rehash their myths of southern gentility and pine for the confederacy, even though just about every confederate flag bearer I've seen looks like their ancestors were much more likely sharecroppers than plantation owners, but I also can't stand these people like the liberal media that sit in judgment and condemnation of them without trying to understand anything about them. The former feed off this attention and intensify the seductive feeling of doom and being wronged by history, while the latter are at constant pains to demonstrate their difference and correctness.