Tag Archives: American Civil War

Richard Cohen, Thomas Jefferson, and the Legacy of White Privilege in America

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Even his beard is white.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Even his beard is white.

Richard Cohen, columnist for the Washington Post, understands something. He understands that white people have it rough. Or, at least they think that they have it rough. Some white people think that they’re losing their traditional privileges as the default ruling demographic in America. Their ensuing anger has, of late, once again lit the age-old fuse of white grievance in the United States, and numerous media outlets have spilled plenty of real and electronic ink trying to access the implications of this anger on American culture.

Richard Cohen is, like me, a white person, and he wants to understand a particular brand of grievance that motivates other white people and manifests most potently in the form of that drooling, reactionary blob of grammatically challenged rage, the Tea Party. In a recent column, Cohen pissed off a large chunk of humanity by attributing Tea Party rage not to racism, but to fear of change. Despite devoting portions of his column to mocking Tea Party rodeo clowns like Sarah Palin, many readers saw a particular paragraph in Cohen’s column as evidence of the author’s apparent sympathy for conservative white cultural dominance. The offending paragraph claimed that:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

Now, Cohen has had some nasty bouts of foot-in-mouth disease in the (recent) past. This is the same guy who, earlier this month, claimed to have just learned that American slavery “was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks,” but was, in fact, “a lifetime’s condemnation to an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children.” That’s right, Cohen just figured this out in 2013, and only after watching Steve McQueen’s film “12 Years a Slave,” because book-larnin’ is hard work.

But seriously, Cohen’s column stirred up a whole mess of anger because it appeared to reveal a stunning obtuseness on his part about the changing demographic face of America. Its been over sixty years since the end of legal segregation, yet Cohen admits that some Americans still have a “gag-reflex” when confronted with an interracial couple. Moreover, Cohen described the Tea Party as a group with “conventional” views, which, by default, seemed to suggest that non-Tea Partiers hold “unconventional” views. Cohen himself may or may not hold these views, though his history of writing oversimplified, bone-headed columns on the subject of race suggest that the former is possible. Plenty of people, for example, have labeled Cohen an “unreconstructed bigot” and a “racist.” But whatever Cohen’s own views, his column was, poor choice of words notwithstanding, an accurate description of Tea Party rage and the extremely potent source that fuels that rage: white privilege.

Simply dismissing Cohen as a good ole’ fashioned racist is not a particularly helpful way of discussing the kind of “indirect racism” (yeah, I just made up that term right now) that fuels modern white privilege. Liberals who call conservatives outright racists tend to get massive amounts of pushback from people aghast at being lumped together with the most theatrical and well-known symbols of American bigotry, such as the Old Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan, and the southern lynch mob. Thus, the cycle merely repeats: liberals accuse conservatives of being racists, conservatives accuse liberals of playing the “race card;” rinse, wash, repeat.

The kind of indirect racism that animates the Tea Party, however, is less about outright hatred based on mere skin color (though it is a legacy of that idea) and more about how the truly domineering racism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bequeathed the legacy of white privilege to modern-day Americans. For American whites, cultural, political, and economic dominance became common to the point of it being second-nature.

Let’s unpack that idea a bit further, shall we? There’s mounds of literature on the concept of white privilege, but let’s go with a straightforward definition: white privilege means that society affords you preferential treatment because you are white. Historian Linda Faye Williams helpfully expands on this idea in her book The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America. Faye Williams writes that white privilege constitutes situations in which “whites display a sense of entitlement and make claims to social status and economic advantages, actively struggling to maintain both these privileges and their sense of themselves as superior.”*

In addition, white privilege tends to blind its benefactors to the very existence of their privilege. As Faye Williams notes, for many whites, “‘racism’ is a problem belonging to people of color, not to whites.”* Those who perceive their whiteness as the default, “normal” setting, and, by extension, equate whiteness with normality, often get defensive when others point out how such a stance could lead to the normalization of white racial dominance.

But, of course, such a normalization of white racial dominance is exactly what happened for much of U.S. history. Because the America was a nation paradoxically founded on the principles of equality and racial slavery, every one of its major historical events — from constitutional debates over taxation, to geographical expansion, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the Civil Rights Movement, to welfare reform — have, in some way, involved debates over the how the constructs of race afforded benefits to whites at the expense of non-whites.

Thomas Jefferson. Wearing a coat like that was totally a sign of privilege.

Thomas Jefferson. Wearing a coat like that was totally a sign of privilege.

Perhaps no single figure better encapsulates the reckoning with the consequences of white privilege than the undisputed Grand Poobah of American Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. So hallowed a figure is Jefferson in American culture that even his biographers — who should know better — are nonetheless loathe to criticize the man for fear that recognition of Jefferson’s basic human faults would somehow negate his inherent genius and monumental accomplishments. The debate over Jefferson’s faults is at its most contentious when it comes to his views on slavery and race. Jefferson was, after all, an immensely wealthy slaveholding planter, but he also wrote about the detrimental aspects of slavery as an institution, most famously in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1788). Such writings have led many historians to claim that Jefferson was, in one form or another, anti-slavery.

However, as legal historian Paul Finkelman notes in his article “Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On,” Jefferson’s reservations about slavery hinged less on concerns for the enslaved, and more on concerns about how slavery as an institution affected his status as a privileged white slaveholder. As evidence for this interpretation, Finkelman cites Jefferson’s famous statement about slavery: “[W]e have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”* Historians have traditionally interpreted this statement as a fear of slave revolts, but Finkelman observes that the “self-preservation” to which Jefferson alluded could also refer to his personal fortune. The labor of his slaves afforded Jefferson the good life, making the thought of losing that labor downright unpalatable.

Finkleman describes Jefferson as “compulsively acquisitive.” Indeed, on one trip to France, Jefferson  bought over 60 oil paintings, over 40 luxury chairs, 7 busts by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, multiple full-length, gilt-framed mirrors, 4 marble-topped tables, and a vast assortment of ‘items of personal luxury.’* For Jefferson, Finkelman writes, “the wolf may also have been the wolf of gluttony and greed.” Indeed, slavery gave Jefferson his lavish lifestyle, and though he may not have liked being dependent on slaves, “he did not dislike it enough to anything about it.”* Jefferson could own slaves because he was a white man and his slaves were black, and the wealth generated by his slaves allowed Jefferson to live an aristocratic life.

No wonder he couldn’t let the wolf go: slavery was predicated on the concept of white privilege — that whites were superior and blacks inferior. Jefferson was a great man, but a man nonetheless, and those men (or women) placed into positions of power by the normalization of dominance over others are seldom in a rush to give up such a privileged status.

Got white privilege, America? You bectha' we do.

Got white privilege, America? You bectha’ we do.

Jefferson’s struggles with the moral implications of white privilege echo in the contemporary musings of people like Richard Cohen, who run into trouble when they casually brush off the type of indirect racism created by centuries of American white privilege. To be sure, the Tea Party types about whom Cohen writes are not racist in the same vein as the cross-burning Klansmen or the angry lynch mobs of decades past. Rather, like Jefferson and millions of whites before them, segments of the Tea Party have been simmering in the soup of white privilege for so long that they don’t even recognize that an earlier form of racial dominance helped make the base of that soup. Thus, you don’t need to be a flaming racist to defend cultural norms that were forged in a far more racist past.

American conservatives genuinely fear the consequences of losing their white privilege. Slavery is obviously no longer the issue, but slavery’s legacy has, as Linda Faye Williams writes, long resulted in the “unequal allocation of educational resources, substantial insider networks that funnel good jobs largely to whites, and social policies that deliver more generous benefits to whites.”* These are the modern fruits of white privilege.

It’s no coincidence that, according to a recent Democracy Corps study, the Republican Party’s Tea Party base “are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities.” Just as Jefferson feared losing the white privilege that created the luxurious life of an eighteenth-century planter, the modern Tea Party fears losing the white privilege that has long directed the benefits of social programs and political power disproportionately into the hands of American whites at the expense of non-white minorities. Richard Cohen, I think, understands this fear, but he also, on some level, identifies with it, which helps explain the befuddlement that he and others express when charged with racism. To paraphrase a particularly plain-spoken white guy, “It’s the whiteness, stupid.”

* See Linda Faye Williams, The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), 10-11.

* See Paul Finkelman, “Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 102 (April, 1994): 205.

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The GOP, the Debt Ceiling, and the History of Killing Political Legitimacy

Poster advertising a "Save the Union" meeting, Frederick, Maryland, September, 1860.

Poster advertising a “Save the Union” meeting, Frederick, Maryland, September, 1860.

The situation was unprecedented in scope. The conservative party in America, its hardcore base mostly relegated to the South, had just suffered a devastating electoral defeat in which a lawyer and political progressive from Illinois won the U.S. presidency along mostly sectional lines, carrying primarily northern and west coast states. In response to the stinging rebuke of their policies by the majority of the American people, the conservative party decided that rather than accept the outcome of the presidential election, they would instead try to prevent the victorious party from governing by denying their very political legitimacy. In so doing, the conservative party in America waged war against democracy itself.

Does this sound familiar? If you pay any attention to history, it should. But I’m not talking about the current showdown in Washington over the debt ceiling, in which the congressional Republican caucus, its base largely confined to the South, is demanding that President Barack Obama agree to defund his signature health care reform law or else they will shut down the government. Rather, in the above paragraph, I was referring to the fallout from the election of 1860, in which the conservative southern Democratic Party decided that rather than accept the election of Illinois Republican Abraham Lincoln as president, the southern states would reject his election entirely and secede from the Union.

The two situations are not identical, but they share uncanny similarities, particularly the attempt by a conservative political party to deny the very political legitimacy of its opponent. Mark Twain once said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” That should be clear to anyone observing the current debt ceiling fiasco.

As the summer of 2013 winds down, the idea that a president who just won reelection would cave to the insane demands of a small, right-wing minority in the House, is, of course, ludicrous, but the Republican Party isn’t interested in shaping policy here. They’re doing something far more symbolic and destructive: like the southern Democratic Party secessionists of 1860-61, the conservative Republican radicals in the House are testing just how far they can get away with denying the current Democratic Party’s right to govern.

As Jonathan Chait observes in a recent piece for New York Magazine, the debt ceiling showdown is:

[A] Constitutional struggle, a kind of quasi-impeachment, that will test Obama’s mettle and, next to his reelection campaign, poses the most singular threat to his presidency.

The progression of events begins with a dynamic I described in a print piece at the beginning of 2012 – conservatives had come to regard the 2012 race as their last chance to win an election as authentic conservatives against a rising Democratic majority. Since their crushing defeat, they have ignored the task of refurbishing the party’s national appeal for its next national electoral bid, and instead have recommitted themselves to waging increasingly millenarian confrontations from their existing red state power base in Congress.

Most of us expected, at some level, that the election would cool the right’s apocalyptic fervor. Instead, the opposite has occurred. Paul Ryan candidly explained the calculation: “The reason this debt limit fight is different is, we don’t have an election around the corner where we feel we are going to win and fix it ourselves. We are stuck with this government another three years.” This is a remarkable confession. Republicans need to compel Obama to accept their agenda, not in spite of the fact that the voters rejected it at the polls but precisely for that reason.

Paul Ryan’s confession that for conservatives, a legitimate national election in which voters rejected their policies should be no impediment to Republicans trying to enact those very policies at any cost is indeed remarkable. Yet, it makes perfect sense when you consider that, as political scientist Corey Robin notes, radicalism is the very essence of conservatism. Recent political commentators’ revelations about the nature of the American right, Robin writes, are completely on target. Conservatism, he reminds us:

[L]ives in a fact-free universe, where ideological purity is more important than pragmatic solutions… it’s revolutionary and radical rather than realistic and moderate…it’s activist rather than accommodating…it’s, well,…not…really…conservative.

This preference for purity of ideology and rejection of compromise defines modern conservatism (and by “modern” in this context, I mean the conservatism that goes back to the reaction against the French Revolution) and helps explain the striking parallels between the debt ceiling showdown of 2013 and the secession crisis of 1860-61. In both instances, a reactionary conservative party, divided amongst itself  but nonetheless fearful that’s its grip on national power was slipping away, sought to use radical measures to prevent its political opponents from governing, despite their opponents having been victorious in democratic elections.

Take the issue of party division: contemporary political commentators have noted that the debt ceiling fight over Obamacare has spurred a Republican Party inner civil war in which House conservatives find themselves at odds with their Senate colleagues and even their former presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

Speaker of the House John Boener (R-OH) leads a Republican caucus that is threatening to shut down the Federal government.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) leads a Republican caucus that is the equivalent of political arsonists.

Similar party divisions over how best to preserve slavery against the northern based Republican Party split the Democratic Party into three factions during the 1860 presidential election. As a result of this split, Abraham Lincoln faced three Democratic challengers: the pro-slavery, states’ rights candidate John C. Breckinridge, whose support was strongest in the slave-heavy Deep South, the “Constitutional Union Party” candidate, John Bell, a moderate whose platform of compromise to keep the Union intact made him popular in the Border South, and Stephen Douglas of “popular sovereignty” fame, who represented the last hope of the pro-Union Democratic Party in the North. All factions wanted to preserve slavery, but were divided over how to do so.

Southern support for the pro-slavery, states’ rights Breckinridge faction eventually spilled over into support for secession. By seceding from the Union and forming the Confederate States of America, southern Democratic leaders flat-out rejected the results of a fair national election and denied the political legitimacy of Republican Abraham Lincoln to govern. Consider, for example, these lines from Georgia’s “Declaration of the Causes of Secession:”

The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization, is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party. While it attracts to itself by its creed the scattered advocates of exploded political heresies, of condemned theories in political economy, the advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government, anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. By anti-slavery it is made a power in the state.

Such are the opinions and such are the practices of the Republican party, who have been called by their own votes to administer the Federal Government under the Constitution of the United States. We know their treachery; we know the shallow pretenses under which they daily disregard its plainest obligations. If we submit to them it will be our fault and not theirs.

To avoid these evils we resume the powers which our fathers delegated to the Government of the United States, and henceforth will seek new safeguards for our liberty, equality, security, and tranquillity.

Now, compare Georgia’s desire to “seek new safeguards for our liberty” with a statement from Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ) during the 2012 presidential election following one of multiple House Republican votes to repeal Obamacare:

I’m encouraged today to see the House of Representatives fulfill its intended role as the body closest to, and most ‘representative’ of, the American people.

House Republicans are delivering on their promise to do everything possible to prevent Obamacare, including continuing to work to defund the fatally flawed law.

The American people have been unmistakably clear in rejecting the notion of a socialized health care system, but have been unceremoniously ignored by this Administration. But make no mistake: President Obama has had his say; the Supreme Court has had its say; and the American people will have their say this November.

Just as the Georgia secession declaration claimed that the Lincoln administration had used “treachery” to gain control over the federal government and implement its anti-slavery agenda, Franks claimed that the Obama administration “unceremoniously ignored” the wishes of the American people by implementing Obamacare, and that the people would have their say by voting President Obama out of office in 2012. The American people, of course, HAD their say: but instead, they reelected President Obama, giving him every right to implement the Affordable Health Care Act.

So, when the traditional political routes failed, the House GOP resorted to taking the country hostage by pulling a page from the 1860-61 southern secessionists’ playbook: just as the secessionists threatened to tear the country apart when they lost an election, the House GOP are now threatening to shut the country down in a last-ditch effort to destroy Obamacare. In so doing, they are following the advice of conservative ideologues, like tax policy advocate Grover Norquist, who famously stated that Republicans’ strategy in the face of a Democratic president should be to “make it so that a Democrat cannot govern as a Democrat.”

This is what happened the last time democracy was voided in the U.S.

This is what happened the last time democracy was voided in the U.S.

Thus, while contemporary conservatives are not advocating secession, they are advocating the essence of secession: the idea that when a political party is defeated at the polls, is has the right to damage and destroy the democratic process in an effort to get its agenda recognized. Just as conservative Democrats denied Republican Abraham Lincoln’s right to govern in 1860-61 by seceeding from the Union, conservative Republicans in 2013 are denying Democrat Barack Obama’s right to govern by holding the federal government hostage.

The historical ironies are so deep that we just might drown in them. The events of 1860-61 and 2013 prove that, even in the world’s greatest democracy, the democratic process cannot be taken for granted. These events should also give pause those who still maintain that conservatism, as an allegedly reactionary movement, cannot be radical. In their effort to save the burning house from the flames of change, conservatives have historically been willing to burn the house down. Contemporary conservatives show no signs of bucking this trend as they circle the House of Representatives carrying torches and kerosene.

The American Civil War Rages on…in England

Members of the U.K. based Southern Skirmish Association shout the Rebel yell.

Members of the U.K. based Southern Skirmish Association shout the Rebel yell.

This past weekend, a bloody battle raged between entrenched Confederate forces and determined Union attackers in Bath, U.K. That’s right, the Brits also like to reenact the American Civil War. Today I thought I’d follow up a bit on an earlier, and deeply profound (just trust me on that) post about Civil War reenactments by highlighting an annual event held by British Civil War enthusiasts.

As the Bath Chronicle reported:

Gunfire rang out around the edge of Bath at the weekend as hundreds of people re-enacted some of the drama of the American Civil War.

The American Museum at Claverton has been hosting the annual weekend-long re-enactment since 1970 and this year welcomed around 200 members of the Southern Skirmish Association to the attraction, dressed in full 19th century battle regalia.

The event is associated with the American Museum in Britain, which bills itself as “the only museum of American decorative and folk art outside of the United States.” The reenactors themselves are members of the Southern Skirmish Association, a group of British Civil War buffs that date back to 1968, making them “the oldest American Civil War Re-enacting Society outside of the United States.” The SSA is a registered U.K. charity and its mission statement is as follows:

Our aim is to honour the fallen of the American Civil War and we do this by means of “living history” re-enactments, with most members camping out in period costume and accommodation although modern camps are also available. We recreate realistic battle scenes and skirmishes, including artillery, cavalry as well as infantry forces.  

The group’s Civil War reenactments seem to be reasonably popular, as far as these things go, and, like similar events in the U.S., the reenactments attract visitors hoping for a rush of history without the blood and mayhem:

Around 700 visitors came through the doors of the museum over the weekend, and both skirmishers and officials were delighted with the event.

Zoe Dennington, head of learning and events programming for the museum, said: “We have lots of visitors who come especially for the re-enactment. It’s quite a specialist thing and it appeals to people who have a specific interest in the civil war. People come from across the country to see the event, and it also appeals to families because it’s such a spectacle.

Of course, its more than just mock fighting. The event also relies on a good dose of nineteenth century nostalgia:

Skirmishers spent the weekend camped outside the museum living life as it was back in the 1860s, holding several events including two hour-long skirmishes with firing displays, prize ceremonies and displays of medical equipment used in the period.

While its interesting to note the popularity of the American Civil War in other countries (I’m writing a post about it, so it must be important), the existence of a British Civil War reenactment group isn’t really that surprising. The U.K. also boasts a West Yorkshire-based group called the American Civil War Society that does “living history” style demonstrations and reenactments, and of course, the British also like to reenact their own civil war. A similar state-side phenomenon is the popularity of Medieval and Renaissance faires, in which Americans of all stripes leave their comic book shops and parents’ basements for a few days and re-create the supposed chivalrous heroism of Europe’s Dark Ages and ensuing enlightenment.

American "knights" recreate European days of yore.

American “knights” recreate European days of yore.

These types of historical reenactments are ways in which contemporary folks can experience history in a very selective and bloodless manner by playing up notions of honor, chivalry, and the general pleasures associated with allegedly simpler times. Certainly, the big draw of these types of events is the chance to see some historical violence without having to see any actual violence, and there’s something mildly uncomfortable about that notion. Its neutering the past to make it less threatening for the present. Then again, it’s no doubt a good idea to leave the nineteenth and other centuries’ worst violence in the past. Better to have a fake civil war than another real one…right?

To Kill or not to Kill? From the Copperheads to September 11

Civil War-era cartoon depiciting Copperheads as venomous snakes attacking liberty herself.

Civil War-era cartoon depicting Copperheads as venomous snakes attacking liberty herself.

I initially wanted to avoid writing what might very well turn into yet another hackneyed patriotic post on The United States’ most recent and visceral national tragedy. Plus, I like to keep this blog at least partially rooted in the nineteenth century, and what do the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks have to do with that era? Well, there actually is a connection. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that 9/11 actually connects to some deep-seated and long-lasting American ambiguities about the use of violence and the wisdom of war.

Despite a recent American cultural penchant towards mistaking force for strength and resorting to violence throughout the world without a full examination of the consequences, Americans have always been more divided than is commonly assumed over the use of violence in the name of grand ideals like “freedom,” “liberty,” “peace,” and, I should add, “Union.” Echoing my earlier post on how violence begets violence, the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania served as justification for the U.S. to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, even though no connection existed between that country and the 9/11 attacks. In 2003, when thousands of anti-war demonstrators gathered in cities like New York and Washington D.C. to protest then President George W. Bush’s proposal to go to war with Iraq, they were continuing a long tradition in which some Americans, rightly or wrongly (but in this case, rightly), vehemently resisted what they considered dubious reasons for American use of violence.

These protesters had strange kindred spirits among the Peace Democrats, or “Copperheads.” During the American Civil War, the Copperheads adamantly opposed President Abraham Lincoln’s war against the Confederacy and generally supported the South’s right to own slaves. The Copperheads were strongest in mid-western states like Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Republicans gave them their nickname, likening peace Democrats to the venomous snake because they supposedly represented a sinister internal threat to the Union war effort. The most famous Copperhead was Ohio congressman  Clement L. Vallandigham, whom Abraham Lincoln had arrested in May of 1863 on charges of aiding enemies of the United States via his outspoken anti-war and pro-slavery views.

The Copperheads, then, acted as more than mere political opponents of the Republican Party. As historian Keith Altavilla observes in an article for the Winter 2012 issue of Ohio Valley History (sorry, membership only through the Filson Historical Society, so take my word for it), the Copperheads served as a sort of internal “fifth column”— to use a phrase lobbed by conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan at anti-Iraq War protesters — that Union soldiers in the field saw as a domestic uprising against the necessary war against the Confederacy. Copperheads disrupted pro-war rallies and meetings, fielded anti-war, pro-Confederate political candidates, and inspired fears among some Union soldiers of secret Copperhead societies infiltrating all aspects of northern society. For northern soldiers in the field, Copperheads represented such a dire threat because they were neighbors, friends — even family members. As Michael Corleone once observed, nothing is more sinister than enemies who are as close as your friends.

Now, lest I get accused of (very) latent Copperhead support, let me be clear: the Copperheads were wrong. They were wrong about supporting Southern secession and they were wrong about supporting slavery. But the Copperheads do demonstrate that those who (misguidedly) spoke out against American war in the past found themselves both justly and unjustly vilified for refusing to immediately support more violence as a solution to a problem that began with violence in the first place.

During the 2002-2003 build up to the Iraq War, for example, right-wing commentators lobbed a series of nasty epithets at war protesters, accusing them of treason, cowardice, emasculation, and, worst of all, of being FRENCH. And why were anti-war protesters accused of liking baguettes and Gérard Depardieu? Because they didn’t support an equally violent response to the violent 9/11 attacks. Never mind that links between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks were fabricated; these loathsome, treasonous, granola-scarfing, patchouli-dipping, unwashed hippies needed a lesson in patriotic duty, a duty defined in large part by violence.

Unlike the Copperheads, however, who were wrong about the futility of the Union war effort, the Iraq War protesters were right: not only was the connection between Iraq and 9/11 non-existent, but the entire military operation against Iraq turned into a quagmire of untenable nation-building for the U.S. and tribal sectarianism for Iraq itself. Heck, opposing the Iraq War even got another lawyer from Illinois elected president. So in the right were the Iraq protesters that even Andrew “Fifth Column” Sullivan issued a pleading mea culpa for his misguided support for pre-emptive war.

The point is not that Copperheads and Iraq War protesters are quite the same. They aren’t. The Copperheads were wrong-headed supporters of secession and slavery who often employed anti-war rhetoric as an anti-Republican partisan cudgel. The Iraq War protesters, though some were unquestionably guilty of dirty hippie-ness, nonetheless recognized that going to war is not an act to be taken lightly or under shady pretences, even when calls for vengeance were loud and influential. But the Copperheads and the Iraq War demonstrators are part of a distinct tradition in American history in which some group, usually the minority, has been willing to question U.S. decisions to rectify damage done through violence  with yet more violence. This is the great legacy of September 11, 2001. For all of the post-attack calls for unity, what 9/11 really did was reawaken American divisions over violence that had largely been dormant since the end of the Vietnam War.

Now, as President Obama half-heartedly tries to convince a justifiably skeptical American public on the wisdom of U.S. military intervention in Syria, he simply cannot escape the shadow of 9/11 and the disastrous Iraq War that it spawned. So when remembering 9/11 today, also try to remember that the question of “to kill or not to kill” probably shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.

Just ask this guy:

Mission Accomplished

Southern Conservatism, the Confederacy, and the Legacy of Slavery

1861 U.S. Coast Survey Showing Prevalence of Slavery in Southern Counties.

1861 U.S. Coast Survey Showing Prevalence of Slavery in Southern Counties.

At the Vault History blog, Rebecca Onion posted a really cool map of the United States in 1861 (shown above), which uses data from the 1860 census to determine the percentage of enslaved people per county in the southern states.  Onion explains that:

The map, which shades counties based on the percentage of total inhabitants who were enslaved, shows what a range there was in levels of Southern enslavement. Some counties, the map explains, “appear comparatively light … this arises from the preponderance of whites and free blacks in the large towns in these counties.” The population of Orleans Parish, La., in one example, was 8.9 percent enslaved. Places that were rural but were located in mountainous areas devoid of plantations were similarly light-shaded: The people of Harlan County, Ky., were 2.3 percent enslaved.

Meanwhile, a dark belt of counties bordering the Mississippi River held more than 70 percent of their residents in slavery, with Tensas Parish, La., at 90.8 percent and Washington County, Miss., at 92.3 percent.

Historians have noted correlations between the percentage of slaves held in different parts of the South and the general enthusiasm for secession in 1860-1861.  Using these conclusions we can make some broad generalizations about support for the Confederacy in different southern states that are reasonably reliable…to a point. Onion notes, for example:

Though this map was simple, it showed the relationship between states’ commitment to slavery and their enthusiasm about secession, making a visual argument about Confederate motivations.

Again, this generalization is reasonably accurate, but as always, history is far more complicated than that. Take Mississippi for example: in 1860-61, some of its slaveholders, among the wealthiest people in the nation, voted for the Conservative Union ticket in 1860. Yet, other Mississippi slaveholders voted for immediate secession from the Union, and they ultimately won the day when Mississippi became the second state to secede from the Union in January 1861.

The supposed correlation between slaveholding and support for secession really gets at a bigger issue in southern history that is still pondered over in contemporary American politics: the connection between race and conservatism in the South. Shortly before the 2012 election, for example, Michael Lind — and a whole lot lot of other political watchers — noted that the current conservative Republican South basically consists of the Old Confederacy, while the current bastion of Democratic Party strength lies in the old Union states that put down the slaveholders’ rebellion. Lind notes:

Now that they dominate the Republican Party, Southern conservatives are using it to carry out the same strategies that they promoted during the generations when they controlled the Democratic Party, from the days of Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren to the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s.  From the 19th century to the 21st, the oligarchs of the American South have sought to defend the Southern system, what used to be known as the Southern Way of Life.

Notwithstanding slavery, segregation and today’s covert racism, the Southern system has always been based on economics, not race.  Its rulers have always seen the comparative advantage of the South as arising from the South’s character as a low-wage, low-tax, low-regulation site in the U.S. and world economy.  The Southern strategy of attracting foreign investment from New York, London and other centers of capital depends on having a local Southern workforce that is forced to work at low wages by the absence of bargaining power.

The key word in Lind’s analysis is “conservatism.” With some very notable historical exceptions that have generally proven a larger ruling trend, the South has been, and continues to be, dominated by political conservatism. In terms of the South, you can’t understand conservatism without recognizing the intimate connection between race and economics. This connection drove conservatism during the buildup to the Civil War, and it still retains a strong legacy on contemporary Southern conservatism.

As Corey Robin notes in The Reactionary Mind, his brilliant revisionist study of the modern Right, “Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument for why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, to govern themselves or the polity.” Thus, wherever there are movements seeking to expand freedom and agency to those lower orders in society, thereby expanding social agency beyond the sphere of the traditional ruling elite, conservatives will be there to, in the famous words of William F. Buckley Jr., yell “Stop!”

Nowhere was this more true than in the slaveholding South: there, powerful planters wanted to retain their system of racially based slave labor against the perceived growing political power of the anti-slavery North. But different groups of southern conservatives were divided over how to do that, and therein lies the answer to why some planters supported secession and some remained tied to the Union. Both groups, Secessionists and Conditional Unionists (those who believed that secession should only be a last resort, and that slavery was better protected in the Old Union) were conservatives. They both believed in the inherent right of a chosen few to benefit from a racially-based slave labor system. But the Secessionists thought that after Abraham Lincoln’s election, the slave system could best be protected by a new, breakaway nation, the Confederate States of America. Conditional Unionists, however, thought that slavery would better flourish under the Union. The latter proved right in the long run.

The legacy of slavery lives on in the political environment of the contemporary conservative South. Of course, southerners today don’t support slavery. But, the conservative South does support an economic system weighted almost entirely in employers’ favor. As Lind writes:

Anything that increases the bargaining power of Southern workers vs. Southern employers must be opposed, in the interest of the South’s regional economic development model.  Unions, federal wage and workplace regulations, and a generous, national welfare state all increase the bargaining power of Southern workers, by reducing their economic desperation.  Anti-union right-to-work laws, state control of wages and workplace regulations, and an inadequate welfare state all make Southern workers more helpless, pliant and dependent on the mercy of their employers.  A weak welfare state also maximizes the dependence of ordinary Southerrners on the tax-favored clerical allies of the local Southern ruling class, the Protestant megachurches, whose own lucrative business model is to perform welfare functions that are performed by public agencies elsewhere, like childcare.

The need to maintain the social and political dominance of privileged elites, and therefore stymie attempts by the lower orders to assert their agency, is a direct historical legacy of the old slave system, which was the ultimate manifestation of conservative dominance. Thus, Lind is partially right when he observes that “the Southern system is essentially about class and only incidentally about race.” In the South, the “lower orders” have historically consisted mostly of African-Americans. This created an intertwined relationship between race and class that exists to this day. Hence, southern conservatives continue their long fight against any agency on behalf of workers that might curtail employers’ power and pass restrictive voting laws that are blatantly designed to suppress racial minority groups that traditionally do not vote the conservative Republican ticket. Conservatives do these things because in the South, and indeed, in most of the United States, lower-income groups tend to be minority populations, especially African-Americans.

These are the groups most likely to use their votes to increase their freedom and agency relative to the ruling business and political elites. The fear of  a determined majority challenging the power of a much smaller ruling minority terrified southern conservatives of the 1860s, and contemporary southern conservatives still fear this expansion of power to the lower orders. In many ways, of course, the issues have changed, but in other ways, the fundamental issues of who wields power –  and why – remain as potent as when those slaveholding delegates voted to take Mississippi out of the Union and into a cataclysmic Civil War.

“For what they died, I fight a little longer:” More on National Blood Sacrifice

Soldiers' Graves at Vicksburg National Cemetery, Mississippi. Some of the graves remain unmarked and unidentified.

Soldiers’ Graves at Vicksburg National Cemetery, Mississippi. Some of the graves remain unmarked and unidentified.

As a way of building on some points I made in the previous post about the interconnectedness between modern nation-states and mass violence, Dan Vermilya has an interesting post at his blog Our Country’s Fiery Trial.  Vermilya is a Park Ranger at Antietam National Battlefield, who previously worked at Gettysburg National Historical Park. Reflecting on the meaning imparted by national parks that preserve the sights of mass slaughter during the Civil War, he emphasizes the usual, though still important, roles battlefields serve in reminding contemporary Americans why so many men died during that horrendous conflict. We as the American populace continue to honor the Civil War dead for making the “last full measure of devotion,” for sacrificing their bodies on the nation’s altar.

Such an idea is so commonplace, however, that I think its easy to really gloss over the full meaning implicit behind such sentiments, namely, that it is impossible to separate violence from the idea of the modern American nation. If we imagine the United States as metaphorically being constructed out of bricks, those bricks only hold together because they are tempered with the blood of the 600,00o plus soldiers who died at places like Antietam. The traditional, and far more inspiring way to acknowledge this national blood sacrifice is through honor and gratitude. As an example of this, Vermilya prints a portion of an 1881 letter written by Rufus Dawes, a veteran of the 6th Wisconsin, to his wife. In the letter, Dawes recounts his visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where he gazed over the graves of his fallen comrades:

I looked over nearly the full 16,000 headboards to find the twenty-four, but they all died alike and I was determined to find all. Poor little Fenton who put his head above the works at Cold Harbor and got a bullet through his temples, and lived three days with his brains out, came to me in memory as fresh as one of my own boys of to-day, and Levi Pearson, one of the three brothers of company ‘A,’ who died for their country in the sixth regiment, and Richard Gray, Paul Mulleter, Dennis Kelly, Christ Bundy, all young men, who fell at my side and under my command. For what they died, I fight a little longer. Over their graves I get inspiration to stand for all they won in establishing our government upon freedom, equality, justice, liberty and protection to the humblest.

The key statement in this passage is “for what they died, I fight a little longer.” And what did these men die for? They died for their country, of course. Their blood spilled so that a government of “freedom, equality, justice, liberty and protection to the humblest ” might live on. Generally, we give such sentiments the due respect they deserve. Yet, to fully understand the meaning of such sentiments, we would do well to consider that violence; horrible, mass violence, is intrinsically tied to our modern concept of nationalism. And we continue to legitimize that violence.

Each Memorial Day, Americans remember those who gave their lives to their country, but they also, by extension, sanctify and consecrate the mass violence that was integral to the creation of the modern American nation. This is the darker side of patriotism, the darker side of honoring war dead, because through such rituals, we tacitly acknowledge, even embrace, a history of brutal acts on human bodies committed by other humans. So ingrained is the idea of blood sacrifice in modern national cultures the world over that we scarcely stop to wonder if by turning the macabre act of war into a regular, communal ceremony, we lose perspective over our stated human desires for peace. Of course, through honoring war dead, we promote the notion that their blood sacrifice will bring about peace. Historically, however, violence begets violence in a continually repeating pattern. This was certainly true with the Civil War: the end of the formal fighting gave way to a savage, decades-long cycle of terroristic racial violence, the legacy of which we’re still dealing with today.

From the February 10, 2009 New York Times. An undated photo shows American military personnel with coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq at Dover Air Base in Delaware.

From the February 10, 2009 New York Times. An undated photo shows American military personnel with coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq at Dover Air Base in Delaware.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t honor war dead by acknowledging that they paid the ultimate sacrifice. But it is to say that if we’re serious about taming the level of mass violence in the modern world, perhaps we should be aware of how commonly we sanctify violence in the name of our most cherished ideals, especially nationalism. I mean, if we really want that cake, we should at least be aware of how many eggs we need to crack.