11 May, 2012

The American Civil War, apropos of nothing

We'll pretend it's about my favourite American politician though, if you like, who frequently says some very stupid evil things.

Every state that pro-offered reasons for their secession - Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas - stated unequivocally that their reason for seceding was the fear that the federal government had been and would continue to encroach on the capacity for white men to own black men; Georgia even goes so far as to declare that her imminent cause is no reason other than the election of a president hostile to the expansion of slavery. When the future president of the Confederacy announced his state was to secede, he gave but a single cause. The famous cornerstone speech of the Confederacy's vice president unequivocally, literally, explicitly and repeatedly argues that slavery was the raison d'ĂȘtre, and fundamental bedrock - the 'cornerstone' - on which the Confederacy rested. When Robert E. Lee wrote a letter to his wife expounding his view that people should not agitate to end slavery, but wait for God's decree, he prophetically stated that the US would soon be embroiled in a war over the peculiar institution. The Confederate constitution differs little from the US constitution, but those distinctions are significant and repellent: the document that replaced the US Constitution, the document which sought to redress the ills of the federal government, was explicitly devoted to better protecting the property white men had in black men, putting paid to the lie that the secessions had anything to do with 'state rights': they obviated them to protect slavery even more explicitly than the US constitution did. In their speeches, their founding documents, their private missives, the slaver states which seceded and their founding fathers expounded at great length and with great honesty about the reasons for their doing so, only for their descendants and sympathisers to deny them their minds and hearts so as to preserve a false history.

Denialism means to systematically deny the essence of a proven thing. To merely wave your hand that slavery was a factor is to do an immense disservice to reality by making a quasi-concession, but reality does not make concessions. Slavery was the pre-eminent, sufficient and necessary reason for the secessions and to suggest anything less is to deny a tremendous crime. We know this because the slaver states repeatedly reiterate this fact in their founding documents, their politicians reiterate it in their public speeches and private letters and diaries. All other issues pale in comparison to slavery. While excises and tariffs, among other issues, were undoubtedly politically turbulent and a source for grievance, far from being of similar or greater importance than the singular issue of slavery not a single state even mentions them as an afterthought in their reasons and causes for secession. They simply were not close to being of equal importance. They were, moreover, understood to be bound up within the slavery question itself.

There is a strange mythology in denialism. We are supposed to believe that the passage of the 13th amendment in the wake of the civil war is a cosmic coincidence. We are to suppose that because Lincoln prioritised banning slavery in the south during the war and then ensured slavery was banned throughout the country in the immediate aftermath of the war that these facts somehow demonstrate the war was not primarily about slavery -- that the war was not about slavery because Lincoln, during the war, first restricted and then abolished slavery upon having the means to do so. We are to suppose that it was merely a cynical ploy, that its intent was merely to galvanise support for the war, to improve union morale, and then immediately forget that this is stating that the liberation of slaves galvanised support and improved morale amongst the union. We are to forget that this argument immediately concedes everything that matters by acknowledging the undoubted fact that the emancipation proclamation formally codified the possibility of abolition as a war aim, that the union found vitality and strength in this possibility, and that this possibility became a reality upon the war's conclusion. We are to pretend that the emancipation proclamation did not free anyone, which would surely have been a great surprise to those slaves who write of their feelings upon being freed by it; those tens of thousands freed immediately - there were many areas that were previously Confederate but under Union control and were not exempt from the proclamation's decree, and many 'contraband' slaves were thereby immediately free - and would go on to free millions, that is, most slaves.

I would suggest that anger is, sometimes, an entirely appropriate response, a vital part of our being that should not be denied when it is righteous, borne of accuracy, tenderness and moral necessity. Anger is an entirely appropriate response to denying the fact that the Confederacy existed primarily to preserve the institution of slavery. I would expect that every patriotic American, every liberty loving American, every American who recognises the evils of slavery for what they were and continue to be, would be angry when people deny the fact that the war was conducted so as to continue ownership of blacks. Slaver states seceded and then began a war which killed hundreds of thousands of their countrymen. They did so to preserve slavery, and this act, this horror conducted so that further horrors could be perpetuated, remains the closest the US has come to destruction. The very idea fills me with such a feeling of pity and in some respects of dread; it is as unimaginable to me as a Briton claiming we had no part in the Atlantic slave trade, when we were an enormous and vital part of the slave trade. To deny a well-documented and well-demonstrated crime is to defend the actions which constitute that crime, ameliorating its importance and effects; denying its victims justice, acknowledgement, inflicting further harm upon them. This matters.

Further I don't believe there's anything wrong with feeling a great sense of value in one's country or state, in one's ancestry and the history of their home or birthplace. Whether a person is Quebecois, African-American, German, Japanese or Papua New Guinean (these are all of the peoples there are) there will be important stories to tell, valuable artefacts and works of literature and music, art and labour and charity and great acts of selflessness, values and demeanour and humour that we should treasure, each equally convinced that ours is the greatest (the British are the only ones who are, but in our magnanimity we forgive the rest of you for your hubris) because we can look into this great wealth of culture and the people who have contributed to it and we can see how it shaped us.

There will be immense good to come from the nation one feels kinship with and I think it is important to recognise and celebrate it (for instance, I like that when a British person bumps into another one, they will either be disgustingly effusive and apologetic or they will completely ignore the person they have bumped into, because we are not very nice people but sometimes pretend that we are, which is hilarious and cynical and beautiful). But as I suggested earlier I think a fundamental part of appreciating one's nation (state, province, island, whatever one identifies with) for what it is, is to acknowledge the serious crimes, very grievous crimes that the structure of that nation, its government, its military, its people may have participated in. An attempt to tell the story of the place we come from which denies or elides the bad bits is not history at all. Developing a sense of identity or pride which denies or elides these bad bits is not identity with or pride in the nation, state, province, people or what have you at all, but in the fictional narrative one would like to replace it with. It's tying one's sense of self worth to a fairy tale.

Well, I know my country has done a lot of amusingly awful things and I know that without them I would be very different were I here at all. To know how I came to be and what I am, what all the symbols and the attitudes around me are about, why the people of some countries hate my own and how legitimate their grievances are, I need to know about those amusingly awful things. Some of them still have immediate relevancy, political and personal. The IRA were a bunch of terrorist, murderous thugs, but Irish and Britons with grey in their hair will have been alive and aware of when the British Army shot into unarmed crowds, and then the British government dutifully (if rather ineptly) tried to cover it up. I can say that I think Britain is totally tops, I can say it while acknowledging that we killed a lot of people with a different skin colour to myself, we did it, for instance, when they tried to stop us from selling drugs to their children. I don't have personal moral responsibility for its happening, any more than for the magna carta, and I don't take pride in its happening, but it happened, and appreciating my country's history, my country's culture and attitudes, and thereby understanding the person my country has contributed to shaping me into involves appreciating the fact that these things happened.

I think it's good and useful and beautiful for a person to have pride in who they are and in their country. I have no problem with a German having pride in being German (although ideally he should ultimately aspire to be British like all right-thinking folk). I do have a problem with a German who says the Holocaust only involved the killing of a few hundred thousand scattered Jews in an unsystematic manner, that there was no poison gas chambers, that Hitler was unaware of such killings, so that he can take pride in the Third Reich. Not every Nazi killed a Jew. But the Third Reich was created with phenomenal and murderous racism and oppression at its core, far outweighing the few goods it championed, and to take pride in that pack of criminals and thugs is to either deny or embrace their crimes. I have no problem with a Japanese who has pride in being Japanese. I do have a problem with a Japanese who says the Imperial Army never systematised rape, never conducted mass killings of innocents and detainees, never conducted mass pointless torture-experiments, so that they can revel in the militarism of the period. Not every individual person in the Imperial Army conducted themselves so dishonourably, so criminally, so repugnantly, but the Army's structure and leadership condoned and encouraged such mass horror and its entire hierarchy carried them out and as an organisation it was responsible. To claim to take pride in it is to deny or to embrace such crimes.

I have no problem with a southerner of the United States who takes pride in the south. I do have a problem with a southerner who says the Confederate states seceded for nebulous economic or 'state's rights' reasons, that slavery was not the principal cause for secession and the aggressive protection of that dubious right not the cause of the war, who seeks to ameliorate the horror and suffering of slavery or pretend the emancipation proclamation did nothing. Not every Confederate felt in his heart that white men should own black men and that this property was worth the blood of Americans. Nonetheless the Confederacy's raison d'ĂȘtre was an almost unthinkable cruelty and evil, one they began an aggressive and massively destructive war to defend, and to take pride in that cabal of traitors is to either deny or embrace their crimes.

It's a terrible sadness that identifying the south with the Confederacy is so seemingly mainstream in the US. To make that identification and then take pride in it necessarily involves phenomenal dishonesty or massively repugnant views. One either must take pride in slavery or deny the reality of what the Confederacy was. Historical denialism of a crime of that scale should never be popular, particularly in a modern liberal democracy with such a vast capacity for access to information. It speaks to humanity's capacity for deception and deliberate ignorance, our love of self aggrandising fables we weave at the expense of the knowledge of who we are.

-The Rev. Schmitt., FCD.

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