Friday, April 13, 2007

Treason In Defense Of Slavery

It's Confederate Heritage Month, or some such blather, and as is our American way, the war is still being fought. Absolutists of both stripes are having themselves a hoedown. I've commented on this before; because of my unwillingness to commit to an absolute anti-Confederacy stance, I have been accused of racism, fascism, terrorism and, what is worse (to my thinking), being unreconstructed.

Lawyers, Guns, and Money got me thinking about all this; they're running a marvelous series of posts over the course of the month on Treason in Defense of Slavery. I'll be frank; their stance is pretty absolutist for my taste. They are not interested in applying historical filters; to their thinking, treason is treason and racism is racism, regardless of the style of the day. I think that's some pretty harsh shit to lay on our ancestors (your ancestors, actually--as best I can tell, mine were still in Germany, Scotland, England, Ireland, and Wales, although some of the Germans may have arrived in time for the party), who aren't around to argue the point, or to be confused by the perspective with which decades of progress in gender and race relations have imbued us.

More pertinent is the political flavoring of the modern debate. The TIDOS folks (and please--my position is far closer to theirs than to anything unreconstructed) recognize that this historical discussion isn't about history. It's about now. Their reaction to any defense of the Confederacy--and they label any such defense as "Lost Cause Mythology"--is real similar to my reaction to another blogger's post characterizing someone as using abortions as a substitute for the pill. It is rooted in a conviction that to discuss a thing in anything but one's own terms is to give that thing hope. It is why abortion opponents call themselves "pro-life" and we call them "anti-choice."

I'm not denying the existence of Lost Cause Mythology, and I'm not denying that for many people, there is some equation between the Lost Cause and modern times. It is indulged by people who persist in referring to Chappaquiddick (let's remember that Laura Bush killed someone in a car accident, once upon a long time ago), or in calling Massachusetts (a state that, until the recent election of Deval Patrick, had elected a string of asshole Republican governors, one of whom is now a presidential candidate trying to fight off a ludicrous general inference that his very association with the state has tainted his conservative cred) Taxachusetts, or in belaboring the notion that the media are overwhelmingly liberal.

That is to say, it is indulged by idiots with an agenda. That's why LGM and others who are heavily blogging about TIDOS Month are so very persistent in their own memery. And there is some justice in their position; I don't care who you are or what you're selling, if you're flying the Confederate flag, you're a hater. Period, no question, no mitigation, no absolution.

And that's why I'm a tad bothered by the absolutism of LGM and others. Let's deconstruct the TIDOS label a little bit. I got no quibble with the treason part. Secession was, by any measure, and through any filter, treason. The only reason any debate on this point persists is because there are those who find the Tenth Amendment a convenient vehicle for their blindingly inconsistent assertions about the relative roles of the federal government and the states. These are the same people who see an activist in every judge, and who are incapable of reading the Constitution and understanding that there are three branches of government and that the Executive and Legislative branches cannot, in fact, do Whatever The Fuck They Want.

I've written before about the roots of the Civil War. Let me say first that denying that slavery is one of them is the moral and intellectual equivalent of denying the Holocaust. Arguing that slavery wasn't foremost among the causes is sketchy, at best. But pretending that slavery was the only cause of the Civil War is either pig-ignorant or deliberately deceitful. There were other serious issues, partially laid out in a comment to the referenced post (sale and distribution of western lands, internal improvements, tariffs, and the various National Bank controversies). Some of these--the disposition and statehood of the West, and tariffs--were clearly related to slavery, but remained issues independent of their entwinement with it. My point is that while it's fair (in a legal and historical sense) to characterize secessionists as traitors, it's a stretch to accuse each and every Southron of seceding for the sole purpose of defending slavery.

And that's what the TIDOS language does. It's the same rhetorical tactic that anti-abortionists use when they force us to defend so-called "partial birth abortion." You pick the most extreme and repugnant thing that your opponent's position allows, and you harp on it endlessly, turning it--rather than the more reasonable full range of issues--into the sole topic. It's intellectually dishonest when anti-abortionists do it, and it's even more intellectually dishonest when those who have a passion for and understanding of history do it. (See update, below)

And yet, I have trouble reaching the conclusion that they're absolutely wrong. Their cause is, after all, marked by some justice. There is unequivocally a connection between those who defend many of the ideals of the Confederacy--and let's make no mistake, there's a racist basis for a lot of it--and I believe that, in their hearts, the TIDOSers are reaching out to take that on. Their fervor is a reflection of the other side's fervor. They are perfectly right and principled in their presentation and interpretation of much of the material they're highlighting--see, for example, Old Hickory's very fine and well-reasoned post on the Dred Scott decision (hat tip to LGM for the link). But there is a level of disingenuity here.

LGM characterizes TIDOS month as purely responsive to some states' celebration of Confederate Heritage Month. I am familiar with the rationales that heritage equals hate, and that it does not. Both are extreme. Robert Farley at LGM completes the trip over the top here:

"In all honesty, I look forward to the day when Confederate nostalgia is every bit as respectable as fond remembrance for Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, or Imperial Japan."

Wow. I don't think I could better sum up historical absolutism. I don't think I could better illustrate what happens when the victors write the history. Is it too kind to recognize that not all Germans from 1933-1945 were evil, that while the human cost of Soviet Russia was unbearable, World War II could not have been won without the sacrifice of the Soviet people, or that while the Imperial Japanese Army perpetrated many grotesque excesses, the confluence of cultural and international political factors and events set in motion when Matthew Perry "opened" Japan may well have been the only way Japan could have matured as a modern nation? I think not, and I don't think that considering the whole balance sheet is pointless, disrespectful , or inappropriate.

You know I'm no moderate. You know I'm no secessionist. It is within the range of rhetorical possibility that I am a racist, but as you may know, it is my feeling that everyone is so permeated with the language and culture of racial distinction that it's impossible to avoid being a racist at some level or in some way--no one in our culture can be absolutely free of that taint. You know that I have nothing but contempt for those who would abuse 19th-century readings of the law to somehow delegitimize modern rulings. And you know that I have strong feelings about many things, American history among them. It all colors my distaste for an absolute view of just about any historical event or trend.

I object to the politicization of what should remain a purely historical debate. Nobody's winning any converts with this.

All that said, I do much prefer the TIDOS label to the usual War of Northern Aggression meme.

UPDATE 2 PM 4/13/2007: On unprompted (as yet) reflection, it occurs to me that "intellectually dishonest" is a harsh charge to level at people of good faith like Robert Farley of LGM and Erik Loomis of Alterdestiny (and other people who are participating in TIDOS month), and the way I wrote what I wrote above certainly and unequivocally shotguns both of them with that slur. For that, I very much apologize. I'm not going to pretend I didn't write it, because I did.

What I'm complaining about is here is a monolithic approach: "Since the underpinnings of what you are espousing are repellent, it is okay for me to adopt a rhetorically absolute position to combat your malignant pretense of good faith, regardless of the likely shadings of fact." In the context of the TIDOS posts--which, I repeat, are outstanding, entertaining, generally informative, and generally accurate--it's overharsh to characterize that approach as "intellectually dishonest." I'd prefer a milder epithet, and I'm truly sorry that I didn't take the time to think of one before committing my thoughts to electrons.

5 comments:

Dweeze said...

The dude from Friends opened up Japan?

Kimmah said...

swoooooosh! That is this content speeding over my head in record time. I'll blame it on jetlag.

Sasha said...

Nicely done. And I, too, am growing inordinately fond of the TiDOS appelation.

purplestate said...

Look, if you want me to ghostwrite your blog, thats cool, but at least give me credit in the labels at the bottom!

HistoryDetective said...

Well, you're certainly intellectually honest in this entry. I want to follow the links before I comment any further, but with a dissertation that needs to be finished and defended, I'm not making any promises about anything...

I did like how you substituted (or, at least, I assumed it was a rhetorically brilliant substitution) "memery" for "memory." Undergrads in Nova Scotia just might encounter that in lectures next academic year.