Tuesday, April 19, 2011

One Hundred and Fifty Years Later; Fort Sumter.

There something oddly amusing, almost cute in a perverse way, that the Southern Citizens of the USA can still manage to be so charmingly dishonest and disingenuous about why the US fought the worst war in its history. They have done such a good job that Keith Olbermann reports that up to forty percent of US citizens feel that the Civil War, as we damn Yankees are wont to call it, was not about slavery. KO is, of course, apoplectic about this datum, outrage is his calling, his raison d'etre. It’s his schtick. I am not very surprised. In almost every state of the Union, what passes for History in schools is nothing more than a fifty-fifty mix of hagiography and trivia. It is only more so in the South. Real History, because it involves real people, is much more conflicted and messy. All sorts of inconvenient facts get in the way of our preferred narrative.  Both in the North and the South, we much rather kowtow to the marble edifices we have created for our preferred narratives than deal with the grubby realities of the real people who lived in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The conflict of the mid-nineteenth century was all about slavery. Remove chattel bondage from the discussion and you have a lover’s tiff about tariffs between Dixie and the North. The Peculiar Institution of Dixie was big business. It was huge. It was a monster. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the value of slaves in the South outstripped the entire value of Northern economy by several fold. Enormous amounts of wealth was locked up in human bodies. The claim that slavery was a loosing proposition, headed for the dust bin of History, is simply wrong.

Strip away moral considerations and slavery is very profitable in an agricultural setting; especially in labor-intensive items like sugar and cotton. Even  today, labor is still considered the largest controllable expense of any business. Slavery drives the cost of labor down to near nothing. The slaver does have to offer food, clothing and lodgings for the slaves, but none of this has to be any good. The slaver can feed the slaves slop, dress the slaves in rags, and house the slaves in hovels; and they did. Forget "Gone With The Wind", that was Hollywood, slaves lived a Hobbesian existence. It was an institution enforced with brutal efficiency and overarching racism. It was brutal and brutalizing. It was also very, very, very profitable.

The Achilles’ heel of slavery was that this profitability was on hand for only a very select few. Only the thin crust of the very upper Southern planter elite made any real money from slavery. The vast majority of Southern whites were either too poor to own slaves or had the resources to own a few. These people had no real pieces in the game. They did have the vicious racism of their betters, and they had a dream. They had a dream of climbing the economic ladder and becoming gentleman planters too. It was this dream that caused the South to attempt to keep spreading slavery to new lands.

It was in this expansion that South and North came into conflict. It is also here that you, gentle reader, must forget all that pious nonsense them damn Yankees spout about the Abolitionists. The conflict between North and South was mainly economic. Northern settlers, the free men of the free soil, were dead set against competing against slave labor. For most supporters of the Republican Party the antipathy toward slavery was two fold: it was economic and deeply racist. The racial fear and the economic fear of African -Americans fed each other. Even when you look at the Abolitionist movement, the level of fear, distrust, and outright toxic hatred of African-Americans is phenomenal. After the Civil War, more than a few prominent Abolitionists became rabid supporters of Jim Crow. Being your bothers’ keeper only went so far for some Abolitionists.

The constant hunger for new land by both Northern and Southern pioneers is what finally moved the nation to war. More than anything else, it was the constant breaking of compromises by the South that led to the fracture. Southern pioneers’ insistence on bringing their “property” into places where it was not wanted  and legally prohibited, finally caused the North to draw a line. The election of Lincoln was that line. Slavery was to stay put. It was not placing one foot forward from where it was. There were to be no more bleeding Kansas, the North was done with that.

Unfortunately, the South was not done with that. The South correctly interpreted the election of Lincoln as a slap in the face. How they reacted to that slap was what caused the death of almost three quarters of a million men. The South went into high dungeon. The South went berserk.  After the fact, the South, in typical fashion, blamed the North for this temper-tantrum. Dixie still teaches  the conflict of 1860-1865 as “The War of Northern Aggression;”  but all the aggression came from the South in 1860-1861.  Remember , the only “aggression” Fort Sumter offered was sitting in Charleston harbor. It was the South Carolina fire-eaters who decided to shell the fort when the Union tried to resupply the position.

Once free of the hated “aggressive” Union fort, South Carolinians went on an orgy of secession and legislating. And what did the newly “liberated” state of South Carolina concern itself with? Laws about slavery.  Specifically these new laws were all about supporting, defending and entrenching the Peculiar Institution into the warp and woof of South Carolinian law. To even speak out against slavery was made a crime in South Carolina. By enshrining slavery in the law, South Carolina was showing exactly why it was attempting to secede from the Union.

Forget the nonsense about States Rights, that was and continues to be a McGuffin. The  right that the South was so fiercely defending was to hold men and women in chains. The right that was being defended was to treat people as property--full stop. Every other conflict between North and South was based on this one institution of the South, the Peculiar Institution of slavery. At first, this prime mover was implicit in the war. Later, via the Emancipation Proclamation, this prime mover was made explicit. To ignore or deny this central fact is an act of astounding intellectual dishonesty.

It takes several quantum leaps in cognitive dissonance  to pull this off; this denial of the centrality of slavery to the Civil War. It takes putting cognitive dissonance on massive amounts of steroids to pull this off. It takes deliberate ignorance and toxic amounts of racism to pull this off. It takes a deliberate policy of feeding children with lies at home and the classroom to pull this off. It takes teaching children something other than history. It takes teaching them a deliberately distorted concoction of half-truth, spin, hagiography, and outright lies as history. It takes teaching a perversion of history to willing fools to perpetuate this numbskullery.

If this Nation is ever  to really progress, to become a more perfect Union, it really has to come to grips with the long, sad history of the Middle Passage. In many ways we are still undergoing that passage. No part of the nation is clean. All have been soiled by the perversion that was slavery. It was not only the planter aristocracy of the South that made fortunes from the bitter tears of African-Americans. Many a New England dynasty was built on shipping human flesh from Africa to the New World. The heroes of the narrative are painfully few, the scoundrels are legion. We are still dealing with the toxin of the racist narrative that made slavery possible. It is a toxin that still sickens the politics of the nation.

In many ways, the election of Barack Obama has only made the toxin stronger. There has been a vicious blow-back from the usual suspects of the right. They are not as crude as George Wallace, or Bull Conners, or the other yellow-dog racists of yore. The new bigots hide under a thin patina of respectability. Still it is not too hard to scratch the surface and find the vicious hater beneath. All you have to look at is a salient datum to find the redneck, all you have to do is look at the forty percent who claim slavery was not the central cause of the Civil War.
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