Friday, June 10, 2011

Joan Walsh gets conned by Lost Cause talking points

Lost Cause pseudohistory keeps popping up in all sorts of places, some of them quite unlikely. Joan Walsh provided an example of the latter in Everything you know about the Civil War is wrong Salon 06/09/2011. Reviewing the book America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (2011) by David Goldfield, she gets taken in by a number of Lost Cause tropes.

The Lost Cause pseudohistory of the American Civil War has had a huge effect on Americans' understanding of the country's history, Joan's column being a very recent example. But the Lost Cause/neo-Confederate ideology is primarily an ideology to justify post-Civil War white supremacy and segregation in the Southern States, the former Confederacy. The historical distortions are large side-effects of the ideology.

Whatever Northern whites may have thought about slavery before the Civil War, by the time Lee surrendered at Appomattox, they had come to hate it. Not only had the South's "peculiar institution" led to a massively destructive civil war. Hundreds of thousands of American troops had also come directly into contact with slaves on Southern plantations or "contrabands" (escaped slaves) coming across to Union lines. The Union had even commissioned companies of African-American troops who had fought well for the Union cause, thus severely undercutting some of the worst racist stereotypes that slaveowners had used to justify slavery.

So one thing white Southerners and former Confederate military and political leaders wanted to do after the war was to dissociate themselves and the Confederate cause from slavery. In theory, anyone who had taken up arms against the United States might have been subject to prosecution for treason. In 1865, that would have included a large percentage of white adult males in the former Confederate states. Confederate military officers and officials of the former Rebel government also faced the prospect of legal disabilities, like denial of the vote or the right to hold office. So they had incentive to clean up their now-lost Confederate cause in public memory to the extent they could.

So they denied that the war had been about slavery or that slavery had caused the war. Since the Confederate leaders and seceding states couldn't have made it any more clear in 1860-61 that they were seceding in order to preserve slavery from the (to them) sinister designs of Abraham Lincoln and his "Black Republicans," as the pro-slavery advocates called them, that was a hard sell for anyone who wasn't a white Southerner inclined to follow revanchist leaders in 1865. And for decades after the Civil War, Lost Cause pseudohistory was primarily a Southern phenomenon. In the first half of the 20th century, it came to have an outsize effect on American history generally.

Lost Cause ideology was adopted by the Democratic Party in the South, terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and the "Redeemers" - opponents of the democratic governments established in the Southern states during Reconstruction. (I don't mean to imply that those were three separate groups; they were largely synonymous with one another.) So with the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the widespread disfranchising of African-American citizens, the sharecropping system, and the establishment of Jim Crow segregation in the 1890s, all those from the postwar period were incorporated into the Lost Cause ideology.

The Lost Cause pseudohistory of the postwar period was ideologically more important than the pseudohistory of the Civil War itself, because the KKK "Redeemers" weren't trying to re-establish chattel slavery. They did establish and maintain a highly discriminatory, authoritarian, white supremacist form of rule in the former Confederacy, varying in intensity from state to state. Lost Cause/neo-Confederate pseudohistory became part of the dominant white Southern narrative of white victimhood: The Yankees hate us, the Yankees lie about us, the Yankees are fanatics and hypocrites, yadda, yadda.

Today's Republican Party has come a long way from its roots in the pre-Civil War antislavery movement. Today, white victimhood has become a major part of the Republicans' ideology. Rush Limbaugh, FOX News and Republican talk radio promote it constantly. Alex Pereene recently reported on how Matt Drudge is promoting a counterfactual narrative about a threatening crime wave by scary black people. Digby perceptively comments on that latter development, "Drudge has a long history of injecting certain GOP memes into the political bloodstream. I'd be very surprised if this wasn't the beginning of a concerted campaign." (Drudge's summer of rage? Hullabaloo 06/09/2011)

The well-established themes of Lost Cause pseudohistory fit comfortably into this present-day Republican framework. And in fact, neo-Confederate/Lost Cause themes continue to become more prominent in Republican political narratives. Even though Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour's flirtation with a Presidential run fizzled out this year, his defenses of Confederate Heritage Month and of the white-supremacist Citizens' Council's anti-integration campaigns are just two of many recent illustrations of how interwoven the neo-Confederate themes are with today's Republican Party messaging. The spread of Arizona-type anti-immigrant laws, along with anti-Latino racism and anti-Muslim hysteria are examples of how segregationist policies are also embraced by today's Republicans.

I haven't read Goldfield's book, so I can't confirm how accurately Joan Walsh is rendering his arguments, though I would be surprised if weren't doing a decent job in that respect. What is surprising and disappointing is that she seems downright gullible about common Lost Cause tropes: Lincoln wasn't really an Abolitionist. Northern whites hated black people. Northern capitalists had business interests different from those of Southern planters. Yankees of the 1850s and 1860s didn't believe in equality as we think of it in 2011. Freed slaves weren't in such a great situation after the war.

Those who have paid some attention to breaking down Lost Cause arguments will be immediately familiar with how neo-Confederate pseudohistory uses those very arguments. Joan even presents this hack Lost Cause argument as worthy of serious consideration:

Most controversially, Goldfield argues passionately -- with strong data and argument, but not entirely convincingly -- that the Civil War was a mistake. Instead of liberating African Americans, he says, it left them subject to poverty, sharecropping and Jim Crow violence and probably retarded their progress to become free citizens.
This is a "highbrow" rehash of the Lost Cause argument that says that, why, slavery would have faded out on its own if them thar damnyankees hadn't tried to interfere with it! The slaveowners would have freed their slaves voluntarily. Someday. [cough] About the time Hail freezes over. [cough, cough] It's difficult to see how anyone not entirely innocent of the defenses that real existing slaveowners  were making of their Peculiar Institution in the 1850s and the policies they were pursuing could think such an argument could pass the laugh test. With or without a qualifier like "not entirely convincingly."

Historian William Freehling does the best job I've seen in explaining what may seem odd to those not especially familiar with early 19th-century American history, that white racism could be entirely compatible with opposition to slavery, even with bitter opposition to and hatred of it. Since only blacks were legally supposed to be enslaved in the US states, most Northern whites associated slavery with the presence of black people. Freehling relates this historically to the fact that in Northern states, voluntary abolition of slavery coincided with those states becoming increasingly white due to natural growth and white immigration. Hostility to blacks was not only compatible with opposition to slavery, the combination of the two was very common. One of the best examples of that was the Southern abolitionist Hinton Rowan Helper (1829-1909), who was a hardcore white supremacist both before and after the Civil War, but whose book The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857) was one of the most effective and influential indictments of the slavery system.

It's true that anyone who claimed that the Civil War came about because of overwhelming opposition to white racism among Northern whites would be mistaken. But who the hell ever made such an argument?

One item in Joan's recounting of Goldfield's Lost Cause arguments that seemed unfamiliar to me was this one:

Republicans were first and foremost the party of small business, an emerging class of industrialists, the nascent middle class, and anti-Catholic nativists. They despised the working class – or denied it existed. Lincoln himself talked of the emerging caste of wage-earners optimistically as "young beginners," who would work for a time, save money, then buy land and/or their own business. Republicans either couldn't imagine an America with a permanent class of laborers (like Lincoln), or they dreamed of one, but found ways to convince those workers it was all in their interest.
Say what? So just what did Lincoln mean when he said in his first annual message to Congress (12/03/1861):

Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. [my emphasis]
I guess one could take this as evidence that Lincoln and his Republican Party "despised the working class – or denied it existed." Or, not. Lincoln made that statement in the following context of arguing against what he saw as a badly mistaken notion of democracy:

It is not needed nor fitting here that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions, but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.
Lincoln's argument was against such a notion, which to him was an outrageous one.

I'll be on the lookout for other commentary on Goldfield's book and Joan's column. But she seriously needs to bone up on the whole Lost Cause ideology before she tackles this topic again.

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