YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 25, 2011

American Slavery vs. Nazi genocide

Paul Rusconi’s gloss on an Ed Ruscha image

[Added 2/13/11 and 2/18/11: I now have the book under review below, and it has an epigraph from Reinhold Niebuhr. The use of "evil" or "darkness" or "the Shadow" as a fundamental component of human personality is a notion from religion (they also cite Jung) that strongly affected the corporatist liberal social psychologists tracked on this website. It tended to erase material motives for destructive behavior and "prejudice", attributing such conduct as the projection of inner evil onto "the Other." Moreover, the book (The Problem of Evil: Slavery, Freedom, and the Ambiguities of American Reform) is dedicated to David Brion Davis, who, following Niebuhr,  forthrightly has declared that it is the task of the historian to moralize about the American past. Furthermore, the editors (Steven Mintz and John Stauffer) say we not only confront our past, but we must overcome it. Given the approval of D.B. Davis to massive government programs, I must assume that a form of reparations is intended, and that this remedy is intrinsic to the social democratic teaching of American history and a sop to black nationalists. Added 2-16-11: In his polemic Moralists and Modernizers, Steven Mintz delineates two trajectories for antebellum reform movements. One trend encompasses the moralizing abolitionists and leads to the compassionate 20th century welfare state (presumably reducing "income inequality"); the other moralizers/modernizers are associated with laissez-faire capitalism and the Christian Right (hard-hearted Social Darwinists). Published by Johns Hopkins Press in 1995, the book is an intervention in the culture wars. I do not question the sincerity or remarkable accomplishments of these historians, but rather their implied acquiescence to the more extreme claims of the civil rights movement (in its black nationalist phase).]

[This blog is not about the Civil War or its causes, but about the hijacking of American history by some leftists, who write like the militant black nationalists I encountered at Pacifica Radio, and that David Horowitz described at length in his Hating Whitey. 2011 could see a huge upsurge in articles about whether that conflict could have been prevented by better statesmanship, the causes and objectives of the war, what exactly happened in the war, and what was the course of Reconstruction. I have already written a research paper on Reconstruction and its interpretation by Herman Melville in his poem on Robert E. Lee. The link is here: http://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/.]

Here are two paragraphs from a book review by Miami University history assistant visiting professor Oleta Prinsloo, and posted on the NEH-funded Humanities-Net websites: “H-Civil War” and  “H-Slavery.” They are remarkable for their Doublespeak and unblushing partisanship. For while erasing historicism, they pretend to present examples of the historian’s craft. Instead of depicting the past as best they can using available sources, they proudly claim the role of activist scholars, specifically they aim to undermine the “conservative” idea of  American exceptionalism. Here are two paragraphs from the review:

“While the fashion in American history writing has been for historians to pretend to moral neutrality, (Steven) Mintz and (John) Stauffer argue that Americans cannot move forward (nor by implication can they honestly contemplate the significance of 9/11) until there has been a moral reckoning with the American past.  Mintz writes that “history without a moral dimension is antiquarianism” (p. 1).  Their undertaking is modeled on German writers since WW II who have tried to come to terms with the implications of Nazism on the past, an undertaking called _Vergangenheitsbewaltigung_.  Mintz defines the word as the “wrestling with the demons of German history through reflection, remembering, and moral reckoning” (p. 1).

“The editors chose the essays according to five criteria: the wrestling with a fundamental moral problem, the centrality of ideas or an ideology “to connect economic and political interests and the realm of ideas” (p. 2), . the recognition of culture as involving contests for power, the placing of the U.S. experience into larger processes of modernization, and the relation of slavery to an understanding of modernity.  Most of the essays contain themes prominent in history writing on slavery, abolition, reform, and freedom since the 1990s.  By historicizing evil, these essays work to undercut the conservative American exceptionalism interpretation of U.S. history.” [End, Prinsloo excerpt}

[Clare:] This entire project and its presentation as a foray into uncharted waters is simply astounding. American historians have been preoccupied with the problem of slavery from the inception of the discipline. To be sure, estimations of its character and the causes of the Civil War have been strenuously debated. But the first thing we learned in graduate school in U.S. history was not to allow our own distaste or horror at the institution (or any other individual or institution) to interfere with our representations of the American past. (The common tendency to project our own morality into past societies was described as “present-mindedness” and promoted by Howard Zinn.) However, not only are the historians mentioned in the review openly identified with the Left (another no-no for objective historians), they are 1. transmitting a well-known theme in post-60s history writing in a line suggested by Eric Williams and others that the filthy lucre derived from slavery made capitalism possible, that slavery, capitalism, and modernity are chained together and coterminous (as opposed to slavery being an archaic,  quasi-feudal institution, and its overcoming a triumph of the bourgeoisie that, in so doing,  laid the foundation for a prosperous new nation built upon free labor); and 2. entirely misrepresenting the theory of American exceptionalism.

What made America exceptional was the lack of a hereditary aristocracy with its rigid class system. After 1787-89, the U.S. could boast of  a “constitution of liberty” (Hayek)  that made it possible for any common person to rise in income and status. In other words, America offered a meritocracy that rewarded hard work and skill–it was a land of limitless opportunity for free white men, rights that were gradually extended to freedmen and women. Because America fought a civil war and then pursued an extended and still persistent civil rights movement, the sin of slavery was purified  by the blood of over 600,000 casualties (as some Christians saw it). And yet many “interdisciplinary” scholars continue to indoctrinate their students with the notion of “white skin privilege,” in some cases blaming the Jews for inventing the slave trade, a myth strenuously opposed by such as Yale professor David Brion Davis, a major scholar mentioned elsewhere in the review as if he were in their camp. This fashionable notion is further carried over in the post-60s representation of American national character, said to be imperialist, patriarchal, racist, genocidal, and ecocidal. Obviously, such crimes demand reparations or even revolution, and revolution is what I believe that some postmodernists/post-colonial scholars are advocating (I do not include D. B. Davis or his students in this group: they are likely strong supporters of the Obama administration). Do not delude yourself, dear reader, into thinking that such voices are only marginal in current history departments.

What the reviewer reports in the excerpt above is even more outrageous in appropriating the German movement to “work through” its Nazi past in order to propose a similar breast-beating here.  This is tantamount to claiming that American history is Nazi-like in its essential character. I understand  that not all readers of this blog will make the same leap, but then they may not read between the lines as strenuously as I do.  I would argue that American scholars have not, as a group, worked through the antisemitism that pervades our particular political culture, especially in its populist variant. In his show of Monday January 24, Jon Stewart presented a lengthy segment quoting various Fox News personalities who apparently were comparing certain leftists as resembling Nazis in their rhetoric. This as his riposte to Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen’s accusation that Republicans were spreading “the big lie.” These guys–all of them–should spend more time in the groves of academe where the destruction of history is perpetrated daily, with little notice in the blogosphere or in the presentations beloved by the hipsters among us.

[Added 1-28-11, my response to criticisms by two history professors who subscribe to H-Net's History of Antisemitism discussion group:

Dear list, the two negative responses to my blog http://clarespark.com/2011/01/25/american-slavery-vs-nazi-genocide/, were instructive on several grounds. I was reproached for criticizing activist scholars, and for ignorance of the last three decades of historiography, but there was also a criticism that I had abused my source by claiming that the American history of slavery was being compared to the history of the Third Reich.

Just today, I received an email from the UCLA Department of History announcing a meeting with activist scholars whose knowledge of history would illuminate the current debates on same-sex marriage. This was the department that awarded me the Ph.D., and while there I was immersed in social history, a sub-field beloved by New Left, Stalinist, and Trotskyist activist scholars, because it enabled the would-be historian to stand with the oppressed and generally support revolt by the lower orders we exclusively studied. One of their number, the prolific and powerful Gary Nash told his students straight out that study of “literary sources” (i.e., the writings of decision-makers and leaders in general) was by its very nature “elitist.” Thus Nash’s seminar on colonial America completely ignored intellectual history in favor of the study of slavery and native American wars instigated by the invading “whites.”

Needless to say, antisemitism was never discussed in seminars or in the numerous conferences staged by the U.S. field. It was my own study after 1986 that instructed me in the propaganda disseminated by Nazis* and Soviets regarding the control that Jews exerted over the United States.  Here is one example of Soviet propaganda, penned by Dmitri Volkogonov in _The Psychological War_ (1986):

“The capitalist mass media are greatly influenced by the Zionist circles.  For example, Zionist organisations in the United States control half its magazines, more than half of its radio stations, and a large number of press and radio bureaus abroad.  In other capitalist countries the picture is very much the same.  In addition to that, various Zionist organisations run more than a thousand publications in 67 countries.  This is where the military-industrial complex draws its ideological support. The capitalist mass media spread outright lies about socialism, create a climate of fear for the future, of gloom and doom.  The main idea of this vast system of disinformation is to prove that “socialism is bad” and the “free world” is good. This is how the capitalist mass media are waging the psychological war against the Soviet people, also against their own people whom the bourgeois radio centres feed with disinformation.  This is how opinions in the West are shaped when people are unable to understand the true state of things, when they think and act only under the influence of the extraneous forces that manipulate them.”

I do not find it a stretch to say that the more powerful history professors at UCLA were as explicit as Volkogonov in attacking the notion of the “free world.” True, they were not explicit anti-Semites, though Harold Cruse’s famous diatribe against “Jewish” Communists (_The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual_) was assigned in the seminar that introduced new grad students to the various sub-fields of U.S. history, and when I wrote a paper complaining about the invidious distinction Cruse drew between Jewish and gentile Communists to be disturbing, Nash passed off Cruse’s book as typical 1960s overstatement, suggesting to me that I was oversensitive to anti-Jewish smears (though I kept this thought to myself). If one wanted to study antisemitism, one became a Europeanist and/or studied with Saul Friedlander or joined the [anti-Zionist] Jewish Studies program initiated while I was still a graduate student. The U.S. field in the Department of History was ideologically judenrein.

Notwithstanding Professor Nash’s preferred sub-field of social history (with its constant emphasis on inequality), he and his co-professor Mary Yeager warned the incoming students not to be present-minded by imposing current moral standards on the past. Still, by directing the students to resistance from below to the various oppressions that bedeviled them, Nash’s morality was expressed clearly enough.

So much for my ignorance of the historiography of the past three decades. As for my objection to comparing the German movement to “working through” the Nazi past to the call for the injection of morality into the study of American slavery (as if it still existed in this country, or perhaps as if insufficient reparations had been made to the descendants of slaves), I stand by my original message. Black nationalism was alive and well at UCLA where I received my training. It remains a powerful influence today. Ralph Bunche’s memoranda to Gunnar Myrdal warned him about the rampant antisemitism in black nationalist organizations. As I wrote about it in my published article on the Bunche-Myrdal dispute over _An American Dilemma_, Myrdal’s response was to frequently trash Bunche and “the Howard boys” as economic determinists and to hint in his endnotes that Jews were the worst exploiters of blacks. For a summary of my published paper, see http://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/.

*Space does not permit me to cite examples of Nazi propaganda that viewed the U.S. as controlled by Jews.

For an outstanding article on the impropriety of comparing the slave trade with the Holocaust, see Seymour Drescher, “The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Holocaust,” in Is The Holocaust Unique?, ed. Alan Rosenbaum (Westview Press, 1996).

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  1. [...] I wrote in my last blog (http://clarespark.com/2011/01/25/american-slavery-vs-nazi-genocide/), the year 2011 will see a rise in public talk about the Union and the Civil War that was fought to [...]

    Pingback by Obama and the rhetoric of the political “family” | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 17, 2013 @ 8:44 pm | Reply

  2. [...]      This blog is about flawed historical analogies and the appropriation of the Civil War for partisan ends. Writing in Pajamas Media, a non-historian Rand Simberg rejected the usual analogies being tossed about in the media between the uproar in Wisconsin and Egypt or the Spanish Civil War, but chose Gettysburg, forcefully making the point that the unionized state workers were more correctly seen as slaveholders with the citizenry of Wisconsin in a position analogous to those of slaves.  I for one found this comparison to be not just distasteful but obscene, as are many other analogies that are politically motivated, and often used as a short cut to analytic understanding of a specific conflict. Indeed I wrote about another distasteful analogy in a recent blog: http://clarespark.com/2011/01/25/american-slavery-vs-nazi-genocide/. [...]

    Pingback by Are we still fighting the Civil War? « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 20, 2011 @ 10:23 pm | Reply

  3. BTW, my quote of you re Obama is from your September 2010 blog entry.

    Comment by Stephen Baraban — February 1, 2011 @ 12:33 am | Reply

  4. Thanks for responding.

    You don’t seem to be able to produce anything (yet?)that shows that the specific contention I questioned–that it’s acceptable in the academy to say that Jews were a very important instigator and engine of the slave trade–is correct.

    When I’ve said your discussions of anti-Semitism have been eccentric or strange or whatever, I meant statements like this:

    “Indeed, when President Barack Obama addresses factory workers and calls them “the middle class” has he unconsciously adopted the old Leftist belief that “the working class” has become “bourgeoisified”; i.e., jewified with lust for the golden calf?”
    Do you mean that Obama calls factory workers “the middle class” [personally I think he does this because that's what factory workers in this country prefer to be called, and Obama's a cautious politican] there is something in the back of his mind that (after finding today’s factory workers too acquisitive) equates acquisitiveness with Jewishness; or that you think that modern Jewishness IS inevitably intertwined with acquisitiveness (because they know better than those foolish anti-acquisitive “bohemians” that apparently you don’t like).

    In the first case, I think you’re reading things into Obama’s mind that you (or I) cannot know; in the second, I say it’s ugly for Jewishness to be schematically characterized as pro-acquisitive (as a Jew with fairly bohemian tendencies, I have to say about this, “INCLUDE ME OUT!”)

    Perhaps this makes some sense to you as an arguement–now back to my (independent) efforts to examine Charles Olson’s “bohemian” poetry & write my own.

    Comment by Stephen Baraban — February 1, 2011 @ 12:30 am | Reply

    • Now that I see that you are a Charles Olson fan, all is cleared up. I have just checked out four books by David Brion Davis, and will report back when I have read them. Please read my reply in answer to your first comment. Black nationalism is entrenched in our political culture and in the academy. One of its precepts is that Jews did all those bad things. BTW, Olson was no paragon on the subject of the Jews. Read my chapter 7 in Hunting Captain Ahab.

      Comment by clarespark — February 1, 2011 @ 12:46 am | Reply

  5. If in “some cases”, “interdiciplinary” scholars blame ‘The Jews’ for starting the slave trade, can you give the names of any such scholars? What I’ve found on the Internet so far is a 2006 lecture by Marilyn Mayo of the Anti Defamation Leauge on “Propogating Classical Anti-Semitic Myths in Academia in the United States”. She cites Tony Martin of the Wellesley College Africana Studies Dept., one of her three examples of Classical Anti-Semitism, as diseminating (sp.?) such a view of slavery, based on the ‘research’ of Louis Farakkhan’s (sp.?) Nation Of Islam. She says that currently (2006) Martin, like the other professors, does not teach his most offensive doctrines in the classroom, but circulates them in other ways.

    This tends to confirms me in intuition that doctrines like the ‘Jewish responsiblity for slavery’ are not acceptable in the Academy. Can you tell me that things have changed much for the worse since 2006? Or shall I conclude that this is just another case of your peculiar habit of trying to associate all ideas you don’t like (in this case, the concept that U.S. citizens do have a fair amount of ‘working through’ to do) with Anti-Semitism?

    Comment by Stephen Baraban — January 29, 2011 @ 7:52 pm | Reply

    • Please consult my article “Race, Caste, or Class? The Bunche-Myrdal Dispute Over _An American Dilemma_”, _International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society_, Vol14, Number 3 (Spring 2001): 46-511. Bunche, through long involvement in radical politics, reported to his boss Gunnar Myrdal (author of _An American Dilemma_ (1944) that there was a self-destructive and pervasive antisemitism among those Negro Betterment Organizations that were derived from the social thought of Marcus Garvey. Decades later, black history professors such as Leonard Jeffries and Tony Martin used The Nation of Islam’s scurrilous _The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews_, prompting vigorous criticism from such as David Brion Davis and Mary Lefkowitz. But you ask if such antagonism toward Jews still exists in the academy. Being an independent scholar, I am no longer in the thick of things, but I was a speaker at a symposium hosted by the Ralph Bunche Center at UCLA in 2004 (on Bunche’s legacy, including his relations with Myrdal), and my news that Bunche had turned down Malcolm X’s invitation to join an umbrella organization of black nationalist activists was met with some disappointment. Further notices of events from this Center indicate that black nationalism and separatism are still dominant at the Bunche Center, which has thus successfully co-opted Bunche’s position of integration and unhyphenated Americanism for black people.

      The notion that I am eccentric in my views on antisemitism and its study in the U.S. requires more examples than just a general assault on my scholarly integrity. You question whether such bizarre views are still respectable in the academy. The fact is that the review I commented upon was published on two scholar-discussion websites funded by NEH: H-Civil War, and H-Slavery. The subtext, in my reading, is a demand for reparations and I spelled this out in the subsequent blog on Obama and the rhetoric of “family.”

      Comment by clarespark — January 29, 2011 @ 9:12 pm | Reply

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