YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

February 20, 2011

Are we still fighting the Civil War?

[Added 2-26-2011: I have finished reading David Blight’s book, quoted below, and now have a better idea of the obsessions of Blight and his academic cohort at Yale and Harvard. They are hostile to modernity, for that signifies the rule of capital, machines, and materialism. The white working class is nailed as part of the Herrenvolk democracy that they decry. So Charles Sumner, notwithstanding his reputation as a great man and friend among 19th century blacks, has to go, for he was a modernizer. Blight is clearly a Populist sympathizer and entirely “anti-imperialist,” and though not a Marxist, his version of U.S. history is identical with that of Soviet critics of the U.S, and he may be viewed, overall, as a cleaned-up Reverend Wright.  So although Blight is fiercely critical of the South, his hostility to modernization ironically aligns him with Southern organic conservatives similarly opposed to markets and the modern world. The South did win the Civil War, ideologically speaking. ]

Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg

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 disturbing, 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: https://clarespark.com/2011/01/25/american-slavery-vs-nazi-genocide/.

When I was considering my doctoral dissertation, I had to defend the idea of comparing the 19th century family of Herman Melville with the situation of academics in the humanities writing after 1919.  Some members of my committee insisted that I had to choose, but I held fast to my interest in both the humanities curriculum as it had been revised between the 20th century wars, and in the ways in which Herman Melville coped with his own family—a family more conservative in most ways than he was, given his life experience as a common sailor and then a form-challenging romantic artist. So I looked around and found that some sociologists considered such violations of strict historicism (the incomparability of individual historical events with one another; i.e., history never repeats itself) to be permissible in the case of a “functional group.” With respect to Melville’s family group, if the purpose of the family was socialization into a particular ideology, with similar relations of the “children” to parental authority, and if this socialization could be shown to be arguably identical with that of academics in elite universities during the decisive phase of the Melville “revival”, then I could be on solid ground. In both cases, archival research strongly indicated that cognitive dissonance abounded, or to put it my way, both institutions inflicted double binds on their members: There could be no conflict between Truth and Order. Melville faced this contradiction head-on in his fiction, while his revivers suppressed it, turned him into a moderate man like themselves,  and got sick or extremely depressed while studying and writing about Melville.

In the blog linked above, I objected to the notion that Americans should “work through” their treatment of black slavery and their promotion of the slave trade just as the Germans had been urged to “work through” the Nazi past, specifically the Holocaust.* I queried a former professor of mine about the propriety of the comparison, and in his answer he ended a long exposition comparing the brutalities of the persecution of the Jews and the slave trade and slavery with the adjuration that the effects of slavery were still with us, implying that the Holocaust and antisemitism were something of a dead letter—a problem already solved.  If that was his implication, I cannot agree.

I got a better understanding of the latter’s mind-set when reading a fascinating cultural history of how the Civil War was memorialized through 1865-1913. The book is Yale Professor David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Johns Hopkins UP, 2001). In this passage, Blight summarizes the situation that apparently motivates an entire generation of activist historians who cut their teeth during and after the civil rights movements of the mid-1950s onward, and who were inspired by the massive contributions of my Cornell professor. Referring to a number of Congressional hearings looking into activities of the Ku Klux Klan, beginning in March 1871, Blight wrote:

“These public hearings are a unique testament of how law and order collapsed in many areas of the South, and to the shuddering brutality of many white Southerners toward blacks and many whites judged to be complicitous with the Yankee conqueror. They are America’s first public record where ordinary freedmen, public officials, poor white farmers, Klansmen, and former Confederate generals came before federal officials and described, or evaded, what the war had wrought—a revolutionary society that attempted forms of racial equality without the means or ultimate will to enforce them against a counterrevolutionary political impulse determined to destroy the new order. The hearings were designed to produce prosecution and justice. Some justice was achieved, but the reconciliation that the country ultimately reached ironically emerged through avoidance and denunciation of the mountain of ugly truths recorded in those hearings.” (p.117)

An entire generation of cultural historians has not only corrected the record, but has taken unto itself a grand piece of the conscience of the nation insofar as it supports big government programs or black studies programs (with a black nationalist flavor) to instruct the unregenerate nation. Ironically, some of these same historians have tended to view Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, proponents of land reform to start the freedmen on the road to capitalist independence, as extremists, as too harsh or even paranoid in their critiques of the old South/the Slave Power/unrepentant rebels (see my conference paper, https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/.)

In other words, their hearts are in the right place, but having been focused upon a piece of history that has been at least partly transcended since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and onward, they appear to me to remain invested in the cruelty of white people—a series of injustices that seems to them never to have been fully repaired, and which crowds out those antislavery Americans who rejected big government bureaucratic and collectivist remedies for a divided nation.  It remains to be seen whether this cohort will ever see school choice (as Joel Klein has advised) as a road to “social justice” for inner city schools.  Are our public schools everywhere, but especially in still backward cities and towns practicing a kind of bondage to ignorance, a bondage that can be compared to slavery? Now that is an analogy I can live with.

*In further reading by academics with similar mind sets, I see that I have missed the point: the persons I criticize here are anti-materialists, and write history through the prism of religion, and also epistemological idealism. They believe in “identity” politics, and through appropriate “working through” followed by reparations, believe that a more positive national identity can be achieved. But first, one must acknowledge the atrociousness of the past, repent, undergo a change of heart, and then redemption is possible. This kind of history writing, focusing on myth and symbols, is foreign to me as an epistemological materialist and advocate of secular modernity. Not surprisingly, their anticapitalist, anti-machine mentality, is as ferocious as any academic dare put down on paper.


1 Comment »

  1. […] I find it impossible to laud Lincoln’s record as a moderate who succeeded in conciliating sectional conflict. We are still fighting over the Civil War, and the proposals of the so-called Radical Republicans might have done much to allay the bitterness that remains over this unresolved, traumatic and traumatizing conflict. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/02/20/are-we-still-fighting-the-civil-war/.) […]

    Pingback by The Abraham Lincoln Conundrum « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 29, 2011 @ 8:59 pm | Reply

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