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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, May 27, 2017


Every Thou in the world is by its nature fated to become a thing, or continually re-enter into the condition of things. In objective speech it would be said that every thing in the world, either before or after becoming a thing, is able to appear to an I as its Thou. But objective speech snatches only at a fringe of real life.-- Martin Buber, I AND THOU.
Within the last week New Orleans removed its last Confederate statue, but the anti-Confederacy meme has been brewing at least since the 1990s. Because the Confederacy was based upon the "peculiar institution" of slavery, and because more than a few supporters of the southern states declared their absolute allegiance to that institution, many modern Americans have come to view any sympathy for the Confederacy as a similar allegiance to any and all forms of racism. Thus any modern displays of sympathy for the losing side of the American Civil War have been broadly interpreted as advocacy of racism. This might be logical if Rebel flags were largely being flown by members of the Klan or similar societies. However, the assumption of racism has become so endemic that it's caused retroactive condemnation of old TV shows like THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, simply for displaying the flag as a decoration on the car. Twice on the 2009-2013 animated TV show THE CLEVELAND SHOW, the title character was shown gaining minor victories over entrenched Confederate sympathies in the fictional city of Stoolbend, Virginia (allegedly patterned upon Richmond). Even though Cleveland was generally characterized as a fool, in this respect he was shown to be entirely justified in challenging this status quo. The scripts for both shows endorsed the idea that modern-day Confederate sympathies connoted modern-day anti-black prejudice.

If I were a black person, I suppose I too might take at face value all statements of historical Rebels, and thus conclude the principal question of the American Civil War was whether or not black people were foreordained by God to be slaves. But as a white person who may know a bit more about the way white people think than a lot of non-whites, I'd say that the Civil War was predominantly a war between two groups of white people, and the fate of black slaves was simply the "bone" over which the two dogs were fighting.

One can find innumerable justifications for slavery. often religious in nature, in the records of Confederacy advocates. But the primary justification, since slavery became an American institution around 1620, was economic. In addition to the perks of free labor for landowners, the 3/5 compromise of 1783 ensured that even a partial count of the slaves in southern states would result in a greater allotment of delegates in the federal government. While many reformers objected to slavery on moral grounds, it seems likely to me that the Republican legislators who introduced the ban on slavery in U.S. territories were more concerned with breaking the hold that Southerners had on the government. (Notably, seven presidents prior to the Civil War were born in the above-mentioned Virginia.) The fact that the northern states had few if any laws against slavery suggests that had it been economically advantageous for those states to harbor as many slaves as the south did, there might never have been a Civil War at all.

In another essay I applied Buber's above remarks to the "peculiar institution," noting that:

It would seem obvious to me that the real-world injustice of slavery is all about what Buber calls the "I-it" relationship, of an "I" (the slaver or slaveholder) reducing a sentient being (the slave) to the status of an object.
And yet, in the above quote Buber stipulates that every Thou is fated to "continually enter into the condition of things." Human beings have been enslaving other human beings for centuries, and while not all institutions of slavery are equally motivated by profit, it would be naive to assume no economic advantage, particularly in the case of African slaves. One online writer, whom I've not been able to locate again, remarked that sub-Saharan Africa was virtually a "one-stop shopping" for the slave trade. For whatever reason, black people were one of the favorite targets of the Arab slavers since the ninth century. African slaves were commonly employed throughout the Middle East and were even traded as far abroad as China.

The fact that "everybody did it" doesn't make it right, of course, and the making of people into things, no matter who does it-- is fundamentally immoral. However, it is also very nearly inevitable, given the tendency of human beings to judge the morality of their ingroups in terms of self-interest; and to efface the fact that said ingroups have usually attained their position by debasing or marginalizing other peoples. American Southerners were indubitably dishonest about not admitting that they wanted slaves because slaves were profitable. But I don't think that they were dishonest in interpreting the Civil War in terms of a battle between the interests of two groups of white people. This interpretation became encoded in culture and literature as the "brother against brother" trope, and this had made it possible for the re-united culture to tolerate the honoring of war heroes of the Confederacy, even in some northern states.

In modern times, however, Confederate monuments, and any and all paraphernalia associated with honoring the famed "Lost Cause" (Rebel flags, names on public schools) are charged with sending the wrong message. The mayor of New Orleans endorsed this interpretation, stating categorically that Civil War monuments contributed to the city's "exclusionary attitudes." He further stated that "now is the time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history."

Many defenses of the monuments assert that they want to see history preserved. This is not precisely my defense, for I'm quite aware that monuments and paraphernalia for any cause cannot present a sophisticated view of history. In my opinion the main reason that the descendants of the Confederacy insurrection want the monuments is one of ego-gratification. I can't say that none of them have any desire to use Southern memorabilia as a means, say, to rally against the supposed evils of multiculturalism. But I find it unlikely that all of them do, and to those that simply want the pleasant illusion of the "brother vs. brother" theme, the insistence that Black Americans' feelings should be honored above their own is not likely to lead to greater collegiality. Indeed, I suspect that these sort of demands only foster more "exclusionary attitudes," rather than supporting the cause of diversity.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "Our ancestors pay the price for who we are." If there are any people on this planet who possess absolutely no interest in validating their ancestors, I'm not aware of them, and I don't agree with the mayor that a given ingroup can simply "move past" their history. Ideally the ingroup should be cognizant of the ways in which their ancestors debased or marginalized other peoples, but the idea of defining any ingroup's heritage purely in terms of those acts is mere rhetoric that springs only from-- guess what-- self-interest. I suppose it might be empowering for Black Americans to imagine White Southerners going around, for the rest of their lives, wearing sackcloth and ashes for the sins of their ancestors.

But it's not going to happen. And any rhetoric that seeks that end is also-- a Lost Cause.

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