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Hullabaloo


Saturday, March 16, 2013

 
The states' rights scab covering the wound that will not heal

by digby

There's a lot of chit-chat today about that bizarre panel on race relations at CPAC I wrote about yesterday. This piece by Benjy Sarlin is particularly colorful.

Here's a little reminder of part of what went down:

Scott Terry of North Carolina, accompanied by a Confederate-flag-clad attendee, Matthew Heimbach, rose to say he took offense to the event’s take on slavery. (Heimbach founded the White Students Union at Towson University and is described as a “white nationalist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)

“It seems to be that you’re reaching out to voters at the expense of young white Southern males,” Terry said, adding he “came to love my people and culture” who were “being systematically disenfranchised.”

Smith responded that Douglass forgave his slavemaster.

“For giving him shelter? And food?” Terry said.

Lovely. The participants were very angry with ... a black reporter who asked questions at this panel. This fine fellow is presumably still wandering the halls.

As it happens I was just reading this piece over at Salon about the endurance of the confederate myth, which gives us a little important reminder about this story:

The Civil War is like a mountain range that guards all roads into the South: you can’t go there without encountering it. Specifically, you can’t go there without addressing a question that may seem as if it shouldn’t even be a question—to wit: what caused the war? One hundred and fifty years after the event, Americans—at least the vast majority who toil outside academia—still can’t agree. Evidence of this crops up all the time, often in the form of a legal dispute over a display of the Confederate flag. (As I write, there are two such cases pending—one in Oregon and the other in Florida, making this an average news week.) Another common forum is the classroom. But it’s not always about the Stars and Bars. In 2010, for instance, Texas school officials made the news by insisting that Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address be given equal prominence with Abraham Lincoln’s in that state’s social studies curriculum. The following year, Virginia school officials were chagrined to learn that one of their state-adopted textbooks was teaching fourth graders that thousands of loyal slaves took up arms for the confederacy.

At the bottom of all of these is one basic question: was the Civil War about slavery, or states’ rights?

Popular opinion favors the latter theory. In the spring of 2011, in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, pollsters at the Pew Research Center asked: “What is your impression of the main cause of the Civil War?” Thirty-eight percent of the respondents said the main cause was the South’s defense of an economic system based on slavery, while nearly half—48 percent—said the nation sacrificed some 650,000 of its fathers, sons, and brothers over a difference of interpretation in constitutional law. White non-Southerners believed this in roughly the same proportion as white Southerners, which was interesting; even more fascinating was the fact that 39 percent of the black respondents, many of them presumably the descendants of slaves, did, too.

We pause here to note that wars are complex events whose causes can never be adequately summed up in a phrase, that they can start out as one thing and evolve into another, and that what people think they are fighting for isn’t always the cause history will record. Yet, as Lincoln noted in his second inaugural address, there was never any doubt that the billions of dollars in property represented by the South’s roughly four million slaves was somehow at the root of everything, and on this point scholars who don’t agree about much of anything else have long found common ground. “No respected historian has argued for decades that the Civil War was fought over tariffs, that abolitionists were mere hypocrites, or that only constitutional concerns drove secessionists,” writes University of Virginia historian Edward Ayers. Yet there’s a vast chasm between this long-established scholarly consensus and the views of millions of presumably educated Americans, who hold to a theory that relegates slavery to, at best, incidental status. How did this happen?

One reason boils down to simple convenience—for white people, that is. In his 2002 book “Race and Reunion,” Yale historian David Blight describes a national fervor for “reconciliation” that began in the 1880s and lasted through the end of World War I, fueled in large part by the South’s desire to attract industry, Northern investors’ desire to make money, and the desire of white people everywhere to push “the Negro question” aside. In the process, the real causes of the war were swept under the rug, the better to facilitate economic partnerships and sentimental reunions of Civil War veterans.

But an equally important reason was a vigorous, sustained effort by Southerners to literally rewrite history—and among the most ardent revisionists were a group of respectable white Southern matrons known as the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

That white supremacist at the panel yesterday (and yes, he is the real thing) going on about how slaves should be grateful they were given food and shelter didn't get the memo. Slavery is supposed to be irrelevant. The Civil War was about freeeeeeedom.

I know why so many Americans believe this, at least those of a certain age. I went to the 8th grade here in California and we spent the entire year on the Civil War. (My particular project was about the Lincoln-Douglas debates.) The teacher was emphatic that the "war between the states" was about states' rights. We talked about slavery --- I'm pretty sure someone did their project on the subject along with subjects such as the Monitor and the Merrimac and Matthew Brady. But it certainly was not the focus of the year-long study nor was it ever considered as the reason for the war. I suspect I'm not the only one whose earliest and, for many, their most comprehensive lesson about the civil war was that one.

This wasn't the South, it was the San Francisco bay area in the 1970s. Hopefully things have changed and the standard curriculum for school kids everywhere is more balanced. But that's what a whole lot of us learned at a young age for a very long time in this country. It seems crazy to me now, but I was just a kid. I assumed they were telling me the truth. Lucky for me I learned otherwise from different teachers but I wonder how many other people just learned this in school and that was that.

This belief in "states' rights" undergirds much of the modern conservative project, mostly as a result of the redrawing of partisan lines in the wake of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. But it's more than that isn't it? It's the scab that keeps getting picked by people like that creepy racist at CPAC and the wound just never heals.


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