Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Didn't The Right Side Win?

Background Briefing
with Ian Masters

Yesterday some Americans paused to remember that the Civil War began 150 years ago with the Confederacy’s attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and today we heard the President speak about restoring economic justice and reviving the American dream.

In terms of the former, the question arises: What are they remembering, and how much is the country still divided by enduring myths and historical revision? And in terms of the latter, are we able to see what is happening to our country or are we divided by these myths and distracted by atavistic fantasies?

In Charleston, South Carolina today, not far from where the great American bloodletting began, there are two separate tours of the historical city. On the tour for whites, the guide does not mention slavery and portrays a genteel culture of Rhett Butlers and Ashley Wilkes’ standing up for Southern values, whatever that means. The other tour for blacks shows an alternative universe of slave quarters, auction blocks, and chains and shackles that tell a very dark and different story.

Which is closer to the truth? First the caveat that there is the unfortunate fact that the truth is a moving target nowadays with Americans reality shopping online for their own versions of the facts that are managed and manipulated by spin doctors in a polarized media. But that aside, surely the historical record is clear, even if the interpretations are murky.

The Civil War was largely a struggle between two economic systems, one that relied on the unpaid labor of slaves who were the property of a Southern landed gentry and the other, in the more industrial North, a capitalist system based on paid wages.

Needless to say the British aristocracy, who lost the Revolutionary War, supported the South while the German, Scandinavian, and other immigrants from Europe in the North believed in honest labor and the Union. It is no coincidence that they later embraced that other important union, the labor union, and their descendants are leading the fights in Wisconsin and Ohio today.

Likewise, it is no accident that the South today is the home of the “right to work” states, meaning no labor unions and a plantation economy. And it is also the home of the new Republican Party, which due to Nixon’s successful southern strategy that pried the Dixiecrats away from the Democrats, has divided the country along a new political Mason/Dixon line of Red states in the South and Blue States in the North.

When Lyndon Johnson signed in Civil Rights Act in 1964 that finally freed the descendents of slaves from Jim Crow in the South, he knew that the Democrats were handing the South to the Republicans. But it was also good riddance for a lot of Democrats in terms of the Party’s uneasy alliance between Northern liberals and Southern reactionaries.

The bottom line, however, is that Southerners again made their choice of what side of history they wanted to be on. Ironically, their racism and resistance to black rights caused them to switch, virtually overnight, to the party they had been raised to loath, the Great Emancipator’s GOP.

I remember a scene in an otherwise unmemorable film about the Civil War, “Cold Mountain,” where a wounded Confederate soldier is recuperating in a Southern plantation house converted into a field hospital. A gaggle of Southern belles are doing the rounds with an exhausted doctor who surveys the broken bodies and ruefully remarks “I’ll never understand why these boys are fighting and dying for the plantation owner’s right to replace them with slaves.” I have the same problem understanding why working Americans today consistently vote against their interests.

But the gentlemanly myth of a noble Confederacy lives on as does the denial about the role that slavery played in the events of 1861 that still divide the nation. According to a new national poll by the CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll released Tuesday, roughly one in four Americans said they sympathize more with the Confederacy than the Union.

When it comes to white Southerners, the number rises to nearly four in ten. And as to whether the Civil War was fought over slavery or states' rights, 52 percent of all Americans said the leaders of the Confederacy seceded to keep slavery legal in their state. However a substantial minority of 42 percent believe that slavery was not the main reason why those states seceded.

Unsurprisingly the divide over slavery’s importance to the war that killed more Americans than all its other wars combined up until the Korean conflict, breaks down along political party lines. Most Democrats said southern states seceded over slavery, independents are split, and a large majority of Republicans said slavery was not the main reason. Apparently the pollsters did not ask the crucial follow up question: If it wasn’t slavery, what did cause the Civil War? I suspect they may not have a good answer other than to preserve the “southern way of life.”

Again in terms of the Rhett Butler factor, today’s Republicans also mythologize the Confederate leadership. Eight out of ten Republicans claim to admire the South’s Civil War leaders. Ironically, this number is almost identical to the 79 percent of Republicans in the 1860s who expressed admiration for their own leadership in the North.

Alas the body of historical evidence is moldering in the grave, and the truth is marching backwards as America becomes a plantation economy. While our revolutionary spirit rots, the Arab spring is reviving the values we claim to stand for.

Ironically, in terms of our economy, we are turning back the clock, becoming captives of our own Mubaraks, Qaddafis, and Ben Alis who, like the Confederacy, ruled in the name of tradition, religion, and family values. While young Arabs today are exposing the emperor’s nudity, many Americans are revisiting the same old myths of Southern values—myths that serve the few, while enslaving the many.

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