Tuesday, April 12, 2011


There's a terrific article on The Civil War and its aftereffects by David Von Drehle in the latest TIME (the one with Lincoln crying on the cover). It's called "The Way We Weren't" and made me realize that what I've been lamenting about the right's mastery at framing the arguments in our public dialogue has been going on a lot longer than I've been acknowledging.

Early on it quotes Lincoln—just weeks before the war began with the shots on Fort Sumter, South Carolina (no coincidence South Carolina has been the font of rightwing lies and distortions)—saying:

"One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute."

And by extended he didn't mean continued, he meant extended into the Western states because the South wanted and thought it needed to expand into the West with slavery as the root of its wealth (as the article points out, the largest source of wealth in the USA in 1861 was slaves. Not even cotton topped the value of the South's slaves).

And even though many Southern leaders made it clear the fight was over slavery, as soon as they lost (and in some cases sooner) they began to reframe the fight as being over "independence" and "states rights" and blamed it on the "aggression of the North" and in retrospect on "shiftless Negroes" (although the n-word was more often used) and "carpetbaggers" (ala THE BIRTH OF A NATION and GONE WITH THE WIND).

That framing is still going on today on this, the anniversary of the day Fort Sumter was fired upon and the Civil War officially began (though as history and the article points out, it really began a few years earlier in Kansas where the "Free-Staters" and "Slave-Starers" had already battled violently). There are libertarians and independents, let alone rightwing Republicans, who share this view and have been seduced by the media in all its forms to believe this (the Internet hasn't helped, as the article points out, though not in these terms, when you google The Civil War you get more of that rightwing framing than good history—a quibble I've had with Google and search engines in general for quite a while, that when you google The Civil War or The Great Depression or other still disputed topics, the right seems to dominate the search lists for the first several pages, probably because they've put some of their big financial backing into finding how to game that system).

Like that recent "celebration" of the 150th anniversary of The Civil War in Virginia—where slavery wasn't even mentioned and they had one of those cotillion balls or whatever—it's all based on a myth—the genteel white folks, the happy slaves, the way of life that's well mannered and ready to defend its honor, honorably etc.

I watched some of the recent rerun on PBS of the incredible Ken Burns documentary THE CIVIL WAR and first of all was shocked to realize it had been twenty years since it was first shown, and then shocked by how good it still is, in fact better than the first time because it resonates even more with these times, unfortunately.

There are so many scenes and stories, factual stories, of Southern perfidy and duplicity and the most dishonorable behavior (I knew about most of the obvious ones, like Andersonville, the Southern prison for Union soldiers that was worse than anything that came later in the 20th Century short of the gas ovens, the Union soldiers just died more slowly and looked dead before they were, as emaciated or more so than the Holocaust victims, and amazingly it was commanded by a "German" immigrant!).

And there are amazing factual stories about the generosity and honorableness and decency and humanity and humility of many of the Northern soldiers and their leaders. Obviously reality usually contains both "good" and "bad" and the North and South and their armies and citizens contained both. But my point is, the North felt humble in its total victory, felt bad for the Southerners who had fought and died and lost so much. And probably also guilty, since it was only eight years before the war started Connecticut abolished slavery and of course the North also had Sherman. So they allowed the Southerners to gloss over the reality of the war, wanting to put it behind everyone (sound familiar? like Obama and many of the Dems after his election vis-a-vis the financial crimes committed by the big banks or the criminal activity of the Bush/Cheney administration?).

The Southerners created their myth of the pre-war paradise where everyone was good and decent, but it also included the Northerners being rapacious and greedy and turning the ex-slaves into rapacious and lazy, etc. Okay I'm oversimplifying, but that's basically what the right did then, oversimplify to justify their defeat. It's like if the descendants of the Nazis got to hang the swastika on their trucks and have Nazi balls "celebrating" the Nazi era and avoided any mention of Jewish or any other kind of victims of their destructive policies and the war they initiated and ultimately lost except to brag about the great fight they put up and their bravery etc.

The original sin of this country was slavery—and The Founders knew it (as Madison said when the Constitution was being written: "It seems now to be understood that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the Northern and Southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequence form the line."). And the deliberate whitewashing of that sin through denial, revision, misdirection, misinformation and outright lies, was and still is a defense of that evil.

But that kind of defense continues to be done and often successfully by the right today, and not just of the historical and continuing attempts to whitewash the truth of the Civil War and slavery, but to whitewash the truth of the growing gap between rich and poor, the growing submission to corporate power and greed, and the war on working people to take away their right to unionize and of their unions to bargain and strike and all the rest of the right's agenda to finally realize the dreams of Ayn Rand (and her disciple Alan Greespan and follower Paul Ryan) that only the strong and powerful should survive and the rest of us "parasites" should either serve them or die.


JIm said...
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JIm said...
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Jamie Rose said...

Jim, why are you still posting? Lals made it clear that he doesn't want you here. Are you obsessed with him? Go rant somewhere else. Try the Huffington Post, you'll find lots of stuff to disagree with.

Jamie Rose

tpw said...

Dear M:
Beautiful piece, and right on target, as usual.

Lally said...

Thanks Jamie and TPW. Since you-know-who is on Rocky Mountain Time I'm usually sleep while he's still babbling so don't get a chance to respond, or these days delete, Until I get to the computer the next day, so I appreciate your both being there to counteract this repellent nonsense that unfortunately has too many in this country in its thrall.

Anonymous said...


I didn't read what he wrote so
how can I, a grown up, form any opinion

so, what you seem to be saying is that
if cotton had been the major crop in The North

there would have been more Negro slaves (in The North)?

what about the indentured Chinese slaves in the West ? or were they just called "laborers"

and what do you call the migrant workers the "poor white trash" and the "Illegals"

maybe you should boycott California wines and cotton Levi's ?

Miles said...

This recent CNN poll shows how Civil War ideas break down by political party affiliation:

CNN Poll

Lally said...

Thanks Miles. And Anonymous, I may not have expressed it so well, but the point about the cotton and Southern wealth was only to point out that what constituted the majority of the wealth of South possessed was the actual monetary value of their slaves, which meant their wealth was based on their owning fellow humans, so they had to adhere to a perspective, as unscientific as it was, that African-Americans were NOT human in their eyes, and they wanted to extend that perspective West of the Mississippi into every state that would be created out of those Western territories. So the "way of life" they wanted to protect wasn't what's depicted in BIRTH OF A NATION or GONE WITH THE WIND (and too many other movies I grew up with to list, where the "Johnny Reb" is always honorable and at worst a tragic hero, and the Northerners are often pure maliciousness and greed and at best "scalliwags" etc.) but more like what's depiected in Ken Burns CIVIL WAR in shots of slaves with layers and layers of scarred skin from beatings, and little children being torn from their mothers' breasts because they have been sold to some other owner, etc. etc. etc. There is nothing romantic or glorious about the old South, just as there is nothing humanitarian or just or supportive of equality in Paul Ryan's proposed budget or any other rightwing Republican scheme and dream to give even more power and wealth to the corporations and the most rich and to deprive the rest of us of any economic safety net to protect our basic human needs for food and shelter and medical care.

AlamedaTom said...


How odd. I am in the midst of re-watching Burns' "The Civil War" myself, having just finished episode 7 of 9. It not only holds up, but in many ways is even better than it was 20 years ago. The reason is obvious: Now, as opposed to 20 years ago, we are experiencing true threats to the fabric of our Union, and those making the threats are willing to take draconian positions to reach an end that is based upon unsociable, if not unconscionable tenets. Is there really much difference between defending slavery and defending destruction of our society's safety net for our fellow citizens who are in dire need?

Oh, and thanks for putting the hammer down on Jim.


Tom King said...

Thanks for this entry. I read the article too and was impressed with the clarity and how he put it succintly. I like that Lincoln used the word "extend": though he did mean extending slavery into the western territories, it has the ambiguous meaning of extending forward into time too. I read another speech by Lincoln where he did something similar, and now I can't remember what it was. He was masterful with words. I also read the Lincoln-Douglas debates recently. It's eye opening. The content of the debates is almost 100% about slavery. And this was a senate race in Illinois. All the other issues like states rights etc. feed into slavery, or ARE issues because of slavery.