Monday, January 14, 2013

A whiff of the Confederacy in the New York Times

Charles Blow writes that 40% of whites in the South support the cause of the Confederacy, that is slavery - see below. This is an evil statistic which is a root of American warmongering, practice of torture, and racism. It comes from a long racist campaign to win the Civil War despite defeat: the image of a noble South, violated by Yankee war.


Blow captures a standard slave-owner's apology - really, slaves are better off in America than free in Africa - in the mouth of one of today's Republicans (racism is pretty much what the "Republican" party, once the party of Lincoln, has become).


The evidence that blacks hated slavery is long suppressed. But they fought against it as part of an international movement, in the Caribbean in the 1750s in 20 revolts and sweeping into the United States. Sailors who had been pressed – seized off the street - by the British took their cause to London and Boston where J. Philmore and James Otis wrote fierce pamphlets against bondage in the early 1760s. The word circulated widely among the rank and file of the American Revolution, the participants in revolutionary crowds.

And in the Civil War, when finally recruited by the Emancipation Proclamation, some 200,000 blacks in the Union army and navy were the leading fighters who brought down the South.


All this is buried in most public schools and colleges, as Linda Mizell, an associate professor of education at the University of Colorado, reported on the Donnie Betts show. Listen here. Linda learned the words of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment from Vincent Harding's fiery There is a River. I and Winston Grady-Willis, the other two panelists, and Donnie agreed. Our experiences were similar.


In contrast, in the mainstream, "Dixie" and “Gone With the Wind" and history teachers who like the KKK sometimes even in Northern schools and universities and prevalently in the South, play a big role in the image that there was somehow, something wrong with the anti-slavery cause and that "patriarchal" slaveowners were somehow beneficent...


The Times op-ed page just published Jim Downs' "Dying for Freedom." Downs has written a book arguing that Lincoln had made no plan to free blacks and hence, was responsible for black suffering during and after the War. This assertion erases the horrific oppression of bondage itself, often starving and killing blacks and marketing family members away from each other. It erases the continuing efforts of former slave-owners to reestablish themselves by lynching – what the Ku Klux Klan was.


Downs actually says that the Emancipation Proclamation “created the humanitarian crisis.” That these words can be passed off by the Times's editors as accompanying a decent point of view about black suffering because of small pox and other diseases – that the author has perhaps deceived even himself – is pretty startling.


Charles Blow alludes to polling showing Southern favoring of the Confederacy and the Times obliges by printing uncritically a Northern op-ed which is pro-slavery...


Blow aptly traces the roots of a Southern Republican's breezy zeal for slavery for blacks to General Robert E. Lee, and one can find the segregationist antecedents to Downs's attack on emancipation with similar ease.


Downs's disparaging of Lincoln is also flawed. Since Lincoln was murdered two years after the Proclamation and before the war ended, he had little opportunity to forge an adequate program for Reconstruction. Failing to note this is on the author’s part stupidity - ratified by the Times - or bad faith.


I wrote a letter to the Times on these points and tracing the continuity of black revolt in the Revolution and the Civil War. The editorial page is sometimes less racist than the rest of the paper. It published for example Paul Finkelman's piece on "The Monster of Monticello" as well as a striking letter by Eric Foner. See my posts here and here. But the Times did not print the letter.


Downs is right that many blacks suffered during the Civil War and its aftermath, just as Jim Crow beneficiaries were right, as in David Wark Griffiths' "Birth of a Nation," to point out the suffering of women in factories. This is what Marx and Engels mocked as true socialism in the Communist Manifesto – attacking capitalism to defend the monarchy (or a “red monarchy”). In Germany, such "anti-capitalist" arguments were made on behalf of serfdom, among segregationists and Mr. Downs, in defense of enslavement.


A smallpox epidemic played a big role in the American Revolution, weakening Dunmore's Royal Ethiopian Regiment. It did not deter blacks from escaping to the British - or in this case, the Union - and fighting for freedom. See Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence, ch. 3.


Blow's column at last mentions Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow - see here, here and here - on the editorial page. Alexander shows how racism in law enforcement leads to America having the largest number of prisoners in the world, many who are trapped by the prison complex, whose lives have been ruined for once smoking, as a teenager, marijuana (the US now has 2.3 million, 25% of the world's prisoners; the "land of the free" is the biggest police state in the world...).


The exact words here are worth taking this in. The Times’s opposition to/understanding of racism is thin…


Here is my letter:

A whiff of the Confederacy

Jim Downs “Dying for Freedom” bewails the carelessness of Lincoln and Northern politicians: “his emancipation policies failed to consider the human cost of liberation.” This oxymoron suggests that bondage was not horrific for slaves. It ignores the immense uprising of blacks in the Revolution and the Civil War who fled to the British or joined Patriot forces in exchange for freedom or escaped bondage to join the Union army. It ignores the decisive black presence in fighting for their own liberation – what swept Lincoln along as he said – and that of many poor whites, led by sailors during the Revolution and later by abolitionists.

Having been an advocate of colonization overseas for blacks, Lincoln shifted dramatically in 1863. He did not plan out what to do after the war; he was assassinated so Downs’s diminution of him – not a hero, finally – rings hollow.

More importantly, Downs ignores the immense suffering of blacks during the Civil War and later, imposed by plantation owners, and thus, by implication, apologizes for the “South”. He echoes the plaint of D.W. Griffiths “Birth of a Nation” that perishing young white women in textile factories had it worse than slaves.

In the Manhattan graveyard unexpectedly discovered in 1991, 40% of the corpses were under the age of 15. Killing as well as whipping, starving and breaking up of families drove bondage. That is why blacks and whites, who often gave their lives to fight it, did so.

Alan Gilbert is the author of Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence (University of Chicago Press, May 2012)


Here is Downs’ op-ed:

DISUNION January 5, 2013,
Dying for Freedom

The Emancipation Proclamation, which Abraham Lincoln signed on Jan. 1, 1863, was primarily a military tool. When he issued it in preliminary form in September 1862, it was meant to be a warning to the South: give up, or your slaves will be set free.

And, once in place, emancipation did just what Lincoln wanted — it drew untold thousands of freed slaves to the advancing Union armies, depleting the Southern work force and providing the North with much-needed cheap labor. But it also created an immense humanitarian crisis in which hundreds of thousands of former slaves died from disease, malnutrition and poverty.

Emancipation did, of course, free the slaves in the Confederacy. But Lincoln can no longer be portrayed as the hero in this story. Despite his efforts to end slavery, his emancipation policies failed to consider the human cost of liberation.

Little if any thought was given to what would happen to black people after emancipation. Questions about where they would go, what they would eat, how they would work and, most important, how they would survive the war were not considered, either by policy makers in Washington or the majority of generals in the field.

Amazingly, the overwhelming flow of men, women and children out of their bonds and toward Union lines seemed to take Northern military and political leaders by surprise. As O. O. Howard, a leading military official, later described the period after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, “The sudden collapse of the rebellion, making emancipation an actual, universal fact, was like an earthquake. It shook and shattered the whole previously existing social system.”

As former slaves left their places of servitude behind, they entered a world of freedom, but also a war zone devastated by disease, poverty and death. More soldiers, as Ric Burns’s recent documentary, “Death and the Civil War,” reveals, died of disease than from battle. Slaves became exposed to the same outbreaks of dysentery, smallpox and fever that decimated Union and Confederate ranks, and they died by the thousands: an estimated 60,000 former slaves died from a smallpox epidemic from 1863 to 1865.

There were no protections, no refugee programs or public health services, in place to help freed slaves ward off the disease that plagued the Confederate South. As one 19th-century reformer observed, “You may see a child well and hearty this morning, and in the evening you will hear of its death.”

Without a proper place to live, adequate nutrition or access to basic medical necessities, freed slaves became more vulnerable to illness than Union soldiers, and as a result, hundreds of thousands of slaves became sick and died at the moment of freedom — a bitter irony often ignored in favor of a more triumphant narrative [sic - there is relatively little such narrative until the movie "Lincoln" just this year - see here] about emancipation.

Because of the unexpected mortality that the freed slave population endured during the war, federal officials eventually established the first national health care system in 1865, after the war ended. Known as the Medical Division of the Freedmen’s Bureau, this institution included 40 hospitals, a dozen orphanages and homes for the elderly; employed roughly 120 physicians; and treated over a million freed slaves between 1865 and 1868.

But the government’s interest in providing medical support resulted less from a benevolent concern to treat the sick and suffering and more from an investment in creating a healthy labor force to return to the plantation South. Consequently, many of these hospitals remained underfinanced and understaffed and were unable to mitigate the medical crises that enveloped the postwar South.

As the nation continues to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we must remember that even though we celebrate emancipation as the end of chattel slavery, the policies that enacted it were failures. The inadequacies of the measures and the troubling motivations for these proclamations meant that countless numbers of freed slaves did not survive the war, despite the rhetoric employed to free them.

In 1863, a freed slave fled from a plantation to Washington. But once in the nation’s capital, a reformer later reported, he did not dance in the streets and sing of jubilee. Instead, like so many, he was suddenly ill, and he was confined to a bed in a crowded hospital. As he struggled to raise his head above a raggedy blanket and scanned the room that was full of other suffering former slaves, he asked, “Is this freedom?”

Lincoln’s emancipation may have legally freed that man, and nearly four million other slaves, but that was about it. Without the basic necessities of life — food, shelter and health — the prospect of freedom was but a hollow, half-fulfilled promise.

Jim Downs is an associate professor of history at Connecticut College and the author of “Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction.”


Escaping Slavery
Published: January 4, 2013

America has slavery on the brain these days.
Charles M. Blow

There were the recent releases of the movies “Lincoln” (which I found enlightening and enjoyable) and “Django Unchained” (which I found a profound love story with an orgy of excesses and muddled moralities). I guess my preferences reflect my penchant for subtlety. Sometimes a little bit of an unsettling thing goes a long way, and a lot goes too far. Aside from its gratuitous goriness, “Django Unchained” reportedly used the N-word more than 100 times. “Lincoln” used it only a handful. I don’t know exactly where my threshold is, but I think it’s well shy of the century mark.

And there was this week the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most important documents in this country’s archives.

All of this has caused me to think deeply about the long shadow of slavery, the legacy of that most grievous enterprise and the ways in which that poison tree continues to bear fruit.

To be sure, America has moved light-years forward from the days of slavery. But the idea that progress toward racial harmony would or should be steady and continuous is fraying. And the pillars of the institution — the fundamental devaluation of dark skin and strained justifications for the unconscionable — have proved surprisingly resilient.

For instance, in October, The Arkansas Times reported that Jon Hubbard, a Republican state representative, wrote in a 2009 self-published book that “the institution of slavery that the black race has long believed to be an abomination upon its people may actually have been a blessing in disguise.” His misguided point was that for all the horrors of slavery, blacks were better off in America than in Africa.

This was a prevailing, wrongheaded, ethically empty justification for American slavery when it was legal.

Robert E. Lee wrote in 1856: “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things.”

And in a famous 1837 speech on the Senate floor, John C. Calhoun declared: “I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good — a positive good.”

Lee was later appointed commander in chief of the armies of the South, and Calhoun had been vice president and became secretary of state. But in November, Hubbard lost his seat; I guess that’s progress.

Still, the persistence of such a ridiculous argument does not sit well with me. And we should all be unsettled by the tendency of some people to romanticize and empathize with the Confederacy.

A Pew Research Center poll released in April 2011 found that most Southern whites think it’s appropriate for modern-day politicians to praise Confederate leaders, the only demographic to believe that.

A CNN poll also released that month found that nearly 4 in 10 white Southerners sympathize more with the Confederacy than with the Union.

What is perhaps more problematic is that negative attitudes about blacks are increasing. According to an October survey by The Associated Press: “In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election.”

Not progress.

In fact, it feels as though slavery as an analogy has become subversively chic. Herman Cain, running as a Republican presidential candidate, built an entire campaign around this not-so-coded language, saying that he had left “the Democrat plantation,” calling blacks “brainwashed” and arguing, “I don’t believe racism in this country today holds anybody back in a big way.”

As the best-selling author Michelle Alexander pointed out in her sensational 2010 book “The New Jim Crow,” various factors, including the methodical mass incarceration of black men, has led to the disintegration of the black family, the disenfranchisement of millions of people, and a new and very real era of American oppression.

As Alexander confirmed to me Friday: “Today there are more African-American adults under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

Definitely not progress.


LFC said...

Is Jim Downs implicitly defending or apologizing for slavery? I don't really think so, although I suppose the point is arguable and you're right to note that he doesn't discuss the suffering of slaves under 'the peculiar institution' or the participation of slaves in their own liberation. But I suspect the space limits of an op-ed, and the understandable desire to focus on the topic of his book (illness among freed slaves), may have at least something to do with that.

In any case, whether one thinks Downs is implicitly apologizing for slavery or not, I don't think he's making the D.W. Griffiths argument about the suffering of women in northern factories being worse than slavery. He doesn't say anything along those lines in the op-ed. That's an argument, as you probably know, that goes back to the 19th cent., in the writings of figures like George Fitzhugh, who decried northern 'wage slavery,' and H.R. Helper. I've discussed Fitzhugh a couple of times at my blog, including here:

LFC said...

P.s. Actually the topic of Downs's book may be a bit broader than illness among freed slaves -- it's rather hard to tell from the title, which is all I have to go on.

Alan Gilbert said...

Downs says that Emancipation created a humanitarian crisis. That is pretty plainly a statement that bondage was not one. It is false. This poisons much that he says, along with the foolish claim that Lincoln, who was assassinated, was not a hero. I am very critical of the all out celebration of Presidential biography and diminution of protest. But the line of argument that Downs pursues is something else. He chose these ways to address the issue. That the issue of smallpox and death among freed blacks is important there is no doubt. But that doesn't alter the pro-Confederacy emphasis.

Alan Gilbert said...

But, LFC, thank you very much for the sophisticated comments. He could plainly, thinking differently and more thoroughly about it, have done better. So could the Times...

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