The New Bigotry

“The New Civil War” an article in U.S.News by Robert Schlesinger July 24, 2015 is an example of what might properly be called “The New Bigotry.”

Dictionary definitions of bigotry are not very helpful. Here are definitions from three different dictionaries:

Oxford English Dictionary: Intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.
Webster’s College Dictionary: Extreme intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own.
American Heritage Dictionary: The attitude, state of mind, or behavior characteristic of a bigot; intolerance.

By these definitions, if I am intolerant of someone who believes in slavery, or if I’m intolerant of someone who believes women are chattel, I am a bigot. And so then is Mr. Schlesinger, being intolerant of any who fought for the Confederacy.

What Mr. Schlesinger is guilty of is what I think is the heart of bigotry – the reduction of a people, a group, a segment of history into a simplistic caricature of the bigot’s choosing. Just as the white bigots of yesteryear reduced blacks to a caricature of low IQ and shiftless childishness, Mr. Schlesinger reduces all participants in the Confederate side of the Civil War into racist, lawless haters.

Prior to the Civil War, the common reference to our nation, by North and South, was “these United States,” a plurality, not as we refer to it today as “the United States” a singular object. Mr. Schlesinger describes the secession movement as, in effect, a crime like armed robbery, when at the time there was not only no unanimity of opinion about the indissolubility of the union, but also, there was still an acute awareness of the Declaration of Independence:

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”

In his first draft of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson included:

“he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere … this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain, determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold.”

That Jefferson, a slave owner, would write this, is indicative of how complex the tangled moral and economic issue of slavery was.

Robert E. Lee, whose name and statues should now, apparently, be removed, was no friend of slavery. When offered command of the Union army, he declined at least partly on the grounds that he could not bring himself to “bear arms against his native state.” While the southern plantation class – a small but powerful minority – did fight to protect slavery, many southerners fought to protect their home from what they saw as invasion and at the very least, a threat to the sovereignty of their native state. Many were opposed to slavery, but also felt the issue had to be resolved within the individual states. To a far greater degree than we can comprehend today, many Americans, North and South, saw themselves first as citizens of their native state.

Although born on a slave holding plantation, part of Lee’s motivation for a career in the Army was to escape having to be a slave owner. When a relative died and named him executor of his estate, Lee was forced to manage a slave plantation – one in poor financial shape. The simple option was to sell slaves “down the river” where the demand and price was high (Virginia’s soil was less and less able to support the type of cultivation that made slave labor profitable) but he would not take that option because it would break up families. He could free the slaves, but that would leave the white inheritors without means (a violation of his trust) and the slaves without jobs or homes or hope to long maintain their freedom. So he managed the estate into profitability while at the same time corresponding with people in the North who could find jobs for freed slaves. As jobs were found, Lee freed slaves to fill them, so he did the best he could for all the people he was responsible for – his duty to the inheritors, he kept the slave families together, and he freed into jobs in the north those he could. Another indicator of the tangled moral and economic complexity of slavery.

In short, the motivations of many who fought for the Confederacy were varied and cannot all be classed as evil defenders of slavery. Moreover, by so refusing to try and understand the complexities of the Civil War and its meanings, we deny the humanity of those involved. It’s noteworthy that Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and his second inaugural address did not cast the Confederacy in evil terms.

If I were to take people like Mr. Schlesinger seriously, then I would advocate banning the Democrat party and all Democrat symbols. It was the Democrat party that defended slavery, that tried hard to expand it, that brought on the Civil War, that after losing, when it could, brought on Jim Crow and the KKK, that used the Confederate flag to promote its racism, and that fought against the civil rights movement. When they saw they were losing, LBJ, who had filibustered against the Civil Rights act in 1957, suddenly championed it in 1964 and championed the “War on Poverty” in 1965.

Strange – between 1950 and 1965, poverty in the U.S. had fallen from 30% to about 15%. Since the War on Poverty, the poverty level has just fluctuated around 15%. As Reagan said, “We declared war on poverty and lost.” The War on Poverty has had one major success, though. As LBJ said, “I’ll have those N**** voting Democrat for the next hundred years.”

These are facts, but are they the whole truth? What about the anti slavery Democrats? What about the many who supported the struggle for civil rights who were or came to identify themselves Democrats?

The self-righteous negative caricaturing of some subset of human affairs or of human beings in order to make one’s self look elevated is at the heart of bigotry. Consequently, all those calls to ban Confederate flags and remove Confederate statues, these calls are themselves exercises in bigotry.

Around 1938, I think, there was a re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg by surviving veterans. As the aged Union veterans watched their equally aged former enemy advance in a recreation of Pickett’s Charge, they were overcome by emotion and left their stone wall and ran (as well as old men could) to embrace their former enemies halfway. It seems to me we could be as least as understanding and forgiving as they were – “with malice toward none and charity toward all.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s