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Accursed land

This is a new one. Former GOP presidential nomination frontrunner Rick Perry has come under some heat for his unconventional and frankly disturbing religious associations. These go beyond the typical guilt by association that plagues politicians who may have encountered some fringe figures in their spiritual pursuits, like Obama’s close association with the controversial and outspoken (and aptly named) Jeremiah Wright or Michele Bachmann’s with the extremely odious Bradlee Dean. I certainly believe these relationships bear scrutiny, but generally not the clutching-the-chest panic they tend to evoke from partisans. Perry, on the other hand, moved into territory that quite frankly can be described as un-American – and by such I’d mean contrary to broad agreements about American political heritage as represented in discussions and interpretations of the Constitution, and nothing more – with the massive prayer rally called “The Response” held in Texas back in August. I don’t need to belabor the obvious here about an elected representative of the people – a governor, no less – endorsing, planning, and leading an exclusive religious festival not as a private citizen but in his capacity as a public servant.

But this is interesting. Evangelist, and from what I can tell, professional crazy person Cindy Jacobs has claimed that “The Response” has lifted a curse from American soil. Part of the purpose of the “The Response” was to pray away the problems that bedevil the country, and no one could be blamed for thinking back to Perry’s earlier state proclamation to pray away the droughts and wildfires that have made Texas, as least as viewed from afar, seem as if it were a land subject to the wrath of some divine power or another. But Jacobs’s claim is new to me: she claims that the sins of the Native Americans – chiefly their cannibalism – cursed the land and that curse, until recently, was affecting the legacy of the European settlers that displaced the native population. This recalls Pat Robertson’s rather confused and contemptible assertion that it was the Haitian Revolution’s pact with the Devil to overturn the French colonial government there that had cursed the land and resulted in Haiti’s horrific earthquake. Now it’s easy to dismiss Jacobs – she’s the fringe of a rather fringe group, and her major claim to notoriety is that she’s prone to make these crazy claims, like her claim that a massive die-off of birds in Arkansas and Louisiana was due to the end of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell, the military’s former policy of the forced exclusion of gays and lesbians from service. But the claim itself, and that it would find itself articulated within a specifically evangelical environment, that fascinates me.

Some ritual cannibalism was indeed practiced by Native American peoples prior to European settlements. And not long ago the anthropology community was embroiled in a rather sensational debate about the extent of the cannibalism practiced by a vanished tribe that preceded the Pueblo in the Southwest. But the weirdness here isn’t the lurid fixation with cannibalism itself, but that the sin or crime tainted not the people that practiced it so much as the land they lived on. And not the land so much as the geopolitical entity that inherits that continent.

Our culture is rife with heavily symbolic accounts of the transfer of authority over the land from Natives to Europeans, beginning with the fiction and poetry of the nineteenth century – especially Cooper’s novels and the narrative poems of Longfellow – and the trope of the Vanishing Indian, the peculiar insistence of nineteenth century Americans, including even otherwise astute and sympathetic observers like Thoreau, to insist that the Indians were already prior to the encounter with the West a dying and vanishing race, whose convenient inability to thrive and prosper allowed for European occupation of otherwise soon-to-be-vacated lands. Stories of the transfer of the land from Natives to Europeans continue through our contemporary popular culture, as in the infamous “crying Indian” ad from the 1970’s Keep America Beautiful campaign. And yet in all of those accounts, the Indian vanishes physically but retains some spiritual claim over the landscape, and either approves and guarantees the moral and inevitable nature of European settlement (as we find in Longfellow), or in the case of the TV ad, admonishes its improper stewardship of the transferred lands. Never does the transfer involve our assumption of a primal crime.

If it weren’t for Jacobs’s ties to Perry’s prayer festival and to a prophetic movement that’s become associated with his candidacy, it would be the odd notion of a negligible lunatic, and maybe it is that. But evangelical Christianity has a long history of obsession with geography and spirituality, primarily with that of the Holy Land, so I can’t discount it entirely. Neither do I know what to make of it. Part of it does seem to be a rebuke against secularism, though. If we’re going to be cursed on account of primitive (meaning first, not crude) practices on this continent, the others must be under similar burdens, unless also relieved of that curse by a specifically Christian ceremony – one that deliberate transgresses the original founding compact of the affected nation-state that distinguishes public duties from private obligations of conscience. I think it’s fairly clear here that the sin that far more concerns Jacobs than cannibalism would be the Jeffersonian separation of church and state. Secularism did not permit a sacralization of the American landscape, except in the revisionist histories that see the Constitution in some sort of pre-Bill of Rights dispensation sanctifying a Christian America before the 20th century judicial pronouncements began to pry religion and governance apart. Without that sacralization, the pagan earth that sustained the primitive inhabitants would be the same that sustains our rather shaky secular government, according to this view.

I wonder, then, if we could tie Jacobs’s claim here to the motivation behind Glenn Beck’s rather odd and uncomfortable rally in Jerusalem. The Holy Land has long functioned for evangelical Christians as an historical anchor for what they view as the inevitable and necessary transformation of the created world. It was where Jews were historically supplanted in ecclesiastical importance with Christ himself, and while it is necessary for many Christians that Jerusalem remain Jewish so that historical continuity from Jew to Christian remain forever imminent. But they’re still Jews, and the primal crimes of the land must remain still remain, in this view.


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Mosaic law and American courts

The notion that the 10 Commandments are the font or foundation of our contemporary legal code is largely Christianist wishful thinking. And the movement to monument-ize the twin tablets representing Moses’s transmission of the commandments comes off pretty much as cultural bullying carried out by a rather slim segment of fundamentalist Christians. This article, though written in a rather stilted fashion, elucidates much of the cultural strife that underwrites the movement as a competition between iconic texts, the Constitution for the secularists and the Decalogue for fundamentalists. Two things to note – one, the use of the Commandments as icon is relatively recent, and two, their actual content or their place within Christian theology or practice matters less to the movement than their symbolic force. I think that may explain the rather dismaying silence and even complicity of other Christian groups.

And does anyone ever pause to think about why there’s only ever faint Jewish support for these monuments despite the ostensibly shared religious culture? Although I’m not aware of any official statements from Jewish groups, anti-defamation groups tend to regard these movements in a negative light as potentially disturbing to a carefully policed secular public sphere and therefore as actually threatening.

So whenever one of the more backward states, this time Louisiana, decides to decorate the area about their courthouses with large-scale granite religious kitsch, it’s somewhat distressing if not entirely surprising. The recent efforts to place representations of the commandments in and about courts is interesting, though, for their approach. Rather than simply identify the movement with the importance of Christianity in American society, supporters tend to make a historic-cultural argument that in our largely Christian civilization the commandments have had a profound influence on the creation and support of our legal codes, and therefore the representations of the Commandments have historical, not religious, value when placed in a court. The argument based on the importance of Christianity itself to American institutions and society runs, of course, counter to constitutional prohibitions on the establishment of religion. Some applications of First Amendment law can seem a bit torturous or unclear, but not in this case – the violation is quite apparent. Hence the need for the dodge.

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More on the War

The New York Times’ coverage of the history of the Civil War on the 150th anniversary of secession has been astonishing, but not entirely surprising. With historians as a profession making now a concerted effort to explode the lingering states’ rights myth and bring the focus of the history to the central issues of the war and institution of slavery, it seems that we’re not only able to see the War more clearly, but there’s also a missionary-like drive to burn off pointless distractions and get at the real complexities and problems in our understanding of the war.

So while the South and the Confederacy become clearer – rather than trade and tariff rights, or other ill-defined economic concerns, we can now see the South as seceding primarily to preserve the institution of slavery and secondarily to establish a landed, and largely hereditary, “natural” aristocracy in direct refutation of Jeffersonian democracy – the role of the North and the Lincoln administration becomes foggier. While the North went to war initially and ostensibly to preserve the Union, the War became by degrees and then by fiat a war to end the practice of slavery. The New York Times Magazine this past Sunday had a fascinating article by historian Adam Goodheart showing that progression in microcosm within the federally-held Ft. Monroe in the days following Virginia’s decision to join the Confederacy.

As battle lines were being drawn, and in the case of Ft. Monroe, opposing fortifications were being built, slaves began to trickle into Union encampments seeking freedom. The law, the Constitution as generally understood at the time, and official Union policy was not to interfere with the legal institution of slavery, that the business of the Union was war not emancipation. General Butler, soon to be known as “Beast” Butler in the South, accepted the first few fugitives that arrived at Ft. Monroe on the grounds that they had been sent to work building fortifications to which they would likely be set back to if returned. So he ordered the slaves seized as “contraband of war.” It was only days before this particularly legal fiction embracing the Southern contention that the descendants of black Africans were property and not people became a widespread practice throughout Union encampments at the border of the Confederacy as word spread and entire families and communities of slaves began to arrive.

Butler quickly decided that to sort out and determine which slaves were able-bodied and likely to be used in the war effort from the others, what would seem to be logically and therefore legally required of the policy, would be against principles of common decency: “If I take the able-bodied only, the young must die. If I take the mother, must I not take the child?” Butler at first resisted counsel that he abide by the legal form of his decision to declare slaves contraband and select which slaves to accept and which to return, and then became more and more forceful that humanitarian grounds, not legalities, determine the appropriate course of action toward slaves and slavery.

The Emancipation Proclamation was given the following year, another legal fiction and expediency in the war effort that masked a broader humanitarian principle. Goodheart is quite excellent in his depiction of that at the close of his article:

When Lincoln finally unveiled the Emancipation Proclamation in the fall of 1862, he framed it in Butleresque terms, not as a humanitarian gesture but as a stratagem of war.On the September day of Lincoln’s edict, a Union colonel ran into William Seward, the president’s canny secretary of state, on the street in Washington and took the opportunity to congratulate him on the administration’s epochal act.

Seward snorted. “Yes,” he said, “we have let off a puff of wind over an accomplished fact.”

“What do you mean, Mr. Seward?” the officer asked.

“I mean,” the secretary replied, “that the Emancipation Proclamation was uttered in the first gun fired at Sumter, and we have been the last to hear it.”

On a side note, I’m grateful to see the Disunion coverage in the Times address how one of the more fruitful avenues of scholarship on American history that looks at gender and critical race studies to examine “white”-ness and masculinity has approached the history of secession, though the column they present doesn’t strike me as particularly remarkable or revelatory.

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One more time, because it’s worth getting it right.

Two things: 1) the Internet is absolutely amazing. Anyone with a rudimentary interest in American history and an avid interest in the Internet has received over the past week an incredible education in the history of the Confederacy, the Civil War, and slavery. McDonnell may be a dick – no, there’s no need to qualify, McDonnell is a complete dick – but his assholery has brought together in response a fascinating exchange of historical understanding and supporting documents on the Civil War. 2) at this point, we need to start moving beyond the notion that it’s a myth that the Civil War was primarily a war over states rights to the notion that it’s a deliberate lie. There’s simply far too much evidence in the historical record to excuse “Lost Cause” historians because of the complexity or the remoteness of the war and its surrounding events for mistaking the overt and blatant cause of the war.

The best summation of the evidence, and by far the best reflection on its implication, is Ta-Nehisis Coates’s discussion of it. Part of what’s so savory about Coates’s take is that, reading him slowly respond to it over the course of the past week, one would get the impression that he was very reluctant to engage the issue – the level of denial about the Civil War being so huge and leaden and the centrality of slavery to the War being so glaringly obvious to even the dimmest of schoolchildren. And then it becomes so insistent a question that he can’t not respond more fully, and he does, not with anger or indignation, but an enormity and graciousness of spirit. It’s worth reading for that, and then thinking of Mississippi governor Haley Barbour’s response to the controversy, claiming that not mentioning the issue of slavery in connection to the history of the Confederacy “doesn’t amount to diddly.”

Coates’s post starts off with Robert E. Lee and the enduring myth (repeated in Ken Burns’s docupic) that Lee was personally opposed to slavery, the implication being that only Lee’s bond to Virginia and the South and their honorable cause was what drew him into leading the army of the Confederacy. Not at all true: Lee owned slaves, felt that Africans could not and should not be free, that slavery was natural and God-given, and presided over an unruly population of slaves that resented his control over them and his brutal enforcement of discipline. There’s a profound need on the part of the South to redeem its heroes from the twenty-first-century view of their monstrosity, and Lee as its greatest hero is perhaps the individual that is most desperately needed to seem free from slavery’s taint. But it’s not possible to glorify them without violating the truth. We’re left with a complex, flawed individual rather than symbol of gentlemanly perfection.

The historical truth may invalidate the myth, but it does not invalidate the need to redeem history and through that its inheritors. Nor does it invalidate the complexity of the situation. One of the more interesting things to emerge from Coates’s post is the notion of the institution of slavery as a cumulative wealth, and so, in light of the exchange with tbudd, I thought it worth revisiting:

By 1860 there were approximately 4,000,000 slaves in the United States, the second largest slave society–slave population–in the world. The only one larger was Russian serfdom. Brazil was close. But in 1860 American slaves, as a financial asset, were worth approximately three and a half billion dollars–that’s just as property. Three and a half billion dollars was the net worth, roughly, of slaves in 1860. In today’s dollars that would be approximately seventy-five billion dollars. In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself, and no one can really put a dollar value on all of the land of North America.

That’s from David Blight, a major historian of slavery, but I don’t know the source – it’s quoted as such in Coates’s post. The Republican administration in the White House and the increasing anti-slavery sentiment in Congress was threatening enough to the South for it to join in secession from the Union. Apparently the South had something worth protecting, despite its declining ability to produce wealth, its declining population, and its loss of political influence.

So I thought I’d address another complexity that’s important for me, that of one of the most notable literary figures from the era who defends the humanity of slaves, Walt Whitman. As we move away from Whitman’s poetry to view him as a person, that sense that Whitman represents a strong condemnation of slavery’s degradation seems to evaporate. As a journalist deeply committed to the radical wing of the Democratic party in the 1840s, the so-called “barnburners,” Whitman was a vocal opponent of slavery and a free-soiler. He was not an abolitionist (or “ultra”), a position he viewed as extremist and as threatening to national unity, and the opposition of free-soilers to slavery was not based on humanitarian grounds but on rather more working-class considerations: free white men in the trades could not compete economically with slave labor, and the free-soil movement opposed allowing new territories to permit slavery because they believed a slave economy would discourage the free movement and economic opportunity of white workers. Whitman’s writing at the time even supported the institution of slavery as necessary and beneficial when confined to southern states: in his pro-temperance novel Franklin Evans, the protagonist visits Virginia, and Whitman has a planter lecture Evans on how slavery is beloved by the slaves as well as their owners, and demonstrates how childlike and governed by passion the slaves are – familiar stereotypical justifications for slavery and white supremacy.

As late as his Brooklyn Daily Times editorials in 1857 and 1858, Whitman was declaiming the impossibility of blacks and whites being able to work and live together, and that slavery might not be all bad. This was already a few years after he’d published Leaves of Grass. In that volume appears the persona of Whitman as the poet of sympathy, embracing all equally, black as well as white. He imagines himself in his central early poem, “Song of Myself,” as helping slaves to their freedom without fear or regret:

The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,

I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,

Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,

And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him,

And brought water and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and bruis’d feet,

And gave him a room that enter’d from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,

And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,

And remember putting piasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;

He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and pass’d north,

I had him sit next me at table, my fire-lock lean’d in the corner. (section 10)

As the poem moves toward its climax of sympathetic identification with all American types, rejecting none, Whitman imagines himself setting a dinner and inviting even the lowliest to sit down with him, the adultress, the thief, the “veneralee,” and the slave (section 19). At its final point, Whitman imagines himself as capable of being the slaves racing for freedom:

The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blowing, cover’d with sweat,

The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, the murderous buckshot and the bullets,

All these I feel or am.

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,

Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,

I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn’d with the ooze of my skin,

I fall on the weeds and stones,

The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,

Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks. (section 33)

And, of course, the rightly famous passage in “I Sing the Body Electric,” where he assumes the role of slave auctioneer to rework the slave’s economic value into a spiritual value:

A man’s body at auction,

(For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale,)

I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business.

Gentlemen look on this wonder,

Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it,

For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years without one animal or plant,

For it the revolving cycles truly and steadily roll’d.

In this head the all-baffling brain,

In it and below it the makings of heroes.

Examine these limbs, red, black, or white, they are cunning in tendon and nerve,

They shall be stript that you may see them.

Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes, pluck, volition,

Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant backbone and neck, flesh not flabby,good-sized arms and legs,

And wonders within there yet.

Within there runs blood,

The same old blood! the same red-running blood!

There swells and jets a heart, there all passions, desires, reachings, aspirations,

(Do you think they are not there because they are not express’d in parlors and lecture-rooms?)

This is not only one man, this the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns,

In him the start of populous states and rich republics,

Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments.

How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his offspring through the centuries?

(Who might you find you have come from yourself, if you could trace back through the centuries?) (section 7)

I quote the entire section because there’s not one part I would remove: it retains all the power it had when it was first published (the text quoted here is from the last version of the poem as amended in the 1870s – Whitman added the historical marker as well as a few other modifications, especially that significant final line). It is also stunningly prescient, given the debates on race and rights in the century that will follow.

How do we reconcile the journalist whose opposition to slavery held no sympathy for the enslaved, and who it seems could not envision slavery’s end, only its containment, with the poet whose sympathy for all persons insisted on equal rights, equal consideration, and equal freedoms for the enslaved he would invite to work and eat side-by-side with his fellow citizens? If the journalist is to be condemned, then how do we read his poetry?

There is much to condemn in the Confederacy – it was an organized act of desperate treason, devised to defend what many found to be morally indefensible. Many soldiers in the Confederacy fought for other reasons – home, honor, pay, etc. Their officers and politicians seemed often to feel uncomfortable with what they were called upon to defend, and, particularly as the war was drawing to a close, spun a number of reasons and justifications for the war that many still cling to today, but those officers and politicians cannot be wholly and universally condemned. History gives us a range of possibilities to inhabit, but it’s mistaken to assume that we can freely and easily move among them: it’s often slow, painful, and difficult to do so. Even if it’s difficult to look back to the Confederacy and find heroes, there’s no need to look back and find nothing but monsters. It was a necessary passage, and likely necessarily violent, so while we can and all should take pleasure and pride in the defeat and loss of the Confederacy, it was not without purpose or meaning.

We should remember that even so, Virginia was not without her heroes. And Whitman remains a hero to me: somehow in his poetry he made things possible that could not be in his prose.

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The past is not dead; the past hasn’t even been acknowledged as having happened

The Civil War was fought over slavery.

White historians thought up the idea to make the “states rights” cause central to the war as a myth for Southern whites to save face. But it’s still a myth. I’ll repeat: the idea that the Civil War was fought over the principle of states rights is a myth designed to disguise the fact that the Civil War was fought over slavery.

Northern soldiers going into battle wrote in their diaries that they were going to end the vile practice of slavery for the honor of the union. Abraham Lincoln on meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is alleged by Stowe’s 1911 biographer to have said, “So you’re the little lady who started this great war,” a testament to the moral presence of Stowe and her work’s brutal portrayal of the degradation of slavery in the public perception of Lincoln – a presence that during Lincoln’s life was customarily described as his conscience.

Southern politicians and military leaders uniformly described the reason for secession as the need to preserve the Southern institution of chattel slavery against the efforts of the anti-slavery Republicans who had won the White House and desired to end the practice. Southern orators regularly declaimed the difference between Northern and Southern climates as the reason why white people shouldn’t be responsible for heavy labor in the South, and for the innate suitability of black people from Africa to enforced servitude and heavy labor on their behalf, and for the both as being the primary rational behind secession and the war.

When the Civil War commenced, the majority population of the state of Virginia was opposed to secession and the Confederacy. Unfortunately many of them did not have a political voice because they were slaves, the de facto majority population of the state. The white population of Virginia wasn’t particularly enthused about it either, many perceiving the war as being conducted on the behalf of the wealthy minority slave-holding population at the expense of everyone else. That controversy literal split the state into Virginia and West Virginia, as the Scotch-Irish population of the Appalachian mountains were themselves too familiar with the conditions of servitude and oppression at the hands of the wealthy Anglo-Saxon elite to support the Confederate States. At the war’s end, the majority of Virginians – yes, black, but many whites as well – greeted the Union troops as liberators.

That’s history, but only some of it. Not the type that McDonnell and the fat-ass losers that make up the various Confederate nostalgia groups of Virginia are willing to learn and acknowledge, but that’s because some of the most important history of the past hundred and fifty years hasn’t even fully happened yet. Victors write the history? No. Victors assume a history. To write one necessitates dissent. And through that dissent is how history sometimes happens.

UPDATE: O.K., so there are some definite errors in my own sense of history. Slaves were not a clear majority population in Virginia; they were a majority population in some states deeper South where, of course, cotton plantations were more central to the economy. At the time of the civil war, Virginia’s slave population was a bit less than half the population of the state. It may not have been a majority of Virginians that celebrated the collapse of the Confederacy, but if not, it was likely close to that. I apologize for letting my indignation at McDonnell’s presumption rush me past the fact-checking.


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