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The Internationalism of the American Civil War

11 Jan

One of the topics I’ve long been interested in is the traffic between the European right and the slaveholding South in the US. We know a fair amount, now, about the relationship between the abolitionist movement in the US and the European left, including Marx, but less about the impact that slavery and its defense had on the European right.

What first piqued my interest in this issue was reading Nietzsche. Nietzsche talks a lot about slavery in his work, and it’s long been the conventional wisdom that his references here are metaphorical and philosophical rather than contemporary and literal. I’ve had my doubts about that, as I’ve written.

One can hear in the opening passages of “The Greek State” the pounding march not only of European workers on the move but also of black slaves in revolt. Hegel was brooding on Haiti while he worked out the master-slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Though generations of scholars have told us otherwise, perhaps Nietzsche had a similar engagement in mind when he wrote, “Even if it were true that the Greeks were ruined because they kept slaves, the opposite is even more certain, that we will be destroyed because we fail to keep slaves.” What theorist, after all, has ever pressed so urgently—not just in this essay but in later works as well—the claim that “slavery belongs to the essence of a culture”? What theorist ever had to? Before the eighteenth century, bonded labor was an accepted fact. Now it was the subject of a roiling debate, provoking revolutions and emancipations throughout the world. Serfdom had been eliminated in Russia only a decade before—and in some German states, only a generation before Nietzsche’s birth in 1844—while Brazil would soon become the last state in the Americas to abolish slavery. An edifice of the ages had been brought down by a mere century’s vibrations; is it so implausible that Nietzsche, attuned to the vectors and velocity of decay as he was, would pause to record the earthquake and insist on taking the full measure of its effects?

There’s also Nietzsche’s tantalizing reference in his notebooks to Harriet Beecher Stowe as the inheritor, along with Rousseau and the French Revolution, of Christianity:

The French Revolution as the continuation of Christianity. Rousseau is the seducer: he again unfetters woman who is henceforth represented in an even more interesting manner—as suffering. Then the slaves and Mrs. Beecher-Stowe. Then the poor and the workers.

According to my friend Harrison Fluss, Domenico Losurdo’s long anticipated biography of Nietzsche, which came out in Italian years ago and is about to appear, finally, in English, discusses this and related passages (which don’t get much treatment in the literature), suggesting that Nietzsche may have been more aware of the question of slavery on this side of the Atlantic than we think.

In any event, I got a book in the mail a few weeks ago that begins to deal with the larger issue of the slaveholding South and the European right: Don Doyle’s The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. It’s about a much larger topic, as the title suggests, and I haven’t really dived into it yet, but I’ve read one chapter and the intro and have already learned some fascinating things.

First, slaveholder and race theorist Josiah Nott, whose writing I discuss in The Reactionary Mind, commissioned an English translation (for the US) of Gobineau‘s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, one of the main texts in Europe’s developing racial ideology. (Gobineau also had an extensive correspondence with Tocqueville, who appointed the younger man to a position in the Foreign Ministry while he was serving as Foreign Minister). Nott is one of the more fascinating writers among the slaveholding South, for the way he treats African Americans versus other groups in his Instincts of Races makes clear that he believes only African Americans are creatures of their physical estate, that only they cannot rise above their biological destiny, which is what he defines a race to be in the first place. In other words, read carefully, Instincts of Races suggests that, properly speaking, there is only one race in America: African Americans. If we keep in mind the dictum that there are in fact no races, only racism, Nott’s theory demonstrates quite well how the idea of race in the US was meant to serve the cause of racialized slavery.

Second, Doyle opens with a fascinating discussion of the efforts of the North and South to convince the world that their cause was the one that ought to be supported. What’s especially interesting about Doyle’s argument is how much these efforts look like what will later be called the “cultural Cold War,” that is, the conscription of writers, artists, and intellectuals throughout the world on behalf of the cause of the United States against international communism and the Soviet Union. As Doyle points out, both sides, but especially the North, quickly learned that outright propaganda was not particularly effective at generating international support. While neither side was above hiring journalists and editors to plant stories or circulate rumors, the North especially understood that “the most effective” agents for their cause “were not hired pens but volunteers who wrote and spoke with conviction and appealed to the fundamental values, ideals, prejudices, and fears of their people in their own idiom.” It’s an inexact analogy—we’re not talking about showcasing modernist art as an emblem of the Free World—but it anticipates some of the principles that underlay the CIA’s secret funding of magazines like Encounter.

Third, it’s clear that early on the North faced a major legitimation problem. The South had framed its appeal to the world in liberal terms: they stood for free trade and national self-determination, while the North was an imperial conqueror, set on protecting its markets from Europe and preventing the southern (white) people from governing themselves. The North, by contrast, had initially framed its position, at least internationally, in excessively legalistic terms. The promise of Lincoln, in his First Inaugural, not to interfere with slavery wherever it existed in the South, harmed the Northern position. Though crafted by Lincoln and Seward as a sop, in part, to international opinion, Doyle writes,

…it cost them dearly, and over the next four years, the Union’s greatest challenge overseas would be to retrieve the valuable moral capital that had been sacrificed to this early argument for a causeless rebellion.

But republicans, radicals, and revolutionaries in Europe pushed the argument, publicly, that the future of liberty everywhere hinged on the success of the northern cause. These radicals helped to make the cause of the North the “last best hope of earth,” not just in the US but throughout the world. While the slaves themselves as well as radicals and Republicans in the US obviously were critical to that shift, Doyle claims that the international left played an important role as well.

Learning from the transatlantic dialogue on the American question, Union advocates put aside their legalistic arguments against secession and fashioned an appeal to ideals of human equality and liberty against those of aristocracy.

While it’s too early for me to say anything about this definitively, Doyle’s introduction immediately made me think of Mary Dudziak’s argument in Cold War Civil Rights. There, Dudziak shows that a critical factor in moving American jurisprudence and policy in the 1950s was the Cold War, specifically the competition with the Soviet Union over the hearts and minds of the decolonizing world. While anticommunism often helped suppress activism on civil rights, it also proved to be an ironic ally to the movement. Forces in the State Department and the Eisenhower administration understood that the persistence of Jim Crow made it awfully difficult, particularly in Africa and Asia, for the United States to claim for itself the banner of democracy.

One of the things that is most fascinating, and usefully disorienting, about the African American struggle in the US is the way it reverses a trope of American exceptionalism and American imperialism. Where America’s hagiographers like to see the US as a City on the Hill, as a light unto the nations, African Americans have often upended that formulation, claiming that the United States is a laggard compared to the rest of the world. As Frederick Douglass claimed in his “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” speech:

There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Or, as Martin Luther King drily observed in Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

The ongoing freedom struggle of African Americans demonstrates that when it comes to democracy, the United States often needs teachers, rather than students, from abroad.

David Brooks, Edmund Burke, and Me

23 Oct

David Brooks:

Burke is famous for his belief in gradual change….I’m sticking to my Burkean roots. Change should be steady, constant and slow. Society has structural problems, but they have to be reformed by working with existing materials, not sweeping them away in a vain hope for instant transformation.

Edmund Burke on the East India Company:

It is fixed beyond all power of reformation…this body, being totally perverted from the purposes of its institution, is utterly incorrigible; and because they are incorrigible, both in conduct and constitution, power ought to be taken out of their hands; just on the same principles on which have been made all the just changes and revolutions of government that have taken place since the beginning of the world.

Me:

The other reason I have dwelled so long on Burke is that though he’s often held up as the source of conservatism, I get the feeling he’s not often read….Sure, someone will quote a passage here or a phrase there, but the quotations inevitably have a whiff of cliché about them—little platoons and so on—emitting that stale blast of familiarity you sense when you listen to someone go on about a text he may or may not have read during one week in college.

David Brooks:

Gail, as you know I have a policy of teaching at colleges I couldn’t have gotten into, and as a result I find myself teaching at Yale….I just got out of a class in which we discussed Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”

When I draw comparisons between libertarians and slaveholders…

19 Oct

When I put libertarians and slaveholders in the same orbit, libertarians go ape-shit.

But when they do it

We treat John C. Calhoun as a precursor of modern public choice theory. Calhoun anticipates the doctrine of public choice contractarianism as developed by Buchanan and Tullock and expands this approach in original directions. We consider Calhoun’s theory of why democracy fails to preserve liberty and Calhoun’s suggested constitutional reform, rule by unanimity. We also draw out parallels between Calhoun and Hayek with regard to theories of social change and Hayek’s analysis of “why the worst get to the top.” The paper concludes with some remarks on problems in Calhoun’s theory.

—it’s all good.

Of course, it helps if you can resolve that pesky question of slavery like so:

Furthermore, Calhoun furnishes only weak ethical foundations for his advocacy of the concurrent majority…

This lack of ethical foundation shows up in Calhoun’s defense of slavery, which continues to hurt his reputation and draw attention from his more valid and interesting contributions.

H/t Suresh Naidu

From the Arms Race to Climate Change, Conservatives Have Never Cared Much About the Day After

20 Sep

Sunday’s the big climate march in New York City, which I’ll be going to with my family and, well, a lot of other people. I had promised my friends Ted Levine and Carolina Bank-Muñoz that I would blog about it. But the last couple of weeks have gotten away from me.

But tonight I read a great post by David Roberts that my wife sent me. It’s about the conservative refusal to deal seriously with climate change. And it tells an unbelievable story.

I give you North Carolina, where a government-sponsored scientific report revealed that, by the end of the century, oceans would rise up to 39 inches and the Outer Banks would be under water — an economic and cultural cataclysm for the state.

Galvanized by the threat, the Republican-controlled legislature … threw out the forecast.

The state’s new Republican governor appointed a new coastal commission chairman, Frank Gorham, an oil and gas man who announced this spring that the new forecast would be limited to 30 years.

These are people who literally close their ears to the news that their own homes will be underwater…

Roberts tells this story as a counter to a friend of his, George Marshall, who thinks conservatives can be reasoned with on the question of climate change.

Marshall’s suggestions are sensible: find spokespeople within the movement to do the talking; frame things in terms of values like conservation, purity, and loss-aversion; avoid divisive, hot-button topics like cap-and-trade. My contention is simply that the [conservative] tribe is too far gone.

Count me on Roberts’s side of this one, but I want to take issue with that last “the tribe is too far gone” remark. Because it implies that once upon a time, they weren’t.

Now I’ve blogged many a time against the notion that once upon a time, conservatives were different, that they were like Edmund Burke and Bill Buckley. In fact, I’ve written a whole book against that notion. So I won’t rehearse those arguments here.

Instead, I want to focus on that North Carolina story and what it tells us about how conservatives think about time. Not necessarily about the environment, about which their views may have changed in response to political contingencies, but time. And the truth is, though conservatives are supposed to care about conserving the past for the sake of the future—hence, Roberts’ friend Marshall urging him to talk about “conservation, purity, and loss-aversion”—they’ve always had a strangely distended notion of time. Even Burke. An almost teenage, James Dean-esque, version of time.  In which we’re burning the candle at both ends, so why worry today about what we may not survive to experience tomorrow?

I was going to write more about this and then remembered that I already have in a previous post:

In my junior year of high school, ABC televised a film, The Day After, about what the world would look like after a nuclear war. This was a time, some of you might recall, when talk of “nuclear winter” was all the rage. One of the strongest memories I have of the film was of its depiction of that winter. Dust and debris were everywhere; they looked like snow flakes of death, made to match the color of Jason Robards’ hair.

After the film was aired, Ted Koppel convened a panel of worthies—Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, Brent Scowcroft, Elie Wiesel, Carl Sagan, and William F. Buckley—to debate its implications. I can’t remember much of what was said, but one comment from Buckley has stayed with me all these years (see 2:45 in this video link).

In response to a provocation from Wiesel—who asked how it was possible for his co-panelists even to talk about a nuclear war, as if such a war could be fought and won (one wonders where Wiesel had been all those years)—Buckley said:

I think we do have to talk about it. Dr. Kissinger, twenty-five years ago, got hell for consenting to talk about it. So did Herman Kahn. The fact of the matter is here we are talking about all the tensions we’re going to be living on, fifteen years from now, twenty years from now. Well, the implied assumption is we’re going to be alive fifteen years from now, twenty years from now. That’s pretty good news, isn’t it?

Someone else on the panel, perhaps Scowcroft, muttered an encouraging “yep,” and Buckley went on. Until Koppel broke in:

Fifteen years may be pretty good news to men of your generation and mine. I suspect that some of our children might regard that as a rather limited life span.

The conservative imagination is supposed to prize longevity and continuity. It is the wisdom of old men. Yet here we have its most genteel modern tribune sounding like Edna St. Vincent Millay, happily mooting his own extinction and that of his child, declaring the shelf life of civilization to be little more than the life span of a reckless teenager. This is not Rambo conservatism but Rimbaud conservatism, betraying less a disregard for death than an insufficient regard for life.

When conservatives in North Carolina in 2014 hear “by the end of the century” in the context of climate change, they’re responding the way Bill Buckley did in 1984 in the context of the nuclear arms race: You’re saying we’ve got 15 more years? 20 more years? That’s pretty good news, isn’t it?

No, it’s not.

See you on Sunday.

An Archive For Buckley, Kristol, and Podhoretz Interviews?

16 Jul

In the summer and fall of 2000, I interviewed William F. Buckley, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz for an article I was writing for Lingua Franca. The article where Buckley compared capitalism to sex (both boring), Kristol complained that there was no one on the right with the political imagination of Marx, and Podhoretz (who I never quoted) cited a list of resentments so long it would make the Underground Man blush.

I have four cassette tapes from those interviews that I would like to have transcribed and also converted to audio files that could be posted on the web. I’m hoping there’s an archive somewhere that might be interested, so I don’t have to pay for this. But I’m also prepared to pay someone if necessary.

Anyone have any suggestions?

Feel free to email me at corey.robin@gmail.com.

 

A Reader’s Guide to Hobby Lobby

30 Jun

I haven’t had time to read much beyond the basics about today’s Hobby Lobby decision, but here are a few posts I’ve written over the years that should help put the Supreme Court’s decision in theoretical and historical perspective:

1. First, a general primer on neoliberalism, which makes the point—contra many on the left and the right—that at the heart of our contemporary capitalist economy are not individualistic choosers but men and women, in semi-“private” institutions, in thrall and subjugation to their superiors. It’s the Feudalism, Stupid!

2. Second, two posts on free-market types and birth control, how even the most libertarian-ish free-wheeler seeks to control women’s bodies: Love For Sale: Birth Control from Marx to Mises and Probing Tyler Cowen: When Libertarians Get Medieval on Your Vagina.

3. Last, a post that brings it all together—the private life of power; fear, American Style; and freedom, oh freedom—in one place: Birth Control McCarthyism.

In the coming days, I hope to have something more on the decision.

What Made Evangelical Christians Come Out of the Closet?

30 May

In The Reactionary Mind, I briefly argued that much of the energy behind the Christian Right came not from its opposition to abortion or school prayer but its defense of segregation. Based on early research by historians Joseph Crespino and Matthew Lassiter, I wrote:

Evangelical Christians were ideal recruits to the [conservative] cause, deftly playing the victim card as a way of rejuvenating the power of whites. “It’s time for God’s people to come out of the closet,” declared a Texas televangelist in 1980.

But it wasn’t religion that made evangelicals queer; it was religion combined with racism. One of the main catalysts of the Christian right was the defense of Southern private schools that were created in response to desegregation. By 1970, 400,000 white children were attending these “segregation academies.” States like Mississippi gave students tuition grants, and until the Nixon administration overturned the practice, the IRS gave donors to these schools tax exemptions.

According to New Right and direct-mail pioneer Richard Viguerie, the attack on these public subsidies by civil rights activists and the courts “was the spark that ignited the religious right’s involvement in real politics.” Though the rise of segregation academies “was often timed exactly with the desegregation of formerly all-white public schools,” writes one historian, their advocates claimed to be defending religious minorities rather than white supremacy (initially nonsectarian, most of the schools became evangelical over time).

Their cause was freedom, not inequality—not the freedom to associate with whites, as the previous generation of massive resisters had claimed, but the freedom to practice their own embattled religion. It was a shrewd transposition. In one fell swoop, the heirs of slaveholders became the descendants of persecuted Baptists, and Jim Crow a heresy the First Amendment was meant to protect.

Politico has a great piece up this week pursuing this argument in much greater depth. Dartmouth historian Randall Balmer has immersed himself in the archives of the Moral Majority and other organizations and activists of the Christian Right, and found some fascinating details. Though abortion would come to play a role later on, it was the school segregation issue that truly galvanized the leaders and cadres of the Christian Right.

Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.

When the Roe decision was handed down, W. A. Criswell, the Southern Baptist Convention’s former president and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas—also one of the most famous fundamentalists of the 20th century—was pleased: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,” he said, “and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”

Although a few evangelical voices, including Christianity Today magazine, mildly criticized the ruling, the overwhelming response was silence, even approval. Baptists, in particular, applauded the decision as an appropriate articulation of the division between church and state, between personal morality and state regulation of individual behavior. “Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision,” wrote W. Barry Garrett of Baptist Press.

***

So what then were the real origins of the religious right? It turns out that the movement can trace its political roots back to a court ruling, but not Roe v. Wade.

But this hypothetical “moral majority” needed a catalyst—a standard around which to rally. For nearly two decades, [Paul] Weyrich, by his own account, had been trying out different issues, hoping one might pique evangelical interest: pornography, prayer in schools, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, even abortion. “I was trying to get these people interested in those issues and I utterly failed,” Weyrich recalled at a conference in 1990.

The Green v. Connally [declaring unconstitutional tax exemptions for private schools that practice racial discrimination] ruling provided a necessary first step: It captured the attention of evangelical leadersespecially as the IRS began sending questionnaires to church-related “segregation academies,” including Falwell’s own Lynchburg Christian School, inquiring about their racial policies. Falwell was furious. “In some states,” he famously complained, “It’s easier to open a massage parlor than a Christian school.”

Although Bob Jones Jr., the school’s [Bob Jones University] founder, argued that racial segregation was mandated by the Bible, Falwell and Weyrich quickly sought to shift the grounds of the debate, framing their opposition in terms of religious freedom rather than in defense of racial segregation.

For many evangelical leaders, who had been following the issue since Green v. Connally, Bob Jones University was the final straw. As Elmer L. Rumminger, longtime administrator at Bob Jones University, told me in an interview, the IRS actions against his school “alerted the Christian school community about what could happen with government interference” in the affairs of evangelical institutions. “That was really the major issue that got us all involved.”

When Reagan addressed a rally of 10,000 evangelicals at Reunion Arena in Dallas in August 1980, he excoriated the “unconstitutional regulatory agenda” directed by the IRS “against independent schools,” but he made no mention of abortion.

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