Tag Archives: Lincoln

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.

An Open Letter to Glenn Greenwald

12 Dec

Dear Glenn:

I liked your recent post criticizing those film critics who are championing Zero Dark Thirty despite its false depiction (and implicit celebration) of the role of torture in capturing Osama bin Laden.

But I think you’re going about this business of criticizing film critics all wrong.

Here’s a little pro-tip I learned in my recent foray as an amateur critic of Lincoln.

Apparently it’s not good form to ask a film to be something other than what it is. You can’t criticize the film you didn’t see—only the film you did see. (I know, James Agee makes a hash of that distinction, but he’s no Roger Ebert.)

In your case, that means you have to criticize the criticism we have, not the criticism you wish we had. So if the critic is defending a film that glorifies torture, you can’t criticize said critic for defending said film. That’s like taking Spielberg to task for not including in a film about black emancipation more depictions of blacks emancipating themselves and pushing for emancipation.

Instead, you should…beats the shit out of me.



A Question for A.O. Scott and Ta-Nehisi Coates

4 Dec

Ta-Nehisi Coates is sponsoring a fascinating conversation between himself, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, and historian Kate Masur about the film Lincoln. It’s a real treat to read these three distinct and expert voices engage with each other; I’m eager to hear Kate’s response to what’s been said so far.

Both Coates and Scott bring up an interesting point that I hadn’t really considered about the film: not only how it represents the Civil War as fundamentally a fight about slavery, but also how radical, even revolutionary, that is in the context of American film history. I don’t know a lot about film history, but that makes a lot of sense to me.

But it also raises a question for me. Both Coates and Scott seem to assume—they’re not explicit about this, so I emphasize the “seem”—that movies are the medium of mass culture, the vehicle by which people learn their history. Scott writes:

And I also think that, within the history of American film and of pop-cultural depictions of the Civil War more generally, it is radical in ways that have not been sufficiently noted.

I have no confirmation of this from any source, but it is my hunch that some of the intention in making Lincoln was to offer a corrective to Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, films that are hardly taken seriously as history but that nonetheless still constitute part of the fantasy life of the Republic. You could say that Spielberg and Kushner propose a counter-fantasy.

Coates is more explicit:

Thus the reason I think we don’t see more liberals engaging in a full-throated defense of Lincoln is that the opposing view—the one that animates films like the Gone With Wind and Gods and Generals, which animates television shows like Hell on Wheels, which finds people holding Secession Balls and celebrating the attempt to raise a republic premised on white supremacy—has no respect among anyone who’s seriously thought about the issue.

Think about it like this. There’s been a great debate roiling the academy between people like Sean Wilentz who think we underplay the importance of politicians, and historians who emphasize the actions of activists and radicals. This has been a pretty heated debate, and I think we see it play out in Lincoln. But it’s not like Wilentz is trying to “clean” slavery. The role of politicians and radicals in democracy is a legit and interesting debate in a way that debating states rights vs. slavery just isn’t.

Conservatives, as they have in other intellectual arenas, have simply fled the field. The result is that when you see a film like Lincoln, what you find is liberals hotly critiquing the film because things that may seem revolutionary in the grand sweep of American politics aren’t among people who’ve spent years thinking about Lincoln’s legacy and the Civil War.

Coates says that the wrong view of the Civil War—that it wasn’t about slavery—”has no respect among anyone who’s seriously thought about the issue.” The implication is that the right view is mostly, or even only, held by academics and serious readers.

What both Scott and Coates are leaving out of their account of mass culture is the most common cultural institution of all: the school. Not everyone sees Lincoln, but everyone does go to school. (And as Aaron Bady pointed out to me in an email, how many people have seen Birth of a Nation?) Of course, Coates and Scott aren’t really saying that people only get their history from film, but they are suggesting that film is the cultural medium by which the polity narrates its history to itself. But aren’t schools—public and private— the more likely medium of the mass cultural transmission of history, and a better, or at least comparable, indicator of how the polity understands itself?

And then the question becomes: what are students learning about the Civil War in the schools? Coates, Scott, and Masur agree that the historiographical consensus is that slavery lay at the root of the Civil War. Insofar as history teachers in the schools are trained to some degree in their field, wouldn’t that consensus be taught in the classroom? Found in the textbooks?

To answer this, we’d have to look at state curricula, and as Connor Kilkpatrick pointed out to me in an email, Texas plays an outsized role in creating textbook content. So that’s not promising. And a fair number of teachers, particularly of a previous generation, were schooled in a kind of soft-left critique of the Northern position during the Civil War, which gave the impression that it was all about greedy northern capitalists. In addition, if you read comments threads of many blogs (not the most reliable indicator of mass opinion but still), the Lost Cause theme is out there. Coates has been rightly flagging this crap for years, and it plays a big role, as he says, on the Right.

Still, I’d be curious to find out how the Civil War is taught today in the schools. And here I defer to Coates and Masur, as well as my readers, many of whom are public school teachers who would definitely know a lot more about this than I do.

Because I’m wondering if there isn’t a vast majority—somewhere between the history profession and the Lost Causers that surround the Ron Paul movement that Coates speaks of—that both Coates and Scott are leaving out.

That said, I did overhear this on 12th Street, not more than an hour ago.

So I was telling her about Lincoln, but I didn’t want to give it away and say that he got shot.

Update (1:10 pm)

Well, that was fast. Henry Farrell just sent me a link to this post he wrote last year. Long story short, I’m probably wrong (though Henry doesn’t talk about the schools or curricula).

I became a US citizen yesterday, after spending some time over the previous few days reading the US civics study guide to study for the citizenship exam (since I am a political scientist, it would have been particularly embarrassing for me if I had failed it). For better or worse, it’s hard for me to switch off my inner social scientist. Hence, I started paying a different kind of attention when I read that ‘states rights’ is one of three acceptable answers to the civics question ‘name one problem that led to the Civil War’ (slavery and economics are the other two). My understanding, perhaps mistaken, is that ‘states’ rights’ is typically employed as an explanation by those who would prefer to forget (as Ta-Nehisi Coates notes; also here) that it was one particular right – the right to own slaves – that was what was really at stake in the conflict. The study guide goes on to elaborate that:

The Civil War began when 11 southern states voted to secede (separate) from the United States to form their own country, the Confederate States of America. These southern states believed that the federal government of the United States threatened their right to make their own decisions. They wanted states’ rights with each state making their own decisions about their government. If the national government
contradicted the state, they did not want to follow the national government.

after which it does get into a discussion of the relationship between slavery and economic systems in North and South, and its relationship to the Civil War.

This – of course – was only a very small part of the event in question (and in any event I got asked a completely different set of questions on the day) – but it was interesting. Tests of this kind are a very useful way of gauging what is accepted, and what is not accepted as part of the official national narrative, especially when, as in the US, there is no national history curriculum. I was surprised that this was part of the accepted (or at least acceptable) narrative…

Update (2:30 pm)

Kate Masur has a very powerful response to Coates and Scott.

Tony argues that the film is a “radical” contribution to the film history of the Civil War because it doesn’t trade in Lost Cause nostalgia or the hackneyed idea of the tragic “brothers’ war.” I don’t quite agree with that interpretation. What I want to emphasize here, however, is that by deciding to focus on Lincoln’s struggle to abolish slavery, Spielberg and Kushner ensured that the film would be seen within another history: the history of films about struggles for black civil rights and equality. In that context—with its benevolent white heroes and patient, passive African Americans—the film is decidedly not innovative.

I agree that this is not a reactionary film. It does not repeat many of the historical inaccuracies and white supremacist messages of earlier films about the Civil War. It does not argue that Lincoln was a tyrant or that African Americans were better off in slavery. But isn’t that setting the bar awfully low? Aren’t we entitled to expect a bit more from people as smart and well-financed (and liberal) as Spielberg and Kushner?

When It Comes to Lincoln, We’re Still Virgins

28 Nov

One of the lines of argument about Lincoln that has intrigued me most is this one, which Will Boisvert states over at Crooked Timber:

But the movie’s focus is on…snakey retail politics. That’s what makes the movie interesting, in part because it cuts against the grain of Lincoln hagiography by making him a shrewd, somewhat dirty pol.

Will isn’t alone in this. I’ve seen David Denby, Anthony Lane, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Chris Hayes offer eloquent statements of the same thesis: that what makes Lincoln great is that it shows how his greatness consists in so many acts of smallness. Politicking, horse-trading, compromise, log-rolling, and the like.

What’s interesting to me about this line of argument is, first, that it hardly cuts against the standard historiography of Lincoln. Ever since David Donald’s Lincoln Reconsidered, which came out in 1947, and Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay in The American Political Tradition (1948), we’ve known about this Lincoln. When it comes to Lincoln, we lost our virtue a long time ago, yet somehow, in 2012, we’re all still virgins. (Pace Pauline Kael.)

But beyond the historiography, there’s a larger cultural question: What is it about this country that makes any description of the moral cesspool of politics seem like the  revelation of a brave new truth? Particularly among otherwise sophisticated cultural brokers like Lane et al? I mean these are men steeped in the Western canon; David Denby even wrote a book about that. Yet somehow they’ve never absorbed the lessons of Henry V? Or The Prince? Or Max Weber?

I think it was D.H. Lawrence, in his Studies in Classic American Literature (though my copy is in storage so I can’t know for sure), who first cottoned on to this peculiarly American dynamic whereby innocence gives way to cynicism, without ever achieving anything like a mature and stable or permanent sense of realism. So that every time we stumble across some banal item of reality—Lincoln was a politician! Politicians politick!—we draw back in shock and awe at the haunting truth of it all, as if we had just been handed the tablets at Mt. Sinai. (O’Brien speaks of our “authentic wonderment” at Spielberg/Kushner’s decision to set the saintly Lincoln against “a more detached and analytical surveying of circumstances.”)

Understood in this light, the realism of Lincoln is just the flip side of the hagiography of Lincoln. Only a country steeped in myths of innocence would find the most conventional and boring kind of realism about politics to be the trumpet blast of Truth, Brave Truth.

We see these quicksilver shifts, from innocence to cynicism or realism, in the culture all the time—though sometimes they go in the reverse direction. Think of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, how the wise-cracking cynic Jean Arthur becomes a true believer. Or Dave, where the Sigourney Weaver character makes the same pilgrimage. (Interestingly, in both cases it’s a woman who loses her cynicism and discovers her innocence via falling in love with a man.)

But whether it’s the cynic discovering or recovering her innocence, or the innocent losing his innocence, the story of politics in this country is always the same, toggling back and forth between two positions that are little more than the competing wisdom of juveniles.

It’s basically the truth of the 5 year old set against the truth of the 15 year old. And any time the 15 year old speaks, we’re expected to murmur, in hushed wonder: brave, bold, true, wow. If you’re a 5 year old, I can see why that would be the case. If you’re a 45-year-old, as I am, it’s a bit tougher.  Or at least it should be.


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