Sunday, July 29, 2012

Causes and Commitments

As to why the "South" fought, it wasn't for slavery. If we asked them as Fiver suggests we would be given the "Lost Cause" philosophy. The Lost Causers believed the war was fought for "freedom." The constitution was written in such a way that secession was permitted. Lincoln was denying a provision of the constitution when he denied the right of South Carolina to secede.

The South had a slave-based economy, this is true, but the understanding that slavery was wrong was growing slowly in the world. Slaves were brought to the New World mostly by the British; then the British became enlightened and declared slavery wrong. They outlawed it. But they didn't have a slave-based economy like the one they fostered in the American South.

Also, Social Darwinism was an important influence in the Western World. Darwin wrote Origin of Species in 1859 and it didn't take long before others applied the ideas of evolution to peoples. "Maybe we shouldn't enslave anyone anymore because slavery is cruel, but we all know that White People have evolved further than Black People and are therefore superior." It took a long time for that idea to be discredited.

The conclusive "proof" that no "race" is superior to any other has been generated by modern-day genetic science. The differences between the "races" are so tiny in genetic terms as to be considered inconsequential. But back in antebellum days that "proof" wasn't available. Instead there were persuasive arguments that the "Caucasian Race" was superior to all others. Anyone wanting further proof was invited to look about him in the world and they would see the differences.

Also, in most antebellum minds the human species was only a few thousand years old. The idea of an evolutionary span of time covering 200,000 years (a current approximation of the life-span of homo sapiens) didn't exist. So the differences antebellum people saw as they looked about them were more permanent and entrenched in their thinking then we can easily conceive of today.

At some point there was other evidence that "whites" were not necessarily individually superior to "blacks." Give a black person the same education as you give white people and a black person may end up first in his class. There are individual differences but they aren't dependent upon "race."

Later on, after the war, the Lost Causers emphasized the "culture" of the antebellum South. "Culture" is an argument and it is still being waged in the world. Not so very long ago, Martin Heidegger urged the Germans to seek their Cultural roots because Germans were destined (according to his view of that culture) to lead their European brethren to "greatness." Heidegger had a benign view of that "greatness," and when he saw that the other members of the Nazi party he had joined gave it an ugly turn he quit supporting it, but the less philosophical of those Nazis played out their belief in Cultural superiority in what we know of as World War II.

And in even more recent times we can find persuasive arguments suggesting that Western Civilization is superior to other Civilizations (using Samuel P. Huntington's definitions). Huntington himself didn't argue that the Western Civilization was "superior," but he was very much a Westerner in a sense that the Lost Causers would understand: This is our culture. We want to preserve it, and we will fight to do so. Huntington saw "clashes" going on between the Civilizations, e.g., the current Clash between "The West" and "The Islamic" Civilizations, indefinitely.

Perhaps at some future time there will a different and superior view about these Civilizations and their clashes, but for now we are in the midst of them and if our Western Leaders call for a war, Western young men will flock to the recruiting offices and volunteer to fight it. We all live in this "climate of understanding" and can't break free from it any more than those in the antebellum south could break free from the understanding they had.

Furthermore we have no wish to break free from our understanding. For example, there was once the belief in the U.S. that Soviet victory in the Cold War was inevitable. Therefore the argument went, let us accept that reality, for after all we are better off "red than dead." There was a minority who held that view, even among those who believed the Soviets would win the Cold war, but most didn't want to see Western Civilization replaced by Orthodox [Huntington's term for the "Eastern Orthodox" civilization led by Russia] Civilization and were willing to "fight" to preserve our Western ways.

Various historians have poured over writings, letters, memoirs and come away with the belief that Confederate soldiers, both officers and enlisted, were not fighting for the preservation of slavery. They were fighting for the preservation of their antebellum culture. Interestingly, when they poured over the same sort of writings, letter, and memoirs of soldiers fighting for the Union, they found that they weren't fighting to overthrow slavery. Most Northern soldiers wouldn't have enlisted if they were told the war was being fought to abolish slavery.

As an indication of where we are in terms of Western or more specifically American "culture," Walter Russell Mead wrote a fine book entitled Special Providence, American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World. In it he classifies Americans into several categories. The Category applicable to the current discussion is the "Jacksonian." These are the people who rush to the recruiting office to sign up for wars, but they need to be convinced by a couple of the other categories that the wars are just. The Jacksonians believe in the right to bear arms and are often referred to as "Red Necks." Mead has drawn attention to the fact that a majority of Blacks now fit into this category.

Perhaps the North or the South should be viewed as completely right or completely wrong. Perhaps the first book we pick up won't disabuse us of our preconception, but if we keep picking them up sometimes we see the other guy's point of view and can imagine that if we were raised in his time and place that we would probably have believed and behaved just as he did.

No comments: