Race in America: A conflict of visions, most of them false
August 12, 2013 5 Comments
I’m quite the secessionist, but I’m sick of hearing that Lincoln was a ‘racist’.
I am also tired of hearing that Lincoln was an anti-racist.
The first has become something of a trope in Neo-Confederate circles, otherwise doing some admirable revisionist history. See, among others, gripes like this from Tom DiLorenzo.
The second view seems to be shared by just about everybody else, or at least it predominates among mainline conservatives and liberals. In the case of the former, see the recent Lincoln hagiography from Official Conservatism’s Rich Lowry. For the liberals, there’s the hit-pieces of Michael Lind in Salon.
Before elaborating, I want to say that its fairly obvious Lincoln was a ‘racist’. That’s what positions like this are dubbed today:
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
For anybody defending the South’s prerogative to secede, however, this is a particularly puerile line of inquiry, and a strategic dead-end.
Firstly, I am loathe to call towering figures in history racists, homophobes, or moral failures if they did not adhere to a post-1960’s worldview on matters of race or homosexuality. Its arrogant, and its sinister. Follow this through and you will end up demonizing everybody from John Locke to Voltaire, and from America’s Founding Fathers to the French Revolutionaries. You will end up repudiating all of human accomplishment up until 1968 or so. Which I figure is what some people want.
Secondly, Lincoln’s views would have been shared by the bulk of his secessionist counterparts to the same or to an even fiercer extent. Crying racism is a knife that cuts both ways. At best you can say Lincoln was no better than his enemies, if you accept conventional views that such positions are wrong.
Finally, Lincoln’s worldview was one very much in the American grain and in the tradition of the Founding Fathers. I would go so far as to say many of his ideas were perfectly sensible for his time and place. To understand this, we need to understand what Lincoln’s long term goals on the Negro Question actually were, and honestly address the place of race in the American project.
There were heated debates on the issue of slavery prior to the War Between the States, but they did not focus on the merits of complete abolitionism, which was very much a minority position. The issue was slavery’s expansion into Missouri after 1818 and into the new western territories after the Mexican-American War. The ideal for most residents of the Northern states, including Lincoln, was to keep not just slavery out of these territories, but all blacks. This was not unlike the situation in many Northern states at the time, which under the Black Codes required blacks seeking to enter to post enormous bonds, or forbade their assembly, or forbade them from residing at all. Lincoln’s home state of Illinois possessed all of these laws (black settlement eventually being banned entirely in 1853). He demonstrated absolutely no opposition to them in his many years in Illinois politics or during his Presidency.
That’s because, like all of the Founders, Lincoln did not believe in miscegenation or the equality of the races. Like many, he believed the best long-term solution to the race question was to free blacks (thus avoiding a slave revolt) and promptly get them out of the country. This idea, popular throughout the North, was backed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Madison even proposed that all public lands be sold off to pay for the forcible removal of the black population, as well as a constitutional amendment to establish a colonization office to be run by the President. Madison would eventually head the American Colonization Society, advocating the shipment of blacks to Africa or the Caribbean. Other prominent figures who served as officers of the society were Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Stephen Douglas, William Seward, Francis Scott Key, Winﬁeld Scott, John Marshall, and Roger Taney. James Monroe worked so tirelessly for the cause that the capitol city of Liberia is named Monrovia.
A few years back at a Young Americans for Freedom event a typically deluded activist for Official Conservatism tried to tell me that Lincoln was such an enlightened politician that he was the first President to invite a black delegation to the White House. He certainly was, on August 14th of 1862, when he urged that black delegation to leave the country. In the midst of the war, he appointed the Rev. James Mitchell Commissioner of Emigration to work on this problem, and argued that blacks should be forcibly removed from the United States before Congress. Yet many people, conservative and liberal, still spread this myth of the black delegation to prove that Lincoln was not a racist.
Colonization faced many difficulties. The primary reason for its failure may be that Americans became too reliant on black labor. Theodore Roosevelt would go so far as to curse Southerners for importing blacks and keeping them in the country, to the point where their descendants, he lamented, “can neither be killed nor driven away”. It reminds me of an Afrikaner who told me, bitterly, that most whites in South Africa would rather die in their beds than make them. Their position on the continent of Africa is precarious. Perhaps this is a fate some feared could be in store for whites on the American continent. Benjamin Franklin himself said that “the number of purely white people in the world is proportionally very small…. I could wish their numbers were increased… why increase the sons of Africa, by planting them in America?” The Zionist pioneers realized the importance of Jews becoming as economically independent as possible. Kibbutzim often forbade the use of non-Jewish labor even when such a policy raised enormous difficulties. For a new nation seeking to establish itself in a hostile environment, the long-term success of the project may very well require the sacrificing comfort in the short-term.
The words of Franklin and others give lie to the notion that America is, uniquely, a universal nation built on an idea. This claim would have shocked John Jay, who wrote in the Federalist Papers that “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs”.
Benjamin Franklin himself sought to restrict the entry of German immigrants, in which he was partly successful in colonial Pennsylvania. Franklin’s reasoning seems to have been based on three factors:
1. He wanted to preserve the country’s Anglo-Saxon character.
2. The complex internal politics of Pennsylvania. Franklin felt his rivals in the Penn family were ruling the place in a feudal manner, and much of their support hinged on the German population. Indeed, the Penns and Franklin’s opponents in the Quaker party actively recruited immigrants from Germany to strengthen their position. There is probably a lesson for the modern Republican Party there somewhere.
3. He also believed that a smaller population combined with an ample supply of land would help the average man prosper and obtain the liberating effects of land ownership.
The United States seems to have become a “propositional nation” built by immigrants after the fact. Only two years after the Constitution was ratified, a naturalization law was enacted stipulating that only “free white persons” could become citizens. This lasted until after the Civil War. America is no “nation of immigrants”. It was built by settlers, most importantly of Anglo-Saxon stock. As settlers, they built the society, to which people later immigrated. This is an important distinction.
Many libertarians claim the United States was always country of open borders, and that the restrictionist period of 1921-65 was an aberration. They are either lying, or ignorant, or both. There were long periods of lulls in American immigration. If anything, the period of largely unrestricted mass immigration from the late 1840’s to just after WW1 was the aberration, but one that was justified in a rapidly expanding nation where most people still made their living in farms and factories. Because of the economic structure of the time, the average immigrant from Europe could quickly find the same type of work with the same remuneration and opportunities as the native. Today, Americans import 19th century workers into a 21st century economy and seem shocked that these people don’t advance like the Irish, Poles, or Jews did. But that’s another story.
A New Narrative
There currently appears to be two broad narratives on the history of America. The typical mainstream conservative, like Michelle Bachmann or Glenn Beck, will cast the Founding Fathers as highly progressive classical liberals. They will either ignore the white consciousness of these men, or even claim that racial egalitarianism was their goal for the United States from the very beginning. Peculiar factors like slavery just got in the way. Beck has even claimed that “American history can be described as one long Civil Rights struggle”.
The left, in a Howard Zinn kind of way, cast America as an evil, sweltering pile of racism and apartheid under the thumb of cruel and paranoid white men, all built on genocide and slavery. This was the case until Martin Luther King and Ted Kennedy’s 1965 immigration reforms came along. Lincoln is seen as the most important 19th century precursor to that result. Look at Spielberg’s portrayal of Lincoln as a racially enlightened progressive in his most recent epic.
I believe we are badly in need of a new narrative, as the main two are really under the same paradigm. I call this the John Ford narrative of American history.
John Ford, in my estimation, is the greatest ever film director (or at least he is second only to Stanley Kubrick). Just about the only decent initiative the Irish artistic community has come up with in my lifetime has been the annual John Ford Symposium. At one of the public discussions on Ford held last year, it took Ken Loach, of course, to offer the most predictable clichés about Ford when he said: “I never was interested in American cinema. The ideology does not appeal to me. It’s all to do with the lone gunman who will sort things out”.
This is absolutely the opposite of the spirit of Ford, whose work is profoundly collectivist in many senses. The protagonists of my two favorite Ford films, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers act for the good of their people, not for themselves. If you haven’t seen them, you must. Behind the manifest content about killing ruthless bandits or rescuing young women from Indians, they offer profound insights into the building of America.
Liberty Valance portrays a young lawyer arriving in the Old West, who seeks to use the law, and not violence, to bring down a criminal terrorizing the small settlement of Shinbone. A common theme here and in The Searchers is the blow-in Easterner, who represents the future, clashing with the earlier settler-types who still carry the stench of hay and blood. There are memorable moments towards the end of The Searchers, for instance, when hardened Texas Rangers walk all over a young and rather clueless professional Yankee cavalryman. The Yankee at one point sounds a bugle before an assault on an Indian camp, to the ire of the old Texans planning a surprise raid. He represents how Texans will defend themselves in the future: with a professional military replete with all the inevitable ranks and rules. But before that happens, you need local militiamen not afraid to act roguish and with frequent brutality in defense of their own homes and firesides. In another scene, a woman tells the protagonist, played by John Wayne, that Texas will one day be a great state. Texans, she says, just need “bones in the ground”. This is how humans plant roots. The Indians in the film seem to realize this. As does John Wayne, whose philosophy is best summed up by the words “us or them”. With this as his guide, he sees it as his moral duty to send every Indian to an early grave, even to the point of wantonly slaughtering buffalo to make sure there are fewer for any of them to eat. To Wayne’s character, this is only self-defense.
Back to Liberty Valance. One of my favorite scenes is when a character makes a speech on behalf of Jimmy Stewart, playing the lawyer protagonist, who seeks to become a delegate for the never-named territory and campaign for statehood. His natural constituency are the farmers and townspeople, but he is fiercely opposed in his efforts by the cattlemen, the kind of rough stock who originally settled the territories, and who, as the films says, had
[N]o law to trammel them except the law of survival, the law of the tomahawk and the bow and arrow… with the westward march of our nation, came the pioneer and the buffalo hunter, the adventurous and the bold.
The boldest of these were the cattlemen, who seized the wide-open range for their own personal domain, and their law was the law of the hired gun. But now, today have come the railroads and the people. The steady, hard-working citizens, the homesteader, the shopkeeper, the builder of cities…
We get it by placing our votes behind one man. One man! And we have that man with us here. He is a man who came to us not packing a gun, but carrying instead a bag of law books. Yes. He is a lawyer and a teacher!
In the film, the man of violence, Liberty Valance, represents the first wave of Westerners. Most of the people of Shinbone represent the second generation. Jimmy Stewart – the educated, the professional, the one who plays by the rules, as opposed to living by a stark code of honor, and the one who believes America is built on an idea – is the future. Yet ultimately even he could not transcend the reality of what it took to build the West. I wont spoil that for anybody who hasn’t seen it.
Ford is showing us the real story of America, which is not so much about the progress of an idea, but the progress of European peoples seeking to build roots and expand in a new continent. This reality of this has been dressed up in myth and legend. Indeed, the power of legend is what Liberty Valance is all about. The reality is that the kingdom, like all kingdoms, was established over dead bodies and skulls. Yet in examining Ford’s telling, one is left with the feeling that it was all worth it in order to build the new American civilization, one that would eventually make room for those who despise it and seek to undermine its very existence. This kind of critical self-examination only exists among white westerners, most of whom would not be here if it weren’t for the cattlemen who seized the open range and drove the buffalo to extinction. I often say that our fight with the far-left should not be reduced to economics: Hayek vs. Keynes, or Mises vs. Marx. The enemy today is trying to destroy the civilization that gave birth to both Hayek and Keynes.
Bill Clinton was the first President to talk honestly about the shift in opinion on race and immigration in the United States in the late-20th century. That is because he openly admitted that what happened was no less than a revolution, a complete abrogation of what came before. Clinton triumphantly declared at Portland State University in 1998 that there would be no majority race in the United States in fifty years time. This, he acknowledged, is “the third great revolution of America”, after the War of Independence, which forged a republic, and the War Between the States, which changed the nature of the American Union. He claimed that America must “prove that we literally can live without having a dominant European culture”.
This would, however, involve spurning the Founding Fathers. Conor Cruise O’ Brien once said that “there can be no room for a cult of Thomas Jefferson in the civil religion of an effectively multiracial America… Once the facts are known, Jefferson is of necessity abhorrent to people who would not be in America if he could have had his way”.
Americans seem to have undergone the revolution, but they have not consigned the Founders to the dustbin of history. Instead, they just make stuff up, as the statements of Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann demonstrate. Can history really be censored in such a way in a modern and free society? It seems it can, and this isn’t unique to America. On June 14th of this year, the leader of the Scottish National Party at Westminster, Angus Robertson, actually told Nigel Farage, with a serious face, that Scotland was “built on immigration” (see 29 mins on). One day, Scottish schoolchildren may be forced to recite this same lie.
I am not advocating a positive political platform here. I just want to talk honestly about race and immigration. While Clinton is entitled to work for a “post-racial” America, however, I am left wondering two things: is such a place really America, and is it even possible?
For if any man represents a post-racial America, it is probably a resident of Florida by the name of George Zimmerman. I speak of the half-Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer with the German surname, who fought the police in his hometown of Sanford to secure justice for a mistreated homeless black man. George Zimmerman: the resident of a heavily-black community who tutored black children in his own home.
Yet they came to lynch Zimmerman, too.