The essay below appeared in Asia Times Online on April 8, 2008. Apropos of the Ferguson riots it is reprinted below. It should make no-one happy. The crippling failure in American culture, I argue, is our refusal to come to terms with our own Civil War. This failure afflicts the conservative movement. For example: Last June I had the privilege to teach a course at the annual Acton University in Grand Rapids, MI. One of the keynote speakers was Judge Andrew Napolitano, whom I admire and whose remarks in the main I applauded. But Napolitano argued in passing that Lincoln had done a terrible thing by fighting the Civil War: surely, the judge said, he could have found a better way to end slavery than by tearing the country apart. That is utter nonsense for two reasons: the first is that a large part of the South was willing to die to preserve slavery, and the second is that the European imperial powers were already conspiring with elements of the South to expand slavery through Cuba, Mexico and Central America. If Lincoln had not fought the Civil War in 1861, the French invasion of Mexico in 1862 would have established a link with the Confederacy and prevented a Northern blockade.
Perfectly intelligent and well-motivated men like Napolitano ignore the obvious about the Civil War because it is still too horrible to contemplate. More broadly, the conservative movement continues to tolerate a revolting form of nostalgia for the slave era euphemistically called “Southern Traditionalism.” ISI’s middle-brow list of “Fifty Greatest Books of the 20th Century” includes a biography of Gen. Robert E. Lee, labeled “The tragic life of a great Southern traditionalist beautifully chronicled by a great Southern traditionalist.” The ISI list is mostly mediocre, but this is offensive in the extreme.
Below I demand of Americans “a higher threshold for horror.” I don’t expect you to like it. I didn’t like writing it. But what I say is true. Someone has to say it.
Horror and humiliation and Chicago
What causes the Reverend Jeremiah Wright to imagine that “the government gives [young black men] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, [and] passes a three strikes law” to incarcerate them? It is the same kind of unbearable grief that still causes white Southerners to believe that their ancestors fought the Civil War for a noble cause? It is too humiliating to think that the miscreants had it coming.
An uncanny parallel links the fate of young African-Americans today and that of the young white men of the slave-holding South in 1865. Both cohorts have lost a terrifying proportion of their number to violence. One third of black Americans between the ages of 20 and 30 passed through the criminal justice system in 1995, according to the Sentencing Project, a prisoners’ advocacy group. Nearly a third of military-age Southern men military age were killed or wounded during America’s Civil War.