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. 
It is a measure of the inherent good-heartedness of Americans that they evince a low threshold of horror. Three hundred thousand Confederate dead and millions of ruined African-American lives are too awful to contemplate. Some part of Senator Barack Obama’s appeal derives from America’s revulsion over the destruction of a generation of young black men; electing an African-American president would assuage part of the guilt.
From this great suffering arise two genres of American popular culture, the Gone With the Wind ilk of Civil War epic, and the “Get Rich or Die Tryin'” brand of gangsta tale. Both try to take the edge off the revulsion and placate the dishonored dead by turning them into folk-heroes. That is understandable, but also unfortunate, for America still has a great deal of killing left to do around the world, and might as well get used to it.
“Get Rich or Die Tryin'” would have been a good epitaph for the Confederate dead, who fought for land and slaves, not for “states’ rights” or the sanctity of their soil. Slave-owners along with want-to-be slave-owners had it coming. The Union general William Tecumseh Sherman who said after he burned Atlanta, “I fear the world will jump to the wrong conclusion that because I am in Atlanta the work is done. Far from it. We must kill three hundred thousand, I have told you of so often, and the further they run the harder for us to get them.”
Given the sad history of racial oppression in the South for a century after the Civil War, the only thing to regret is that Sherman didn’t finish the job. I stopped watching the film version of Gone With the Wind after Scarlett O’Hara saved her plantation from the tax-collector. I wanted her to pick cotton until her back broke.
It is appalling that the criminal justice system has devoured one out of three young African-Americans, to be sure, but the number must be too small, because the police will have failed to apprehend some who still commit crimes. I did not attempt to watch the film Get Rich or Die Tryin’. I want the police to incarcerate such people before they commit enough crimes to fill a screenplay.
Europeans are far more attuned to horror. They have had the opportunity to get used to it. Cannibalism was rampant in 17th-century Germany during the Thirty Years’ War, and in the Ukraine during Joseph Stalin’s 1931 starvation. Americans abandoned the horrors of the Old World. Terrible as the Civil War may have been, it spared civilians. Sherman burned his way from Atlanta to the sea in 1864, but the number of rapes and murders committed by his soldiers can be counted on one’s fingers.
Nonetheless, there is no market for Hollywood epics about Sherman’s March to the sea, arguably the most brilliant military campaign in the history of American arms, while the film industry still grinds out kitsch about the supposedly gallant losers. Perhaps one should feel sorry for the impoverished privates who bled for the Confederacy. Few had slaves, yet they fought stubbornly to preserve slavery, because they hoped that they, too, would obtain land and slaves as the victorious Confederacy became a hemispheric empire. I have expanded on this subject elsewhere (Happy birthday, Abe – pass the blood Asia Times Online, February 10, 2004).
The embittered fighters of the South sacrificed themselves in proportions unsurpassed in modern history, excepting the Serbs in World War I. But there was no honor, no gallantry, and no nobility in the blood-letting. They fought for empire and advancement, like Albrecht von Wallenstein’s freebooters of the Thirty Years’ War or Napoleon’s ambitious Grande Armee. Sherman’s belief that the war objective was not to occupy this or that piece of territory, but to kill 300,000 men, was almost exactly correct: the final total of Confederate dead was 289,000, just 11,000 short of Sherman’s estimate. Perhaps the 11,000 men Sherman failed to kill were the founders of the Klu Klux Klan.
In fact, Sherman’s superior, General Ulysses S Grant, did far more of the killing. Sherman burnt property and humiliated the South on their home soil. But a people that has given its all for a defeat that is too terrible to recall with clarity has nothing left but pride, and the wounded pride of the South has turned Sherman’s memory into a curse.
Southerners thought of themselves as an oppressed people, the descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants driven out of their Celtic homelands by the English, flying the X-shaped cross of Scotland’s patron saint in the Confederate battle flag, redolent of Scotland’s “Lost Cause”. The self-pity of the South pervades American popular culture, from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, to The Band’s bathetic song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. It is best known in the cover version by Joan Baez, an old civil rights campaigner. Such is the pull of identity politics.
With good reason, the descendants of Scots villagers expelled from the Highlands after the rebellion of 1746 may have thought themselves oppressed. Because they came from oppressed folk, their passion to better themselves burned all the more fiercely. When they set to build a slave empire, they could be stopped only by killing so many of them that insufficient numbers were left to form the ranks. The South fought on with redoubled ferocity after the twin Union victories of 1863, Vicksburg and Gettysburg, made Confederate victory improbable. Most Southern casualties, I reported in an earlier essay (More killing please!, Asia Times Online, June 13, 2003), occurred after Southern hopes had faded, and the South surrendered only after its manpower was too depleted to continue.
Sherman, who lived in the South and had many close Southern friends, understood that the ambitions of the South could be quelled only by a sea of blood. He is the decisive personality of the Civil War, yet there never has been a single cinematic treatment of the man. Twenty-one films, by contrast, portray Jesse James, the Confederate guerilla turned outlaw. He is the 50 Cent of the old South.
I do not mean to draw a moral equivalency between would-be slave-owners and the descendants of slaves, but the functional parallel is compelling. According to the Sentencing Project, “More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For black males in their twenties, one in every eight is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the ‘war on drugs’, in which three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.”
A generation of African-Americans has been decimated. Murder is the leading cause of death among young African-American men; an American black has a 5% lifetime probably of becoming a murder victim (against a 0.7% probably for a white American).
Wright offers one sort of explanation: it is all due to a conspiracy by a racist government that wants to exterminate black people. The comedian and actor Bill Cosby now is touring America to offer a different explanation: the problems of African-Americans stem from a lack of individual responsibility, especially among men. In the May 2008 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Ta-Nehesi Coates reports on a Cosby event in Detroit, writing, “Cosby had come to Detroit aiming to grab the city’s black men by their collars and shake them out of the torpor that has left so many of them – like so many of their peers across the country – undereducated, overincarcerated, and underrepresented in the ranks of active fathers.”
Cosby speaks pure sanity to black Americans, but the circumstances are enough to make a man crazy – Wright, for example. Sanity is conveyed through humiliation. If young black men are killed in the commission of petty crimes, Cosby told a civil rights conference in 2004, it is their own fault:
Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! And then we all run out and are outraged, “The cops shouldn’t have shot him.” What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?
It is horrific to die young, and humiliating to die for the wrong reason. Living with the humiliation is the beginning of recovery. But Wright and his congregation cannot bear the horror and humiliation any more than the average white Southerner, who after a few Bourbons will tell you, “The South shall rise again!”
Americans need a higher threshold for horror. Tragedies sometimes must play themselves out, and the losers must be allowed to lose. Whole peoples can go bad, and sometimes it is necessary to prevent them from doing evil by winnowing their ranks. It is just as perverse to excuse Wright’s paranoid outbursts as it is to perpetuate the self-consoling myth of the gallant slave-holding South. America will be on the right track when it celebrates Sherman instead of 50 Cent.
1. Nearly four-fifths of Southern white men served in the Confederate Army, and of these, half were wounded and a quarter were killed
image illustration via shutterstock / STILLFX