Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 August 2017

A Tale of Two Wars

[For the usual catalogue of popular recent posts, click here. It appears at the end of the following essay because that essay, like the one before it, describes our nation’s current and ongoing existential test.]

It was the best of wars. It was the worst of wars.

The “best” killed over fifty million people worldwide. But in 72 years there has never been a recurrence. There has never been another war in which our species’ major powers fought each other all out on their own territories. The more recent proxy wars have been bad enough; but there has been no World War III. So humanity’s most terrible conflict may have resembled the war to end wars that our President Woodrow Wilson once sought in vain.

The “worst” war was our own private American affair. It was the only war we fought entirely on our own territory. It was our only war that left our own American cities as broken and bleeding as Germany’s after World War II. Still today, it has killed almost as many Americans in combat as all the other wars in our national history put together, including our War of Independence, our roles in the two world wars, and our more recent wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

Both the “best” and “worst” wars were ghastly affairs. Men became beasts, and wholesale murder became not only legal, but customary. The concentration camps and death camps of World War II had pale origins in Andersonville, our South’s own Civil-War prison camp. But there was a vast difference in the outcomes, clearly visible today.

World War II is really, truly over. Nazism and fascism are gone from Germany, which has become a model democratic nation. Modern Germany has built monuments to its moral errors all over its territory. It teaches its children about the Holocaust, the death camps, Hitler’s “Final Solution” for the Jews, and its enslavement, oppression and mass murder of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians and Gypsies, among others. It maintains and enforces criminal laws against hate speech and denying the Holocaust.

Those monuments, textbooks and laws insure against anything similar ever happening again, at least in Germany. Today’s Germany devotes its industrial might to energy conversion and peaceful manufacture and trade. It has outlawed military action outside its territory, except for logistical support of others in keeping the peace. And Angela Merkel, modern Germany’s peaceful leader, is now the moral, if not the practical, leader of the free world.

In short, modern Germany has accepted its defeat, has acknowledged the moral and political reasons for its loss, and has risen from the ashes of war to become a repentant, admirable, even exemplary nation. In contrast, our Civil War is not yet over, even 152 years after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Heather Heyer is only its latest casualty. And tens of thousands of Americans—maybe millions—are still struggling for its lost cause of slavery, bigotry, white supremacy, and oppression.

Some even go by the name of the evil we thought we had vanquished forever in the “best” war: Nazis. Others exploit a uniquely American kind of camouflage called “branding;” they go by the names of white supremacists, white “nationalists,” or the “alt.right.” Steve Bannon, just fired from his perch as a floating “strategic advisor” for President Trump, has vowed to become their Josef Goebbels and wage a political propaganda war in their names. Our other media are complicit in spreading their heinous message because conflict sells “news.”

As I oft told my law students before I retired, good questions are the beginning of wisdom. That’s why we teach law in the United States using the so-called “Socratic method.” The professors ask the questions, and the students are supposed to answer them.

So here’s a question for all our students and all people everywhere to answer. Why?

Why is the most terrible war in world history really and truly over, with a satisfactory conclusion at long last, while the most horrible war in our uniquely American history is still going on? Why is this so, when only 72 years have passed since the end of World War II, but we are 152 years beyond Appomattox and still counting? Why has our nation never expunged the racism and bigotry that are the legacy of slavery, after so much time?

Why does Germany have monuments to the Holocaust and its death camps all over its territory—even little brass bricks in its streets, memorializing individuals taken away to death camps—while we in America have some 700 monuments remembering the traitors who fought to dismember our nation for the purpose of perpetuating slavery? Why is it that our chief eastern non-interstate highway, numbered “Highway 1,” which extends from the Mason-Dixon line to the depths of Florida, is still named for our traitor-in-chief, Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy?

One answer may be the lies we Americans tell ourselves. Some of us thought that President Barack Obama’s inauguration ushered in a “post-racial” society.

What nonsense! Tell that to the unarmed black kids gunned down by police in the last few years. Tell that to Heather Heyer. Tell that to the nine all-black victims of the shooting in Charleston, who were gunned down by a self-proclaimed white supremacist while praying peacefully in church. Tell that to our Democrats, who watched helplessly for eight years while bald racism fueled the most extreme and extravagant obstructionism in Congress since the declared part of our Civil War, down to shutting our government and threatening a catastrophic default on our national debt.

The lie should have been obvious to everyone just from who Barack Obama is. He’s not a descendant of slaves. He’s two generations removed from African tribal royalty.

Even Colin Powell would not have qualified, had he run for president and won. His ancestors were Jamaican. Maybe some had been slaves at one time. But, if so, they had been emancipated under British law decades before our Civil War, and peacefully, with no similar all-out conflict.

That awful truth may be the beginning of wisdom. We Americans are not even close to having had a supreme leader from among the descendants of the slaves we fought our most terrible war to free. Maybe when that happens, some time in the indefinite future, we’ll begin to approach the desired “post-racial” society. Don’t hold your breath.

But the worst lies we Americans tell ourselves have to do with the Civil War itself. It’s not over. It’s not even close to being over. It won’t be over until all of us Americans—not just Northerners and Democrats—accept the fact that it was all about slavery, acknowledge that the North won, and repudiate the South’s treachery and the racism and bigotry that justified it as un-American.

To understand how far we Americans are from wisdom in this matter, we can ask ourselves yet another simple but powerful question. Which came first, racism or slavery? Which was the cause and motivating force of the other?

A friend and colleague of mine, a law professor just retired, has found the answer in our history. She’s descended from a group of people sometimes called the “free blacks” of Virginia. History has tried to cover their story up, but she has laboriously unearthed it and is writing a book about it.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, long before our Civil War, there were thriving communities of free and independent African-Americans in Virginia. Their freedom and thriving were no accident. Virginia law actually recognized and protected them.

Some had bought themselves out of slavery with money they had earned by working for low wages “on the side,” apart from their “work” as slaves. Some had been freed by generous masters, often in their masters’ last wills and testaments. Some had come from British parts of the Caribbean, where slavery had been abolished decades earlier. The law of Virginia recognized every one of them as a free and equal citizen.

Yes, this was the very same Virginia that later became the heart of the Confederacy. This was the same Virginia that last week provided the site of a white-supremacy demonstration in Charlottesville! What changed?

As President Obama has said many times, racism is not natural to humans. It has to be learned. And so it was in the Virginia that had accepted the free blacks as equal citizens.

As time went on, the South’s institution of slavery came under challenge in many ways. The Abolitionist movement grew strong in the free states. As new American territories sought statehood, horrible battles—both political and military—arose over which of them would be slave and which free. The Underground Railroad gave slaves a path to freedom in Canada and so motivated the fugitive slave laws, which helped jet-propel the Civil War.

As the noose of history and righteous indignation tightened around slavery’s neck, the institution and those who supported it fought back. Laws protecting free blacks in Virginia slowly disappeared, as did the communities they fostered. The “one drop” rule arose in Virginia and other slave states: the notion that a person with one drop of “black” blood is entirely “black” regardless of actual skin color, free status, education, talent, personal history, etc.

Of course this pernicious idea makes no common sense. It violates every principle of justice and the science of genetics. But it had one powerful motivation: it made identifying, segregating and controlling slaves easier. Thus it served to “protect” the institution of slavery, then increasingly under siege.

What does this lost history teach us? Our culture of racism arose and grew stronger to protect the institution of slavery. Slavery came first and was the motivation for racism. Racism grew to justify and facilitate slavery.

Later the Civil War, which the South fought to preserve slavery and its economic benefits for white rulers, entrenched racism in the American psyche along with the inevitable death and suffering. Like an undead ghost of a terrible tragedy, racism remains with us 152 years after the war ended and the Civil War Amendments abolished slavery by law throughout the United States and their possessions.

Our Civil War is not still a “hot” war. To be sure, there are occasional “hot” outbursts, like the murders in Charleston and the killing of Heather Heyer.

But even in “peacetime,” the war has been going on continuously since 1865. It was there when John Wilkes Booth murdered one of our two greatest presidents. It was there when Andrew Johnson—a Southern fifth columnist who did more damage to our nation than any of our presidents (even Trump, so far)—pulled Northern troops out of the South, successfully vetoed the first Freedman’s Bill, and allowed racist terror to become the “rule of law” throughout the South.

It was there during the spate of lawless lynchings that characterized our (international) pre-war and inter-war period. It was there in the racist murder of Dr. King. It was there in the murder of the two Kennedy brothers—probably the two most consequential assassinations in American history save Lincoln’s. And it’s there today in the absolutely astonishing majorities, throughout the South, that voted for Donald Trump—a man with absolutely no political experience but rare native “talent” in promoting bigotry. It’s also been there for decades in the subtly racially bigoted politics that have put every Republican since Reagan in a position of power, and that animated Trump’s victory last year.

To gauge the success of the continuing Southern rebellion, just think of the study done, in Richard Nixon’s time, by Kevin Phillips, Nixon’s demographer and political strategist. He asked a simple question. Where is the geographic line, north of which more businesses in the United States use the adjective “American” in their names, but south of which more include “Southern” in their names? That line, Phillips thought, would provide a good gauge of the cultural affiliation of the backbone of America, its businesses.

Where did that line run? Far north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the supposed border between North and South. It ran right through the middle of states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Maybe that was why Phillips became the architect of Nixon’s rancid “Southern Strategy,” which for almost three generations has played on Southern regional resentment and racism to win elections for a minority party with an explicit goals of crushing the working man and woman and exalting their bosses.

So now the Germans have Angela Merkel, a great and magnanimous leader in the mold of Queen Elizabeth I. We Americans have Donald Trump, the reductio ad absurdum of today’s GOP politics. It would be hard for a writer of fiction to invent and make credible a character more devoted to the racism and bossism of the South and more skilled at deceiving working people while empowering their bosses. It took the threat of 23 million people losing access to medical care to begin to wake voters up.

Our Civil War is unlikely ever to get “hot” again. In the nuclear age, a hot war between the states might extinguish America, or even our species. But it’s no less an active war for being fought only in the halls of Congress and on the streets of America, and occasionally in our churches, as in the recent Charleston massacre and the murder of four tiny, innocent girls bombed in their church during the sixties.

It’s a war in which every American has a stake, and in which each of us must take a stand. It won’t be over for good until we expunge racism and bigotry completely from the minds and hearts of everyone but the most mentally infirm extremists.

It won’t be over until all of us, like Mitch Landrieu, can explain with empathy yet firmness why all those Confederate memorials must come down, the sooner the better. It won’t be over until all of us native-born Americans understand, with at least the sensitivity of a naturalized citizen like Arnold Schwarzenegger [scroll down for video], why we must “terminate hate.” And it certainly won’t be over until Donald J. Trump leaves the White House for good, and the vast majority of our people understands exactly why he had to go.

Imagine how differently Europeans would feel (and how much more frightened they would be!) if every city in Germany and Austria—and many small towns—had on their public squares “beautiful statues” of Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and Rommel (the “good” general, like Robert E. Lee). Imagine how Poles, Ukrainians, Gypsies and Russians, not to mention Jews, might feel. Imagine 700 such statues, all claiming to be a part of German history and pride! Imagine how much slower Germany’s economy and tourism might be.

How can we Americans fail to see the analogy! How long can so many of us maintain the lies and the charade?

The charade is not without its reasons. The GOP maintains it because it’s helped the GOP win elections ever since Nixon and his vile “Southern Strategy.” Our media maintain it because Nazis, white supremacists and other bigots create conflict, and conflict sells “news.” Our churches fear to face it because so many of their parishioners claim to know God and follow Jesus, yet have no clue how Jesus would despair at their bigotry and adamant refusal to love their neighbors as themselves.

In this vast treachery to basic moral values, only our business people stand out. No one knows whether they do so because the oppressed are their customers, too, because the vast majority of their customers empathizes with the oppressed, or simply because they are risk averse and fear losing any customers at all. But as we do know, corporate America has led our recent public struggle against bigotry and hate, from the bathroom wars of North Carolina to the murder and strife in Charlottesville, and on to the daily verbal atrocities of Trump’s Tweets.

We do know that corporations, unlike Trump and his Cabinet, and unlike the GOP side of Congress, are susceptible to pressure and persuasion. We know that they respond to boycotts. But, so far at least, their leaders have stayed one step ahead of the boycotts.

It’s a sad thing when moral people who just want to do what Jesus advised, or who want us to continue our social evolution away from the tribalism of our biological evolution that could ultimately extinguish us, must depend on the “moral compass” of amoral business to end our Civil War at last. But that’s where we are.

The vast majority of Americans wants to end the hate and bigotry. The vast majority wants to see the last of relics of Davis, Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, Calhoun and their treacherous colleagues. We want to pretend that the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, Jack Kennedy, the Reverend King, and Bobby Kennedy never happened. We want to turn the page on the few who still believe there is something “noble” in the lost causes of slavery, white supremacy, oppression, and lording it over one’s fellow human beings.

But if we are to win—if we are to end the Civil War that four major Assassinations, countless lynchings and shootings, the end of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and countless underhanded minority-rule charades in Congress have kept alive for 152 years and counting—we are all going to have to stand up and be counted. We are going to have to fill the streets, the Web pages of the Internet, the opinion pages of our newspapers, and the town-hall meetings of our members of Congress, again and again. We are going to have to spend our hard-earned money on politics and political campaigns, pressure our businesses, and cajole our cowardly, confused and venal pols to stand up. Many of us are going to have to move South and bring with us new ideas, enjoying the rewards of warmer weather.

We are going to have to do all this until the Southern guerrilla and fifth-column movement, which General Robert E. Lee surrendered formally to avoid, finally succumbs to the weight of numbers and history. We are going to have to push, push, push to bring the worst war in American history to a slow, belated, painful and inglorious end.

When at last that happens, we may find that our very own, long-ago “war between the states” has become the longest, nastiest and most consequential war in human history. We may discover that we Americans will have taken longer than any modern nation to come to terms with gross moral errors—longer even than the Turks with their Armenian genocide. We may come at last to see our “exceptionalism” only in the staunchness of our misguided holdouts and our collective willingness to coddle them.

Catalogue of Popular Recent Posts

[For the consequences of the years of top-level ignorance and incompetence we face, click here. For President Trump’s six-month report card, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For other popular recent posts, click on the links below:] permalink


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