In May, where I work, a young man with mental health issues stabbed several people (including a person of color). He was immediately subdued by some police officers who arrived quickly because they were on bikes. The politically useful narratives of this event arrived just about as fast as the police officers.
In July of 1835, some gamblers were lynched in Vicksburg, Mississippi, after a typical pre-lynching “trial.” An early account says it was because they behaved badly at a fourth of July celebration. There were later other versions.
The incident at my university quickly became a datapoint about the victimization of white males, the inherent violence of black males, and the failure of the liberal media to be sufficiently alarmist about the black/liberal conspiracy to exterminate white males. That it was such a datapoint was proven by several other claims that turned out to be false (the attacker went after “Greek” white males, there was another stabbing of a “Greek” white male at the same time—the attacker stabbed a non-white, wasn’t targeting “Greeks,” and the other attack never happened). The incident of the gamblers involved gamblers morphing into abolitionists, and then getting glommed onto a non-existent conspiracy of a guy called Murrell.
These two incidents seem to me extremely similar, and the similarity between them is why I’ve been worried for some time about American political discourse—the way the public “knows” things is worryingly similar to the rhetoric that got us into a war.
That’s obviously a strange argument, but not deliberately perverse. I mean it.
The short version is that how both incidents were quickly renarrated and used signifies larger problems with the normal political discourse of the day. I could have picked another pair—the Charleston pamphlet mailing and Benghazi, for instance—and the similarity would remain. The similarity isn’t about the incidents, but about how they were transformed into an entirely and obviously false narrative that resisted all attempts at refutation. It’s about the easy demagoguery of everyday politics.
This is a sort of complicated argument in that there is so much demagoguery about demagoguery that I have to do a lot of clearing before I can make the argument I want to make. And I worry about starting with a statement of my argument, since my whole point is that what caused the Civil War was that a large number of people refused to listen to anything that might contradict their central beliefs. The Civil War is, unhappily, a great example of how the narration of historical events gets glued on to current issues of ingroup identification (so that whether a particular narration is “true” is determined by whether it is loyal to the ingroup).
In a culture of demagoguery, all issues are reduced to a competition between the ingroup and outgroup. A claim is “true” if it shows that the ingroup is better than the outgroup.
Popular understandings of the Civil War (really, a failed revolution) are dominated by ingroup/outgroup thinking. For many people, admitting that secession and the firing on Fort Sumter were bad ideas would entangle admitting that ingroup members behaved badly. There isn’t a way to look clearly at primary documents about slavery, the declarations of secession, the proslavery provocation of war, segregation, and “the South” that doesn’t involve acknowledging that “the South” (an instance of strategic misnaming, explained below) judged things badly.
The South—that is, the entirety of people in the southern regions of the US–never supported the fairly bizarre system that was US slavery. While Native American tribes in the southern regions had slaves, the system was nothing like the dominant version (which was primarily lucrative because of selling slaves); it’s reasonable to think the large number of slaves didn’t support slavery; Quakers and others were sometimes opposed to slavery, and often opposed to the dominant system (which, by the 1830s, largely prohibited teaching slaves to read the Bible, and which violated property rights by the amount of state control over what slaveholders could do with what law said was their property). The equation of “the South” and “proslavery” is an example of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, in which disconfirming examples are simply not counted.
[This is NOT to say that the large number of white politicians who criticized slavery opposed it, by the way, since many of the were making either the “necessary evil” or “wolf by the ears” argument. The first of those was that slavery was bad, but it was necessary for some vague greater good, and the second (most famously promoted by Jefferson) was that slavery was a crime against Africans, and they were so justified in being angry about slavery that we couldn’t free them. Slavery enabled us to hold them down, and any release of that hold would result in their killing whites in an act of justified rage. So, we must maintain slavery.]
When we talk about “the South” we generally mean the white proslavery political leaders, and their motives in secession were absolutely clear: they were protecting and promoting slavery. And that is what they said, over and over, every time the issue came up. Speeches in Congress, speeches for secession, declarations of secession, speeches at fourth of July celebrations, sermons, judicial decisions—the South was about slavery.
So, anyone who wants to argue that the Civil War was about “states rights” and not slavery has to argue that the people who wrote the declarations of secession and the people arguing in favor of secession were lying. [They also have to explain how the Dred Scott decision and the Fugitive Slave Laws respected the principle of states’ rights—I’ve always found it entertaining how a CSA apologist will, when presented with that argument, either go silent or threaten violence—both responses are admissions that they have no rational response.]
There is a more complicated argument about secession not really being about slavery per se, but about how Southern political and intellectual leaders wove slavery into Southern culture. That argument is that proslavery rhetoric had become a staple of American politics, with oneupsmanship about loyalty to slavery requiring that Southern politicians (and their non-Southern allies, called “doughfaces” because proslavery politicians bragged they could make them have any emotion they wanted) get increasingly extreme in arguments about what should be done to ensure the expansion of slavery. So, it wasn’t slavery, but rhetoric about slavery that caused many slave states to engage in the extraordinarily unwise and unnecessary act of secession.
What people often don’t realize is that slavery was safe, even under Lincoln. Slavery was well-ensconced in US politics, with a majority of the Supreme Court, Congress, and the Presidency. Lincoln’s election was a glitch, in that he was only able to win the Presidency because the proslavery forces split. And he was willing to support a constitutional amendment to protect slavery in the existing slave states. The rational choice on the part of slave states would have been to sit tight until the next election, resolve their internal divisions, and elect another proslavery President.
Thus, were the secession really about slavery as an economic institution, it wouldn’t have happened—slavery as an economic institution was safe, unless you believe the evidence (which is pretty compelling) that slavery was not an economically efficient way to grow sugar or cotton. There are some who argue that slavery was deliberately uneconomic in that owning slaves wasn’t about making money, but it was a marker of success. So, just as driving an unnecessarily large car with poor gas mileage is a marker of masculine success in our culture, and not a rational economic choice, so owning slaves was a marker of masculine success in the antebellum south. A different argument is that slavery wasn’t profitable as an economic system, but it was profitable as a sales system—the profit in slavery came from selling slaves, so slavery was only profitable as an economic institution if there were expanding markets for slaves. If you put both these arguments together, then the otherwise irrational behavior of proslavery rhetors makes more sense, in that, while Lincoln was willing to allow slavery to exist eternally in slave states, he wouldn’t let it expand. Certainly, a lot of primary documents of the era insist on the importance of opening new markets to slavery. (If you want to see a longer review of scholarship on this argument, and my own take, see Fanatical Schemes.)
Whatever the motivations—and perhaps all three arguments are right about some set of people—from the 1820s until the Civil War, proslavery rhetoric was consistent: every single political issue was about ingroup (proslavery) and outgroup (not proslavery), and any success on the part of the outgroup meant the extermination of the ingroup. And that is our situation now. And while all parties engage in it too much, not all sides do so to the same degree.
And, no “both sides” aren’t equally guilty because saying there are two sides is part of the problem.
I’m saying that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, per se, but the consequence of proslavery rhetoric. Slavery can’t cause a war, but how people value it, what they connect it to, what it means to them, how central it is to their sense of identity, how they think they would look if they were seen as not supporting slavery—all those things can cause people to go to war because those things cause people to believe that their identity is threatened with extermination if this policy passes. And that’s what pro-secession rhetoric said (which went back into the 1820s): if we don’t get this policy passed, then the Federal Government will send troops into the South and force abolition on us and then we’ll have race war (it’s disturbingly similar to NRA rhetoric about the Federal Government knocking down doors, taking guns, and then the riot of criminals that will ensue).
In a world in which you’re hearing the same claims and same kind of claims repeated everywhere, the fact that none of the are true doesn’t matter as far as the kind of impact that those rumors can have. There is a Chesterton story in which Father Brown says that people think that 0 + 0 + 0 + 0 equals more than 0, and I’ve always thought it’s a sweet description of how antebellum proslavery rhetoric worked (and how much rhetoric works now): a long series of non-events is taken as proof of something for many people simply because the series is so long, and they forget it’s a series of false predictions. If the media we’re consuming is repeatedly wrong, the rational choice is to abandon it as unreliable. But, if the media keeps making predictions we want to be true, then the fact that those predictions are always false doesn’t make us mistrust the media—we trust them more because we perceive them as media that want the same things we do. [I’ll mention two examples: Charles and Camilla breaking up, the world ending this year. The fact that those predictions are always wrong doesn’t destroy the credibility of the predicting media for many people because those media keep making the prediction—that the media is always wrong triggers the cognitive bias of no smoke without fire.]
Tremendous numbers of people who didn’t financially benefit from slavery personally identified with slavery, and so they sincerely believed that an end to slavery meant an extermination of their identity.
And none of that was true: Lincoln wouldn’t end slavery; the end of slavery wouldn’t mean race war; as was demonstrated in the non-slave states, it was quite easy to maintain white supremacy without slavery. But the proslavery claim that it was either support slavery in the most extreme ways possible or there will be race war would have seemed true to someone reading southern newspapers because those papers were full of reports of events that never happened. And that argument signified what was, to me, the most striking characteristic of antebellum Southern newspaper rhetoric—it was rabidly factional.
It wasn’t a binary. In the 1830s (the era in which I dredged deep), there were multiple parties. And each party had its newspaper system, and each system reprinted articles from others in the system. Some reports were shared (fabricated reports about abolitionist conspiracies would be reported in all the factions hoping to benefit from anti-abolitionist fear-mongering, for instance), and some weren’t, but an article was printed or not on the basis of whether it helped the faction. And all those papers had mottos like “free of faction.”
In rhetoric, that’s called strategic misnaming. You simply declare that you’re doing the opposite of what you’re doing. It works to a disturbing degree, mostly with people who make political decisions on the basis of political faction (or ingroup favoritism).
Someone reading southern newspapers could list all sorts of times that abolitionists engaged in conspiracies of extermination against them. The very real incidents of mass killings of “them”—Native Americans, African Americans, anyone accused of abolitionism—were not mentioned, or were not framed as incidents of ingroup violence. They were self-defense, even if the incidents that supposedly justified the revenge hadn’t actually happened (and that was common). Consumers of that media couldn’t have a reasonably accurate understanding of who was committing violence against whom. There were in the antebellum era (and in the postbellum) communally insane acts of violence against the bodies of Others (mostly African or Native American, but with other kinds of Other thrown in), all of which were rhetorically rationalized as self-defense, and none of which were. Some, like the gambler incident, had nothing to do with politics, and some were political only in the sense that the people enacting the rhetorically-framed “revenge” violence were motivated by a politics of racist or pro-slavery politics. So, in the antebellum era, everything was politicized. And even, as in the case of the gamblers, the correct version of the incident was available to the media, the false version lumbered around the public sphere, crushing any accurate version.
And here we return to the tragedy of my campus. The incident on my campus was not racially motivated, and it was not part of some massive conspiracy against privileged white males. The notion that it was part of a May Day revolution, that an antiracist group had anything to do with it, or that there were other attacks has been thoroughly and completely refuted in any media open to reason. But we live in a world so rabidly factionalized that many of the media that promoted the false version either continue to repeat the false one, or have never repudiated the false one. And so the fear-mongering one lumbers around the internet confirming people in that informational cave that black people and liberals are conspiring against them, that whites are the real victims here, and that the “liberal media” won’t report the truth about the war on whites. And so, as in the antebellum public sphere, there are people roused to violent levels of self-defense over incidents that never actually happened.
In other words, those two incidents worry me because they indicate eras with similar ways of arguing about politics. Then, as now, many people believe that you should get all your information from people who are like you, who share your values, and who remain in a state of permanently charged outrage about them. You only trust people who, like you, insist that we are inherently and essentially good and they are inherently and essentially bad.
Since the dominant method of political argument didn’t play out well in the antebellum era—it ended in a war that was unnecessary–maybe we should rethink that we’re doing it now.