A necessary pre-introduction: Slavery, racism and bigotry are evil, political violence in a civil society is unacceptable. For and by anyone. Specifying one or a few groups for their unconscionable acts while excusing others is not only counterproductive but hypocritical and incoherent, at least if the purpose of the criticism is to resolve conflict. On the other hand, if conflict generation is what it’s all about, then, ….
I should disclose a bit about myself in order to facilitate better evaluation of my perspectives on the matters here dealt with. After having roamed the spectra of political philosophies, I have, for the last several decades, probably been a democratic socialist with libertarian leanings, i.e., an incongruity. If “left” is defined as collectivist and “right” as individualist, I would try and reconcile both but in case of conflict, prioritize collectivist interests. I am very much against both the Democratic and Republican parties and very much in favor of the evolution of a real multi-party political system in the United States. One based on serious constitutional reform, probably available only through the convening of a new constitutional convention. I abhor the evolution of the mainstream media from an imperfect attempt at journalism seeking truth to an amoral fusion of propaganda and entertainment owned by people who have only their own financial interests at heart. I am an almost absolute pacifist and non-interventionist despite having graduated from what I perceive to be the nation’s preeminent military university, the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. I delight in the ability of my Citadel classmates to maintain cordial relationships and open minds despite very differing political perspectives; John Lennon’s song, “Imagine” is a synthesis of my hopes for the future; and, Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” (but performed by Rod Stewart) reflects my hopes for my sons and my students (now all former students, at least for the time being).
I have long studied the United States Civil War and its aftermath to glean information from which I can attain some understanding of why, a century-and-a-half after its ending, black Americans have yet to attain full equality and integration and why the psycho-social wounds of that conflict refuse to heal. Why, when healing seems near, someone insists on ripping off the scabs and releasing the pent up hate, an apparently inexhaustible effluence. I am more interested than ever in such study because for the past decade I have been in the Republic of Colombia trying to help bring about a process to end six decades of internal armed conflict and to do so in a manner that does not replicate the never ending echoes of the United States Civil war that continue to reverberate in the United States’ sociopolitical psyche. In conjunction with my activities in Colombia, I have become familiar with Bruno Boccara and his concept of Socio-Analytic Dialogue (see http://www.socioanalyticdialogue.org/). In that regard, I have insisted on positive approaches towards social reintegration by all parties in the Colombian conflict, in forgiveness and avoidance of criticism, recrimination and ridicule (there being more than enough due to go around to draw everyone into its net). One critical conclusion with reference to the foregoing and to the discussion which follows is that, as in so many of the other societies around the world which are endeavoring to successfully attain peace, one essential element is the quest for truth. But that it seems to be all but impossible the longer it takes to start the quest.
As I’ve worked on the Colombian peace project I’ve come to the bittersweet epiphany that the attainment of a healthy post-conflict society in Colombia, difficult though it will undoubtedly be, has more prospects for success than does healing of America’s very old wounds, and that the reasons for the current sociopolitical crisis in the United States lie buried in a never ending post-Civil War trauma, one where blame and ridicule and disparagement are the rule and truth something to be avoided by all sides at all costs. It turns out that in the United States, generation of insecurity and anger are extremely useful political tools and we have a governing class utterly bereft of ethics or consideration for our common welfare, although they’ve gotten fairly good at fooling us with verisimilitudes of the policies we believe will improve our lives. The prospects for another United States Civil War are unthinkable but indicators show a cultural landscape polarized possibly beyond repair absent some sort of cathartic event (see Wright, Robin (2017). “Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?”; The New Yorker, August 14, 2017; available at http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/is-america-headed-for-a-new-kind-of-civil-war?mbid=social_facebook).
The recent situation in Charlottesville, Virginia, but even more so, the reaction by the mainstream media and Clinton – Obama Democrats to that situation, are symptoms of a very sick society with very little interest in improving. The recent attempts to exacerbate racial tensions in the United States through a campaign directed against statues of Confederate General Robert E. Lee are at best incongruous, but probably cynically malevolent. Their goal is obviously to spark violent confrontation where hopefully someone will be hurt or killed. That, in turn, can be used for political purposes, some as cynical as fundraising appeals, but all have as their primary goal either perpetuating or seizing political power.
It seems clear that the organization and facilitation of counter protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, were designed to generate violent confrontations. The protests themselves were a reaction by a stigmatized group, angry at the changes they see around them and frightened by what they perceive to be their consequences. They remind me very much of adherents of the Centro Democratico political party in Colombia, and of its paramilitary allies. The counter protest plan worked just as its facilitators hoped, a young victim died, an attractive and earnest, innocent young victim. The perfect prop with which to launch further attacks against the current president, a person who leaders in both major parties apparently despise, as do the mainstream media and the national intelligence communities.
Polarization and division have been very effective tactics for the current Democratic Party although evidently not successful enough for it to retain political power, regardless of how minute and Machiavellian the planning and execution; but instead of reevaluating strategies and tactics, its leaders have tripled down on them. They apparently feel that they just need to get better at creating opportunities to showcase their performances. The Democratic Party is in a state of unwelcome transition as its disjointed components start to break away. In the elections of 2016, they lost the “blue collar component” and too much of their hoped for Latino block. They still have the Friends of Wall Street and Friends of the Military Industrial Complex, thanks to the Clintons, but with former President Barrack Obama sidelined, the Black vote was very disappointing.
So, … not back to the drawing boards but rather to the file cabinets where trusty files involving reignition of the Civil War have proven profitable in the past, especially since that incident in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015. If the timing had been a bit better, it might have turned the 20016 elections around. So, … (again), “back to the Civil war folks! Get cracking. Those crackers just hate it when you go after their memorials, pretty much all they’ve got left. And most of our black brothers are all for it. We just have to keep them convinced that all Confederates were in favor of slavery while all Unionists were against it, and to paint the narrative that the North’s war against the South was a noble crusade to free Southern slaves”. (OK, no cite, I made the quote up, but I think it’s pretty accurate). Disregard, of course, the incongruity that in that great civil conflict, it was the Democratic Party that opposed an end to slavery and then, the integration of former slaves into normalized society, while the GOP was the driving force to attain such ends, regardless of what the Constitution said or meant. The parties have changed place since then, or maybe they’re just two sides of the same coin. They both need to be replaced!
Given that apparently the Civil War has not yet ended, history books notwithstanding, but that an accurate evaluation of its causes seems almost impossible, even now, some reflections may be in order.
On the causes of the Civil War
While there is great dispute as to the causes of the Civil War, the one obvious fact is that the liberation of slaves was not a factor in its initiation. In fact, as the Union started to unravel, President Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, promised that “he would not … interfere with slavery in the states in which it already existed”. While eventually (during January of 1863) Lincoln used the purported war powers of the presidency to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, he did so only because the “States in Rebellion” had not heeded his threat in September of 1862 to either rescind their secession or face the freeing of their slaves. The Proclamation, of course, did not apply to the many slaves in the Union who were only freed two-and-a-half years later with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (see generally the Wikipedia article on Lincoln’s attitude towards slavery and blacks at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Lincoln_and_slavery).
That does not mean that for the tiny minority of Southerners who exercised the bulk of political power and owned slaves (most Southerners did not) the issue of slavery was not of paramount importance. While they’d been assured their own slaves would not be taken, they were put on notice that henceforth, new states coming into the Union would be required to prohibit slavery. That issue was interpreted as implying political suicide for the agrarian South. The exclusion of slavery from the territories would change the agrarian – industrial balance maintained in the United States Senate through the Missouri Compromise (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missouri_Compromise) and the Compromise of 1850 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compromise_of_1850)). The balance of power in the House of Representatives already favoring the industrialized North, agrarian Southerners accurately predicted that a pro-industrialist federal legislature would adopt policies detrimental to their interests on matters of taxation, customs duties, national infrastructural expenditures and foreign relations.
As usual, Blacks were only pawns in the political machinations of the Big Boys, as were ordinary Southerners, and ordinary Northerners as well, most of whom probably also opposed that horrific conflict. After all, it had been the Northeastern states which had first threatened secession during the War of 1812.
On Robert E. Lee as a focus for politically productive historical revisionism
With reference to the current campaign by misguided activists manipulated by political opportunists to destroy all memorials dedicated to Confederate historical figures but especially, as in the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, all statuary dedicated to Robert E. Lee, the following facts are relevant.
Unlike many of his aristocratic, slave-owning brethren, Robert E. Lee never owned slaves and vociferously opposed secession for any reason but one, defense of his homeland. There can be no reasonable doubt that for Lee, the Civil War (or War of Northern Aggression) was not about slavery, or justified on any side. While Lee never owned slaves and was thus, never in a position to manumit them (his father had done so with respect to family slaves in his will), as executor of his slave owning father-in-law’s will and following his instructions, he did manumit the Custis family slaves well before the Emancipation Proclamation. As illustrative of his attitude toward slavery in general, with his blessings, both his mother and daughter had, prior to the war, worked actively to free slaves and send them to Liberia and in fact, ran an illegal school to educate slaves. Something no Northern general can be accused of having done.
With reference to secession, while he was vehemently opposed to the concept, he felt honor bound to defend his state, were it attacked, as it was. The following excerpts are illustrative of the foregoing.
In a letter to his eldest son prior to the start of hostilities, he wrote:
…. I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for “perpetual union,” so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled (J. William Jones (1906). “Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee”. The Civil War: The First Year Told By Those Who Lived It. The Library of America, 2011).
When asked if he would join the calls for secession and fight for the Confederacy as the Union began to dissolve he replied: “I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty.” (Freeman, Douglas S. (1934). R. E. Lee, a Biography. Charles Scribner’s Sons). He rejected an initial offer of command from the Confederate States of America and when offered a Union commission to command the defense of Washington. He replied: “… I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state? (Goodwin, Doris Kearns (2005). Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 350). He in fact rejected overall command of Confederate forces, accepting only command of the Army of Northern Virginia.
When the war was over he was a vocal supporter of reconciliation and a defender of former slaves, having on various occasions expelled white students from Washington College for assaults on blacks during his presidency there following the Civil War, and was an important advocate for black education, although he agreed with Lincoln’s plan for black emigration (like Washington and Jefferson, Lincoln too was a racist white supremacist). Following the war, contemporaries in both the North and the South praised his honor and integrity. For example, in 1874 Benjamin Harvey Hill described Lee in this way: “He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick, without his tyranny; Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward” (“Benjamin Harvey Hill quotation”. bartleby.com).
On the other hand: Comparison with Union Vice President and Principal Founding Fathers
Lincoln’s vice president and successor had been a slave owner and did what he could, as a senator, as vice president, as president, and then again as a senator, to impede the freeing of slaves and then, when that was a fait accompli, to impede the assimilation of former slaves into normalized society. See, e.g., Astor, Aaron (2013). “When Andrew Johnson Freed His Slaves; New York Times, August 9, 2013, available at https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/09/when-andrew-johnson-freed-his-slaves/.
More importantly, as historical monuments dedicated to Robert E. Lee are removed, destroyed, spat upon and urinated on by frequently violent “liberal protestors”; one ought to consider him in context with other American historical figures. Unlike Lee, most of the founding fathers were racist slaveholders, two among them standing out: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson bred with his slaves and failed to free even his own offspring. Monuments and institutions dedicated to them should, if the logic of the current politicized wave demanding destruction of historical monuments to people who held views we find abhorrent today were to be implemented coherently, all be destroyed long before monuments to Robert E. Lee were touched. Perhaps given the current state of affairs, Lee’s monuments should instead be refurbished and re-burnished, perhaps as the Washington obelisk and Jefferson memorial are pulverized.
Today we criticize ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Islamic State (IS), and by its Arabic language acronym Daesh. We criticize it for many things, too many reminiscent of our own conduct, not only during our own civil war, but today, as we interevene militarily virtually everywhere, virtually at will, but one of the things the whole world faults it for is its unforgivable destruction of historical monuments. Apparently however, turnabout being fair play, we have no problem following its example. Many of my friends who are Clinton – Obama loyalists claim that losers are undeserving of historical monuments, especially if some among us find them offensive. I wonder what Scotts think of that proposition, perhaps we should destroy all reproductions of the movie Braveheart, or all literature concerning pre- Irish Republic revolutionaries, or monuments to the “heroes” at the Alamo. Why not just raise the curtains on the next Dark Ages which seem to be so successfully clamoring for their own place in history. Hmmm, do I recall something, somewhere, about those who fail to study history repeating it? And memorials seem to be very appropriate vehicles to help us recall history, good, bad or indifferent, and perhaps catalysts to help us understand it and each other.
Polarization, recriminations and the quest to place blame rather than find unifying solutions are likely to be the death knell of democracy and of the dream of an American melting pot. Generation of hate and ridicule as a means of attaining power are emblematic of fascism. How ironic that those who purport to be against white supremacist, white nationalists, the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis are the ones who today seem most addicted to fascist tactics.
There are answers a’ plenty, if we just open our eyes and our minds, discard pre-planted notions (most of us are not devious enough to have conceived of them ourselves), recall the golden rule and that there are almost always two sides to every conflict. That we are each human beings with human emotions and insecurities, a need for self-worth and self-realization, and that to get to where we want to go, the most important step involves rejection of attempts to divide us and to keep us divided in order to more easily manipulate and control us.
Stop all monetary contributions responsive to e-mail, telephone and snail mail pleas from political movements based on the urgent need to stop someone, or to gain back power, or to gain more political control; vote but only for people and causes you believe in, not because your vote is needed by someone for whom you don’t care in order to deprive someone else of power; do some research and contribute your time and energy where you see fit. Reject divisive tactics, whether involving race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality or lifestyles. Boycott producers of products advertised on dishonest mainstream media sources, especially when there are alternative local products or services, even if they’re a bit more expensive. Instead of buy American, buy ethical.
Be patient and don’t lose hope.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2017; all rights reserved. Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.
Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia although he has primarily lived in the United States of America (of which he is a citizen). Until recently he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales. He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com and much of his writing is available through his blog at http://www.guillermocalvo.com.