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Stranger in the South

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Secession was the second act of the Declaration of Independence. A bargain had been struck at the formation of the Constitution that accommodated slavery, and now that aspect was about to be renegotiated. Just as Southern states had been free to reject the compact at the outset, they remained free to reject its re-negotiation. States' rights were taken more seriously in the South, clearly a legitimate position. If the Constitution was now going to be a noose around their neck, they were certainly privileged not to stick their head into it.

Consider the parallelism in what followed. It was not the Declaration of Independence that laid the basis for nationhood. Independence for the colonies was highly controversial at the time. Rather, it was the Revolutionary War that forged the national consciousness, moving the issue of independence from the abstract to the concrete, compelling the taking of sides, and thus laying the basis for a national Constitution. An initially extreme position, driven by narrow mercantile interests, had become generally accepted. By the same token, it was not the act of secession by South Carolina that created the Confederacy, but rather it was the war itself that brought it to its full realization. It sharpened the divisions, heightened the us-versus-them consciousness, compelled the taking of sides, and unified the South as nothing else could have done. An initially extreme position, driven by narrow mercantile interests of the slave-owner class, had become generally accepted.

It is difficult to credit the notion that hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers were willing to give their lives to liberate blacks from slavery. It would have been an event without precedent in history. One looks in vain for other signs of greater enlightenment on matters of human rights. Were Northerners less likely to treat their wives as virtual slaves, for example? Did they look with more favor on the rights of native Americans to life and liberty in the land of their birth? Were their prisons more humane? Noble motives dissipate on close inspection.

The US Government executed 38 Dakota men in Minnesota in 1862. (It's not lynching when the State does it.) The highest proportion of Ku Klux Klan members was in Indiana in the twenties, not in the South. We remember the troubles encountered in integrating schools in Boston. And we remember the cold welcome Martin Luther King received in Chicago. So, one hundred years earlier, these folks' ancestors were willing to die for the freedom of the black man? These are the kinds of fictions that sustain the victors, just as there are other fictions that sustain the losers.

It goes without saying that the issue of slavery gave moral sanction to the Civil War in the minds of its Union participants. Every major war needs to be in the service of a good cause, and this one had the very best. In the final analysis, however, this was a raw war of empire, just as President Lincoln said. The war was to preserve the Union, overruling a substantial minority of the population that wanted to leave it. The Emancipation Declaration came late in the war, and even then, it applied only to the slaves not under Lincoln's control. It was a tactical move to shift allegiances among blacks in the South to undermine their war effort. That did not succeed. Most Confederate soldiers weren't fighting to preserve slavery for the small elite of slave owners among them. They were fighting in order not to be governed by people of whom they did not approve--the very essence of liberty. And Union soldiers hated their guts in turn.

There is the obvious irony of demanding freedom for oneself while denying it to blacks. But the distinction is not as black-and-white as it appears. The power relationships between slave-owner and slave were not all that different from those between husbands and wives. Consider that after blacks finally got the vote, it would still be more than half a century before women did so, and the move was bitterly opposed even then--North and South. Consider that when the school desegregation decision of 1954 was celebrated at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, women were still restricted to the balcony, the same place from which blacks got to see their movies.

The Hamiltonian model of the Republic was in ascendancy. The war with Mexico was our first taste of empire. Here both Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant obtained their first military experience. But what doth it profit a land to gain California and lose the South? The War Between the States could be seen as the second thrust of empire of the Hamiltonian Republic. The extermination of the native populations in the West, which followed on immediately, was the third. Each chapter in the stepping stones to empire increased the appetite for the next.

Unfortunately, the South turned out to be a rather indigestible morsel. The captive South now had to secure its interests by other means, and that has been largely accomplished. When a society feels threatened, the darkest and most fear-driven impulses tend to dominate, to recruit the rest of society into its agenda, and to compel allegiance. The resulting distortion of American politics has been substantial and largely to the detriment of our political and social trajectory. It's been a matter of 'the tail wagging the dog' ever since. As Uri Avneri has pointed out, the same phenomenon has driven the settler mentality, which is surely the most virulently racist polity in the Western world, to dominate Israeli politics, and by extension our own.

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Siegfried Othmer is a physicist who over the last 33 years has been engaged with neurofeedback as a technique for the rehabilitation and enhancement of brain function. He is Chief Scientist at the EEG Institute in Los Angeles. Coming to (more...)

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