I wrote the following essay in response to a Facebook thread, in which some of those involved were invoking the all-too-predictable bugbears of “racism” and “white supremacy” to justify opposition to the Confederate flag, monuments of Confederate heroes and honoured dead, and so on. Basically, the left-wing narrative is that the Confederacy was racist and white-supremacist, and so, consequently, are any or all of its memorials, heroes, and iconography. As should be needless to say, I take exception to that notion; thus, this essay. I was told by a friend that I should blog it, so here it is!
It is problematic, for a number of reasons, to apply (post-)modern standards of “racism” to historical contexts. For one thing, it is an innate human characteristic to associate and affiliate primarily with one’s own people, and to mistrust and/or look down upon those who do not “belong.” Although of course, definitions of “one’s own people” vary; those who do not view the matter in ethnic or racial terms nonetheless tend to prefer the company of people who think like they do: merely switching one “tribe” for another.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was commonplace to think of Africans (and Asians, for that matter) as inferior – intellectually and morally, as well as technologically (the latter being true enough, at the time) – to Europeans. Those who did not hold that viewpoint were the exceptions.
Britain may have ended slavery in its territories in the early 19th century, but quite late in that century, well after the War Between the States had ended, the noted British author and poet Rudyard Kipling famously wrote about “the white man’s burden.” That burden was to “uplift” Africans and Asians from their (as it was seen) benighted, backward, and primitive existence; to “civilize” and Christianize them, for their own good.
This was a paternalistic view indeed, but one that would have found resonance with many or most Southern slave-holders, and one which was certainly not grounded in racial hatred. If Europeans (in Europe itself or in America) had hated them, why would they have helped them?
And if we were to consider the matter objectively and with open eyes, we would discover that all or nearly all cultural, racial, or ethnic groups on the planet are “racist” to some extent, depending on how we define our terms. And while I am not aware of any specific studies on the matter, anecdotal evidence from personal observation – not just of my immediate surroundings, but using a global and historical perspective – suggests to me that Asians and Africans are, on average, about as “racist” as Caucasians.
And anthropologists tell us that just about every single indigenous group that has ever been studied calls itself by a name that translates approximately to “the People,” with the strong implication that others, outside that group, are not really or fully “People.” I am not making a moral judgement in saying this, just expressing an objective reality.
Returning to the era of the War Between the States, it can be reasonably argued that, despite the fact that some whites – and a surprising number of free blacks – held people of African descent as slaves, the Confederacy as a whole was significantly less “racist” than the Union. It had integrated units, with blacks fighting alongside whites (Nathan Bedford Forrest’s personal bodyguard being perhaps the most famous, but not unique); it had troops from Native American nations, troops (and at least one Cabinet secretary!) of Jewish heritage, it had Hispanic soldiers and even (IIRC) a few Asian ones.
The Union Army, in ironic contrast, was lily-white, except for the “US Colored Troops,” who were strictly segregated, and fought under the command of white officers. The antipathy and aggression of Union troops, both during and after the WBTS, toward Native Americans is well-known; that toward people of Jewish heritage is less well known, but no less real; and Union actions and attitudes toward Southern blacks, both slave and free, were hardly what anyone could consider exemplary.
And what are we to say about the Northern ship-captains who transported African slaves – who had been captured and sold to these merchants, not by Europeans or Americans, but by other Africans of rival tribes, or sometimes Moslem Arab slavers – to these American shores? Are they somehow less racist than the owners of plantations? The Confederate Constitution actually forbade the importation of any additional slaves, and no slave was ever brought from Africa on a Confederate-flagged ship. The same cannot be said about merchant shipping flying Old Glory.
Or what are we to say of the English Colonies, later the original United States, who engaged in the “Triangle Trade” transporting slaves, cash crops such as sugar and tobacco, and manufactured goods between Africa, the Americas (including the Caribbean, as well as the North American continent), and Europe, for some two centuries before the so-called “Civil War”? What are we to say of the Northerners who, when their states abolished slavery, did not set their slaves free, but sold them south?
What are we to say about the plantation-owners – always a very small percentage of Southern society – who went off to war, leaving their lands, women, and children in the capable hands of trusted black “servants”? Nor did any of them, to my knowledge, have cause to regret that decision. A general slave uprising would have been relatively simple, and likely quite successful, during the War, but it never happened. It is hard to escape the conclusion that many or most African “servants” felt a greater affinity for their own “white folks” than for the invaders from the North.
And perhaps most of all, what are we to say of the so-called “Great Emancipator,” whose famous Proclamation freed not one slave in areas under Union control – including both Union slave states and even areas of the Confederacy that had fallen to Union armies – and who only “emancipated” slaves in areas where his writ did not run, whose words and writings made it clear that he believed blacks to be inferior to whites, did not like them or feel that they could ever be part of an integrated society, and who advocated for their removal to “colonies” in Africa or Central America?
These are considerations that are ignored or, at times, actively suppressed, when speaking of the South, the Confederacy, and its iconography – including flags and monuments – as being indicative of “white supremacy.” While it is true that there were aspects of superiority and inferiority ingrained in the worldview of most 19th century persons, the matter is far more nuanced than many on the left, whether in ignorance or arrogance (most likely some of each), are willing to admit.
And of course, that leads to the grandest irony of all: that the very same human impulse to tribalism – to favouring one’s own group, and disparaging those who are not part of it – that led people of European heritage to first enslave, then endeavor to “uplift” and “civilize” Africans, is operational in those whose left-leaning social and political views of both history and contemporary life leads them to try to “convert” those who do not share their views, and to hate those who will not join them.
With the exception of those who are so completely relativistic that literally anything goes (in which case they would have no right to complain about any views held by anyone at all), we are all to a greater or lesser extent convinced of the rightness of our positions, and intolerant of those who do not share them. Some of us, however, have more grounds for our perspective than do others!
So to those who say (or imply), “check your white privilege,” I say, “check your ‘liberal’ privilege.” And perhaps, consider looking at the world through the larger lens of objective history, rather than the tiny aperture of ideology.
That is all.