Saturday, December 22, 2012

Epistemic closure: the prequel

Thanks to the Lincoln movie and Ta-Nehisi Coates, I've been reading This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War by James M. MacPherson just as our current tax/spending battles reach their Little Round Top.  One essay, "Long-Legged Yankee Lies: The Lost Cause Textbook Crusade" recounts how self-appointed guardians of historical truth in the postwar South inculcated the mythology of the Lost Cause -- a noble, benevolent, freedom-loving southern society crushed by the aggression and fanaticism of Lincoln's north. That news from 1919 gave a deja-vu quality to my absorption of  statements by GOP leaders this week:

"It’s not a gun problem; it’s a people problem."

Washington doesn't have a revenue problem—it has a spending problem!  

"I've become convinced the president is unwilling to stand up to his own party on the big issues that face our country."

We are reaching a fever pitch of reality-as-you-wish it. Federal taxes must never be raised, even when they're at their lowest levels in more than a half century and income inequality is at its highest level since the late 1920s. The solution to rampant gun violence -- unique in the developed world -- is more guns in the more hands.  The greatest threats to our freedom are limits on high capacity magazines and top marginal tax rates scraping 40%.

This is southern-fried reality -- habits of mind and rhetoric brewed in the American South. Back to Macpherson: at the heart of his chronicle of book-burning, textbook censorship and communal brainwashing is an account of the deeds and principles of a certain Mildred Rutherford, historian general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Rutherford
led a crusade to expand the surveillance by historical committees to shape up private institutions and prevent backsliding by public ones. In 1919 Rutherford published A Measuring Rod to Test Text Books and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges, and Libraries. The UCV adopted this measuring rod as a set of criteria for “all authorities charged with the selection of text-books for colleges, schools, and all scholastic institutions” and requested “all library authorities in the southern States” to “mark all books in their collections which do not come up to the same measure, on the title page thereof, ‘Unjust to the South.’” Here are some of Rutherford’s instructions to teachers and librarians: 
  • Reject a book that speaks of the Constitution other than [as] a compact between Sovereign States. 
  • Reject a text-book that . . . does not clearly outline the interferences with the rights guaranteed to the South by the Constitution, and which caused secession. . . . 
  • Reject a book that says the South fought to hold her slaves. Reject a book that speaks of the slaveholder of the South as cruel and unjust to his slaves. 
  • Reject a text-book that glorifies Abraham Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis. 
  • Reject a text-book that omits to tell of the South’s heroes and their deeds.
The UDC and the UCV also tirelessly promoted what Rutherford called the “Truths of History” in another of her pamphlets, in which she promised to present “a fair, unbiased, impartial, unprejudiced and Conscientious Study of History.” Above all, she insisted, the historian must get her facts right, for the South had suffered from false history. Here are some examples of her facts, culled from many of similar purport:
  • “Southern men were anxious for the slaves to be free. They were studying earnestly the problems of freedom, when Northern fanatical Abolitionists took matters in their own hands.” 
  • More slaveholders and sons of slaveholders fought for the Union than for the Confederacy (this fit awkwardly with assertions elsewhere that the Yankees got immigrants and blacks to do most of their fighting). 
  • “Gen. Lee freed his slaves before the war began and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant did not free his until the war ended.” 
  • “The war did not begin with the firing on Fort Sumter. It began when Lincoln ordered 2,400 men and 285 guns to the defense of Sumter.” 
  • Union forces outnumbered Confederate forces five to one, not surprising when the Union population was thirty-one million while the Confederate population was only five million whites and four million slaves.
Finally, Rutherford took great pains to describe Lincoln as a crude, vulgar, cynical tyrant who violated the Constitution at every opportunity. To support her portrait of Lincoln, she quoted James Ford Rhodes, perhaps the most influential Civil War historian of the time: Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation was not issued from a humane standpoint. He hoped it would incite the negroes to rise against the women and children. His Emancipation Proclamation was intended only as a punishment for the seceding States.”

It mattered little to Rutherford’s avid readers that this supposed Rhodes quotation was a total fabrication, or that every one of her “facts” and “truths” cited above was false. She was enormously influential in Southern education as well as in the UDC. Many of her “truths” found their way into approved Southern history textbooks, at least those below the college level (Kindle Locations 1980-2013).
College texts were heavily censored too, if not to the same degree.

Willed communal self delusion is of course not unique to the American South.  But they remain expert at it, and that expertise continues to distort our politics.

UPDATE: speaking of Coates, he has a guest post up from historian Tony Horwitz developing a more focused analogy:
In the 1840s and 50s, abolitionists often spoke of a menace they called "The Slave Power." This pejorative wasn't aimed at Southern slavery, per se. It referred to the vast reach of proslavery money and influence in Washington and beyond. If unchecked, abolitionists warned, the Slave Power would poison every corner of American life and territory. I'm wary of historical analogies. But in the wake of the Newtown massacre, I'm struck by parallels between the Slave Power and a force haunting us today: call it The Gun Power.

For decades we've appeased and abetted this monster, as Americans once did slavery. Now, like then, we may have finally reached a breaking point. I don't mean to equate owning slaves with owning guns. But I do mean to equate the tactics and rhetoric of the NRA with those of proslavery "Fire-Eaters." The NRA casts itself as a champion of the Constitution. So did slaveholders, citing the safeguards accorded owners of human "property." Few Americans questioned slavery's legality, though they debated the Founders' intent, just as we do with the Second Amendment. 

But as the nation spread, slaveowners turned the defense of a right into an expansionist crusade. Slavery wasn't just a right that nonslaveholders had to recognize and uphold. It must extend wherever slaveholders traveled and settled. So, too, has the N.R.A. demanded the right to carry guns into every conceivable place, including schools, churches and hospitals. The N.R.A. does so in the name not only of rights but of "safety" and "self-defense." Guns, you see, aren't a danger to be regulated; they're a source of peace and security that everyone should enjoy...


  1. this "blog" post appears to be the work of an apologist for everyone being mandated to think, act, perceive and vote just the same.

    when did it become wrong for people to have different opinions and beliefs?