Sunday, January 16, 2011

a land-bound Titanic

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Old South:

The answer is huge
--Don Draper

For much our conversations around the Civil War we've remained
obsessed with a simple yet vexing question--How could anyone actually
own another person? As I've said before, I found almost any
explanation that invokes individual evil to be unpersuasive. At
varying points I've attempted to sketch a larger portrait of societal
evil and societal systems of production. Allow me to be so arrogant as
to quote myself:

I don't write this out so that I can establish blame/guilt. To the
contrary, the point is that the system was so far-reaching, that it
took a conscious, deliberate and often personally dangerous effort to
defy it. Against all odds, against a media that reinforced the
assumptions of the system, against segregated social institutions that
prescribed the assumptions, against whole familes which had bought
into the assumption, one would have to rebel and say, "No." The point
isn't that all white people are somehow guilty. The point is that a
choice between guilt/innocence wasn't really present. It had to be
created and it carried with it significant social costs.

A white farmer in Virginia born into slaveholding, would hold the vast
majority of his wealth in bonded people. For him to create a
guilty/innocent choice, it would not be enough for him to simply
realize slaveholding was wrong. Many slaveholders knew that well. He
would have to emancipate his slaves, and at the very minimum risk the
loss of personal and familial social status. More potently he risked
bankrupting himself and his family, and virtually destroying any
prospect of inheritance for his children. It's fine to think of
manumitting slaves as a moral act. But it's also good, not to be
crass, to think of it like walking away your house after you'd paid it

I wrote that almost a year ago and I still believe it. But much of my
reading over the past few months has led me to think that I actually
understated the underlying reasons for a pervasive system of white
supremacy. More specifically, it's become clear that to truly
understand one of the most profligate and profitable slave society
ever erected in the history of man, you have to understand the
presumptions of the society itself. Weighing the Old South against the
presumptions that undergird modern America tells you something about
the war of ideas. But I don't know how much it helps you understand
that original question--How could anyone own a slave? More
tantalizing--How could I have owned a slave?

For those purposes, I've found it enlightening to contrast the Old
South with our modern presumptions of individual rights. From what I
gather, by the 19th century there was a Lincolnite view of the world
that held that people were entitled to go as far as their individual
efforts would take them. And then there was a somewhat conflicting
view that people were, by nature, born into certain slots and it was
their God-authored duty to play their position. I think that while
both of these views existed in the North and the South, and the
definition of "people" was often problematic, in the South the latter
was more deeply entrenched. Indeed the notion of playing your position
was the whole point of the society.

So in the Old South, all white men were expected to aspire to be
gentlemen, and all white women were expected to aspire to be ladies.
Black people were expected to aspire to give all their labor to their
masters, and to stay right with God. (The two were very often linked.)
A gentleman was expected to lord over an estate, supervise his slaves
and superintend their Christian enlightenment, and--from the
battlefield to the horse track--bring honor to his family name. A
lady, as the historian Steven Stowe writes, was expected to be
"ornamental," to be "mild, loving and beautiful."

This was the society as God had ordered it, and as sure as the natural
kingdom is ordered, so too was the kingdom of people. Science is
embryonic in this era--everything from personal beauty, to the shape
of one's head is believed to indicate intelligence. The term "good
breeding" was used as interchangeable for "good manners." What I'm
driving at is the notion of individuality, that you could be both a
woman and an individual person, with equal and individual ambitions,
hadn't really been absorbed. Your birth marked your estate, and your
lot in life was to till that estate to the best of your abilities.

This kind of collectivist thinking was not invented by the South, nor
was it unique to the South. Surely Northerners had their concepts of
ladies and gentleman. But an ideology of being a specific
non-interchangeable sprocket in the larger machine, of "playing your
position," was essential to the identity of the Old South. And so as
Drew Faust notes, when it came to organizing nurses, the South lagged
in large measure because nursing wasn't considered suitable work for
ladies. Blood and guts weren't matters for the mild, the beautiful and
the ornamental.

Whereas the North put forth black sailors immediately, and black
troops within two years of the War, the South couldn't bring itself to
even attempt to match such an effort. It's not that the North was an
enlightened racial Utopia. It's that the North was more malleable, and
ultimately wasn't built on the notion that the proper place for blacks
is as property. To call the South a "slave society," almost
understates the matter--it was a petrified society, a world whose
glory was built on individuals being jammed into pre-ordained roles,
regardless of whether they fit or not.

As a progressive, it's rather natural for me to think about the South
in terms of power and oppression. But I don't think a power-based
analysis really allows you to see the whole horror of the thing, to
understand how you, in a different time, could have been as evil as
anyone else. When you do see the whole of, you almost marvel at the
sick beauty of the thing--like, as Magic once said, watching Jordan
run up and down the court and forgetting you play for the Lakers.

I was reading a piece on vacation resorts in Louisiana at Lake
Ponchartrain earlier this week. These joints were outfitted with spas,
baths, race tracks, fishing, hunting, river-boats--the whole nine. And
much of it was destroyed during the War. It's like the entire
Confederacy was a land-bound Titanic.

It's obviously important to understand who truly built the great ship,
and why it was doomed. But once you understand that, you have to push
deeper. You almost have to forget who you are and start thinking about
what you might have been. But if you're going to go there, you have to
go there. If this feels safe, comfortable, or affirming, you've done
something wrong.