Monday, December 23, 2013

This is an archive edition of AHN that first appeared in 2010The second half of my Milton lecture will appear next week. Best wishes to all for a happily restful holiday week and a productive 2014.

Jim is observing Christmas. Not "the holidays," not "the season," but Christmas. On balance, the United States is probably still statistically a Christian nation, but its elite is largely secular, and that which isn't is religiously diverse.

Insofar as Christmas really is a minority observance among the people whose eyes may cross this blog, I don't regard that as a problem. Notwithstanding complaints on the part of some, there is no "war" on Christmas. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, if not hostile, to Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism (which I practice) in particular. But I don't think you have to be religious or Christian to find hope and cheer in a scenario of a poor child in a remote place coming into the world and transforming it by the power of word and example.   And that a few wise men would sense something afoot and seek out the child (as well as a powerful satrap who would be thwarted in the attempt to find and kill a future rival). As would become clear over time, that child was never meant to be a secular king. His work, and his legacy, would prove more durable.

Merry Christmas to all.                                                                                                      -- J.C.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Interesting Times (Part II)

The following is the second segment of my 2013 Heyburn Lecture, delivered this month at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts. The first segment is below; subsequent posts will follow.

In the faux-Chinese sense of the term, the last interesting time in U.S. history was the Second World War.  That war was interesting in any sense of the term: fascinating, frightening, challenging, momentous. It called for the expenditure of blood and treasure on an epic scale unprecedented in our national history. We can talk about some of the details later. But you don’t need me to tell you that the struggle against Japan and Germany in 1941-45 was one of the truly big events in the history of the world and had a tremendous impact on our subsequent national history. You know that. You’ve picked it up by osmosis in the movies you’ve seen, the stories you’ve heard, the classes you’ve taken.
Here are some other things you also know – things you may not have been told but instantly grasp if you haven’t: that a nation waging two wars on either side of an ocean at the same time was a major accomplishment.  That in the process, hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the conflict, causing untold grief to their loved ones and depriving the survivors of their talents and untapped potential. And that a lot of developments that happened after the war have origins in the war, whether in the realm of technology (computers, space travel), social change (women in the workplace), or subsequent political struggles (all those Communists).
And here’s something else you’ve always known: our side won. Winning meant some very big and obvious things. Some of those things can be defined in negative terms, in the sense of what didn’t happen or what was stopped: the enslavement of the Koreans and Chinese at the hands of the Japanese; the end of a Holocaust that had already engulfed millions and would have engulfed millions more. Societies that had been liberal democracies before the war, notably Great Britain, were able to resume their way of life.
Other good things that happened can be defined in more positive terms. Our two great adversaries were reconstructed, also as liberal democracies, an outcome that was certainly a matter of self-interest, but also one that led to the creation of prosperous societies that allowed them to take their place in the family of nations with a degree of prominence and influence appropriate to the notable talents of their peoples. More generally, the victory of the United States and its allies in the Second World War resulted in the creation of a world order that was highly favorable to the United States, even if that order seemed continually under threat by its enemies and the long shadow of nuclear destruction.
I should concede: that’s a big “if.” The fear of Communism – from the Soviet Union, followed soon thereafter by the triumph of a Communist regime in China – loomed very large and very dark in the consciousness of Americans in the years following the war. What loomed even larger and darker was the legacy of the Pandora’s Box that got opened when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, an event with terrifying implications that loomed larger a mere four years later when the Soviets detonated nuclear weapons as well. Many Americans were confused and angry that after achieving such a decisive victory, now subject to instant apocalypse at any time. They asked questions like “Who lost China?” as if China was ever really ours to lose.
But in a way that could only be fully appreciated in retrospect (though some observers did sense it at the time), the terrible danger posed by prospect of human catastrophe – captured by the phrase “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) – had the effect of restraining the United States and its rivals, diverting their tensions into a series of smaller wars fought around the globe for a half-century. The people caught in the middle of these struggles – in places like Korea and Guatemala, Iran and Vietnam – were forced to live through interesting times indeed. Some of these struggles seemed more justified for the United States than others (very few of them were truly necessary). And some, notably Vietnam, proved quite costly in any number of terms. But in some literal as well as figurative sense, all these conflicts were far away to most Americans, even if they captured the public’s fitful attention, and even if they pierced the hearts, minds and souls of some Americans some of the time.
Because that’s one of the two most important things that the World War II bought for the United States: distance. For most of its history, the nation enjoyed the incalculable advantage of being oceans apart from any people who posed a threat to its territorial security. Instead, it continually encroached on its neighbors, especially native peoples, in every direction. U.S. victory in the Second World War guaranteed secure territorial boundaries – with layers of insulation reaching half a world away – and made it possible, notwithstanding persistent anxiety, that the danger of foreign occupation would be remote. I’m sure you’ve had any number of worries during your high school years. But territorial conquest of your dormitory hasn’t been one of them. And hasn’t been since Milton Academy was founded in 1798, though there was a war scare with France that year.
The other important thing World War II bought the United States was time. It could live for decades off the economic and political gains it reaped from victory in the war. It was this moment, more than any other, where the mass pursuit – and fulfillment – of what I call “the Dream of the Coast” was realized. As I explain, the Coast is both literal (as in West Coast, more specifically California, the epicenter of the postwar American Dream) and figurative (“coast” as a verb, as in gliding frictionlessly from aspiration to reality).
Again: the nation was prosperous before the Second World War, and its international stature had been rising. But the war brought about what one famous journalist dubbed “the American Century,” an era of prosperity and internal stability – a Dream of the Good Life – that is the hallmark of all great empires, whatever political shape they may happen to assume.
This, more than anything else, has been your inheritance. It’s not just that many of the hallmarks of modern life – the interstate highways that stitch the nation together; the World Wide Web that does virtually the same thing; the mass availability of colleges and universities that represent the most concrete embodiments of your aspirations – all date from the Second World War or experienced a turning point because of it. It’s also important to note that the basic governing institutions of your life have been sufficiently functional that the closing of such traffic has been the exception, not the rule. You expect the electricity to work, the stores to be open, the holidays to be observed. Disruptions like terrorism are scary precisely because they’re so extraordinary. That Frisbee that sails across the quad; that dog you’re walking through the woods; that laundry in the dryer that’s clean and warm: it’s all been bought, and maintained, with blood.
It’s not that there haven’t been memorable moments of domestic unrest. Clearly, there have been such moments, some severe. But the most important disruptions in the lifetimes of your older relatives, like the Civil Rights movement – an event that also had deep roots in the Second World War – were usually the product of rising expectations, not falling ones. Prosperity has a way of bringing internal conflicts to the fore.

To a great extent, the gains procured by the Civil Rights movement and other struggles that followed in its wake reflected the persistence, ingenuity, and morality of those who sought to secure and expand social justice.  But they also reflected a calculation on the part of people in power that they could afford to accommodate such expansions, a calculation rooted in the dividends paid by victory in the Second World War. This did not necessarily mean such people were enlightened. Nor did it mean that the nation was inexorably evolving in the direction of Progress, though the economic logic of the time suggested that calls for redistribution of wealth could be resolved by making the proverbial pie bigger, not cutting it differently. The margins were somehow wider, the possibilities greater, even if there were limits, as there always are, as to how much those in positions of entrenched privilege are been willing to concede to those who challenge them.
Next: The end of Post WWII Victory culture and what it means for you.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Interesting Times (Part I)

The following is the first segment of my 2013 Heyburn Lecture, delivered this month at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts. Subsequent posts will follow.

Okay. So here’s my opening statement: You have not lived in interesting times. Neither have your parents. Nor your grandparents.
Perhaps this strikes you as a strange, if not ridiculous or pointless, assertion. You may be willing to concede that not all that much has happened in your short, twenty-first century, lives. You had pretty much just arrived, and barely remember, September 11, 2001, a truly terrible day in our national history – and “terrible,” whatever else it may be, certainly qualifies as “interesting.” Maybe you’d point to what seems to have been a fairly rapid social change in law and attitude regarding gay marriage. Or wars in Iraq or Afghanistan – these were big, long conflicts that have affected the lives of lots of people. 
But even if you would concede you have not come of age in interesting times, you’re less likely to concede the point on behalf of your elders: they have had some interesting times. The creation of the Internet. Feminism. The Civil Rights Movement. Surely these events count as interesting. The mere fact that you, who will avow that you really don’t know all that much, have at some point been told about such things suggests that they count for something. And even if they did not, you could point to a relative who had a struggle or triumph that would qualify as “interesting” in more than a narrow way, because such a personal drama – financial setbacks, discrimination, entrepreneurial success, whatever – took place against some larger historical backdrop.
I take the point. I don’t mean to diminish the significance of these events at a personal level, any more than I want to diminish my own lived experience or that of my own parents and children. It’s not that such things don’t matter; they matter a great deal, not only on an individual level but also as emblems of the American experience more generally. That poor treatment your grandmother suffered as part of the larger saga of exclusion or inequality in our national life; that business your dad started as a little piece of the American Dream: they’re reflections of a shared national experience. But again, the fact that such stories unfolded in the last 75 years means that they haven’t happened in interesting times.
Maybe by now you’re zeroing in on “interesting”: what’s that supposed to mean? Maybe you’ve heard the reputedly ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” In that understated way we westerners sometimes associate with Asians, we grasp the irony that “interesting” is actually a euphemism for “chaotic,” or “dangerous,” or just plain “horrible.” Ironically, there’s little evidence that the aphorism is widely known among the Chinese; the clearest recent documentation of the phrase that I’ve found comes from the correspondence of a British diplomat in China in the 1930s. Reeling from decades of colonial exploitation, ripped apart by civil war, overrun by foreign invaders: times simply don’t get much more “interesting” than they were in China during the thirties. Even the greatest, most stable civilizations are subject to moments of great upheaval, and China has had several in its storied history. But this was surely among the worst. There aren’t many people alive in China who lived through those days, but the collective memory of such events are what make the nation’s revival a source of shared pride.

By comparison, there haven’t been all that many “interesting” times in American history. The earliest days of colonial history certainly qualify in terms of danger, brutality, and uncertainty. So does the American Revolution. And the Civil War. As do any number of serious economic downturns before the calamity of the Great Depression in the 1930s. All through and between these periods, there were groups of people who subjected to systematic suffering: their times never ceased to be anything but interesting. Yet their stories, real and rich as they are, were woven into the fabric of nation’s master narrative only recently. They have not been deemed interesting in the more conventional sense of the term: commanding the attention of others to the point of being documented and recollected. History is in some sense the conversation between a shifting cast of characters who are understood to constitute a people at any given time. Part of which involves the discovery or recovery of that which was perceived as lost. 
Next: The last interesting time: World War II.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Place in Time (Part VI)

This is final installment of a series of posts about the role of regionalism in U.S. history.
What might all this discussion of regionalism mean for you? That of course depends at least a bit on who “you” are, i.e. where you’re coming from in some literal or figurative way. (I, for my part, am the grandson of an Italian immigrant whose extended family, much of it Irish, is almost exclusively Mid-Atlantic by birth. But by marriage, education, and temperament, I am decidedly a Yankee in cultural affiliation.) Insofar as these regional themes I’m talking about have any reality, they include plenty of exceptions. You can find Chinese food in Tulsa (maybe not good Chinese food), and hear good bluegrass music in Manhattan (maybe not real bluegrass). Even overwhelmingly Republican Texas has Democratic pockets – which may soon become more than pockets as the racial complexion of the state changes. There are plenty of reasons, and ways, the nation-state will hold. Like our motto says, e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”).

On the other hand, there’s no reason to think the borders of the United States will remain permanent. Considered solely as a matter of topography, there’s nothing particularly cohesive about a stretch of continent that’s marked by large stretches of forest, plains, desert, and mountains, and which over the course of the last few thousand years has been the home of a wide variety of peoples who interacted with each other was well as lived in relative isolation. And many of our state boundaries – consider the rectangles that constitute the Dakotas, for example – are really matters of fictive convenience. Should the pressures, internal or external, become great enough, different pieces of the nation could break off or recombine in ways that are hard to foresee, but not exactly random, either.

Does that thought sadden you? At times it saddens me, though I’ll confess I find myself exasperated enough with the kinds of things I hear or see coming out of South Carolina and find myself thinking our lives would be a lot easier if we went our separate ways. I get annoyed at the way Idahoans complain about the intrusiveness of the federal government, even as they depend on it for the roads, jobs, and markets that keep it afloat. In recent years I’ve heard secessionist noise coming out of Texas, to which I feel inclined to say, “erring sisters, go in peace,” especially since I regard the circumstances by which Texas entered the Union to be highly dubious. On the other hand, I’m not sure any of the rest of the nation was much, if any, less so as a matter of moral legitimacy.

The real point of this particular conversation is less about making predictions or arguing for the value of one part of the country over the other than it is asking you to consider what you consider important about your national identity. What do you think it means to be an American? Is it a landscape, a set of habits, or a series of ideas? Are the things you value rooted more in one part of the continent than another? How bad would you feel if some part of it were to break off? And lastly, and more importantly: where – and how – do you want to live? If you’re lucky, you may have some choice in the matter. Try and exercise it wisely.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Freely Unequal (Part V)

The following is the final post in a series on freedom and equality in U.S. history. Previous posts are below.
There are two answers to the thorny problem of maintaining equality of opportunity while allowing for inequality of outcomes in contemporary American life. The first is to refurbish the doctrine of Equality of Opportunity with a new term: meritocracy. The idea here is that your going to this school, or getting that job, is a matter of deserving it after a fashion – not having earned it exactly, but indicating a degree of promise that makes conferring privilege a safe bet. But how does one measure this notion of fitness? Supposedly with things like grades and test scores. But they often raised as many questions as they answered. (Does the test measure what matters? Can it be gamed? Is it ethnocentric?) People whose job it was to serve as gatekeepers of privilege took the edge of any obvious or suspicious sense that the game was rigged by defining merit not simply as a matter of empirical things like test scores or grades, but having had experiences of adversity that one can plausibly believe will season one for success. So it was that Affirmative Action and meritocracy came of age together in the last third of the 20th century, even though they really represent distinct, and perhaps conflicting, bases on which to measure merit.

My point here is not to challenge the worthiness of any particular beneficiary of this system. (A scholarship boy who rode good grades into a decent living, I am in many ways a beneficiary of it.) My point here is that whatever its benefits, meritocracy has served to make inequality stronger. Stronger, I think, than it really should be. We should be more suspicious of inequality, less lulled into a sense of complacency that it isn’t slavery.

Again: I recognize that inequality may not only be inevitable, but actually useful. Certainly there are advantages to everyone in rewarding talented people whose skills, inherited and acquired, stand to benefit all of us. And given the inevitability that privilege is always going to be parceled out in arbitrary ways – to quote the truism, life is unfair – we need some mechanism for sorting people. The problem is that we tend to have more faith in this system than we should. For one thing, talent and skill isn’t always, or even often, enlisted to benefit all of us. For another, that mechanism can create the impression that life is more fair than it really is. The result is that we tend to give inequality a pass in way we don’t when it comes to slavery.

Here’s a thought experiment for you. Let’s say we did away with the doctrine of Equality of Opportunity and accepted the reality of inequality of condition as the more pervasive and fixed reality that it really is. Instead of telling you that there’s nothing you can’t be, you would be told not to follow your dreams, that dreaming is a foolish and even counterproductive proposition, and that you belong in a fixed stratum of society. The key to success in your life would be understanding your the possibilities and limits of the role you have been assigned. Part of that understanding would involve a sense of reciprocal responsibility: the people “above” you, whatever that might mean, would have obligations to you, and you would have obligations to those “below” you. People wouldn’t necessarily meet those obligations, but you would at least have that standard by which to measure them.

My guess is that this doesn’t sound that attractive to you. But it’s not chattel slavery – the owner of the slave has no obligation to his property – and in fact resembles some relationships in everyday life today, like that of parent and child. It sounds a feudal in its dynamic of lord/vassal relations, but as a matter of fact, such an order has prevailed for most of human history in one form or another (typically as a class system). To be sure, it has its oppressions, and the history of western life in the last 250 years has essentially been one long rebellion against it, a rebellion in which the United States has long been at the vanguard and which has been substantially, though not completely, successful (again, in large measure because we are at least partially drawn to that against which we rebel). But it doesn’t lie – or at least lie in the same way – about what inequality is, how it works, how and attached we are to it. It also establishes a standard of accountability by which inequality can at least be rejected, and re-established on a sounder basis.

I doubt this pitch of mine is convincing you, and as an elite white man who has been a beneficiary of the status quo, it’s unseemly for me to tell you that you shouldn’t want what I have and/or that you’d really be happier with an order where you knew, and accepted, your place. My real goal here is less ideological than historical: I want you to see the social order in which you live as a socially contingent one that came about for a series of specific reasons based on things that happened in the past. That social order has a logic to it – there are good reasons why things are the way they are. Not good in the sense of virtuous; good in the sense of understandable. Actually, there are aspects of the way things are that are not good in any moral sense, that reflect collective dishonesty, hypocrisy, fear. Knowing that things have been different – that other societies have not made the mistakes we have, and have not been subject to the same hypocrisies – doesn’t necessarily make them better. Almost always, there are tradeoffs involved. Chances are you’re going to want to stick with what you know. In all times and places, this is what humans tend to do. As no less an authority than Thomas Jefferson explained in the Declaration of Independence, “all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” That’s why a little rebellion can be a good thing. (A lot of rebellion tends to replace one form of oppression with another.)

And that’s what I suggesting here: that when it comes to inequality, you should be a little rebellious. You simply don’t have the power to change all that much, and even if you did, you have a deeply human desire for distinction, to savor the experience of inequality. But you should try to resist it. That’s why I invite to ask yourself when you find yourself in a formal or informal social situation: What kind of inequality is taking place here? What realities does it reflect? Do I like what I’m seeing? Do I need it? Is there anything I can do to make it better, whether in terms of word, gesture, or act?

I know: this isn’t going to happen all that often. But it doesn’t need to for you  to achieve the best kind of distinction in a democratic republic: that of a good citizen.

One last thing. I need to point out that however great his hostility to slavery, Abraham Lincoln believed deeply in the doctrine of Equality of Opportunity. He experienced is as a living reality, and described it with typically vivid, simple prose the year before he became president – prose that helped him become president:

There is no such thing as a man who is a hired laborer, of a necessity, always remaining in his early condition. The general rule is otherwise. I know it is so; and I will tell you why. When at an early age, I was myself a hired laborer, at twelve dollars per month; and therefore I do know that there is not always the necessity for actual labor because once there was propriety in being so. My understanding of the hired laborer is this: A young man finds himself of an age to be dismissed from parental control; he has for his capital nothing, save two strong hands that God has given him, a heart willing to labor, and a freedom to choose the mode of his work and the manner of his employer; he has got no soil nor shop, and he avails himself of the opportunity of hiring himself to some man who has capital to pay him a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work. He is benefited by availing himself of that privilege. He works industriously, he behaves soberly, and the result of a year or two’s labor is a surplus of capital. Now he buys land on his own hook; he settles, marries, begets sons and daughters, and in course of time he too has enough capital to hire some new beginner.

It’s a beautiful vision. And it may even be true in the 21st century.  I want to believe it is. But I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that it’s not as easy as Lincoln makes it sound. I believe that were he around today, Lincoln would say that if inequality is not wrong, it’s wrong more often we’re willing to admit. And that we should fight its spread. That, I think, is what Lincoln would do. You agree?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Freely Unequal (Part IV)

The following post is part of series on freedom and equality in U.S. history. Previous posts are below.

You’re probably familiar with a very old and tiresome debate about whether the Civil War was really fought over slavery or holding maintaining the Union. The key to understanding Lincoln’s achievement as a politician, military leader, and moral visionary is the way in which he was able to convince most of the American people that the only way to save the Union was to end slavery, because the people who were trying to rend the Union were using their slaves to aid the cause, and that only by depriving them of this resource (by emancipating their slaves, enlisting African Americans in the armed forces, and putting the whole issue to rest by ending slavery everywhere) could the nation proceed.

In the long run – certainly not right away, when he lost political support and suffered military setbacks – Lincoln won that argument. He won it as a matter of military policy (the Emancipation Proclamation), as a matter of law (the Thirteenth Amendment), and as matter of enshrining as common sense that slavery simply didn’t work anymore, urging his fellow Americans to dedicate themselves, as he put it in his Gettysburg Address, to a “new birth of freedom.” Within a few years of the end of the Civil War, even the seceded Southern states accepted this proposition, however grudgingly, as the price of their reintegration into national life.

Not that former slaveholders, or their many non-slaveholding allies, became any less racist. Indeed, in many cases there were more determined than ever to keep the newly freed slaves in their place, to use a phrase much favored by such people. Denied slavery, they turned to the next best – maybe even better – thing: inequality. The principal, but by no means only, avenue by which it was achieved was racial segregation. At first, given the efforts of Northern, especially abolitionist, politicians to hold the defeated region in check, segregation was primarily a matter of social inequality, practiced on a local level. Later, as U.S. public opinion became fatigued by the cost, literal and figurative, of the process of Reconstruction, segregation became increasingly political as well. By the end of the 19th century, a Jim Crow regime with pervasive legal, economic, and personal dimensions was cemented in place, and would remain there for a half a century.

But it wasn’t slavery. That’s what we kept telling ourselves. Poll taxes, literacy tests, even lynchings: not slavery. Nor were other forms of inequality: discrimination against immigrants. Exploitative wages that approached, if not crossed the line, into wage slavery. A refusal to let women vote. You might not like these policies, they might even be wrong. But they’re not slavery. Not chattel slavery, anyway.

For some kinds of inequality, particularly those where it wasn’t easy to draw clear lines of race or gender that could be used as an obvious basis of discrimination, there was another tool at hand to justify the status quo: the doctrine of Equality of Opportunity. Of course, not everyone is rich, this doctrine goes. But anyone can be rich. Or go to an elite school. Or whatever. Equality of opportunity does not necessarily mean that one can attain these things easily, or that it won’t be easier for some people than for others. It simply says such things are possible – effortlessly for some, perhaps, but attainable for anyone who wants them badly enough. So it is that the principle equality of opportunity allows the reality of equality of outcome.

Which, again, we all want too badly to let go of. In fact, we want it so badly that we’re willing not to peer all that hard about just how we define opportunity or just how broad it is. Having it remain a little fuzzy makes inequality of condition easier to maintain.

In the twentieth century, however, those old, seemingly clear, lines of race and gender became increasingly problematic. The doctrine of Equality of Opportunity didn’t apply if there were formal rules in place that barred you from even playing the game. In such cases, the gap between theoretical inclusion and the reality of exclusion became glaring, even frightening, in terms of what it might portend if allowed to continue, especially on the part of elites anxious to justify their unequal status to themselves, other Americans, and foreigners. Thanks to the Civil Rights movement, many of these formal barriers were removed. No longer could inequality be officially justified on the basis of race – or race alone. Women and people of other races began appearing, usually in small numbers, at exclusive sites of privilege – schools, clubs, neighborhoods – whose appeal, whose actual essence, was inequality. The question now was how to protect minority status when anyone – even those other minorities – could in theory participate.

Next: The uneasy marriage of meritocracy and affirmative action as partners in the quest for equality today.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Freely Unequal (Part III)

The following is part of a series of posts on the relationship between freedom and equality in U.S. history. The previous posts are below.

Freedom and slavery grew up in tandem with each other in England’s North American colonies. At the very moment Europeans were striking out on their own in the hope of achieving economic, political, or religious autonomy, they were imposing their will on others, near and far. Slavery had been introduced into the western hemisphere by the Portuguese and the Spanish when it became clear that the indigenous people of the Americas were not going to meet their insatiable demand for labor (in large measure because they were dying off so rapidly). So they introduced Africans to the western hemisphere. Virginia was founded in 1607, and also soon had a labor problem in terms of Englishmen being unable or unwilling to work. So in 1619 – which is to say a year before Plymouth laid the foundations for New England – slaves were imported into Virginia for the first time. By the time of the American Revolution, the institution was established in all thirteen colonies. To be sure, it was more central to the rice plantations of South Carolina than it was small households of New Hampshire. On the other hand, the slave trade was important to places like Newport, Rhode Island, even if there weren’t all that many slaves there. Financing slaves, advertising slaves, insuring slaves, transporting slaves, feeding slaves, clothing slaves: slavery was big business. A global business. Slavery and capitalism went hand in hand.

That said, the morality of slavery was not exactly a topic of frequent discussion. It was a fact of life, and not something anyone expected to go away. (Sort of like poverty.) Virtually everybody lamented it. But there was little effort to do away with it.

I do need to emphasize that from the start there were people who thought slavery was wrong, said so in no uncertain terms, and did what they could to limit or even eliminate it from their day-to-day-lives. Most of these voices were religious, and would emphasize that all human beings were God’s children. Many (though not all) of the Quakers were opposed to slavery, making large swaths of Pennsylvania a relative haven of personal liberty. The most famous work advocating the abolition of slavery in the colonial era came from judge Samuel Sewall of Massachusetts, who had been one on of the magistrates in the Salem witch trials of 1692 (the only one to subsequently apologize for his role in the affair). Sewall protested the sale of slave who had been promised his freedom in The Selling of Joseph (1701), a three-page missive that mixed biblical injunction with language we would find racist (“there is such a disparity in their Conditions, Color & Hair, that they can never embody with us, and grow up into orderly Families,” a sentiment Abraham Lincoln would repeat a century and a half later in those Lincoln-Douglas debates: “There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality). But the heart of Sewall’s argument, that slavery rends husband and wife, parent and child, that God has joined together, and that the barbarity of the slave trade made European accusations of African savagery seem hypocritical at best, was a common view over the course of the next century.

Even among slaveholders. As a whole, they regarded what they called “the peculiar institution” as a necessary evil. It was one they would fight hard for – the Revolution was touch-and-go in South Carolina and Georgia because of slaveholder fears of losing their property, something they fought hard to maintain in the debates over the Constitution – but not one they typically argued was a positive good. This was particularly true of the Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson, who famously wrote that he trembled for his country when he remembered that God is just. “Would anyone believe that I am the master of slaves of my own purchase!” Patrick Henry – he of “give me liberty or give me death!” fame – wrote in 1773. “I am drawn by the general inconvenience of living here [in Virginia] without them. I will not, I can not, justify it.” (Henry, unlike Jefferson, freed his slaves at the time of his death.)

Actually, there was a widespread belief among many national leaders in the United States at the time of the Constitution that slavery was a dying institution, because the number of black persons in the United States appeared to be declining. The Constitutional provision for the closing of the African slave trade in 1808 appeared to be another nail in slavery’s coffin. The first national abolition organization, the American Colonization Society, was founded in 1816 to purchase freedom for slaves and resettle them in Africa with land the society purchased (Liberia, with it capital, Monrovia, named after the current president.) The ACS boasted high-profile charter members like Jefferson and Henry Clay.

By that point, however, the tide had already begun going the other way. In the 1790s, a Connecticut Yankee named Eli Whitney introduced a new engine, the cotton gin, which made this highly labor-intensive crop fabulously profitable. New slave states – Kentucky (1791), Tennessee (1796), Louisiana (1812) Mississippi (1817), among others, entered the Union. By the time of the struggle over the fate of Missouri in 1820, which resulted in the famous Compromise of 1820 brokered by Henry Clay, it was evident that far from declining, slavery was an entrenched force in U.S. national life.

 The argument for it remained largely pragmatic (mostly economic). Yes, racism was rampant, and took a variety of forms that ran the gamut from paternalism (slaves as children) to brute supremacy (slaves as animals). But most of this logic was informal, even off-hand.

As has been well documented, this all began to change in the 1830s, when a series of developments really changed the discourse on slavery. The first was a sharp new note of urgency among abolitionists, typified by the militant tone of New Englander William Lloyd Garrison, whose newspaper, The Liberator, drew national attention – and hostility, and not only in the South. Abolition was part of a larger conversation about social reform that swept the Northern states in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, but this sectional accent proved uniquely threatening in terms of intensifying social conflict. The second event was a major slave insurrection, Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831, which terrified the slaveholding states. (Slave revolts had been occurring for centuries by that point, but were typically small, sporadic, and covered up; this one took place in the glare of a growing national media culture.) In the aftermath of the Turner rebellion, the Virginia legislature actually debated a proposal to emancipate slaves in the state. But the bill was defeated, and after that slavery ceased to be a topic of public discussion in Southern life. In fact, southern postmasters refused to deliver materials it considered incendiary, a rather striking rejection of the First Amendment in the name of the freedom to own slaves.

From this point on, those with the deepest investment in slavery, broadly understood, cast the institution not a necessary evil, but a positive good. I could give you lots of quotes to this effect, but the most succinct formulation comes from Alexander Stephens, a Georgia planter who became vice-president of the Confederate States of America. In his famous 1861 “Cornerstone” speech, Stephens explained that his new government, the culmination of decades of growing sectional agitation, “rests on the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” (Note how closely slavery is bound up with inequality here.) In the vehemence with which people like Stephens made his case, I’m reminded of our contemporary discourse on guns, where efforts at gun control have led to ever-more insistent claims that we need more guns, the right to carry concealed guns, and fewer regulations for those who own them.

There is of course a vast amount to be said on the subject of slavery in American life, and only a very small amount I can even begin to hope you might retain in anything I can tell you today. The main point I want to emphasize is that strictly speaking, the Civil War was not really about slavery, per se. Instead, the fight was about the increasingly insistent assertion that slavery was good and right and as such should not only be protected, but expanded. It was this idea, rather than the existence of slavery itself, that so upset Abraham Lincoln and the growing number of people attracted to the way he framed the issue. Lincoln was also upset over the widely held opinion, associated with his great rival Stephen Douglas, who asserted that he didn’t care one way or the other about the fate of slavery. Lincoln was willing to live with slavery (which is why many abolitionists considered him politically lame). What he couldn’t stand, and what he consistently fought his whole adult life, was the idea that it was anything but an unavoidable compromise for the establishment and a survival of a government he loved deeply, a love rooted in his belief that it afforded great opportunities for people like him to advance in the world. Over the course of his life Lincoln repeatedly compared slavery to a tumor in the body politic that could not be cut out without endangering the life of nation. It was one thing to accept this condition; it was another to actively champion its spread. And so he drew the line.

Next: Freedom and Equality since the Civil War.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Freely Unequal (Part II)

The following is the second of a series of posts on the relationship between freedom and equality in U.S. history. The previous post is below.

In a contemporary context, you may not find Abraham Lincoln's famous assertion that “if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong” all that remarkable a statement. You think of that as natural, and always have. In fact, as far as you know, pretty much everyone thinks of it as natural. And always has. If you or someone you know doesn’t feel slavery is wrong, such a sentiment is not likely to get public expression. We all understand that there are plenty of ills in American society today, but we tend to think slavery isn’t one of them, even though there are anecdotal reports of it surfacing again, particularly in poor immigrant communities. Some of those responsible for such evils justify their exploitation of others by distinguishing what they do from slavery – “Hey, she can quit whenever she wants” – and we (perhaps grudgingly) accept that distinction. There’s a line there, a line between slave and free, that’s real and clear.

Except that there isn’t. Even when slavery was widely practiced, there were different kinds. The kind you tend to think of when you think about early American history is chattel slavery, in which some human beings were the personal property of other human beings. They could be bought and sold like livestock or inanimate objects, and had no say in their fate. But elsewhere in the world, and at earlier times in the history of the world, slavery took different forms. In the ancient world, winning armies would take the losers – or, very commonly, their wives and children – as prizes, enslavement as the fruit of victory. In many societies, however, slaves had formal and informal legal rights (like religious privileges), might enjoy some degree of autonomy and mobility, and could hope for earning or receiving their freedom. In ancient Rome, for example, slaves could attain positions of considerable administrative power in managing the affairs of their elite masters, and enjoy at least an element of status greater than most freedmen.

In English North America this was rare. Most slavery was chattel slavery. The practice of indentured servitude, in which individuals were bound to a master for a fixed (in theory) term, was technically not slavery. But during the period when a person was under such supervision, they were for all intents and purposes enslaved – indentured servitude was de facto, if not de jure, slavery. For much of American history, people have also been subject to wage slavery. Unlike chattel slaves, wage slaves are actually paid for their work. But the pay they receive is so meager that they are entirely dependent on their wages for their biological survival. As Karl Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels explained the concept in 1847, “The slave is sold once and for all; the proletarian must sell himself daily and hourly.”

You may disagree that wage slavery is, strictly speaking, slavery. You may say the same about indentured servitude (though indentured servants were known to sell the services of their own children in the hope of climbing out of debt themselves). But I think you would have to admit that slavery has not really been exactly the same at all times and places, and that whatever essence it may have is more subtle than it appears. (You might also say that no man is a slave who can think for himself or who can find some way to resist or subvert the will of his master – like the proverbial “lazy” slave who can never seem to get work done – and at least some people will agree with you. But not everybody.) To at least some degree, slavery has a threshold – it’s less of a line than a spectrum.

If that’s that case, then what’s the other end of that spectrum? Or, to put it more starkly: what’s the opposite of slavery? I believe most people would say that the opposite of slavery is freedom. But I think the matter is more complicated than that. Yes: slavery is a form of being subject to restraint, and freedom is matter of lacking restraints, but the two tend to interlock rather than diverge.  In fact, many people have argued – for thousands of years – that not only are freedom and slavery compatible, but that freedom depends on slavery. For the ancient Greeks, a citizen could only participate in politics when he had slaves to take care of the daily drudgery of maintaining an estate and freeing him for the higher calling of statecraft. Freedom is also more than political: there’s also religious freedom, economic freedom, personal freedom, and so on. There’s also the distinction to be made between positive freedom (freedom to) and negative freedom (freedom from).

In an American context, freedom is typically defined in political terms: a negative freedom, expressed in limits on what the government can do to you (limits like those in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, for example). One of the most cherished limits in Anglo-American law is property rights – your sense of security in knowing that what’s yours is yours, and that no one can take it away: that’s freedom. Including the freedom to own other people. You think that sounds strange. But for almost 250 years, that was common sense. It was also explicitly the law of the land.

So if the opposite of slavery is not freedom, then what is? I’m not sure. But if slavery is a spectrum, I believe the far end of it is equality. Equality – social, political, whatever – means treating everybody the same. It means all people having an equivalent degree of power in their relationship with each other, which means that no one has the ability, or the right, to dominate or control anybody else. Equality is in this sense a check on freedom, but the experience of equality is also a form of freedom, a knowledge that domination cannot be achieved nor imposed. Conversely, inequality is the power differential, the enabling mechanism, by which slavery becomes possible. Not inevitable – it’s possible to have inequality without slavery: there’s space on the spectrum for that. But there can be no slavery without inequality, and the greater the concentration of inequality the greater tyranny can be.

The thing that I find endlessly compelling – fascinating, confusing, troubling – is that while slavery is virtually inadmissible in American life today, inequality is not. Plainly put, we take it for granted. In a way, that’s not hard to understand at all. Certain kinds of inequality not only seem permissible or necessary, but are actively celebrated, like the championship team that prevails over its rivals and is rewarded with a wealth of attention. Others are more ordinary: there are certain things I can do, wages I will receive, by virtue – note that word – of this degree or that expertise.

One reason we don’t find this especially problematic is that some kinds of inequality have a sense of reciprocal responsibility built into them. Parents have all kinds of power children don’t, but there’s a collective social understanding that they are accountable for the welfare of their children. That doesn’t always happen, of course. But it’s what we expect. Similarly, as a teacher I have certain privileges that students don’t – I don’t get detention – but my job is to aid your intellectual and social development, and if I fail to do that there are any number of negative consequences that will follow, ranging from you tuning me out, to making fun of me behind my back, to me losing my job. One of the reasons I (unlike some) don’t really consider the medieval institution of serfdom in medieval feudalism to be a form of slavery is that there was always an understanding that the serfs of a manor had a right to expect protection from their lord, which is one of the reasons why medieval warfare so often took the form of armies ravaging the countryside as a way of showing peasants that their current lord is failing them and that they should transfer their loyalty. One could make the argument – some did – that slavery, too, rested on reciprocal responsibility, but slaveholders were inconsistent at best in making that argument, and it was never codified as such in law. Under chattel slavery in the United States, you had no more obligation to your slave than your hat.

There are forms of inequality in contemporary life where there is no such sense of reciprocal responsibility, either.  Take good looks. We all know that some of us are more physically attractive than others, and that while there’s some degree of subjectivity involved in this, there’s general consensus about who’s attractive and who’s not. But we don’t feel that being beautiful confers any particular obligation to those who are less so. Unlike a college degree, attractiveness is not something you can systemically acquire (even if it requires increasing amounts of maintenance and will ultimately perish). Beauty falls into the realm of what might be considered God-given. Like intelligence. Or health. Or, to a great degree, wealth, which is very often inherited, and where there’s no formal expectation you should simply give it all away, even if there are pressures, internal or external, to convert it to some good use.

One key difference between feudalism and more contemporary forms of inequality is that unlike feudalism, we tend not to think of our inequalities as fixed. Children are not the equal of parents at the start of their lives, but they often grow up and become parents themselves. Intelligence, like wealth, may be inherited, but knowledge and money can be earned – and such earned capital may prove to be more pivotal than the inherited kind. Health gets gained, lost, and is relative. Even ugly ducklings can turn into swans.

This is an important reason why we don’t simply live with equality – we embrace it, even promote it. A life where everyone was equal in every way seems boring at best and oppressive at worst. But, as we know, the reality of inequality imposes its own oppressions, some of them very great. Moreover, if we look hard, we often find that inequalities are a lot less fluid than they might seem. Not all ugly ducklings become swans, or even that many. Enough do – or we tell ourselves enough do – so that we can get away with assuring ourselves that the inequalities we live with are temporary, inoffensive, even good.

This doesn’t happen with slavery: we don’t accept it, much less celebrate it. We assume slavery is – was – bad. But that’s a problem. To be clear: I’m not saying slavery is good, though I am saying it that it might be helpful to understand a little better why there was a time when its evil was not an assumption – in particular, I want to zero in on a specific moment when slavery was aggressively upheld as a positive good – and to get a better sense of its allure. Perhaps by acknowledging the appeal of slavery for those who advocated it, we might gain a new understanding of its relationship with inequality.  In the process, we might also gain a better of the what freedom, the concept that sits uneasily between them, really means.

Next: Freedom an inequality before the Civil War

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Freely Unequal (Part I)

The following is the first of a series of posts on the relationship between freedom and equality in U.S. history.

“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.             --Abraham Lincoln, April 4, 1864

We all have our heroes. Mine is Abraham Lincoln. I spend a fair amount of time asking myself, especially when I’m dealing with a knotty problem in my job, WWLD: What Would Lincoln Do? As a Christian, I also sometimes ask myself WWJD – What Would Jesus Do? – but I tend to find the Lincoln question more arresting. Jesus was divine; Lincoln was mortal. By that I mean not only that he died a tragically premature death (Jesus did that, too), but that he was a fallible human being. I’m not sure, for example, that Lincoln was all that great a husband – he was away from home for long stretches of time, and I believe the stories I’ve heard about shouting matches with his wife at the Lincoln home in Springfield Illinois, where he spent most of his adult life. Nor do I think he was all that great a father. He seems to have had a chilly relationship with his oldest son, Robert, which I suspect was not entirely Robert’s fault (though I must say I never found much to like about Robert Lincoln, who always struck me as chilliness personified). Conversely, Lincoln seems to have been indulgent, to the point of irresponsible, with his sons Tad and Willie when he was in the White House. (Willie, who got sick and died in the White House, was apparently the one who was most like his dad, and it breaks my heart every time I read Lincoln say, “I know he is better off in heaven, but then we loved him so.”) Lincoln’s relationship with his own father wasn’t that great, either. He refused to refused to go see Thomas Lincoln when he was dying, telling his cousin that he suspected the encounter would be more painful for his father than his absence would be.

And that’s just the private Lincoln. Lincoln was racist. (He said so himself: “I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race,” he explained in the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.) Lincoln misjudged the determination of southern states to secede. He pushed his generals into battle sooner than he should have at the start of the Civil War. You get the idea: the guy screwed up a few things along the way.

But, my God, Lincoln was a deeply admirable man. The clarity of his thinking – the way he was able to slice through to the heart of an issue and frame it not in a persuasive, but deeply moving way. His instinctive sense of generosity toward opponents, a refusal to believe other people were any worse than he was, even when he disagreed with them profoundly. And his sense of humor. Lincoln makes me laugh all the time – “God must love ugly people; he made so many of them”; “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”; describing Union General Joe Hooker as having his headquarters where his hindquarters should be – the one liners and jokes are sprinkled across various accounts of his life and never fail to amuse me.

But the real reason Lincoln is so important to me is that he has decisively shaped my moral imagination. To put it more simply, he has durably defined the line between right and wrong. And you know what? He hasn’t just done this for me. He’s pretty much set our national standard for morality for the last 150 years.

This is a bold, and somewhat touchy, claim. We Americans, especially of the liberal stripe, get nervous when some of us start making broad statements about good and evil (or even just start tossing around words like “evil”); we tend to call that “imposing our morality” on others. The matter is complicated further by the fact that there’s virtually nothing that’s entirely universal as a matter of morality. Murder, incest, rape: You not only can find people doing these things at any given time, but you can find people justifying them at any given time. Hell, you can even find people justifying them in the United States at different times. Of course a lot turns on context and definitions (does one soldier killing another constitute murder, for example? Is cousin marrying cousin incest? Can a husband assert conjugal rights?), but that’s kind of my point – we tend to shy away from absolutes.

But in at least one case, Lincoln didn’t. It happened late in his life, in an 1864 letter to a supporter who had been upset that Lincoln was recruiting African American soldiers in Kentucky, a slave state that had barely remained in the Union, and one where putting black men in uniforms and giving them guns was controversial, to put it mildly. Lincoln apparently explained his position so effectively that this person, a newspaper editor, that he asked Lincoln to write it down. Here, as Lincoln remembered it, were his first words: “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.”

If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong: for Lincoln, slaveholding is the very essence of evil. For him, this view is “natural,” and it’s one he’s always held. Simple and direct.

Now, at this point I’m going to say two things you probably know but which I think I need to say. The first is that prior to the Civil War, a great many Americans were not anti-slavery. They did not think of it as wrong, and never had. The other is that that Lincoln certainly did not invent the notion that slavery was wrong. That notion had been around as long as slavery itself had been around in the Americas. Nor, until the last three years of his life, was Lincoln regarded as any great champion of ending slavery among the people who cared most about the issue. Indeed, a great many of these people felt Lincoln was too timid in his antislavery beliefs, that he should have done more than he did to bring it to an end.

Lincoln’s great distinction, then, was not his conviction, which represented a minority view but certainly not unique. Instead, it took two forms. The first, of course, is that he’s the guy who actually ended slavery – or, more precisely, he issued the order as the head of the U.S. army that set slavery on the road to destruction in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863. The other, more subtle but for our purposes more important thing he did was explain the end of slavery in a way that became the prevailing common sense ever since. He did it in a series of speeches in a series of ways, whose essence was that the only real way to save the country he and others loved was to end a practice that was destroying it and to give what he called “the last best hope of earth” a second chance.

Next: Varieties of slavery

Monday, November 11, 2013

Spirited argument

In Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith, Paul Buhle and his collaborators bring a redeemer to life in novel form

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.

As a public intellectual, Paul Buhle has had as protean and prolific career inside as well as outside academe as anyone in the last half-century. An acolyte of William Appleman Williams at Wisconsin, and an early member of Students for a Democratic Society, Buhle established himself at the forefront of labor history  -- he is the author of a widely read history of the Communist Party of the United States, which has just been reissued in an expanded edition -- before going on to write an authorized biography of Trinidadian writer and activist C.L.R. James. In the 1980s and '90s, Buhle's work turned toward cultural history, producing books on the Hollywood blacklist, among other topics. From his perch at Brown University at the turn of this century, Buhle taught courses in oral history, taking his work in a more ethnographic direction before his retirement from teaching and return to Madison.

Reviewing, however briefly, this storied career seems like a necessary prerequisite for explaining -- and, for this publication at least, explaining why one would review -- Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith, in which Buhle collaborated with well-known artists Sabrina Jones, Gary Dumm, and Nick Thorkelson. In recent years Buhle has argued that historians must take alternative media seriously if they wish to have an impact on the young, and he regards the graphic novel as a promising avenue of that outreach. To that end, he has collaborated on graphic histories of major historical figures as well as graphic renditions of works by writers including Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn.

Radical Jesus, for which Buhle wrote much of the text, is divided into three parts. The first section, by Sabrina Jones, rests heavily on scripture, using the words of Jesus of Nazareth -- not surprisingly, his role as Jesus Christ is not prominent here -- as a point of departure for images that illustrate the political implications of his ideas. A strong element of willful anachronism animates these panels; Jones uses contemporary settings alongside ancient words to vivify the ongoing relevance of Jesus's message. A dramatic sense of line in these black and-white-drawings provide an animating friction for the rectangular organization of the pages.

The second section of the book, "Radical History," is a series of chapters on the role of Christian activism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Some of these tales, like those of the Lollards, are well known (but with lots of details likely to be of interest to novices). Others, like the story of the Hutterite Brethren, are more obscure. But this mix of what might be termed canonical history along with obscure byways widens the appeal of the stories Buhle and artist Gary Dumm (a frequent collaborator with the late Harvey Pekar) choose to tell.

The final part of "Radical Jesus," by Nick Thorkelsen, carries the to the modern day by looking at a wide variety of social justice issues around the globe. Thorkelsen has a distinctive pluralistic approach to his art -- which is colorful in more than one sense -- that rounds out a distinctive, yet overlapping set of stories, images, and messages.

As a matter of religion, popular culture, and historiography, then, Radical Jesus is a rich and striking social document. It is one worth considering as art, pedagogy, and history.