Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, November 30, 2012

When Losers Write History

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been joining in on the critiques of Spielberg's Lincoln, concerned that the movie, by it's narrow scope, shows the abolition of slavery as being too much a white man's thing. The critiques themselves don't much interest me, as it strikes me they mostly amount to saying that people wish Spielberg had made a different movie. However, the history being discussed does. Coates is responding to a quote from screenwriter Tony Kushner who said:
"I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of war was a very, very smart thing. And it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn't take him literally after he was murdered. The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote 'noble cause,' and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies.
Coates says:
This is quite wrong. Lincoln was the first president killed in American history. He was not killed by some wide-eyed crazy, but a man advocating exactly the same cause as the white Southerners whom Kushner believes were so inhumanely brutalized.... There is no daylight between John Wilkes Booth and Jefferson Davis, save that Booth, in the name of white supremacy, was willingness to countenance the killing of one man, and Davis the killing of 600,000. What followed the murder of Abraham Lincoln was not repression and inhumanity. Andrew Johnson offered terms more generous, not less.... When Kushner says the Ku Klux Klan came out of an unwillingness to forgive the South, I don't know what he means. The Klan was founded in 1865. Johnson was still president. There was nothing "unforgiving" about his posture to the South.
Coates links to Corey Robin who reacts to the same quote saying:
I have to confess, I was truly shocked by this comment. Though it points to events after the Civil War, it reveals a point of view that I had thought we abandoned long ago: the Dunning School of American historiography, which essentially holds that Reconstruction was a “tragic era”—and error—in which a cruel and unforgiving North decided to wreak havoc on a victimized (white) South, thereby producing Jim Crow and a century of southern backwardness. When I was in high school—in 1985!—we were taught the Dunning School as an example of how not to do history, a way of thinking about the past that was so benighted no one could possibly believe it anymore.

Yet here we have one of our most esteemed playwrights—a Marxist no less (and whose effort to reclaim an honorary degree from CUNY, which he had been denied, I steadfastly organized for)—essentially peddling the same tropes.
If one steps back from the question of Reconstruction in particular, however, one sees that this approach to history (these people were treated badly and so they were forced to go do something we don't approve by their outrage at their mistreatment) is fairly common. One of my own particular bugbears is the list of three things which everyone thinks they know about World War One:

1) It happened by accident. No one wanted war.
2) It was utterly pointless
3) The cruel peace terms imposed on Germany were the cause of Nazism and the second world war.

None of these are true, but particularly frustrating to me is the third. The peace terms imposed on Germany were not all that draconian, and the allies quickly lost the will to enforce them. The large sum of reparations which Germany was ordered to pay was reduced repeatedly by the Allies, and even at the reduced rate Germany never paid much of it. In 1932 the Allies voted to cancel the reparations entirely, but the implementation of this resolution was contingent on American agreement and before the US could make up its mind Hitler rose to power and announced that he refused to pay any more reparations regardless.

However, the claim that German bad behavior was all the fault of the harsh peace had become a commonplace of anti-war sentiment in France, Britain and the US during the 20s (spurred in part by John Maynard Keynes' 1919 book The Economic Consequences of the Peace) and it has remained one of the trite pieties of pop history to this day.

The more realistic, though less comforting truth which perhaps the Reconstruction and WW1 tropes both mask is that it is often easier to win a war than to win a peace. The greater military power can generally be successful in reducing its foe to the point where organized military resistance is no longer possible. However, almost no degree of military force can make an entire population behave in ways they don't want to. This is what the Northern states ran into after the Civil War. It was well within their power keep the South from splitting off and setting up an independent country. However, the amount of energy necessary to keep Southerners on the ground from behaving mostly the way they wanted to after the war was over was something the North was not willing (perhaps was not able) to expend for long.


Jenny said...

I think that Coates is being a little dishonest in saying that because Johnson's posture was not unforgiving that the trouble that followed had nothing to do with the "perpetuation of alienation."

Johnson was impeached over his generous Reconstruction policies. The radical Republicans had a real desire to punish the South for the rebellion. The beginning of Reconstruction is marked by power struggles between Congress and the President. Southerners knew which way the wind was blowing.

Now that's not to excuse the Klan or any of the terrible things that followed, but it is not like the South was welcomed back with open arms and all would have been fine if not for the perfidious Southerners. There's lots of blame to go all around.

Darwin said...

Yeah, I think he simplifies a fair amount in re Johnson -- someone who Lincoln chose as a running mate because he had less interest in the abolitionist cause than Lincoln did. That line of discussion also ignores the difference between "punishing" the South (in which there was certainly some interest) and enforcing civil and voting rights (which by some was seen as punishment, but that's part of the problem.)

Also, on a completely tangential point, I think Coates probably misses a lot about the 19th century idea of honor when he claims that Jefferson Davis was different than John Wilkes Booth only in that Davis was willing to kill half a million people while Booth killed one. Coates may not agree with 19th century mores, but waging war was, I think pretty clearly, seen as an honorable activity in a way that engaging in political assassination was not.

Crude said...

I'm tempted to add your your observations, I've long questioned whether it's correct to say that the Allies won WW2 in the sense people usually mean it - namely, 'The Bad People were stopped, and the Good People won.'

I suppose one simplified way to put it (knowing it's an oversimplification, but still) would be this: Poland's invasion was in large part the trigger of World War II. Where did Poland end up after World War II?

Darwin said...


Yeah, I think there's a certain amount to that view.