Saturday, July 16, 2011

The problem of (American?) politically correct history.

I was listening on the radio to some of the drivel coming out of the politically correct school of US history in relation to the 150th anniversary of their Civil War. It boils down to saying that we can now pretend that the entire reason for the Civil War was nothing to do with states rights or freedom of self determination or anything like that, just with slavery. Only slavery. Nothing but slavery.

This fits nicely with the pretence that the American Revolution was nothing but ‘no taxation without representation’. Only that. Nothing but that.

Both lines are crap of course.

The first rebellion, or revolution, or civil war, or whatever, was inititally about Northern states fighting against any limits on their expansion into the Indian territories that the British had signed treaties to limit (see Royal Proclamation of 1763 amongst oathers). The Southern states joined only because British law was in the process of making slavery illegal (see Somerset's Case), and they could see this inevitably spreading to all British colonies. The small number of radical bourgeois pamphleteers in the bigger cities could pretend all they wanted that the free voters in the various state parliaments and dominions were repressed victims of autocracy, but the fact of the matter is that no matter how hard you spin it, there has never, and will never be a popular uprising of fighting in the streets about a voluntary tax on a luxury item that most people had stopped drinking (and which tax was removed before the revolution began anyway).

The second rebellion, or revolution, or civil war, or whatever, was also about the Northerners wanting to expand into Indian/Mexican territory (creating ‘free’ states which would unsettle the unstable compromise of the federation), and the Southern states wanting out of the system because the example of British law had inevitably spread (see Pennsylvanian law) despite the United States no longer officially being dominions.

The two conflicts were fought for almost exactly the same reasons, the only difference being that in the first conflict the Northern and Southern groups could both claim to be victimised in some fashion, whereas in the second conflict only the Southerners could claim to be victimised.

This makes a mockery of the idea that the Southerners had the moral high ground in the Revolutionary War, but the moral low ground in their Confederacy war of Independence. But even more laughable is the idea that the Northerners could claim the moral high ground for wanting to repress the natives in the first conflict. (It is remarkable that the ‘protector of black rights’ apologists for the North in the second conflict carefully avoid noticing the persecution of the Indians at the same time… many of whom fought for the South, just as they had previously fought for the British… Apparently the Northerners highly noble motivation about black people's rights were not so deep as to notice red people's rights.)

The argument actually appears to be, that those supporting the rule of law and the rights of people should be considered to have the moral high ground. Which of course implies that the North (protectors of blacks only, lets forget Indians) sort of had the moral high ground in the second conflict, but that the British (protectors of both Indians and blacks) certainly had the moral high ground in the first conflict. But that of course would never be acceptable to the politically correct lunatics who attempt to twist and turn every story to be the good guys at all points.

The truth is of course, that there were good and bad motivations on all sides in both conflicts. And that any attempt to simplify things down to the ridiculous extent of saying it was just about slaves, is just teaching young people to accept propaganda instead of analysis.

As a byproduct of this, it is amazing to note that many of these same American commentators like to pretend that they have had a single ongoing constitution since 1776 (or least since their constitutional conventions soon afterwards). This of course is also crap.

On this basis, you could happily argue that England has enjoyed steadily improving democracy since Simon de Montfort’s first Parliament’s in the 13th century. A romantic fantasist might even be able to draw a straight line of steadily increasing franchise from the time those first burghers elected to represent market towns. However in doing so, that they would be playing pretty fast and loose with certain items in history. Notably a couple of fairly dictatorial monarchs, the suspension of democracy and imposition of oligarchy by the Long Parliament, the Communist style People’s Republic of the Rump Parliament, and the outright dictatorship of the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell.

Not even the the restoration monarchy could be considered a foundation of the modern democratic constitutional monarchy. That arrives in its first stages with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and remains in somewhat limited property franchise until the reforms of the 1830s and 1840s, or votes for women almost a centruy later.

Similarly one would have to be a complete fantasist to believe that the American Constitution has been consistent for over 200 years. The most obvious whole in this argument is the civil war itself, where almost half the States in the union voluntarily seceded. (And some that might have joined them were prevented from doing so by local military action to stop their parliaments having a vote on the topic.)

The anit-constitutional efforts being made by the Rump of the American Congress to enforce their will by reconquering that recalcitrant defectors, was only emphasised by the Protector (Abraham Lincoln’s) suspension of large tracts of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, to ignore habeas corpus, and to create a variety of concentration camps – despite the protests of the supposed constitutional protectors in the Supreme Court. Even less recognized is that the re-conquered states were stripped of democratic representation (such as it was) as part of their war guilt. For many years the Southern States franchises were limited to the point where some areas had only black representatives. (Who of course could not be tolerated in the dining rooms of the supposedly idealistically liberating Congress, and who had to eat in the kitchens).

It has sometimes been an amusing introductory question to some of my talks on the problems with Republican systems, to ask audiences when the United States became a representative liberal democracy? Almost nobody is silly enough to suggest it was 1776, though some are foolish enough to nominate the end of the civil war. More cautious thinkers suggest that a better guess would be at the end of Martin Luther King’s protest movements, but even they are completely incorrect.

According to the US court system, the United States is still not a representative democracy. One Appelate Court judge recently pointed out that many so-called citizens, particularly of those in places like Peurto Rico and on some of the Pacific island territories, have no voting rights in the federal system. (In fact the limitation of their democratic rights to make decisions about such things as taxes by the imperial protecting power – the US, is almost exactly the same as could have been said of those free citizens living in the Dominion of Virginia in 1775 of their imperial protecting power – Britain!)

Gross oversimplification of history for the purposes of political correctness is offensive. Gross oversimplification of history to prove that my side is always better than your side is pathetic. Twisting the two together while pretending not to notice that they contradict themselves is contemptible. The fact that most of the media commentators seem incapable of recognizing these contradictions is worrying.

So-called historians who smugly run con games from the pretentious moral high ground of their unrealistic ivory towers are not just dangerous, they are the sorts of people who have caused appallingly offensive self-righteous acts by delusional nations throughout history. Almost every pogrom or persecution or genocide has been justified by this sort of sloppy pseudo intellectual claptrap.

As an Australian who faces equal problems with politically correct claptrap about Australian history, I am deeply scared about the implications of teaching generations of stdents that all debates can be reduced to the most simplistic possible black-and-white, good versus bad, with no recognition that there may be some grey in there somewhere. I realise the approach has always been popular – particularly amongst the Fascists and Communists and Islamicists etc – but I don’t really see that as a desireable reason for re-introducing it into cultures that should have grown out of it.

Here’s to ‘warts and all’ history.


  1. Is the US situation as abominable as ours? Have they got cabal of about 30 white upper-middle class Communist psychopathically obssessed baby-boomers, without an overseas degree between, all now occupying the top Australian academic posts, strapped in for as long as we pay their tenure, and not committ hari kiri from their daily insistences that we are 5 minutes to Auschwitz, and always have been, thus justifying their teaching and publishing turns?

  2. I really do enjoy your posts, Nigel. You are (of course) correct about the American Civil War being fought over whether new states created from the territories would be slave or free. The schism was averted for two generations by the "Missouri Compromise" (a couple of Acts as I recall) which kept the peace by keeping the balance betwen free and slave states. The abolitionist movement saw the Missouri Compromise succeeded by the Kansas Nebraska Act (championed by Lincoln's great debate opponent, Senator Douglas) which left it to the newly formed states to choose. This was still in the political realm (the Kansas Nebraska Act could have been repealed) until the US Supreme Court weighed in with its "Dred Scott decision". Popular history only recalls that the Court (by majority decision) held that a slave's presence in a free state did not injure his owner's rights (to him) (and OBTW, slaves didn't have standing to bring suit). What's lost to history is that the decision also invalidated -- declared "unconstitutional" by the court -- the Missouri Compromise (citing the long abandoned Articles of Confederation), effectively removing the question of slave vs. free states entering the Union from Congress and the political realm. This was what led the southern states to secede.

  3. Dear Peter,
    a bit exaggerated, but basically the answer would be: yes.

    Dear Marshall,
    Yes, all true.
    But basically it comes down to bad oppressors of 'blacks' being conquered by bad oppressors of 'reds', who somehow still want to claim some sort of morale high ground.
    I will throw in, for your reflection, the coup that American traders used to conquer the native constitutional monarchy that was developing nicely in Hawaii. A coup that they enforced by excluding the natives from the 'democratic' vote they held to join the US.
    The hypocrisy is pretty staggering.