I've been thinking about the American Civil War and its tragic aftermath in recent weeks. I don't know whether our history is a source of hope or a source for despair. What's amazing about American history is how often the bad guys won in the courts in the state legislatures and in Congress. How in fact the bad guys' winning seems to be more the rule than the exception. How injustice is the normal way of doing things, and then a cleansing crisis brings us to our senses for awhile, we make some changes, and then things revert to the way they were. Over 600,000 Americans were killed in the Civil War. The union was preserved, but was the plight of the black man or woman any better in Alabama in 1910 than it was in 1855?
The more you learn about the historical/cultural forces driving the nation toward the Civil War, the more unresolvable the basic conflict appears to have been. After Dred Scott, which established the principle that slavery could be legal anywhere, it became clear that the nation was either going to be a slave nation, which is the way it looked in '57, or it was going to be slave free. After Dred Scott there was no more room for endless compromising. Things were brought to a head. That was the point of Lincoln's "House Divided" speech:
It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.
Some have argued that if nothing was done, slavery would have just died out, but books like Douglas Blackmon's Slavery by Another Name show how in the post-Reconstruction period de facto slavery continued. Blacks were arrested for vagrancy or some other trivial charge. They were required to pay a fine they had no money for; they were imprisoned in lieu of the payment, and then leased out to companies like U.S. Steel in Birmingham where they worked in chain gangs in the mines.
Steinbeck in East of Eden tells the story of Adam Trask's getting caught up in that system. He was traveling through the south on his way back from the Indian Wars in the West. He was arrested for vagrancy, couldn't pay his fines, sentenced to hard labor, and as soon as he was released was immediately arrested for vagrancy again, and on the cycle went for years until he finally figured out a way to escape.
This kind of brutality was accepted as normal reality by Southern "civilization", but the mainstream culture, even in the North looked the other way. Americans wanted to believe in a fantasy that the union had been preserved, the Confederacy's was a noble cause to preserve their way of life, their unique manners and culture, their resistance to the brutality of the modern industrial system by their embrace of Jeffersonian agrarian ideals that the Yankees were too moneygrubbing to understand. The South was wrong to have seceded, but it was right about wanting to preserve its culture; the North was right about preserving the union but it was wrong in its total war tactics used by Grant and Sherman to achieve that end.
So for me, you can get endlessly caught up in the moral ambiguities of any human conflict. This one committed such and such a horror, but the other one did worse, and on it goes. The problem with it is that it give a kind of moral equivalency to both parties in a conflict that I believe is profoundly distorting. That kind of moral ambiguity plus fatigue basically allowed the North to give up on reconstruction and to allow the southern terrorists and insurgents to win back what they had lost and to postpone until one hundred years later the enforcement of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments.
The Slaughterhouse Case in 1873 and the Cruikshank Case in '76 regarding federal prosecution of those responsible for the Colfax massacre, essentially made the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments into meaningless abstractions. The 13th and 14th amendments reversed Dred Scott and the 15th gave blacks their voting rights, but the Slaughterhouse Cases and Cruikshank decisions allowed the states to determine their own rules about the rights of state citizens, and the Feds couldn't intervene to prosecute violators of black Americans' rights, even their murders. That had to be handled locally. We know how well that worked out. David Blight in one of his lectures on the Reconstruction period says:
Subsidiarist principles were still unimaginable to most Americans in the 19th Century. Miller in '73 thought the good Republicans in the state legislatures at the time would insure the rights of the blacks, and didn't anticipate what anyone with his eyes open and with an ounce of common sense would see--that the Democrat white supremacist takeover of those state governments was inevitable and in fact a fait accompli within the next five years. But so what? The Feds didn't want to intervene. Most Americans in the North didn't care enough about the plight of blacks to want intervene to defend their rights. And the South reverted to the ante bellum status quo ante. Six hundred thousan lives.
But here's the point I want to make. Political judgments and political affiliations in the long run are not evaluated by the moral purity motivating any individual or faction. Moral ambiguity is universal--everybody is partially right and partially wrong--but I think you can say with a greater deal of certainty that some people or some social movements are on the right side of history and others are on the wrong side. The Tories had good reasons to reject the revolutionary ardor of the the patriots during the American War of Independence. I'm sure on the whole they were not in any way morally inferior to the Patriots, but they were wrong because they affiliated with a frame of mind that history was passing by.
The same is true of Southerners during the Civil War, the Robber Barons during the Gilded Age, the Segregationists during the post Reconstruction period, the Hooverite Republicans during the Great Depression, the Fascists during the World War II period, and the Communists during the post WWII period. And I would argue that Reaganism and Libertarian free-market ideology have been on the wrong side of history for the last thirty years. Winning and losing does not determine whether a social movement is on the right or wrong side of history. Soviet Communism won and reigned for over seventy years, but it was on the wrong side of history. Southern segregationism won and reigned for the best part of a century, but it was on the wrong side of history. Both were on the wrong side of history because they were unsustainable because in some fundamental way out of touch with reality. They are in their different ways Towers of Babel--attempts to construct something unlawful.
So by what criterion do we judge whether someone is on the right side of history or not? The key concept that I want to think about and explore here is this idea of sustainability and lawfulness. What are some basic criteria to define societies that are unsustainable and what criteria characterize a multi-valent sustainability?
Regarding the hope question: I'm never without it. But that doesn't mean that one can't live the best part of his life suffering in a Tower of Babel. The challenge is to understand what these are, why people build them, and to develop strategies to impede their construction. More as we go forward.