Racism, Private Property and Exploitation


The American Civil War was a huge outburst of violence, and may be the most important part of our history. It’s often thought to have been a war to free slaves, but the Emancipation Proclamation was a product of the war, not the reason it began.
There was tension between North and South from the beginning of this country’s independence from Britain. Part of the reason was slavery, though that wasn’t the whole story. It was obviously inconsistent to allow slavery to continue to be legal in light of the ideals expressed by the rebellious Americans: the rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, but the North needed the South to help defend against Britain or anyone else trying to conquer or reconquer the country. So slavery was accepted and southern landowners were given credit for a fraction of a vote for each slave they owned. This helps explain why so many of the earlier presidents were Southern, and why so few of the later ones were.
It’s also notable how defensive the South was about slavery. About 1830 an arrangement was made in Congress that any proposal concerning slavery would be accepted by the body, but not considered. Why were Southerners so afraid? I would suggest that on some level they knew slavery to be wrong, and were afraid of punishment, which they feared might come from the North.
I read a two volume history of the politics leading up to the war a couple of years ago (titles and author unfortunately forgotten at this moment) that talked about how Southern large landowners liked to consider that their slaves were family, but that this was belied by their reactions whenever rumors reached them about possible rebellions among slaves. Anyone thought to be a leader of such action was tortured and/or killed, which is not the way most people treat members of their families.
Northerners, on the other hand, also resented the South, feeling that Southerners were trying to dictate to them, in the same way they dictated to their slaves. This explanation may or may not be essentially true, but is probably oversimplified.
A recent column, Conviction Politician, by Michael Gerson, has an interesting perspective. He writes about an aide of Rand Paul’s, Jack Hunter, who reportedly celebrates John Wilkes Booth’s birthday each year, compares Abraham Lincon to Saddam Hussein, and is thoroughly against any coercive Federal power, while being altogether for property rights.
They have a point in that, as I understand it, the Constitution guaranteed the rights of states to withdraw from the federation of the United States if they wanted to. If that was the case, why did President Lincoln allow them to do so peacefully? I receive a newsletter from a group that recommends investments, but also comments somewhat on politics. One opinion there expressed was that money was a big factor. There was no income tax in those days, so most of federal income was from taxes on goods passing into and out of the country at the various ports. The gentleman says that Southern ports were then more prosperous, so that Lincoln wanted to keep the income they generated. Money does often have to do with political decisions, so that’s not implausible. Whether it’s the whole story is another question.
It seems that Ron Paul and others of his group consider the Civil War to have been “unnecessary”, and Lincoln to have been an “iron-fisted tyrant”. They oppose the idea of the Federal union as being dedicated to the civil rights of all citizens, which Gerson says has been the general direction of the expansion of Federal power in the last 150 years. They also dislike war, and generally disapprove of the government’s use of power since World War II, also considering the War on Terror as an expression of militarism and imperialism.
I also dislike war, and don’t have a very good opinion about the War on Terror. But it struck me forcibly that had the Northern proponents of the Union let the Confederacy withdraw and form its own government, anyone reading this essay might either be a property-owner or property. It’s only been 150 years since slavery became illegal, but that realization gives me a strange feeling. It also seems that Paul’s brand of Libertarianism is for liberty–but not for everyone.
I think the whole concept of property rights may underlie the point of view of the Pauls and those who agree with them. We tend to think of property, whether in the form of land, money or other things as a universal human desire. Certainly the desire for property is one of the things that made Communism unsuccessful. Those at the bottom of that society (I’m thinking particularly of the USSR) wanted property, but so did those at the top. They paid lip-service to the ideal of a society owning all things in common, but human nature prevented that from happening.
But not all societies have seen things that way. I acquired a poster of what Chief Sealth replied to President Franklin Pierce on Pierce’s offer to buy the land of Chief Sealth’s people, which seems to have been in the northwest of this country, the name Seattle apparently having been derived from the chief’s name. The Chief had difficulty with the very idea that people could own land. He saw the land as belonging to God, not to people, and that any mistreatment of the land would rebound on whoever perpetrated that, because all of us are connected to each other, to the earth, and all the other inhabitants of the earth.
If that view is valid, then there’s something wrong with the idea of whole idea of private property, and that wrongness is underlined by the idea of people being private property. Of course there have always been slaves, for as much of human history as we know, but the concept of slavery also changed with the discovery of the New World and the beginning of its exploitation.
In ancient times slavery had little or nothing to do with race. Slaves were often captives of war, though people could also sell their children or even themselves into slavery. There was certainly xenophobia in the ancient world–Greeks called anyone who wasn’t Greek a barbarian–but racism as we know it today is a relatively recent development.
James Carroll, who wrote a history of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jews, saw the beginning of racism with the Conversos
of Spain. These were Jewish families who had become very important, and had married into important Spanish families. Their doing so was a reaction to the habit of Spanish Christians of kidnapping Jewish children and raising them as Christian. Jewish families so feared this that they would sometimes kill their own children to prevent it happening. But one of the important Jewish philosophers suggested that this was unnecessary: Go ahead and convert, and then worship in the way you prefer at home.
But when Spanish Christians found out about this practice they saw it as treasonous, and used the Inquisition to find out if supposed Christians were actually following Jewish religious observances. If Carroll was correct, this was the beginning of a very sordid era.
In the United States slavery became equated with race, and the very idea of equality of races and any sort of egalitarian intercourse between them became horrifying, probably to most. If the Civil War had been fought for the benefit of the slaves, it’s noteworthy that the slaves didn’t do very well out of it. Most Northerners didn’t care any more for dark-skinned people that most Southerners. Some ideas seem to be pathogenic, and racism seems to be one of the most important.
Michael Gerson, in his column about Rand Paul, suggests that Paul can’t simply disavow the views of his aide because a great many people who see him as a leader feel the same way. Gerson thinks this would prevent him from attaining great power, like the Presidency. I wouldn’t be too sure.
Before World War I it seems unlikely anyone could have forecast the Communist takeover of Russia, Mussolini’s coup in Italy, or the rise to power of Adolph Hitler. The war changed a lot of things, and many not for the better. And in the case of both Communism and Anti-Semitism, each movement had a fairly long period of development in the 19th century before each became a dominant force in the 20th. We don’t know just what awaits us in the 21st century, but it seems pretty likely there will be some very serious dislocations. Our politics are already largely the politics of fear. Catastrophes may well bring politics of terror and extremism.
What may be just as important a pathogenic idea is that of exploitation. Not only are people exploited, but also natural resources. We’ve received warnings about the dangers of this for decades, but haven’t paid enough attention to stop the toxic practices.
One such practice is fracking, in which what seems to be indiscriminate drilling is done to extract petroleum from very deep within the earth. Some have attributed earthquakes to the practice. I don’t know if that’s valid, but I would certainly worry about pollution of water in particular, and soil as well. But such concerns don’t seem to perturb any of the drillers, and this is only one of many practices with catastrophic potential.
Rand Paul may or may not be a politician with potentially disastrous aims and ideas. He seems to represent some that have a bad history, but all of us are complicit in the way our current world works. We may not be interested in owning slaves, or that sort of extreme interpretation of private property, but in this country most of us drive cars and use other products that either pollute or are manufactured by processes that pollute. Paul and his aide are merely representatives of a trend that I consider to be destructive in itself, of which racism, private property and exploitation are leading parts.


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