Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On Teabaggers and Slavery

Just when I think that the Teabaggers can’t sink any lower, when I start to believe that maybe their all out war on intelligence and common sense has reached rock bottom and surely, surely they have done about as much harm to the values, traditions and history of America as they are going to do, they find a way to dig deeper. They find new ways to demonstrate that they are idiots of the foulest stripe, brain-dead zealots without any hope of redemption or even ability to recognize themselves for the moral vacuums that they are.

It’s disappointing, really.

You’d like to believe that your fellow citizens are not actively engaged in destroying the nation in order to serve their own selfish ends, but the mountain of evidence to the contrary is getting harder and harder to ignore.

As the latest exhibit in this sorry museum, I give you the Teabaggers of the formerly proud state of Tennessee, who have decided that the fact that many of the Founding Fathers were slaveholders – that slavery even existed during the nation’s formative period – should be removed from the public school textbooks and replaced by a version of American history that can only be described as “whitewashed” no matter how much you want to avoid the pun.

For the moment, let us ignore the fact that these same Teabaggers are doing their best to destroy public education as a whole in this country. Why they would worry about textbooks when their larger aim is to prevent education at all is a bit of a mystery, but there you have it. Perhaps they’re just trying to achieve their goal incrementally.

Be that as it may, the idea that slavery can be excised from American history by the braying of idiots is so fundamentally absurd and so morally leprous that it bears examination.

This nation was founded on a paradox – a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, and at the same time one that rested on the backs of an entire population of human chattel.

I’m not even going to go into the economic aspects of slavery other than to point out that the entire economy of the colonies was dependent on it and would be long after independence, through the mid-nineteenth century in fact. The textile factories - and with them the financial system - of the free North depended on the cotton of the slaveholding South, which is one reason the South decided to risk the Civil War. To try to understand the economy of the US between 1675 and 1865 without a thorough background understanding of slavery and its role is an exercise in stupidity and failure.

Nor am I going to spend much time on the social aspects of slavery – the forced importation of hundreds of thousands of Africans into the colonies, the role they played in everyday culture in both North and South, the legacies they gave to American society that have become so ingrained that we no longer even remember where they came from. There were Africans in what would become the United States before there were Pilgrims, and if you don’t think that matters you aren’t paying attention.

For me, though, the more interesting role of slavery has always been the political one. The tension between slavery and freedom defined the political world of the Founding Fathers.

For some of them, that contrast was a painful reminder of what could happen to them and a goad to resist what they saw as the political incursions of the British government in the 1760s and 1770s. They lived in a mental world where power and liberty were ancient and eternal opposites fighting a zero-sum game for the political soul of the nation, and any encroachment upon liberty was a push down the path of slavery – a path whose end result they could easily see, since so many of them owned slaves.

That’s why they fought so hard against what the British government regarded as simple common sense measures designed to pay for the services the colonists used – nobody would have gone broke paying the Stamp Tax and the money it raised was largely designed to stay in the colonies and pay for the soldiers protecting the frontier. The British had moved on to a more modern sense of politics by then and could never understand why the colonists reacted as harshly as they did.

Classical republicanism – the dominant political ideology of the colonies during the Revolutionary Crisis – was a school of thought that lived comfortably with the idea of slavery for some and liberty for others, and the trick was to stay on the right side of the line. It was an ideology of hierarchy, where equality counted only among your peers, and the idea that one group of people could fight for liberty while enslaving others was not necessarily problematic.

It was problematic for other Founders, though.

For them the contrast between slavery and freedom was a needling inconsistency, one that shamed and embarrassed them. The rising tide of Lockean liberalism had a much more expansive definition of liberty and equality, and the contrast of a slaveholding society demanding liberty to avoid being themselves enslaved was simply too glaring to ignore. Ultimately liberalism will triumph in America and spur both democracy and the abolitionist movement, but during the Revolutionary Era it was simply a strong and conflicting counterpoint to the way the first group of Founders thought.

The British, who had moved on to liberalism decades earlier, relished this inconsistency and often took pains to point it out. “How is it,” Samuel Johnson asked, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Don’t think that question didn’t hit home in the colonies.

The struggles between these points of view dominated the Revolutionary Era. They appear in the Declaration of Independence. They appear in the Constitution. They appear in the state constitutions of the day, the newspapers, the letters and diaries, and the plays, novels and songs people found in their everyday life.

To try to excise this in the name of some half-witted modern ideology too uncomfortable with the complexities of reality to bear hearing them or allow their children to hear them is a historical revisionism on par with Stalin’s attempts to fictionalize the story of the Soviet Union.

The United States is better than that, or it should be.

The contrast between slavery and freedom teaches us who we were and who we are. The struggles over slavery defined this nation. The contributions of the enslaved made this nation what it is. We forget this at our peril and we hide it at our loss.

The Teabaggers of Tennessee and the horse they rode in on are hereby cordially invited to find some other use for their time.


John the Scientist said...

Well, when this is your mental level, I'm not quite sure what you won't sink to.

Janiece said...

I want you to know that morally leprous is my new favorite adjective.

David said...

@John - bwah? Seriously, WTF? It isn't often that I find myself that blindsided by sheer mountainous stupidity, but this would definitely be one case.

@Janiece - :)

John the Scientist said...

Bwahahahahahaha! My work here is done, I gobsmacked the Historian. :D

My wife hit me with that one this morning, and I thought it was a joke, so it's not just you.

Eric said...

John, you're going to love tomorrow's post on Giant Midgets.

It's all I can do not to go ahead and post the thing today, but I'm trying to pace my entries and give myself time for other writing tomorrow if I need it.

I guess I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention that this was another excellent post, David.

neurondoc said...

Yeah, that one gets a big WTF from me, too. And I find it ironic that one of the ads on the sidebar was for Bisquick. A food. THAT DOES NOT CONTAIN STEM CELLS.

Nathan said...

It's open to debate, but Kentucky may be going them one better. They're cutting $50 million from the state's education budget but maintaining a $43 million tax credit for a Noah's Ark Creationist Theme Park.

I guess the idea is to teach them nothing in school and let them figure it out on their own from meeting big fluffy mascots?

David said...

It's open to debate, but Kentucky may be going them one better. They're cutting $50 million from the state's education budget but maintaining a $43 million tax credit for a Noah's Ark Creationist Theme Park.

And they wonder why employers are screaming that they can't get qualified applicants.