Echoes of the Civil War

Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland, from South Carolina, told me on my first visit to Jerusalem in 1985 that he thought Southerners brought a special perspective to coverage of the Middle East because they knew what it was to be conquered and occupied. I've often thought back on those remarks and, once the United States occupied Iraq, found myself writing occasional columns to try to explain the implications of it to readers.

On this page of The Shadowland Journal I will be republishing some of those columns, and also posting pieces by other writers reflecting on the echoes of the Civil War today, not only in the Middle East, but in the United States itself.


These Politicians Praise Slavery
By Caitlin Dickson
24 April 2014
Rogue rancher Cliven Bundy recently shared his thoughts on African Americans and whether or not they were better off as slaves. While Bundy can, and probably should, be dismissed as fringe nonsense, he is hardly alone.

The South Has Indeed Risen Again and It’s Called the Tea Party
By Jack Schwartz
December 8th 2013 6:45 AM

Colorado’s Strange Secession Vote
by Michael Tomasky 
Nov 5, 2013 5:45 AM EST

Voters in a corner of Colorado will vote Tuesday on whether to secede from the state. The movement will fail, but the underlying discord in American politics is only going to grow.


From "Back Door Secession," by Garry Wills in the New York Review of Books, 9 October 2013:

...Just as the Old South compelled the national party to shelter its extremism, today’s Tea Party leaders make Republicans toe their line. Most Republicans do not think laws invalid because the president is a foreign-born Muslim with a socialist agenda. But they do not renounce, or even criticize, their partners who think that. The rare Republican who dares criticize a Rush Limbaugh is quickly made to repent and apologize. John Boehner holds the nation hostage because the Tea Party holds him hostage. The problem with modern Republicans is not fanaticism in the few but cowardice in the many, who let their fellows live in virtual secession from laws they disagree with.

"The problem with modern Republicans is not fanaticism in the few but cowardice in the many, who let their fellows live in virtual secession from laws they disagree with."
                           — Garry Wills

Republican leaders in Congress are too cowardly to say that the voting restrictions being enacted by Republican-controlled state legislatures are racially motivated. They accept the blatant lie that they are aimed only at non-existent “fraud.” They will not crack the open code by which their partners claim to object to Obama because he is a “foreign-born Muslim” when they really mean “a black man.” They will not admit that the many procedural laws adopted to prevent abortion are in violation of the law as defined by the Supreme Court. They go along with the pretence that all the new rules are “for women’s health.” De facto acts of secession are given a pseudo-legal cover....


The Problem of Occupation:

The O Word
By Christopher Dickey
December 6th 2011 4:45 AM
Terrorists and freedom fighters the world over claim they are up against foreign occupation. But Americans find that idea hard to fathom—especially when we are the occupiers, says Christopher Dickey.

Some of America’s first homegrown terrorists were the original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and they can teach us a lot about the trouble we’re in today at home and in the rest of the world. .... 

Some reflections on these issues from years past:

Better Angels and Killer Angels 
10 November 2010, Newsweek Online

Obama should realize what Lincoln understood: that there may be better angels in the nature of some people, but there are others who are willing to weaken, even destroy a nation to serve their own self-righteous self-interest, and they will do it in the name of the Constitution.

By Christopher Dickey

President Barack Obama loves to quote the lyrical closing lines of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, calling on “the better angels of our nature” to overcome partisan hatreds and political divisions. Obama cited those words in his own inaugural proclamation and rested his hand on Lincoln’s Bible when he took the oath of office. He has come back to those angels again and again ever since. A search of Google and the White House Web site turns up half a dozen examples. He used the phrase to eulogize Ted Kennedy, to chide a would-be Quran burner in Florida, and to say goodbye to chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Obama, it seems, sees better angels just about everywhere. Even as he traveled in India this week he talked about his efforts to live up to the example of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and, yes, Abraham Lincoln.

But in light of today’s real-world politics, Obama should think a little harder about the context in which Lincoln summoned those better angels on March 4, 1861. Led by South Carolina (now home to Sen. Jim DeMint), seven of 33 states had already seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy at that point. Only days before Lincoln took office, he had to sneak into Washington in the lonely hours before dawn because of an assassination plot. The month after his inauguration, the South fired on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War in earnest.

If, in the end, Lincoln did manage to hold the Union together, it was not because of the better angels of human nature, but because he finally found the killer angels among his generals who could, and did, and at enormous cost, crush the secessionists.

These basic facts about a moment of history that Obama obviously holds dear are worth going over again right now because, in fact, the secessionists of 1860 are the ideological forebears of the Tea Party movement today. No, the United States is not on the verge of another violent breakup, not close at all, even if Tea Party icons like Gov. Rick Perry in Texas or some of Sarah Palin’s friends and relatives in Alaskamay toy with the notion of secession. But there is in American politics today a discourse of such cupidity, bigotry, and self-delusion about the role of government that it would have been familiar to anyone following the rhetoric of the Southern “fire-eaters” pushing the country toward a conflagration 150 years ago.

If, in the end, Lincoln did manage to hold the Union together, it was not because of the better angels of human nature, but because he finally found the killer angels among his generals who could, and did, and at enormous cost, crush the secessionists.

As Douglas R. Egerton points out in his fascinating new history, Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War, the radical secessionists were willing to do just about anything, including destroy their own national party, in order to get their way. “They planned to ruin so they could rule,” writes Egerton.

The rhetoric in 1860, as now, was essentially about throwing off the burden of federal authority, getting rid of the tariffs and taxes Washington imposed, and protecting private property from the depredations of central government. There was one essential difference back then, of course: the private property in question in 1860 was human. But the fire-eaters of the Old South never put the emphasis on “human,” they always put it on “property,” and they pointed to their (white man’s) rights enshrined in Article I, Article IV, and the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which declared no person can be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” If this meant, perversely, that human chattel who were not considered persons could be torn away from their families, beaten, raped, and killed at the whim of their owners, and often were, that was less important to the secessionists than a strict interpretation of America’s founding document. They might have talked about states’ rights and the right to liberty, and many did then, as many do now, but the core freedom defended by those activists of 1860 was the freedom to enslave black people and to spread their racist system of forced labor across the continent.

What is striking about Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address is that he actually accepted much of this argument. While appealing to the better angels of human nature, he openly compromised with the worst instincts of society and reached out to offer reconciliation with the most violent political currents in American life. He did not speak out against slavery where it existed, only against its spread. Then he called on those better angels to hold the Union together. It didn’t work.

But Lincoln had an ally then of a kind that Obama could use now. Lincoln’s old rival from Illinois, Stephen Douglas, whose party had been split by the fire-eaters and whom Lincoln defeated at the polls, became a wise and vital friend. In the months between the inauguration and Douglas’s early death in June 1861, the “little giant,” as he was known, spent many long hours talking to Lincoln about how best to preserve the Union—and compromise wasn’t part of the picture.

When word of the attack on Sumter reached Washington, Douglas immediately went to the White House, where he found Lincoln alone at his desk. As Egerton writes, Lincoln confided that he planned to call up 75,000 volunteers to fight for the Union. “Make it 200,000,” Douglas shot back. He spent the few remaining weeks of his life rallying his supporters to back the federal government, calling for the recapture of Sumter and the earliest possible invasion of the Confederate states. “You do not know the dishonest purposes of those men as I do,” he told Lincoln.

What both of those great politicians understood by then was that there may be better angels in the nature of some people, but there are others who are willing to weaken, even destroy a nation to serve their own self-righteous self-interest, and they will do it in the name of the Constitution. If Obama hasn’t learned that yet, perhaps it’s time he did.


Forget, Hell!
22 December 2004, Newsweek Online

The Middle East, like the American South, suffers from the memory of occupation. How that will affect the future.

By Christopher Dickey

One of the more unusual souvenirs brought home from Iraq this year is a shoulder patch bought in the embattled Green Zone, where thousands of Americans (and the government they back) are holed up in the heart of Baghdad. A lot of the t-shirts and trinkets there have American eagles and American flags and fighting slogans, the usual pumped-up, hoo-ha stuff peddled to soldiers. But this is a little different. It shows the Confederate battle flag from the American Civil War modified, weirdly, for the Iraqi Civil War. On one diagonal is the English phrase “In God we trust.” On the other diagonal, written in Arabic, is “Allah Akbar,” God is great, just as Saddam Hussein put it on the Iraqi flag during the 1990s.

Now, I don’t know who comes up with these things, or what they’re thinking. But as I look at this patch pinned to my bulletin board, it’s a potent reminder of the most enormous obstacle between the Middle East and the future. Put simply: memory.

The Middle East and the American South have this one thing in common: they’re not parts of the world where people just turn the page. To this day, many Americans in the southern United States recall – not always clearly or accurately, but emotionally, bitterly, viscerally -- what it was like to be conquered and occupied by Union troops 140 years ago. And there’s no end of folks who, when you tell them they should just put that ancient history behind them, answer with a two-word response that ends all argument: “Forget, Hell!”

The era of absolute American domination, if it ever existed, is waning pretty fast.

If you try to look ahead to what the Middle East may be like 15 – or for that matter, 150 – years from now, keep that in mind. This is a region where the wounds of defeat and the humiliations of occupation in the last several centuries have never once had the chance to heal before there were new defeats and new occupations were begun. Peace accords, economic growth and the blessings of technology do not erase the sense of historical grievance. At best, they only help people to live with it. Borders may be redrawn, oil wealth redistributed, men and women educated, but the injury experienced by Muslims, internalized by them as a result of their experience in Palestine and now Iraq, will continue to shape the future of the region long after all of us are gone.

So, er, what’s the good news?

Well, the Middle East of 2020 will look very different than the Middle East of today. That much, I think, we can say with certainty. And while not all the changes will bring glad tidings for Washington, they could bring some self-respect and widening prosperity to a region that’s lacked both for a long time. That would be bad news for once-and-future Bin Ladens.

Consider the surge in oil prices over the last year. Revenues are hundreds of billions of dollars higher than expected, and a lot of that cash, instead of going straight back to the United States or Europe as it did in the past, is staying in the Middle East.  “The whole region is booming and we are on the receiving end,” a businessman friend wrote me in an e-mail this morning. His own corporation’s revenues were up more than 25 per cent last quarter. “Last month there was in IPO of a real-estate company in Dubai that was 400 times over-subscribed,” he tells me, “raising over 400 billion dirhams [$109 billion].” If this speculative wealth starts spreading out to the general population it can blunt the edge of Islamic fundamentalism – or be used to stifle any real reform at all. But Osama bin Laden clearly is worried. His unprecedented 70-minute-musing on the Web last week was a call on his followers to attack the sources of this windfall oil wealth. Irony of ironies: every attack will send prices higher.

Another positive trend is toward serious autonomy, if not outright independence, for many of the peoples thrown together into untenable “nation-states” last century by Europe’s colonial cartographers. In what a discussion paper from the CIA-affiliated National Intelligence Council has called a “doomsday scenario,” we could see unbridled Balkan-style chaos, fragmentation, ethnic cleansing, and the spawning of many new “failed or failing states.” But the American occupation of Iraq also has opened the way for a loose federalism that could actually serve as a model for the region. In any case, the era when one favored colonial client could lord it over every other group in a country (with the backing of Britain, France or the United States) is at last drawing to a close.

Indeed, the era of absolute American domination, if it ever existed, is waning pretty fast. Up through the 1980s, the presidents, emirs and mullahs of the Middle East played the Soviet Union off against the United States. The rivalry they’ll exploit over the next several years will be the one between the United States and China.  Just for instance: in October, China cut a $100 billion deal with Iran for long-term oil supplies. The mullahs, in the process, won a powerful long-term friend on the United Nations Security Council. They may get from China the international cover they need to keep the whole world guessing for years to come about when and how and whether Iran will join the nuclear club.

The information revolution has not gone quite the way most of us predicted, hopefully, back in 1990. Satellite television and the Internet have proved to be more effective propaganda tools for radical fundamentalists than pro-Western free-thinkers. Memories of past wrongs – pervasive feelings of historical injustice – give them their best ideological ammunition. But just because the Bush administration is so woefully inept at the global war of ideas doesn’t mean the fight is lost forever.

One of the great battlegrounds for the future may be, as it were, in the bedroom. Women throughout the Muslim world represent a separate-and-unequal majority with rising levels of education and a growing desire to assert their rights. Political and economic power remain far out of reach for most of them at the moment, but their aspirations cannot be contained forever – probably not even for the next 15 years.

Democratization, it’s clear, will be a very slow process. But there is more of a foundation for it than many pundits would lead you to believe. Egypt, the demographic and cultural powerhouse of the Arab world, has been experimenting with parliamentary institutions since the mid-19th century. They have atrophied in the last 50 years, but they haven’t died altogether. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which never had the slightest experience of democracy, Egypt doesn’t have to start from scratch. There’s a dim glimmer of hope in the fact that a new secular opposition party, the first in more than two decades, was able to battle through the courts and win legal recognition this year.

As I write all this, I’m actually starting to feel a little optimistic. And then I look up at that weird flag from Confederate Baghdad, and I realize none of these incipient trends will amount to much if we don’t address the power of memory head-on. We can’t make Arabs and Muslims forget the dislocation and humiliation of the Palestinians by holding up an out-of-date “Road Map” for peace (while handing the car-keys to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon). We can’t convince them our occupation of Iraq is really a liberation while leveling insurgent cities, and relying on the British – their occupiers in the last century – to give us lessons on colonial administration. (British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who popped up in Baghdad today, is the last person the Iraqis want or need to teach them the value of democracy.)

The only way even to start healing the memories of an occupation, in fact, is to end the occupation. I don’t see that happening soon in Iraq, the West Bank, or even Gaza. But until it does, one way or the other, every bright shining initiative for the region will come up against the corrosive anger that occupation creates. We cannot and must not forget that, unless we want hell to pay for decades to come.       

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