Intervening in a colloquy on James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and the role of slavery in relation to the Civil War, James Henley notes that “even (white) liberals” have been known to “scant the salience of slavery as a cause of Secession.” Michael Cohen declares McPherson’s argument to be, by contrast, “airtight” on the “primacy” of the issue. Spencer Ackerman finds it “surreal” that the question “could be in dispute.”
There is a critical difference between seeing slavery as a or the primary cause of secession or of the war that quashed it, and seeing the preservation or abolition of slavery as primary for those who fought the war. Different participants would have conceived widely varying conscious and unconscious, often shifting motivations. Actual motivations might often have differed from conscious motivations. Actually determinative motivations may not have been recognized, at least at first or at any time, by large numbers of participants or by many historians. In other words, the truth of such a matter is highly resistant to simple explanation, and the necessary distinctions are difficult to observe consistently in general discussion and even in careful analysis, much less on Twitter.
We can still agree that the revisionist narrative generates at least an appearance of dispute over the centrality of slavery to the Civil War either as actual cause or as subject of conscious motivation on either side, but it may be much easier to understand the character and course of the dispute itself, surreal or not, than the matters disputed.
It was on this last note that I attempted an intervention that Daniel Silliman, whom I am proud to count among my small band of followers, initially misunderstood. (Whether the other tweeps, far greater tweeps than I, none of them my followers, took note of my statement, I do not know.) I had tweeted as follows:
“it was about slavery” = official narrative; the most interested observers prefer alternatives @jbouie @attackerman @speechboy71 @UOJim
Silliman disagreed, but seemed to think that I was referring to “most interested observers” rather than to “the most interested observers”: What I meant is that the official narrative serves the interests of a complacent many, while the revisionist narratives are intended for a more highly motivated few.
The official narrative defines slavery as evil, worth fighting and dying to eliminate, though, in attaching an absolute moral justification to victory, it inherently implicates the South in evil. Yet without such moral absolution, the narrative would not reinforce as well as reflect an integrated public discourse that is itself a discourse of public integration, and that is as a matter of the same history the actual product of the events being described. In short, the “official” narrative is the justificatory narrative of its own coming to be. The goodness of the cause as narrated is simultaneously the good of the narrative and of the narrating officialdom, the government of the United States of America. They are all inseparable – united. In this sense, the Civil War was fought to make this particular framework of the intolerable evil of slavery and the righteous victory against it mandatory – to make this framework “constitutional” for us. If the war had turned out differently (or could have), we would obviously have required a different discourse reflecting a different collective constitution (and Constitution).
Since a denial of the narrative in full would imply non-recognition of the evil of slavery, something all but impossible in contemporary discourse even at the furthest limits of the acceptable (see extended discussion), the ones who drive the revisionist narrative must accept the main premise of the argument for the war’s justice, but, perceiving themselves put at a disadvantage by the narrative as a whole, must attack its other premises. They fall into to two broad groups: Conservative Southerners under or theoretically under the onus of collective guilt; left-liberal anti-racists who believe their cause not yet fully won. Both perceive an interest in a counter-narrative of the evil as more complex, more widespread, and in some sense still alive. The wider the acceptance of the counter-narrative, the less cause for the Southerner to be ashamed of the South, and the more powerful the political argument of the left-liberal in regard to unfinished business.
Discussion 1: The official narrative is the official narrative of the inheritors of victory. For any of us to deny it in full would amount to a rejection of the inheritance. It would approach a denial of one’s own citizenship.
The endurance of the surreal dispute becomes much easier to understand in relation to the self-reinforcing passivity of the majority. Members of the majority have good reason to feel comfortable with the terms of the official narrative, and resistant to introspection in regard to it. Its victory is simply our victory, and victory is by definition preferable to defeat. We perceive less interest in quieting those with a different stake than they perceive in speaking up.
The official narrative is the official narrative of the inheritors of victory. For any of us to deny it in full would amount to a rejection of the inheritance. It would approach a denial of one’s own citizenship. It would be a kind of symbolic treason, or treasonism, that one might almost take as an offer of renewed rebellion, akin to flag-burning. It seems “surreal” because it seems to manifest a refusal of the background stipulations that make the framework of accepted public discourse – our shared idea of “reality” – possible.
A denial of the official narrative does not, however, require a denial of each of the main stipulations separately and together. It does simply requires an effective denial that the victory of the Union over the Confederacy served both a common good and an absolute moral good, or specifically that the actual rather than the official primary cause was entirely just. This purpose is served by the denial that a self-conscious rejection of slavery was integral to the winning cause, or that a self-conscious acceptance of slavery was integral to the losing cause. These positions can be argued at and serve to mark the limits of the acceptably “real” narrative, since they accept the more fundamental premise on the deeper evil.
Discussion 2 – The presumption of the inherent evil of slavery is in this sense foundational for us, the intended recipients of the official narrative. Even the proponents of the “necessary evil” admit the “evil.” This presumption is arguably at the root of the modern or progressive identity globally.
In a country of 300 million opinionated souls, we can find a representative for every conceivable opinion, but it is safe to say that we will not find many representatives today for the opinion that slavery is a good in itself. Even giving voice to the somewhat milder claim, once quite common and respectable, that slavery might have been a necessary evil or on balance good for the slave population or its descendants is inadvisable for anyone who hopes to retain easy access to public discourse and positions of communal responsibility above the level, perhaps, of state legislator for white majority districts in certain parts of the South.
The presumption of the inherent evil of slavery is in this sense foundational for us, the intended recipients of the official narrative. Even the proponents of the “necessary evil” admit the “evil.” This presumption is arguably at the root of the modern or progressive identity globally. It is among the most durable and non-controversial remnants of the ideology of the modern and of progress. We believe our age for all its faults to be better than previous ages at least in respect to our rejection of slavery and our ability to sustain ourselves without recourse to slavery.
By the same token, however, every aspect of our way of life that evokes slavery or implicates us in political-economic relations that evoke slavery exposes us as morally vulnerable – threatens to overturn our self-concept: If Chinese workers are wage slaves whose lives are disfigured by the circumstances of their labor, then those of us who enjoy the use of the devices they assemble, or who merely tolerate it, may question whether our claim to true moral superiority is valid at all. If slavery is evil, and we indulge or excuse or passively accept something akin to slavery as a necessary evil, then we find ourselves approaching the same moral plain as the “bad guys” of our great and noble Civil War narrative.
On this view our only success would seem to be that we have conveniently located the exposure of our hypocrisy and true implication in evil out of direct view. Our superiority is merely aesthetic, not essential: We are also people who indulge slavery as a necessary evil. The most we can say for ourselves is that we have managed to develop personal sensitivity to having the evidence of our guilt too vividly, intimately, and frequently before our eyes. Our “retina displays,” that capture almost everything, somehow miss it. We may even see ourselves as morally inferior to to the Slavers, who at least were courageous enough to face up to the necessities of life. The form of the argument will be familiar from many other moral disputes – e.g., those who kill for food or freedom versus those who merely benefit and presume to judge.
The revisionist narratives therefore gains purchase with us, is interesting to us and summons our energies in attempted refutation, in part because we know we share the imperfections of the “bad guys.” We suspect that, if we had been white privileged Sons of the South, we would also have discovered a capacity to accept slavery as a necessary evil, along with our positions in the slave economy. We may intuit that the argument that the Chinese worker prefers his or her conditions of employment over the alternatives actually available is not categorically different from the once common and still heard argument that the African slave, or the descendants of the African slaves, or the Africans overwhelmed by colonialism and capitalism in Africa, on balance benefited or might still benefit by their exposure and eventual admission to an overall superior culture.
So, in explaining the tenacity of the revisionist narrative, we can add to our passive acceptance of a compliment, the extensive practice in denial, also helpful in the maintenance of an adequately good opinion of ourselves: Good enough for self-government work.
Discussion 3 – The victory as victory is thought to prove – for an American it is after the victory obligatory to accept as proven – that the realization of this authentic integrative essence was always in prospect from the beginning of the nation, that its realization must have been inevitable.
To the extent we are consistent in our assessment of our victory as expressed in the official narrative, the meaning of that victory was and remains “Union,” integration: Everyone on the inside, even and especially all those who mistakenly think they are on the outside, like the ones who were once upon a time mistaken enough to think that disagreement even on certain precepts or on what constituted a fundamental precept was enough to justify rebellion and essential division; or like those today who may mistakenly think that being an enthusiast of Apple i-products, or bacon, or intervention in Iraq, might be fundamentally disqualifying.
Within the public space of the victorious Union, none of these counter-narratives really matters to us very much, or enough, nor what anyone presumes to think about them. To concede that any might matter very much or enough to justify essential division would be to validate Non-Union. Our passivity and our victory are in this sense also united conceptually as well as pragmatically.
In this way, the official narrative of the American Civil War – and perhaps of any civil war that results in a re-unified or re-integrated state – is the one that provides not merely for the most vainly pleasing but for the most self-supportive, self-integrating or self-uniting collective self-image. The official narrative is meant to be a species of collective self-narrative. On the Civil War perhaps more than any other historical event, the emphasis must be on self-integration. We do not merely “prefer” to tell ourselves that the winners represented the good, and the losers represented the bad. To tell ourselves anything else in the matter of the Civil War would be to define ourselves as evil and undeserving of existence at all. It would be to say that “we,” the authors and readers of the self-narrative, should not be at all, or that we should prefer some wholly other basis of identity – such as the regional-cultural identity of the Southerner or the transnational ideal identify of the far leftist.
The good guys represented the value of “Union,” which comprehensively defines all aspects of the winning cause: The victory of Union makes anyone who might previously or conceivably have been outside of the ideal Union into presumed fellow members of the same union. The possibility of in the final analysis truly lying outside the Union is the possibility that was defeated – in America, and arguably within the entirety of the global neo-empire of American liberal democracy. In this sense the official narrative is not merely a discourse that serves the interests of a ruling class however defined, but a principle of integrity of the cultural imaginary affecting all aspects of law and politics. Virtually from the moment of the surrender of Confederate forces, we all as Americans were to instruct ourselves as to a joint identity. At the definitional limits of politics, this new or renewed and reinforced self-instruction meant that, very soon, Southerners or their sons who might have fought and killed and died on behalf of “the Lost Cause,” would be expected to – and would – kill and die on behalf of essentially the same sovereign project, Union, that they had, ideally from Sumter to Appomattox, been expected to kill and die to defeat.
The ideal of Union also represented the principle of the integration of the former slaves as citizens. Under the official narrative this principle was always contained ideally and in another sense embryonically in the essence of the victorious cause. The victory was in a sense the proof, from another perspective the retroactive re-definition, of racial integration or the deconstruction of race as essential American destiny: The victory of Union meant that in this precise sense “we” – our first person plural in its authentic collective self-identity, an authenticity proven on the battlefield – had all always been really, essentially, authentically anti-slavery. The trans-generational collective had obtained through sacrifice a more perfect integration with its own immanent truth. It had come precisely that much closer to God, as the most famous and moving hymns of the period attest. All this is the truth of Union, the truth that was won, specifically against the individuals or groups associated with the defeated cause who had misled themselves into thinking otherwise and acting on those wrong thoughts.
The victory as victory is thought to prove – for an American it is after the victory obligatory to accept as proven – that the realization of this authentic integrative essence was always in prospect from the beginning of the nation, that its realization must have been inevitable. Why exactly it was delayed would be a matter for reflection perhaps on the nature of evil and the imperfection of human beings, perhaps on history itself, but the primary fact for the nation would be that it was now more closely aligned with its own essence, that we had discovered ourselves, had verified and established a principle of integration: of South and North, of states and nation-state, of races, and of a truth both good in itself and good because it is, would forever after be, would forever after always have been, our truth.