Colson: 150 years later, we still haven’t learned
I was reminded last weekend of the fact that we are coming up on the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the end of the U.S. Civil War, our national dust up that unrepentant southern sympathizers insist on calling “The War of Northern Aggression.”
The reminder was in the form of an article about the period after the war called Reconstruction, which most recall as a time when Northern carpetbaggers moved southward in droves to cash in on the demise of the Old South.
But, as the article’s author, historian Eric Foner, reminded me, as the war ended southerners were busy cobbling together a new mythology about the demise of their way of life, blaming everything on the North and, paradoxically enough, on the very slaves that had been liberated by President Abraham Lincoln. The carpetbaggers were nothing but a pack of societal and economic rapists, this mythology proclaimed, and blacks were too stupid and ill prepared to handle democracy on their own, meaning the slaves’ former white overseers should be left in control of rebuilding the South in its own image.
Both claims were monstrous exaggerations, according to such historians as W.E.B. Du Bois, a free black man and celebrated historian, and Foner himself, a white man who wrote a book titled “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution.”
In his book, Foner recounts a great number of beneficial developments that arose from Reconstruction, which actually began before the war ended. In 1863, Lincoln offered amnesty to any Confederates who would accept the abolition of slavery and agree to work on setting up local, state and regional governments based on that premise.
In the succeeding decade and a half, biracial governments were established, black voters took a direct hand in their own self-governance, and in some cases things went fairly well for a while.
Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated and his successor, President Andrew Johnson, ruled according to the precepts of his innate racism and anti-northern bias. He managed to derail many of the efforts to democratize the South by making a reality out of black citizenship there. In concert with the rise of the Ku Klux Clan and the ruinous, bitter policies of Jim Crow laws enacted by the white-planter culture that stayed in power, things only got nastier in the South.
And it’s still like that today, as heralded by the delusional obstinacy of the inheritors of Jim Crow politics, whose view of history is entirely tainted by their refusal to admit they were wrong then and are wrong now, in terms of the civil and legal rights owed to black Americans.
In fact, many of the race-imbued political battles we face today are a direct outgrowth of the mishandling of Reconstruction. Voting rights and citizenship issues, the argument over states’ rights versus federal power, the uneasy balance between economic democracy and political democracy, and the question of how to deal with domestic terrorism — all these were at issue in the South in the waning days of the Civil War and the decade afterward, and they still are today.
That, I should note, is Foner’s view, and I agree with him.
The implication, of course, is that we, as a nation, learned nothing from the bloody events of the Civil War, which killed 620,000 people, nearly as many as have died in all the other wars this country has ever been involved in put together.
But there is an explanation for this lack of learning, I was reminded on Sunday — the corporations that run this country, which were just getting started in the decades after the Civil War, want things to be that way.
My education on this point came from a five-year old article on the Salon website, by a man named Bruce Levine, which addressed the loaded topic of, “Why are Americans so easy to manipulate?”
His thesis is that corporate America is run by control freaks who have been using behavior modification techniques to brainwash the citizenry into a blind frenzy of consumerism.
These tactics, coincidentally, over the last century and more have generated successively more obedient crops of what author Alfie Kohn has termed “dependent, powerless, infantilized, bored, and institutionalized people,” which are precisely the kinds of people most open to behavior modification techniques. It’s a closed circle of cause and effect.
Using everything from the dumbing down of our education system to advertising and insipid programming on TV and in popular culture generally, corporations have become the managers of our culture and it has made them rich, which is how they want to keep it.
Now, I’m not saying necessarily that this is all a result of a complex conspiracy directed by a few wealthy manipulators at the top of the corporate heap.
No, it could just as easily be the outgrowth of economic Darwinism, the idea that maximization of profit is the ultimate goal of human endeavor, rather than such unprofitable values as compassion or ethical behavior.
Whichever, it’s something to think about.
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