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“And They Shall Be Your Possession” The Beginnings of American Slavery

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight I am posting a section of my book “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” Race, Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Civil War Era. My agent and I both think that it is a story that needs to be told, not only because of how much it matters to history but how much it matters today. Sadly there are people today, even in the United States who feel that the lives of others, especially those of darker skin color or of the female gender should be their possession and that they should be allowed to exploit them from generation to generation. This is nothing new.

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Slave Economy and the Divide between North and South

“Thy bond-men and thy bond-maids which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you: of them you shall buy bond-men and bond-maids. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them he shall buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land. And they shall be your possession. And you shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, they shall be your bond-men forever.” Leviticus 25:44-46

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Early Slavery in the Americas and the African Slave Trade

If we are to really understand the Civil War we have to understand the ideological clash between Abolitionists in the North, and Southern proponents of slavery. Slavery began very early in the history of the American colonies and though the British and the Dutch were the largest traders of slaves in those early days, the first American slave ship made its first voyage to bring Africans to the new world. Historian Howard Zinn noted, “By 1800, 10 to 15 million blacks had been transported to the Americas, representing perhaps one-third of those originally seized in Africa. It is roughly estimated that Africa lost 50 million human beings to death and slavery in those centuries we call the beginnings of modern Western civilization, at the hands of slave traders and plantation owners in Western Europe and America, the countries deemed the most advanced in the world.” [1]

Slavery in the Americas grew out of the economic need of planters to for laborers on the vast plantations of the new world as “the number of arriving whites, whether free or indentured servants (under four to seven year contract) was not enough to meet the demand of the plantations.” [2] This need and use of slaves was significantly different than previous forms of slavery in Africa, where slavery was one of a number of forms of labor, and where slaves “worked within the households of their owners and had well-defined rights, such as possessing property and marrying free persons. It was not uncommon for slaves in Africa to acquire their freedom.” [3] In fact the plantation form of slavery practiced in the Americas differed radically from traditional forms of African slavery and was characterized by “the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of race hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave.” [4]

However in the Americas slavery took on a new form, that of the plantation. The plantation system allowed owners to amass “large concentrations of laborers under the control of a single owner produced goods – sugar, tobacco, rice, and cotton – for the free market.” [5] Beginning with the Spanish and the Portuguese in the early 1500s, the African slave trade became a major part of the world economy, and “slave labor played an indispensable part in its rapid growth” [6] not only in world economy, but in the economy of the English colonies in North America and the new American nation which paradoxically was founded and supposed dedicated to liberty and equality. The “Atlantic slave trade, which flourished from 1500 into the nineteenth century was a regularized business in which European merchants, African traders, and American planters engaged in a highly complex and profitable bargaining in human lives.” [7]

It was economic gain that prompted the growth in slavery, and for which slaves were essential for profit. As such, the “first mass consumer goods in international trade were produced by slaves – sugar, rice, coffee, and tobacco. The profits from slavery stimulated the rise of British ports such as Liverpool and Bristol, and the growth of banking, shipbuilding, and insurance, and helped to finance the early industrial revolution. The centrality of slavery to the British empire encouraged an ever-closer identification of freedom with whites and slavery with blacks.” [8]

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The Constitution, Slavery and Disunion

When the United State won its independence the founders of the new nation had to deal with the already existing institution of slavery. It also had to deal with the threat to the Union that the institution and the real possibility of disunion, something that almost all of them feared more than anything. Slavery was an institution that even some powerful politicians who owned slaves were uncomfortable; Patrick Henry noted in 1773 that “to do so was “repugnant to humanity” and “inconsistent with the Bible,” while George Washington wrote in 1786 “There is not a man living…who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan for the gradual abolition of it.” [9]

Slavery was an issue that divided the newly independent states as they gathered for the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and Washington confided to a friend before the convention that “he could “foresee no greater evil than disunion,” and now the “mere discussion of slavery” was poisoning the atmosphere.” [10] James Madison was one of the first to recognize this and noted that “the states differed “primarily from the effects of their having or not having slaves.” [11] The issue came to a head around how the population of the states would be represented in the new government and how to balance the power between the federal government and the various state governments. To do this the founders divided Congress into two houses, the House of Representatives who were directly elected by the voters of each state with the population of the state determining the number of representative each would have; and in the Senate, whose members were elected by the state legislatures, each state would have two members regardless of the size of its population. The division of the legislature in the Constitution “enabled the individual states to retain a large measure of their jealously guarded autonomy.” [12] Eligible voters in each state elected the President by electing “electors” for the Electoral College, and each state was given an amount of electors equal to its representation in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The heart of the matter came to the issue of what people would be counted in each state. The Northern states wanted to base the number on each state’s white population. The Southern states wanted to “swell their power by counting both white citizens and black non-citizens.” [13] Doing so would give Southern States more power in the House of Representatives which, when coupled with the equality each state had in the Senate, gave the less populous Southern disproportionate power in the national government. A representative from New Jersey, Gouverneur Morris believed that if slaves “were human enough to boost the representation of the Southern States…they should be treated as persons and not property in the South.” [14]There was debate on this issue and to bridge the sectional divide the Convention passed what is now known as the three-fifths compromise.

This measure had profound results. It stipulated that the size of a state’s congressional delegation and its Electoral College electors; and the state’s tax burden would be determined by their population. The population was determined by counting free-persons as a full person, and then adding the words “three-fifths of all other persons.” Of course the “other persons” were slaves, but the language was carefully crafted to avoid the use of the terms slave or slavery to make the document acceptable to Northern delegations. The compromise was the first of many made by the Northern states to appease the South and maintain national unity. The South got less than it wanted, as its delegates wanted slaves to count as a whole person for population sake without considering them as such. When all was said and done in 1790 “southern states, possessing around 40% of the nations’ white population, controlled around 47% of the House and Electoral College.” [15]Gouverneur Morris understood that the compromise would exaggerate Southern power and predicted that “the three-fifths clause’s real legacy would be to give slaveholders majority control over electoral politics.” [16]However, Morris’s warning was unheeded for decades by many in the North, though through electoral experience Northern leaders began to realize what the compromise had wrought but could not change the process without amending the Constitution.

Morris was correct. During the election of 1802 in the Electoral College the “three-fifths clause gave the Southerners 14 extra electors, the Republicans’ Thomas Jefferson defeated the Federalists’ John Adams, 73-65. Jefferson swept South’s extra electors 12-2. If no three-fifths clause had existed and House apportionment been based strictly on white numbers, Adams would have likely squeaked by, 63-61.” [17] The compromise had major impacts on the Electoral College. In the first 36 years of the Republic, only one President came from the North, John Adams. The rest, Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe were all Virginian’s, and all were slaveholders.

Apart from John Quincy Adams who served from 1825-1829 every other President until Abraham Lincoln was either a Southern slaveholder, or a Northern supporter of the South’s position on the preservation and or expansion of slavery. In fact the South dominated all branches of the Federal government from 1789-1861, often with the cooperation of Northern political and business interests. James McPherson wrote, “A Southern slaveholder had been president of the United States two-thirds of the years between 1789 and 1861, and two-thirds of the Speakers of the House and president pro tem of the Senate had also been Southerners. Twenty of the thirty-five Supreme Court justices during that period had been from slave states, which always had a majority on the court before 1861.”[18] Those who believed in the South’s moral, religious, and cultural supremacy over the North often used the Southern domination of American politics as proof of that superiority.

Two other compromises were made by the delegates to the convention. The first dealt with ending the African slave trade. This was contentious and in response to the threat of ending the trade the delegates from South Carolina, John Rutledge and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney insisted that “South Carolina could not join the proposed Union if the slave trade was prohibited.”[19] The compromise allowed the African slave trade to remain legal until 1808 unless Congress voted to allow it to continue. However, this was the first of many threats by Southern leaders and states to threaten disunion over the issue of slavery. A final compromise required states to “extradite and deliver any fugitive from service to his or her master and state of origin.” [20]The wording of the law was purposely vague and could include indentured servants, but the real target was escaped slaves.

The early compromises set the stage for future compromises, in large part because Federalist politicians preferred compromise over disunion, and their fear was that “failure to compromise would bring disunion” [21] and with it disaster. Thus the convention approved the compromises and the states, even Northern states which had abolished or were on the way to abolishing slavery ratified it.

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Slavery in the Early Years of the United States

Slavery expanded in the American colonies and continued to do so after American independence despite the fact that a number of prominent slaveholders including George Washington voluntarily emancipated their slaves in the 1780s and 1790s. In large part this was due to fact that the United States “purposely built a weak central state, dispersing power to govern from the center to the constituent (some would have said still sovereign) parts.” [22] That being said the in the new Constitution the founders ensured that the central government was far stronger than the attempt made in the initial Confederation of States in matters of tariffs, taxes and laws to protect bondholders, slaveowners, and land speculators. In this government the land owners of the Southern states, as well as the merchants of the North held the bulk of the economic, political and social power. Significantly, “most of the makers of the Constitution had some direct interest in establishing a strong federal government: the manufacturers needed protective tariffs; the moneylenders wanted to stop the use of paper money to pay off debts; the land speculators wanted protection as they invaded Indian lands; slaveowners needed federal security against slave revolts and runaways; bondholders wanted a government able to raise money by nationwide taxation, to pay off those bonds.”[23] The Constitution ensured that the Federal Government was strong enough to protect those interests, but not strong enough to encroach on the powers granted to the states, especially the powers of slave states.

The conflict between supporters of slavery and those who opposed it on either humanitarian, religious or political-ideological grounds would become more of a source of even conflict when slavery was give a boost by Eli Whitney’s invention of the Cotton Gin. This machine made the production of cotton and its export an even more profitable enterprise requiring more slaves to meet the expanding demand and it was not something that those who believed that slavery would expire of its own accord expected. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1805 that in regard to slavery that “interest is really going over to the side of morality. The value of the slave is every day lessening; his burden on his master dayly increasing. Interest is therefore preparing for the disposition to be just.” [24] Of course Jefferson, who owned over 200 slaves and had built much of his political base among Virginia planters was wrong, and despite the misgivings that he expresses in some of his letters and papers, including the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, he never took the lead or a public stand on the abolition of slavery.

The difference made by the cotton gin was starling, it enabled greater production and increased the need for slaves, and with the end of the legal African slave trade in 1808 the price of slaves already in the United States went up considerably, making the interstate trafficking of slaves much more profitable. In 1790 “a thousand tons of cotton were being produced every year in the South. By 1860, it was a million tons. In the same period, 500,000 slaves grew to 4 million.” [25] This enriched Northerners as well, “Northern ships carried cotton to New York and Europe, northern bankers and merchants financed the cotton crop, northern companies insured it, and northern factories turned cotton into textiles. The “free states” had abolished slavery, but they remained intimately linked to the peculiar institution.” [26] Thus the institution of slavery’s tentacles reached out to much of America and with the threat of slave rebellions in the South which could upset the economic status quo the nation “developed a network of controls in the southern states, backed by laws, courts, armed forces, and race prejudice of the nation’s political leaders.” [27]

But during the early nineteenth century slavery was on the decline in the rest of the Americas as the Spanish, Portuguese and French lost most of their American possessions, many which became independent and abolished slavery, in each case for the newly liberated countries in Latin America and South America, as well as the ending of serfdom in Europe. Likewise Britain emancipated its slaves in the 1830s and the slaves in its colonies and most countries, even the United States banned the African slave trade. This would lead to increasing calls for the abolition of slavery in the United States and the formation of abolitionist societies, newspapers and stepped up efforts to help slaves escape their bonds and with the advent of a small but vocal abolitionist movement there was a movement, particularly in religious circles to justify and defend the peculiar institution.

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.29

[2] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.32

[3] Foner, Eric Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2005 p.6

[4] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.28

[5] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.6

[6] Foner, Eric A Short History of Reconstruction Harper and Row, New York 1990 p.1

[7] Ibid. Foner Forever Free pp.6-7

[8] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.7

[9] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War Revised Edition p.5

[10] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858p.24

[11] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 p.22

[12] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.7

[13] Freehling, William W. The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1990 p.146

[14] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858p.23

[15] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bayp.147

[16] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858p.23

[17] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bayp.147

[18] McPherson, James The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2015 p.7

[19] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858p.23

[20] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858p.24

[21] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858p.24

[22] McCurry, Stephanie Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London 2010 p.220

[23] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States pp.90-91

[24] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War Revised Edition p.8

[25] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.171

[26] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.13

[27] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.171

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“The First Duty of Every Officer is to the Truth”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Most of my readers know that in addition to being a Priest and Navy Chaplain that I am a historian and have taught both ethics and Gettysburg as a faculty member at a Staff College. Many of the men and women that I taught will lead our military as commanders, planners and staff officers. I stay in contact with a number of my former students, including two from South Korea. Now I still write even as I lead the staff at one of the Navy’s largest and most active Chapel programs.

Since I figure that this will be my last duty station before I retire my goal is to help guide those who work with me to success in the military and set them up for success when they leave the military. They are a great group, I could not ask for better and when I have a bad day or seem to be off in some way I have given them permission to ask how I am doing and to ask me hard questions. I give them permission to tell me the truth. A lot of leaders won’t do that, but I try to be transparent and honest with them because I know that they have my back and we do a pretty good job at caring for people and doing the right thing.

As such my first duty, whether it is in teaching, writing or in ministry is to the truth. In fact I quoted Captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Sir Patrick Stewart in Star Trek the Next Generation: “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…” I am not a Starfleet Officer but as an officer nonetheless I have always believed that the truth matters, but sadly I, like so many of us have turned the other way and not spoken out. But the older I get the more I realize that I cannot be silent about subjects that at one time I turned a blind eye to because they were uncomfortable, unpopular or might hurt my career either in the church or in the military.

I have been writing a lot over the past few months about subjects that many people are controversial and as such many people are uncomfortable with those topics. Whether the issue is civil rights, racism, Gay rights and marriage equality, voting rights, religious freedom and religious intolerance, and even xenophobia, or the connection of symbols such as the Confederate Battle Flag to a heritage that goes to a hatred that extends far beyond the battlefields of the Civil War; I am speaking out. Now I am fully aware of that many of these subjects are controversial. I have been asked in comments on this site and on my various social media accounts, particularly Facebook, why I keep bringing up the uncomfortable past. But I have to, I have a duty to the truth and as Oscar Wilde noted “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

The late Howard Zinn, a brilliant historian whose work at one time I discounted, said: “But I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is… to tell the truth.” Who would think that telling the truth could or would be a revolutionary act? However, when one lives in a society where the truth is bent, run over and shredded by politicians, preachers and pundits, what I call the Trinity of Evil; when state school boards whitewash history and force their religious views on children in public schools; where corporations and advertisers use the most crass means to deceive customers; and where established science is not met with denial under the guise of “skepticism;” telling the truth is a revolutionary affair.

The honest truth is that I never expected to be a revolutionary in terms of what so much of society, especially the conservative Christian movement that I spent much of my life in expects. Truthfully, upholding tradition, and for that matter defending myth, is much easier when backed by the certitude of an unbending theology and political is much easier than asking the hard questions. Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” I guess that is why so many people would rather be content with myth than to ask the really hard questions; be they about history, religion, and science or for that matter anything. One of the must uncomfortable things to admit is that truth is always evolving as we learn more, it is dynamic, not static and to attempt to force people to live by the “truth” of our ancestors is disingenuous, dishonest and denies the reality of the universe that we live. Thomas Jefferson recognized this and wrote:

“I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” 

So why do I write? I write so that we never forget or push aside the great evils that human beings are capable of committing: The Holocaust, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of Native Americans by the millions in the name of God and Manifest Destiny, the enslavement, exploitation, and sometimes the extermination of whole peoples by colonialism; the witch trials, the religious wars of the Reformation, the Inquisition, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Stalin’s purges, the Tuskegee experiments, the Japanese barbarity in the Rape of Nanking and other places in Asia, the Srebrenica genocide and the Rwandan genocide, just to name a few.

All too often the perpetrators of those events and their descendants as all too willing to last the past lie dormant. But at what cost do we do so? Do we sacrifice justice on the altar of prosperity and peace; do we sacrifice uncomfortable truth in order to remain undisturbed and comforted by myth? Do we condemn our descendants to live under the myths of our ancestors? Would we sacrifice the truth and justice in order to ensure obedience? Howard Zinn correctly observed, “Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”

President John F Kennedy spoke these words at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Personally I would rather ask the questions and confront the past so we might have a better future, because though I am a realist, I also believe in my heart that humanity is capable of overcoming hatred, prejudice and ignorance. The problem is that times get difficult those attitudes can overcome our better nature. As Spencer Tracy’s character in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg said:

“But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

That my friends, is why I write: for justice, truth, and the value of a single human life.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Watershed Moments: Trump, Hope Hicks and the Problem of Truth

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A watershed moment in the Trump administration occurred a few days ago. Longtime advisor and White House Communications Director Hope Hicks admitted telling “white lies” to protect the President to a Congressional committee. Shortly after she either voluntarily resigned or was forced to resign by an infuriated President. I have read accounts that indicate both. I lean to the latter, but I cannot say that without absolute certainty.

Over 1800 years ago the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

When it came out last year I wrote a review of Timothy Snyder’s book  On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century and today I wanted to follow up on one of the key points made by Dr. Snyder in that work.

Snyder wrote: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis to do so. If nothing is truth, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”  I have been worried about that since the 2016 election campaign where Snyder noted that seventy-eight percent of the claims and statements made by President Trump on the election trail were demonstrably false. Sadly, that has not changed, in his first year in office, as of the anniversary of Mr. Trump’s inauguration he had told over 2000 verifiable lies and distortions, that’s a rate of about six a day.

As Snyder noted the falsehoods during the election campaign came so fast that they were overwhelming, and they still are today. The assertions were presented as if they were the truth, as if they were fact, creating as Kellyanne Conway said, a world of “alternate facts” and “alternative truths.” Of course there are no such thing as “alternative facts” or “alternative truths” when it comes to the reality that we know. There may be arguments about things that we cannot fully observe or understand, such as the ultimate issues of whether there is a God or not, and if so what is true about him, her, or it; likewise there are things that change the way that we see the world such as when scientists make new discoveries.

But in neither case do these examples posit that there are alternative truth, there are things like God that cannot be proven, and there is a universe that we do not fully understand, but those have nothing to do with people who flagrantly lie about things that are commonly known and claim that the lies are the truth. Such claims are cynical and designed to ensure that those in power cannot be challenged, and when deployed by demagogues in a society in which fear has become an overriding factor, can be frighteningly effective. Thus when the President says “I alone can fix it” or “I am your voice” those who have lost the ability to think critically and who have surrendered to the unending mantras of the demagogue do not question them, they are not matters of reason, they are matters of faith.

Throughout the campaign Trump and his campaign surrogates not only twisted truth, but lied so many times that fact checkers could hardly keep up with their untruths. After the election, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes told Diane Rehm of NRP: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she continued, “Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.” The biggest problem in this interview was that Ms. Hughes lied and twisted what happened to fit the Trump campaign narrative that truth did not matter. The fact was that then candidate Trump’s tweets were devoid of fact and the criticism of them was based on fact.

I have written about how some people and parties present myths as truth, twisting history to meet their craven desire for power and control. This appeal to myth was the genus of the President’s campaign slogan “Make America great again.” Such slogans are the instruments by which demagogues in every place and time have used to not only gain power, but to convince people to do things that in normal times they would never consider doing.

Such propaganda campaigns are distortions of history that blind their followers to real truth, even worse, they compel people to never learn history and thus accept the lies as truth with all too often fatal consequences. Snyder calls this “the politics of eternity” which “performs a masquerade of history… It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. Its mood is a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.”

To the politicians who like the President rely on them, the past is “a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present, all of them equally accessible for manipulation. Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some mortal enemy upon the purity of the nation.” These are the basis for things like the Myth of the Lost Cause, and the Noble South, and the Stab in the Back.

This is dangerous distortion of history. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But I think that Howard Zinn said it the best:

“History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history–while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance–might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”

I cannot help but think that the rapidity of the lies, the incessant attacks on the institutions of our country’s democracy, and the rights established in the Constitution by the President, people in his administration, and his supporters, especially those in the Breitbart universe of alternative media, are nothing but an attempt to delegitimize those institutions in order to gain total control and establish some kind of authoritarian and totalitarian state.

The deluge of lies and distortions practiced by this administration and so many others who have taken power after being legally elected or appointed is designed to ensure that people no longer believe in truth. Hannah Arendt wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction ( i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false ( i.e ., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

That is the very danger that we face today because many people, especially the President’s most stalwart and sometime violent defenders, as well as his enablers in Congress do not care, and others are so confused and distracted by the tactics of denial and deflection coming from the administration that they are growing weary. Polls show that many people are quite alright with limiting freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the role of the courts and other institutions designed to check executive power, and have no problem with limiting the rights of groups that they have identified as their enemy, and even limitations placed on their own freedom if it serves to absolve them of responsibility for things that they are too uncomfortable to deal with. The British military historian and theorist B.H. Liddell-Hart observed:

“We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.”

Believe me I desperately want to be wrong about this, but my study of history tells me that I am not. Thus I believe that every claim of the President and the administration must be questioned and its veracity determined, before it is accepted as truth. The time has come when we cannot simply wait to see what happens and give this administration the benefit of the doubt. Immediately after the election I was prepared to do that, but the actions of the President and his advisors have demonstrated to me that this is no longer an option. I will of course remain true to my oath under the Constitution, I will still respect the office of the Presidency, but I will always stand for the Constitution and defend those rights, and the institutions that are established by it.

Truth: historical, scientific, and verifiable is not our enemy. However, lies, and distortions, and the trampling of truth under the guise of “alternative truth,” “alternative fact,” and “alternative history” is the moral enemy of our republic and its democratic institutions. Thus truth must be upheld and fought for at all costs, because once you have sacrificed truth on the altar of political expediency you pave the way for freedom to be sacrificed.

Marcus Aurelius was right. The truth is not harmful but those who persist in self deception and ignorance can not escape harm. Hope Hicks placed her faith in Donald Trump, even being willing and able to lie for him, now she is firmly in the eye of the Muller investigation and will forever have her reputation tarnished by her work and support for President Trump. Sadly, there will be more.

So until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Abandon Facts and Abandon Freedom: Contending Against Alternative Truth, Facts, and History

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

I wrote a review of Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century on Tuesday and today I wanted to follow up on one of the key points made by Dr. Snyder in that work. Snyder wrote: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis to do so. If nothing is truth, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”  I have been worried about that since the election campaign where Snyder noted that seventy-eight percent of the claims and statements made by President Trump on the election trail were demonstrably false.

As Snyder noted the falsehoods came so fast that they were overwhelming. The assertions were presented as if they were the truth, as if they were fact, creating as Kellyanne Conway said, a world of “alternate facts” and “alternative truths.” Of course there are no such thing as “alternative facts” or “alternative truths” when it comes to the reality that we know. There may be arguments about things that we cannot fully observe or understand, such as the ultimate issues of whether there is a God or not, and if so what is true about him, her, or it; likewise there are things that change the way that we see the world such as when scientists make new discoveries.

But in neither case do these examples posit that there are alternative truth, there are things like God that cannot be proven, and there is a universe that we do not fully understand, but those have nothing to do with people who flagrantly lie about things that are commonly known and claim that the lies are the truth. Such claims are cynical and designed to ensure that those in power cannot be challenged, and when deployed by demagogues in a society in which fear has become an overriding factor, can be frighteningly effective. Thus when the President says “I alone can fix it” or “I am your voice” those who have lost the ability to think critically and who have surrendered to the unending mantras of the demagogue do not question them, they are not matters of reason, they are matters of faith.

Throughout the campaign Trump and his campaign surrogates not only twisted truth, but lied so many times that fact checkers could hardly keep up with their untruths. After the election, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes told Diane Rehm of NRP: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she continued, “Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.” The biggest problem in this interview was that Ms. Hughes lied and twisted what happened to fit the Trump campaign narrative that truth did not matter. The fact was that then candidate Trump’s tweets were devoid of fact and the criticism of them was based on fact.

I have written about how some people and parties present myths as truth, twisting history to meet their craven desire for power and control. This appeal to myth was the genus of the President’s campaign slogan “Make America great again.” Such slogans are the instruments by which demagogues in every place and time have used to not only gain power, but to convince people to do things that in normal times they would never consider doing. They are distortions of history that blind their followers to real truth, even worse, they compel people to never learn history and thus accept the lies as truth with all too often fatal consequences. Snyder calls this “the politics of eternity” which “performs a masquerade of history… It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. Its mood is a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.” To the politicians who like the President rely on them, the past is “a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present, all of them equally accessible for manipulation. Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some mortal enemy upon the purity of the nation.” These are the basis for things like the Myth of the Lost Cause, and the Noble South, and the Stab in the Back.

This is dangerous distortion of history. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But I think that Howard Zinn said it the best:

“History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history–while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance–might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”

I cannot help but think that the rapidity of the lies, the incessant attacks on the institutions of our country’s democracy, and the rights established in the Constitution by the President, people in his administration, and his supporters, especially those in the Breitbart universe of alternative media, are nothing but an attempt to delegitimize those institutions in order to gain total control and establish some kind of authoritarian and totalitarian state. The deluge of lies and distortions practiced by this administration and so many others who have taken power after being legally elected or appointed is designed to ensure that people no longer believe in truth. Hannah Arendt wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction ( i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false ( i.e ., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

That is the very danger that we face today because many people, especially the President’s most stalwart and sometime violent defenders, as well as his enablers in Congress do not care, and others are so confused and distracted by the tactics of denial and deflection coming from the administration that they are growing weary. Polls show that many people are quite alright with limiting freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the role of the courts and other institutions designed to check executive power, and have no problem with limiting the rights of groups that they have identified as their enemy, and even limitations placed on their own freedom if it serves to absolve them of responsibility for things that they are too uncomfortable to deal with. The British military historian and theorist B.H. Liddell-Hart observed:

“We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.”

Believe me I desperately want to be wrong about this, but my study of history tells me that I am not. Thus I believe that every claim of the President and the administration must be questioned and its veracity determined, before it is accepted as truth. The time has come when we cannot simply wait to see what happens and give this administration the benefit of the doubt. Immediately after the election I was prepared to do that, but the actions of the President and his advisors have demonstrated to me that this is no longer an option. I will of course remain true to my oath under the Constitution, I will still respect the office of the Presidency, but I will always stand for the Constitution and defend those rights, and the institutions that are established by it.

Truth: historical, scientific, and verifiable is not our enemy. However, lies, and distortions, and the trampling of truth under the guise of “alternative truth,” “alternative fact,” and “alternative history” is the moral enemy of our republic and its democratic institutions. Thus truth must be upheld and fought for at all costs, because once you have sacrificed truth on the altar of political expediency you pave the way for freedom to be sacrificed.

So until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Human Beings as Property Part 1: American Slavery

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am going to be posting a number of articles from my various texts dealing with the American Civil War era dealing with topics that some would want to forget, but are very important if we want to fully appreciate the struggle of African-Americans for equality. One of these is the distinctly American version of slavery that arose in the American South. That is the subject of today and tomorrow’s articles. More articles will follow in the next couple of weeks.

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Slave Economy and the Divide between North and South

“Thy bond-men and thy bond-maids which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you: of them you shall buy bond-men and bond-maids. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them he shall buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land. And they shall be your possession. And you shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, they shall be your bond-men forever.” Leviticus 25:44-46

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Early Slavery in the Americas and the African Lave Trade

If we are to really understand the Civil War we have to understand the ideological clash between Abolitionists in the North, and Southern proponents of slavery. Slavery began very early in the history of the American colonies and though the British and the Dutch were the largest traders of slaves in those early days, the first American slave ship made its first voyage to bring Africans to the new world. Historian Howard Zinn noted, “By 1800, 10 to 15 million blacks had been transported to the Americas, representing perhaps one-third of those originally seized in Africa. It is roughly estimated that Africa lost 50 million human beings to death and slavery in those centuries we call the beginnings of modern Western civilization, at the hands of slave traders and plantation owners in Western Europe and America, the countries deemed the most advanced in the world.” [1]

Slavery in the Americas grew out of the economic need of planters to for laborers on the vast plantations of the new world as “the number of arriving whites, whether free or indentured servants (under four to seven year contract) was not enough to meet the demand of the plantations.” [2] This need and use of slaves was significantly different than previous forms of slavery in Africa, where slavery was one of a number of forms of labor, and where slaves “worked within the households of their owners and had well-defined rights, such as possessing property and marrying free persons. It was not uncommon for slaves in Africa to acquire their freedom.” [3] In fact the plantation form of slavery practiced in the Americas differed radically from traditional forms of African slavery and was characterized by “the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of race hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave.” [4]

However in the Americas slavery took on a new form, that of the plantation. The plantation system allowed owners to amass “large concentrations of laborers under the control of a single owner produced goods – sugar, tobacco, rice, and cotton – for the free market.” [5] Beginning with the Spanish and the Portuguese in the early 1500s, the African slave trade became a major part of the world economy, and “slave labor played an indispensable part in its rapid growth” [6] not only in world economy, but in the economy of the English colonies in North America and the new American nation which paradoxically was founded and supposed dedicated to liberty and equality. The “Atlantic slave trade, which flourished from 1500 into the nineteenth century was a regularized business in which European merchants, African traders, and American planters engaged in a highly complex and profitable bargaining in human lives.” [7]

It was economic gain that prompted the growth in slavery, and for which slaves were essential for profit. As such, the “first mass consumer goods in international trade were produced by slaves – sugar, rice, coffee, and tobacco. The profits from slavery stimulated the rise of British ports such as Liverpool and Bristol, and the growth of banking, shipbuilding, and insurance, and helped to finance the early industrial revolution. The centrality of slavery to the British empire encouraged an ever-closer identification of freedom with whites and slavery with blacks.” [8]

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The Constitution, Slavery and Disunion

When the United State won its independence the founders of the new nation had to deal with the already existing institution of slavery. It also had to deal with the threat to the Union that the institution and the real possibility of disunion, something that almost all of them feared more than anything. Slavery was an institution that even some powerful politicians who owned slaves were uncomfortable; Patrick Henry noted in 1773 that “to do so was “repugnant to humanity” and “inconsistent with the Bible,” while George Washington wrote in 1786 “There is not a man living…who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan for the gradual abolition of it.” [9]

Slavery was an issue that divided the newly independent states as they gathered for the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and Washington confided to a friend before the convention that “he could “foresee no greater evil than disunion,” and now the “mere discussion of slavery” was poisoning the atmosphere.” [10] James Madison was one of the first to recognize this and noted that “the states differed “primarily from the effects of their having or not having slaves.” [11] The issue came to a head around how the population of the states would be represented in the new government and how to balance the power between the federal government and the various state governments. To do this the founders divided Congress into two houses, the House of Representatives who were directly elected by the voters of each state with the population of the state determining the number of representative each would have; and in the Senate, whose members were elected by the state legislatures, each state would have two members regardless of the size of its population. The division of the legislature in the Constitution “enabled the individual states to retain a large measure of their jealously guarded autonomy.” [12] Eligible voters in each state elected the President by electing “electors” for the Electoral College, and each state was given an amount of electors equal to its representation in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The heart of the matter came to the issue of what people would be counted in each state. The Northern states wanted to base the number on each state’s white population. The Southern states wanted to “swell their power by counting both white citizens and black non-citizens.” [13] Doing so would give Southern States more power in the House of Representatives which, when coupled with the equality each state had in the Senate, gave the less populous Southern disproportionate power in the national government. A representative from New Jersey, Gouverneur Morris believed that if slaves “were human enough to boost the representation of the Southern States…they should be treated as persons and not property in the South.” [14] There was debate on this issue and to bridge the sectional divide the Convention passed what is now known as the three-fifths compromise.

This measure had profound results. It stipulated that the size of a state’s congressional delegation and its Electoral College electors; and the state’s tax burden would be determined by their population. The population was determined by counting free-persons as a full person, and then adding the words “three-fifths of all other persons.” Of course the “other persons” were slaves, but the language was carefully crafted to avoid the use of the terms slave or slavery to make the document acceptable to Northern delegations. The compromise was the first of many made by the Northern states to appease the South and maintain national unity. The South got less than it wanted, as its delegates wanted slaves to count as a whole person for population sake without considering them as such. When all was said and done in 1790 “southern states, possessing around 40% of the nations’ white population, controlled around 47% of the House and Electoral College.” [15] Gouverneur Morris understood that the compromise would exaggerate Southern power and predicted that “the three-fifths clause’s real legacy would be to give slaveholders majority control over electoral politics.” [16] However, Morris’s warning was unheeded for decades by many in the North, though through electoral experience Northern leaders began to realize what the compromise had wrought but could not change the process without amending the Constitution.

Morris was correct. During the election of 1802 in the Electoral College the “three-fifths clause gave the Southerners 14 extra electors, the Republicans’ Thomas Jefferson defeated the Federalists’ John Adams, 73-65. Jefferson swept South’s extra electors 12-2. If no three-fifths clause had existed and House apportionment been based strictly on white numbers, Adams would have likely squeaked by, 63-61.” [17] The compromise had major impacts on the Electoral College. In the first 36 years of the Republic, only one President came from the North, John Adams. The rest, Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe were all Virginian’s, and all were slaveholders.

Apart from John Quincy Adams who served from 1825-1829 every other President until Abraham Lincoln was either a Southern slaveholder, or a Northern supporter of the South’s position on the preservation and or expansion of slavery. In fact the South dominated all branches of the Federal government from 1789-1861, often with the cooperation of Northern political and business interests. James McPherson wrote, “A Southern slaveholder had been president of the United States two-thirds of the years between 1789 and 1861, and two-thirds of the Speakers of the House and president pro tem of the Senate had also been Southerners. Twenty of the thirty-five Supreme Court justices during that period had been from slave states, which always had a majority on the court before 1861.” [18] Those who believed in the South’s moral, religious, and cultural supremacy over the North often used the Southern domination of American politics as proof of that superiority.

Two other compromises were made by the delegates to the convention. The first dealt with ending the African slave trade. This was contentious and in response to the threat of ending the trade the delegates from South Carolina, John Rutledge and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney insisted that “South Carolina could not join the proposed Union if the slave trade was prohibited.” [19] The compromise allowed the African slave trade to remain legal until 1808 unless Congress voted to allow it to continue. However, this was the first of many threats by Southern leaders and states to threaten disunion over the issue of slavery. A final compromise required states to “extradite and deliver any fugitive from service to his or her master and state of origin.” [20] The wording of the law was purposely vague and could include indentured servants, but the real target was escaped slaves.

The early compromises set the stage for future compromises, in large part because Federalist politicians preferred compromise over disunion, and their fear was that “failure to compromise would bring disunion” [21] and with it disaster. Thus the convention approved the compromises and the states, even Northern states which had abolished or were on the way to abolishing slavery ratified it.

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Slavery in the Early Years of the United States

Slavery expanded in the American colonies and continued to do so after American independence despite the fact that a number of prominent slaveholders including George Washington voluntarily emancipated their slaves in the 1780s and 1790s. In large part this was due to fact that the United States “purposely built a weak central state, dispersing power to govern from the center to the constituent (some would have said still sovereign) parts.” [22] That being said the in the new Constitution the founders ensured that the central government was far stronger than the attempt made in the initial Confederation of States in matters of tariffs, taxes and laws to protect bondholders, slaveowners, and land speculators. In this government the land owners of the Southern states, as well as the merchants of the North held the bulk of the economic, political and social power. Significantly, “most of the makers of the Constitution had some direct interest in establishing a strong federal government: the manufacturers needed protective tariffs; the moneylenders wanted to stop the use of paper money to pay off debts; the land speculators wanted protection as they invaded Indian lands; slaveowners needed federal security against slave revolts and runaways; bondholders wanted a government able to raise money by nationwide taxation, to pay off those bonds.” [23] The Constitution ensured that the Federal Government was strong enough to protect those interests, but not strong enough to encroach on the powers granted to the states, especially the powers of slave states.

The conflict between supporters of slavery and those who opposed it on either humanitarian, religious or political-ideological grounds would become more of a source of even conflict when slavery was give a boost by Eli Whitney’s invention of the Cotton Gin. This machine made the production of cotton and its export an even more profitable enterprise requiring more slaves to meet the expanding demand and it was not something that those who believed that slavery would expire of its own accord expected. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1805 that in regard to slavery that “interest is really going over to the side of morality. The value of the slave is every day lessening; his burden on his master dayly increasing. Interest is therefore preparing for the disposition to be just.” [24] Of course Jefferson, who owned over 200 slaves and had built much of his political base among Virginia planters was wrong, and despite the misgivings that he expresses in some of his letters and papers, including the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, he never took the lead or a public stand on the abolition of slavery.

The difference made by the cotton gin was starling, it enabled greater production and increased the need for slaves, and with the end of the legal African slave trade in 1808 the price of slaves already in the United States went up considerably, making the interstate trafficking of slaves much more profitable. In 1790 “a thousand tons of cotton were being produced every year in the South. By 1860, it was a million tons. In the same period, 500,000 slaves grew to 4 million.” [25] This enriched Northerners as well, “Northern ships carried cotton to New York and Europe, northern bankers and merchants financed the cotton crop, northern companies insured it, and northern factories turned cotton into textiles. The “free states” had abolished slavery, but they remained intimately linked to the peculiar institution.” [26] Thus the institution of slavery’s tentacles reached out to much of America and with the threat of slave rebellions in the South which could upset the economic status quo the nation “developed a network of controls in the southern states, backed by laws, courts, armed forces, and race prejudice of the nation’s political leaders.” [27]

But during the early nineteenth century slavery was on the decline in the rest of the Americas as the Spanish, Portuguese and French lost most of their American possessions, many which became independent and abolished slavery, in each case for the newly liberated countries in Latin America and South America, as well as the ending of serfdom in Europe. Likewise Britain emancipated its slaves in the 1830s and the slaves in its colonies and most countries, even the United States banned the African slave trade. This would lead to increasing calls for the abolition of slavery in the United States and the formation of abolitionist societies, newspapers and stepped up efforts to help slaves escape their bonds and with the advent of a small but vocal abolitionist movement there was a movement, particularly in religious circles to justify and defend the peculiar institution.

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.29

[2] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.32

[3] Foner, Eric Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2005 p.6

[4] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.28

[5] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.6

[6] Foner, Eric A Short History of Reconstruction Harper and Row, New York 1990 p.1

[7] Ibid. Foner Forever Free pp.6-7

[8] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.7

[9] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War Revised Edition p.5

[10] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 p.24

[11] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 p.22

[12] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.7

[13] Freehling, William W. The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1990 p.146

[14] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 p.23

[15] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay p.147

[16] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 p.23

[17] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay p.147

[18] McPherson, James The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2015 p.7

[19] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 p.23

[20] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 p.24

[21] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 p.24

[22] McCurry, Stephanie Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London 2010 p.220

[23] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States pp.90-91

[24] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War Revised Edition p.8

[25] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.171

[26] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.13

[27] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.171

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The First Duty: Speaking Truth in “Post-Truth” Trump Era

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For me the past month has been one of constant amazement. I am not speeaking about politics, but what matters more than any political ideology, the very idea of truth. Because of this I write using history and as best as I can objective and indisputable fact as my guide.

Most of my readers know that in addition to being a Priest and Navy Chaplain that I am a historian and teach both ethics and about Gettysburg as a faculty member at a Staff College. Many of the men and women that I teach will lead our military as commanders, planners and staff officers. I will transfer in the spring but even so, as a chaplain, officer, and educator I cannot be silent.

Thus it is my first duty, whether it is in teaching, writing or in ministry is to the truth, politicans and pundits be damned to hell. I believe the words spoken by Captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Sir Patrick Stewart in Star Trek the Next Generation: “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…”

I am not a Starfleet Officer, but a Navy officer and I have always believed that the truth matters, but sadly, I, like so many of us have turned the other way and not spoken out too many times in my life. That changed during my combat tor in Iraq, and now the older I get the more I realize that I cannot be silent about subjects that at one time I turned a blind eye to because they were uncomfortable, unpopular or might hurt my career either in the church or in the military, so when I see people in power and who are close to power saying that truth and objective fact no longer matters I become fearful, because I know that the path that denying facts and truth leads.

Throughout the campaign Trump and his campaign surrogates not only twisted truth, but lied so many times that fact checkers could hardly keep up with their untruths. After the election, Trump surroget Scottie Nell Hughes told Diane Rehm of NRP: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she continued,“Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.”

Her words, as well as those of former Trump campaign director and CNN talking head, Corey Lewindowski, and Newt Gingrinch have maintained that truth does not matter, only what people believe does. The fact that so many of Trump’s supporters don’t seem to care about facts, bodes ill for our country.

As such I have continued to write about subjects that many people are controversial and as such many people are uncomfortable with those topics. Whether the issue is civil rights, racism, Gay rights and marriage equality, voting rights, religious freedom and religious intolerance, and even xenophobia, or the connection of symbols such as the Confederate Battle Flag to a heritage that goes to a hatred that extends far beyond the battlefields of the Civil War; I am speaking out.

I am fully aware of that many of these subjects are controversial and are now targeted by Trump’s supporters, Congressional Repiublicans, and GOP legislators in every state. I have been asked in comments on this site and on my various social media accounts, particularly Facebook, why I keep bringing up the uncomfortable past. But I have to, I have a duty to the truth, and as Oscar Wilde noted “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

The late Howard Zinn, a brilliant historian whose work at one time I discounted, said: “But I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is… to tell the truth.” Who would think that telling the truth could or would be a revolutionary act? However, when one lives in a society where the truth is bent, run over and shredded by politicians, preachers and pundits, what I call the Trinity of Evil; when state school boards whitewash history and force their religious views on children in public schools; where corporations and advertisers use the most crass means to deceive customers; and where established science is not met with denial under the guise of “skepticism;” telling the truth is a revolutionary affair.

In 1943, George Orwell, wrote about the Spanish Civil War how the German and Italian propaganda about it had been accepted without question by most people in westren democracies. His words echo my feelings about the incoming administration:

“This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history. How will the history of the Spanish war be written? If Franco remains in power his nominees will write the history books, and (to stick to my chosen point) that Russian army which never existed will become historical fact, and schoolchildren will learn about it generations hence. But suppose Fascism is finally defeated and some kind of democratic government restored in Spain in the fairly near future; even then, how is the history of the war to be written? What kind of records will Franco have left behind him? Suppose even that the records kept on the Government side are recoverable — even so, how is a true history of the war to be written? For, as I have pointed out already, the Government, also dealt extensively in lies. From the anti-Fascist angle one could write a broadly truthful history of the war, but it would be a partisan history, unreliable on every minor point. Yet, after all, some kind of history will be written, and after those who actually remember the war are dead, it will be universally accepted. So for all practical purposes the lie will have become truth. 

In spite of everything going on I will continue to speak the truth, which will likely will be called radical, revolutionary, and unpatriotic. That has happened over the past few years and I expect that it will happen on a more frequent basis, but I do not want the lie to become truth.

The honest truth is that I never expected to be a revolutionary in terms of defending civil rights. Truthfully, believing what authority figures, be they political, or religious say is much easier than asking the hard questions. Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” I guess that is why so many people would rather be content with obvious lies than to ask the really hard questions; be they about history, religion, and science or for that matter anything. One of the must uncomfortable things to admit is that truth is always evolving as we learn more, it is dynamic, not static and to attempt to force people to live by the “truth” of our ancestors is disingenuous, dishonest and denies the reality of the universe that we live. Thomas Jefferson recognized this and wrote:

“I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” 

So why I continue to write? I will write so that we never forget or push aside the great evils that human beings are capable of committing: The Holocaust, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of Native Americans by the millions in the name of God and Manifest Destiny, the enslavement, exploitation, and sometimes the extermination of whole peoples by colonialism; the witch trials, the religious wars of the Reformation, the Inquisition, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Stalin’s purges, the Tuskegee experiments, the Japanese barbarity in the Rape of Nanking and other places in Asia, the Srebrenica genocide and the Rwandan genocide, the inhumanity of the so-called Islamic State, just to name a few; and add to that whatever happens in the next few years that will be aided and abbetted by men and women who overthrow democracy by the democratic process, using people’s fear to establish authoritatian or totalitarian states.

All too often the perpetrators of those events and their descendants as all too willing to last the past lie dormant and allow present wrongs to persist and look the other way.

But at what cost do we do so? Do we sacrifice justice on the altar of prosperity and peace; do we sacrifice uncomfortable truth in order to remain undisturbed and comforted by myth? Do we condemn our descendants to live under the myths of our ancestors? Would we sacrifice the truth and justice in order to ensure obedience? Howard Zinn correctly observed, “Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”

President John F. Kennedy spoke these words at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Personally I would rather ask the questions and confront the past so we might have a better future, because though I am a realist, I also believe in my heart that humanity is capable of overcoming hatred, prejudice and ignorance. The problem is that times get difficult those attitudes can overcome our better nature. As Spencer Tracy’s character in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg said:

“But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

That my friends, is why I write: for justice, truth, and the value of a single human life, even if that means being considered unpatriotic.

Peace

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Read or Perish

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Just a short note today as I continue to read, reflect and do some research and writing on my Civil War and Gettysburg Staff Ride text, even as I get ready to lead another staff ride to Gettysburg this weekend.

Those that follow me and read my articles on this site on a regular basis know that I am a voracious reader, especially when it comes to history and biography. Frankly, I am amazed about all that we can learn just from the accounts of those that have already made the same mistakes that we are intent on making, because ultimately, there is nothing new under the sun. The fact that so many supposed strategists, thinkers, and policy makers are too ignorant to remember the past, ensures that the same mistakes will be made over and over again with more and more bodies filling the body bags of hubris.

I have been adding books that I have read over the past few months to my “read” list on my Facebook page, and there were a lot more than I remembered as I worked my way through my stack. If you add things to your Facebook page, movies, books, music or television shows, Facebook will provide lists of suggested titles that you can browse. This of course includes books, and not surprisingly to me, most of the books that were suggested were various forms of fiction or children’s books. There were a few literature classics among the suggestions and a host of Bible books. What I noticed was there were few books on history, philosophy, political science, world affairs or even theology listed.

I was troubled by this; not because I am against people reading fiction or children’s book by any means, but typically those books, with the exception of some of the children’s books are for entertainment, not learning. As entertainment they are fine, but since almost everything else in our culture is geared toward entertainment I wonder where people are being challenged to think critically, and not simply be sponges for the sound bites offered by the politicians, preachers and pundits who dominate so much of our airwaves and the internet.

Barbara Tuchman wrote, “Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.”

Sadly, many people in this country and around the world are sadly deficient in knowing any history at all, and much of what they do know is based on myth. This is dangerous, historian George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But I think that Howard Zinn said it the best:

“History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history–while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance–might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”

Have a great night,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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