The Moral Depravity of “Lincoln” February 24, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Civil Liberties, History, Race.
Tags: abolitionists, abraham lincoln, bill moyers, Civil Rights, civil war, clinton presidency, history, lincoln movie, Obama presidency, roger hollander, sam husseini, slavery, steven spielberg, tony kushner
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Roger’s note: This article points to a serious malaise in political discourse, the judging of the ideal against the real instead of judging the real by the ideal. It speaks to cynicism and defeatism that ignores the voice of the oppressed, of the revolutionary subject, in favor of the voice of the comfortable middle class pundit. It was the Abolitionists who defeated slavery, not Lincoln. His Emancipation Proclamation cynically and strategically freed the slaves only in Confederate held territory, while slavery remained in existence everywhere else. Read Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln.” Lincoln made it clear that if he could maintain the Union without ending slavery, that would be all right. He would have sent African Americans to a far away colony to solve the “problem” if he could. As a politician, yes, Lincoln was a genius, one of the best ever. To me that is not such a worthy accolade; but as a moral leader, Lincoln was no Gandhi.
There is not a substantial character in the movie “Lincoln” who argues — on moral grounds — that African Americans are equal to whites.
The movie opens with President Lincoln listening to a soliloquy of a young black man who argues for how he wants to get ahead; which is fine I suppose, but hardly the same as a moral case against slavery.
Abolitionists — who should be regarded as heroes — are viewed throughout the movie as near nut jobs on the few occasions when they are not ignored.
The radical Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens is depicted going through contortions to not argue that blacks are inherently equal to whites.
A pivotal scene is between him and Lincoln in which he pleads for Lincoln for follow his moral compass. Lincoln responds that one cannot go straight north when there is a swamp there. And there the matter was settled, as if there was no response to such an argument. Compromise was the higher calling, not actually standing for what is right, which is regarded as ineffectual or counterproductive.
Even if one were to concede that that might be what politics should be about, and I don’t think that’s the case, what sort of “art” exactly glorifies that while dismissing those standing boldly for what it true and just? What sort of “art” says it’s the highest calling to be conniving in alleged purist of some higher goal? What sort of “artist” uses his talent and resources to convince the public of this message?
It’s something “Lincoln” director and producer Steven Spielberg has depicted before, for example in “Schindler’s List,” Oskar Schindler chastises German soldiers who might exterminate Jewish children by going on about how he needs their small fingers for work in his factory. And that might be a poignant case. But does lying to Nazis really apply to the U.S. in 1863? Or today?
To some extent, this is a stance of alot of progressives since the beginning of the rise of the current president: “In Obama’s Lies We Trust” has been their defacto motto. To another extent, it probably reflects the actual interests they hold while themselves pretending to want change while knowing that Obama will not actually deliver meaningful change. Most everyone is a triangulator now.
But all these games, played by Obama and supporters who glorify alleged “compromise” — does Obama “compromise” or give away the store from the get go? — not only betrays art’s higher callings, but are also ahistoric.
For a tangible glimpse into the mindset behind “Lincoln,” consider what Tony Kushner, who wrote the screen play, recently said to Bill Moyers:
“But at the same time that level of criticism has to allow for the possibility that during election cycles people who have maybe not done everything we wanted them to do can get reelected so that we can build a power base so that we can actually do things. And I think we have a balancing act. And I think we’ve gotten unused to that balance we’ve spent the entire years of the Reagan counterrevolution out of power. And so we’ve become critics.
“But it’s nonsense. You can’t pretend that Wall Street doesn’t have horrendously strong and undue influence on the country. But if you want to get regulation of the financial sector you’re going to have to unfortunately to some extent work with Wall Street. Because if you go in naively, you’ll find out very quickly how much of what happens in this country Wall Street controls. And one thing I love about Obama is that he is absolutely not naive. And you know, you don’t get elected president, when you’re a black guy if you’re naive. This man — you know, I couldn’t get elected, you know, dogcatcher in my building. He’s managed this miracle, he’s reelected American president.”
Talk about nonsense. Tony Kushner here not only pretends that Clinton was not in office for eight years, he incredibly pretends in his depiction of the interaction between Wall Street and politics that Clinton and Bob Rubin and Larry Summers (who was also Obama’s economic adviser) didn’t pass the deregulation of Wall Street in the late 90s. Now, Moyers has done good shows on this, but he totally lets Kushner and all his nonsense off the hook on this.
So who’s really naive here?
What’s the responsibility of artists in depicting the moral course of history?
Where are the movies about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis? About Nat Turner who lead a slave uprising? About John Brown, who, the the words of David S. Reynolds’ biography: “Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights”?
No, Obama’s not naive, nor is Kushner. Anyone who takes at face value what Hollywood represents is.
Sam Husseini is a writer and political activist. He is the communications director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, a D.C.-based nonprofit group that promotes progressive experts as alternative sources for mainstream media reporters. He’s the founder of WashingtonStakeout, his latest personal writings are at http://husseini.posterous.com and tweets at http://twitter.com/samhusseini
White Power to the Rescue January 28, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in History, Race, Racism.
Tags: chris hedges, civil war, confederacy, fort pillow, history, ida b. wells, jacob burkle, janis fullilove, jefferson davis, KKK, ku klux klan, memphis racism, nathan bedford forrest, oral history, racism, robert e. lee, roger hollander, slavery, slaves, underground railroad, white supremecy
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On a windy afternoon a few days ago I went to a depressed section of North Memphis to visit an old clapboard house that was once owned by a German immigrant named Jacob Burkle. Oral history—and oral history is all anyone has in this case since no written
(Illustration: Mr. Fish)
documents survive—holds that Burkle used his house as a stop on the underground railroad for escaped slaves in the decade before the Civil War. The house is now a small museum called Slave Haven. It has artifacts such as leg irons, iron collars and broadsheets advertising the sale of men, women and children. In the gray floor of the porch there is a trapdoor that leads to a long crawl space and a jagged hole in a brick cellar wall where fugitives could have pushed themselves down into the basement. Escaped slaves were purportedly guided by Burkle at night down a tunnel or trench toward the nearby Mississippi River and turned over to sympathetic river traders who took them north to Cairo, Ill., and on to freedom in Canada.
Burkle and his descendants had good reason to avoid written records and to keep their activities secret. Memphis, on the eve of the Civil War, was one of the biggest slave markets in the South. After the war the city was an epicenter for Ku Klux Klan terror that included lynching, the nighttime burning of black churches and schools and the killing of black leaders and their white supporters, atrocities that continued into the 20th century. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. If word had gotten out that Burkle used his home to help slaves escape, the structure would almost certainly have been burned and Burkle or his descendants, at the very least, driven out of the city. The story of Burkle’s aid to slaves fleeing bondage became public knowledge only a couple of decades ago.
The modest public profile of the Burkle house stands in stunning contrast with the monument in the center of Memphis to native son Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest, who is buried in Forrest Park under a statue of himself in his Confederate general’s uniform and mounted on a horse, is one of the most odious figures in American history. A moody, barely literate, violent man—he was not averse to shooting his own troops if he deemed them to be cowards—he became a millionaire before the war as a slave trader. As a Confederate general he was noted for moronic aphorisms such as “War means fighting and fighting means killing.” He was, even by the accounts of those who served under him, a butcher. He led a massacre at Fort Pillow in Henning, Tenn., of some 300 black Union troops—who had surrendered and put down their weapons—as well as women and children who had sheltered in the fort. Forrest was, after the war, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He used his skills as a former cavalry commander to lead armed night raids to terrorize blacks.
Forrest, like many other white racists of the antebellum South, is enjoying a disquieting renaissance. The Sons of Confederate Veterans and the West Tennessee Historical Commission last summer put up a 1,000-pound granite marker at the entrance to the park that read “Forrest Park.” The city, saying the groups had not obtained a permit, removed it with a crane. A dispute over the park name, now raging in the Memphis City Council, exposes the deep divide in Memphis and throughout much of the South between those who laud the Confederacy and those who detest it, a split that runs like a wide fault down racial lines.
A call last week by Memphis City Councilwoman Janis Fullilove, who is African-American, to strip Forrest’s name from the park and rename it after the crusading black journalist Ida B. Wells set off such an acrimonious debate between her and some white council members that Fullilove left a meeting in tears.
Wells was one of the nation’s most courageous and important journalists. She moved to Memphis as a young woman to live with her aunt. Her investigations revealed that lynching was fundamentally a mechanism to rid white businessmen of black competitors. When Thomas Moss of Memphis, a black man who ran the People’s Grocery Co., was murdered with his partners by a mob of whites and his store was looted and destroyed, Wells was incensed. “This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was,” she wrote. She noted “that the Southerner had never gotten over this resentment that the Negro was no longer his plaything, his servant, and his source of income” and was using charges of rape against black business owners to mask this resentment. The lynching of Moss, she wrote, was “[a]n excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘keep the nigger down.’ ”
Her newspaper, Free Speech, which railed against white mob violence, the inadequate black schools, segregation, discrimination and a corrupt legal system that denied justice to blacks, was destroyed by whites. Wells was forced to flee the city, becoming, as she wrote, “an exile from home for hinting at the truth.”
The split between those in Memphis who hold up authentic heroes—those who fought to protect, defend and preserve life, such as Wells and Burkle—and those who memorialize slave traders and bigots such as Forrest points up a disturbing rise of a neo-Confederate ideology in the South. Honoring figures like Forrest in Memphis while ignoring Wells would be like erecting a statue to the Nazi death camp commander Amon Goeth in the Czech Republic town of Svitavy, the birthplace of Oskar Schindler, who rescued 1,200 Jews.
The rewriting of history in the South is a retreat by beleaguered whites into a mythical self-glorification. I witnessed a similar retreat during the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. As Yugoslavia’s economy deteriorated, ethnic groups built fantasies of a glorious past that became a substitute for history. They sought to remove, through exclusion and finally violence, competing ethnicities to restore this mythological past. The embrace by nationalist groups of a nonreality-based belief system made communication with other ethnic groups impossible. They no longer spoke the same cultural language. There was no common historical narrative built around verifiable truth. A similar disconnect was illustrated last week in Memphis when the chairman of the city’s parks committee, William Boyd, informed the council that Forrest “promoted progress for black people in this country after the war.” Boyd argued that the KKK was “more of a social club” at its inception and didn’t begin carrying out “bad and horrific things” until it reconstituted itself with the rise of the modern civil rights movement.
“Lord, have mercy,” Fullilove muttered as she listened.
But Forrest is only one of numerous flashpoints. Fliers reading “Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Wants You to Join” appeared in the mailboxes of white families in Memphis in early January. The Ku Klux Klan also distributed pamphlets a few days ago in an Atlanta suburb. The Tennessee Legislature last year officially declared July 13 as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day to honor his birthday. There are 32 historical markers honoring Forrest in Tennessee alone and several in other Southern states. Montgomery, Ala., which I visited last fall, has a gigantic Confederate flag on the outskirts of the city, planted there by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Confederate monuments dot Montgomery’s city center. There are three Confederate state holidays in Alabama, including Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day. Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi also honor Lee’s birthday. Jefferson Davis’ birthday is a state holiday in Alabama and Florida. And re-enactments of Confederate victories in the Civil War crowd Southern calendars.
The steady rise of ethnic nationalism over the past decade, the replacing of history with mendacious and sanitized versions of lost glory, is part of the moral decay that infects a dying culture. It is a frightening attempt, by those who are desperate and trapped, to escape through invented history their despair, impoverishment and hopelessness. It breeds intolerance and eventually violence. Violence becomes in this perverted belief system a cleansing agent, a way to restore a lost world. There are ample historical records that disprove the myths espoused by the neo-Confederates, who insist the Civil War was not about slavery but states’ rights and the protection of traditional Christianity. But these records are useless in puncturing their self-delusion, just as documentary evidence does nothing to blunt the self-delusion of Holocaust deniers. Those who retreat into fantasy cannot be engaged in rational discussion, for fantasy is all that is left of their tattered self-esteem. When their myths are attacked as untrue it triggers not a discussion of facts and evidence but a ferocious emotional backlash. The challenge of the myth threatens what is left of hope. And as the economy unravels, as the future looks bleaker and bleaker, this terrifying myth gains potency.
Achilles V. Clark, a soldier with the 20th Tennessee Cavalry under Forrest during the 1864 massacre at Fort Pillow, wrote to his sister after the attack: “The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. … I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.”
The Real And Racist Origins of the Second Amendment December 20, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Genocide, Gun Control/Violence, History, Race, Racism.
Tags: 2nd amendment, bill of rights, bruce dixon, constitution, edmund morgan, founding fathers, genocide, gun control, gun culture, history, indian killing, racism, right to bear arms, roger hollander, second amendment, slavery
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A Black Agenda Radio commentary by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
The “well-regulated militia” that the US Constitution’s second amendment refers to were slave patrols, land stealers and Indian killers, all quite necessary as the amendment’s language states “to the security of a free state” built with stolen labor upon stolen land. Unless and until we acknowledge that history, we cannot have an honest discussion about gun control.
The Real and Racist Origins of the Second Amendment
A Black Agenda Radio commentary by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
This commentary was originally published in Black Agenda Report April 19, 2008.
Why does the US Constitution guarantee a right “to keep and bear arms”? Why not the right to vote, the right to a quality education, health care, a clean environment or a job? What was so important in early America about the right of citizens to have guns? And is it even possible to have an honest discussion about gun control without acknowledging the racist origins of the Second Amendment?
The dominant trend among legal scholars, and on the current Supreme Court is that we are bound by the original intent of the Constitution’s authors. Here’s what the second amendment to the Constitution says:
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
Clearly its authors aimed to guarantee the right to a gun for every free white man in their new country. What’s no longer evident 230 years later, is why. The answer, advanced by historian Edmund Morgan in his classic work, American Slavery, American Freedom, the Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, sheds useful light on the historic and current politics and self-image of our nation.
Colonial America and the early US was a very unequal place. All the good, cleared, level agricultural land with easy access to transport was owned by a very few, very wealthy white men. Many poor whites were brought over as indentured servants, but having completed their periods of forced labor, allowing them to hang around the towns and cities landless and unemployed was dangerous to the social order. So they were given guns and credit, and sent inland to make their own fortunes, encroaching upon the orchards, farms and hunting grounds of Native Americans, who had little or no access to firearms. The law, of course did not penalize white men who robbed, raped or killed Indians. At regular intervals, colonial governors and local US officials would muster the free armed white men as militia, and dispatch them in murderous punitive raids to make the frontier safer for settlers and land speculators.
Slavery remained legal in New England, New York and the mid-Atlantic region till well into the 1800s, and the movements of free blacks and Indians were severely restricted for decades afterward. So colonial and early American militia also prowled the roads and highways demanding the passes of all non-whites, to ensure the enslaved were not escaping or aiding those who were, and that free blacks were not plotting rebellion or traveling for unapproved reasons.
Historically then, the principal activities of the Founding Fathers’ “well regulated militia” were Indian killing, land stealing, slave patrolling and the enforcement of domestic apartheid, all of these, as the Constitutional language declares “being necessary to the security of a free state.” A free state whose fundamental building blocks were the genocide of Native Americans, and the enslavement of Africans.
The Constitutional sanction of universally armed white men against blacks and Indians is at the origin of what has come to be known as America’s “gun culture,” and it neatly explains why that culture remains most deeply rooted in white, rural and small-town America long after the end of slavery and the close of the frontier. With the genocide of Native Americans accomplished and slavery gone, America’s gun culture wrapped itself in new clothing, in self-justifying mythology that construes the Second Amendment as arming the citizenry as final bulwark of freedom against tyranny, invasion or crime. Embracing this fake history of the Second Amendments warps legal scholarship and public debate in clouds of willful ignorance, encouraging us to believe this is a nation founded on just and egalitarian principles rather than one built with stolen labor on stolen land.
Maybe this is how we can tell that we are finally so over all that nasty genocide and racism stuff. We’ve chosen to simply write it out of our history.
For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Bruce Dixon. Find us on the web at www.blackagendareport.com.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the Georgia Green Party. He lives and works in Marietta GA and can be reached via this site’s contact page or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tennessee Tea Party to Children: What Slaves? January 24, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Education, History, Racism, Right Wing.
Tags: abby zimet, christian bigotry, education, evangelical bigotry, founding fathers, genocide, history, moral majority, phyllis schafly, racism, right wing, roger hollander, slavery, tea party, tennessee
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by Abby Zimet, www.commondreams.org, 24 January 2012
Showing a marked aversity for anything remotely resembling the truth, Tennessee Tea Party leaders have issued “demands” to state legislators that schools stop teaching - through “neglect and outright ill-will” – all that bad stuff about our fine Founding Fathers like the “made-up criticism” that maybe they owned slaves or killed Indians or did other icky things, and that, “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens.” This, after Texas approved 100 revisions to textbooks for its almost five million kids that would rename slave trade “Atlantic triangular trade,” explore the “unintended consequences” of affirmative action,” emphasize the role of the Christian Chuch in the nation’s founding, call for studying iconic conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly and The Moral Majority, and otherwise twist “history” to their liking.
“We seek to compel the teaching (of) the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government.”
Tags: abby zimet, atlanta school, education, georgia schools, mary elizabeth williams, Race, racism, roger hollander, slavery
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by Abby Zimet
Good job if you got seven. Bad job if you’re a teacher at the Georgia school where third-graders actually got that math question, along with others on slaves picking cotton and kids getting beatings. After two fathers complained, a school official explained, evidently straight-faced, the teachers were “trying to do a cross-curricular activity.” Yeah, and let’s cut even more from school budgets so they can attract even more clueless teachers for our kids.
, Jan 9, 2012 1:45 PM 17:01:53 EST
For an Atlanta elementary school, slavery references plus word problems equals a heap of trouble
Let’s see if you’re smarter than a Gwinnett County third-grade math teacher. If, in the year 2012, an Atlanta-area elementary school asks its students to solve arithmetic problems about how much fruit a slave can pick — and how many beatings he might get in a week — exactly how many rounds of ammunition has that school just fired into its own feet?
In the most misguided attempt at social understanding since Kirk Lazarus donned blackface, Beaver Ridge Elementary School decided earlier this term to shoehorn a little of the antebellum into its math worksheets. “Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?” asks one. Another posits, “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?” Let’s see … Divide by eight, multiply by seven … got it. The answer is, “Oh my God are you people crazy?”
In a surprise to exactly no one, save the school’s faculty, parents were displeased to discover their children — the majority of whom are minorities – were being grilled on the subjects of slave labor and ass whippings. Apparently at Beaver Ridge, there are four R’s – reading, writing, arithmetic and racism. As one stunned father told local station WSB-TV, “It blew me away.”
In a hasty damage control effort, school official Sloan Roach explained that the questions were part of a “cross-curricular activity” designed to incorporate math and social studies. Another question, for example, touched upon the fine Susan B. Anthony received for attempting to vote. But without context, the word problems make abuse seem as normal as a question about how many pencils are in a box.
The school says it will now more carefully review assignments before handing them out, and the vice principal assures that the worksheets have now been shredded. And in a breathtaking understatement, Sloan admitted to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Saturday that “Clearly, they did not do as good of a job as they should have done. It was just a poorly written question.” Time to compare and contrast, students! “Where’s the party at?” — that’s a poorly worded question. “How many beatings would the slave get?” is a fiasco.
The AJC reports that “62 percent of the school’s students are Hispanic or Latino, 24 percent are black or African-American and 5 percent are white.” But Beaver Ridge’s ethnic makeup is almost irrelevant. The questions would simply be a different kind of horribly wrong were the student body predominantly white.
Were the school’s teachers — who have conspicuously not been identified — being deliberately provocative by setting their questions within a difficult chapter of American history? Likely they were just being stunningly insensitive. As one poster on the AJC website noted, they sure didn’t ask any questions like, “If 20 slaves escaped each day of the month, how many slaves would be free by the end of the month?”
Using social studies as a springboard for math is actually a great idea. And making classroom lessons dynamic with real-world context is a time-tested device to teach children the ways numbers are applied in life. Let’s hope this failure doesn’t stop smart and more sensitive teachers from coming up with creative approaches that, you know, don’t involve beatings. Sadly, too, the whole screw-up reinforces the stereotype of what a poster at the New York Daily News referred to as “the New South [that] still has people who loved the Old South.”
Of course, our kids need to be taught history, especially its most painful aspects. But it doesn’t take a whiz to figure out that the debacle in Georgia would earn a big fat zero from the start. The best it can become now is a teachable moment – for school administrators.
The Gospel of the Penniless, Jobless, Marginalized and Despised January 9, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Poverty, Race, Racism, Religion.
Tags: African Americans, black power, chris hedges, Civil Rights, james baldwin, james cone, jim crow, lynching, poverty, Race, racism, reinhold niebuhr, religion, roger hollander, slavery, the cross, theology
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(Photo: Michael Kalus)
“The Cross and the Lynching Tree are separated by nearly two thousand years,” James Cone writes in his new book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” “One is the universal symbol of the Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy. Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on the cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from the black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is the challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and the promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society.”
So begins James Cone, perhaps the most important contemporary theologian in America, who has spent a lifetime pointing out the hypocrisy and mendacity of the white church and white-dominated society while lifting up and exalting the voices of the oppressed. He writes out of his experience as an African-American growing up in segregated Arkansas and his close association with the Black Power movement. But what is more important is that he writes out of a deep religious conviction, one I share, that the true power of the Christian Gospel is its unambiguous call for liberation from forces of oppression and for a fierce and uncompromising condemnation of all who oppress.
Cone, who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, writes on behalf of all those whom the Salvadoran theologian and martyr Ignacio Ellacuría called “the crucified peoples of history.” He writes for the forgotten and abused, the marginalized and the despised. He writes for those who are penniless, jobless, landless and without political or social power. He writes for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those who are transgender. He writes for undocumented farmworkers toiling in misery in the nation’s agricultural fields. He writes for Muslims who live under the terror of war and empire in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he writes for us. He understands that until white Americans can see the cross and the lynching tree together, “until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black-body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”
“In the deepest sense, I’ve been writing this book all my life,” he said of “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” when we spoke recently. “I put my whole being into it. And did not hold anything back. I didn’t choose to write it. It chose me.”
“I started reading about lynching, and reading about the historical situation of the crosses in Rome in the time of Jesus, and then my question was how did African-Americans survive and resist the lynching terror. How did they do it?” [Nearly 5,000 African-American men, women and children were lynched in the United States between 1880 and 1940.] “To live every day under the terror of death. I grew up in Arkansas. I know something about that. I watched my mother and father deal with that. But the moment I read about it, historically, I had to ask how did they survive, how did they keep their sanity in the midst of that terror? And I discovered it was the cross. It was their faith in that cross, that if God was with Jesus, God must be with us, because we’re up on the cross too. And then the other question was, how could white Christians, who say they believe that Jesus died on the cross to save them, how could they then turn around and put blacks on crosses and crucify them just like the Romans crucified Jesus? That was an amazing paradox to me. Here African-Americans used faith to survive and resist, and fight, while whites used faith in order to terrorize black people. Two communities. Both Christian. Living in the same faith. Whites did lynchings on church grounds. How could they do it? That’s where [my] passion came from. That’s where the paradox came from. That’s where the wrestling came from.”
“Many Christians embrace the conviction that Jesus died on the cross to redeem humankind from sin,” he said. “Taking our place, they say, Jesus suffered on the cross and gave his life as a ransom for many. The cross is the great symbol of the Christian narrative of salvation. Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, the symbol of salvation has been detached from the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings, the crucified people of history. The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the cost of discipleship, it has become a form of cheap grace, an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission.”
Cone’s chapter on Reinhold Niebuhr, the most important Christian social ethicist of the 20th century and a theologian whose work Cone teaches, exposes Niebuhr’s blindness to and tacit complicity in white oppression. Slavery, segregation and the terror of lynching have little or no place in the theological reflections of Niebuhr or any other white theologian. Niebuhr, as Cone points out, had little empathy for those subjugated by white colonialists. Niebuhr claimed that North America was a “virgin continent when the Anglo-Saxons came, with a few Indians in a primitive state of culture.” He saw America as being elected by God for the expansion of empire, and, as Cone points out, “he wrote about Arabs of Palestine and people of color in the Third World in a similar manner, offering moral justification for colonialism.”
Cone reprints a radio dialogue between Niebuhr and writer James Baldwin that took place after the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls. Niebuhr, who spoke in the language of moderation that infuriated figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Baldwin, was disarmed by Baldwin’s eloquence and fire.
The only people in this country at the moment who believe either in Christianity or in the country are the most despised minority in it. … It is ironical … the people who were slaves here, the most beaten and despised people here … should be at this moment … the only hope this country has. It doesn’t have any other. None of the descendants of Europe seem to be able to do, or have taken it on themselves to do, what Negros are now trying to do. And this is not a chauvinistic or racial outlook. It probably has something to do with the nature of life itself. It forces you, in any extremity, any extreme, to discover what you really live by, whereas most Americans have been for so long, so safe and so sleepy, that they don’t any longer have any real sense of what they live by. I think they really think it may be Coca-Cola.
“If Niebuhr could ignore it, there must be something defective in that faith itself,” Cone said. “If it weren’t defective then they wouldn’t put black people on crosses. Niebuhr wouldn’t have been silent about it. I look around and see the same thing happening today in the prison industrial complex. You can lynch people by more than just hanging them on the tree. You can incarcerate them. How long will this terror last? I’m Christian. Suffering gives rise to faith. It helps you deal with it. But at the same time suffering contradicts the faith that it gave rise to. It is like Jacob wrestling with the angel. I can’t give up with the wrestling.”
Cone wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. But Barth, he admits, never moved him deeply. Cone found his inspiration in the black church, along with writers such as Baldwin, Albert Camus and Richard Wright, as well as the great blues artists of his youth. These artists and writers, not the white theologians, he said, gave him “a sense of awe.” He saw that “for most blacks it was the blues and religion that offered the chief weapons of resistance.” It was religion and the blues that “offered sources of hope that there was more to life than what one encountered daily in the white man’s world.” In the words of great poets and writers, in the verses of the great blues singers and in the thunderous services of the black church, not in the words of white theologians, Cone discovered those who were able to confront the bleak circumstances of their lives and yet defy fate and suffering to make the most of what little life had offered them. He had through these connections found his own voice, one that was powerfully expressed in his first work, the 1969 manifesto “Black Theology & Black Power.” Cone understood that “when people do not want to be themselves, but somebody else, that is utter despair.” And he knew that his faith “was the one thing white people could not control or take away.” He quotes the bluesman Robert Johnson:
I got to keep movinnnn’, I got to keep movinnnn’, Blues fallin’ like hail And the day keeps on worrin’ me, There’s a hellhound on my trail.
“I wanted to go back to study literature and get a Ph.D. in that at the University of Chicago in the 1960s and do it with Nathan Scott [who was then teaching theology and literature at the University of Chicago],” he said. “But the freedom movement was too urgent. I said to myself, ‘You have a Ph.D., if you ain’t got nothing to say now you ain’t never going to have anything to say.’ I’ve never taught a course on Barth.”
“I like people who talk about the real, concrete world,” he said. “And unless I can feel it in my gut, in my being, I can’t say it. The poor help me to say it. The literary people help me to say it—Baldwin is my favorite. Martin King is the next. Malcolm is the third element of my trinity. The poets give me energy. Theologians talk about things removed, way out there. They talk to each other. They give each other degrees. The real world is not there. So that is why I turn to the poets. They talk to the people.”
“Being Christian is like being black,” Cone said. “It’s a paradox. You grow up. You wonder why they treat you like that. And yet at the same time my mother and daddy told me ‘don’t hate like they hate. If you do, you will self-destruct. Hate only kills the hater, not the hated.’ It was their faith that gave them the resources to transcend the brutality and see the real beauty. It’s a mystery. It’s a mystery how African-Americans, after two and half centuries of slavery, another century of lynching and Jim Crow segregation, still come out loving white people. Now, most white people don’t think I love them, but I do. They always feel strange when I say that. You see, the deeper the love, the more the passion, especially when the one you love hurt you. Your brothers and sisters, and yet they treat you like the enemy. The paradox is, is that in spite of all that, African-Americans are the only people who’ve never organized to take down this nation. We have fought. We have given our lives. No matter what they do to us we still come out whole. Still searching for meaning. I think the resources for that are in the culture and in the religion that is associated with that. That faith and that culture, it was the blues of the spiritual, that faith and that culture gives African-Americans a sense that they are not what white people say they are.”
Cone sees the cross as “a paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last.” This idea, he points out, is absurd to the intellect, “yet profoundly real in the souls of black folk.” The crucified Christ, for those who are crucified themselves, manifests “God’s loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life—that transcendent presence in the lives of black Christians that empowered them to believe that ultimately, in God’s eschatological future, they would not be defeated by the ‘troubles of the world,’ no matter how great and painful their suffering.” Cone elucidates this paradox, what he calls “this absurd claim of faith,” by pointing out that to cling to this absurdity was possible only when one was shorn of power, when one was unable to be proud and mighty, when one understood that he was not called by God to rule over others. “The cross was God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.”
“It’s like love,” he said. “It’s something you cannot articulate. It’s self-evident in its own living. And I’ve seen it among many black Christians who struggle, particularly in the civil rights movement. They know they’re going to die. They know they’re not going to win in the obvious way of winning. But they have to do what they gonna do because the reality that they encounter in that spiritual moment, that reality is more powerful than the opposition, than that which contradicts it. People respond to what empowers them inside. It makes them know they are somebody when the world treats them as nobody. When you can do that, when you can act out of that spirit, then you know there is a reality that is much bigger than you. And that’s, that’s what black religion bears witness to in all of its flaws. It bears witness to a reality that empowers people to do that which seems impossible. I grew up with that. I really don’t ever remember wishing I was white. I may have, but I really don’t remember. It’s because the reality of my own community was so strong, that that was more important than the material things I saw out there. Their [African-Americans’] music, their preaching, their loving, their dancing—everything was much more interesting.”
“How do a people know that they are not what the world says they are when they have so few social, economic and political reasons in order to claim that humanity?” he asked. “So few political resources. So few economic, educational resources to articulate the humanity. How do they still claim, and be able to see something more than what the world says about them? I think it’s in that culture and it’s in the faith that is inseparable from that culture. That’s why I call the blues secular spirituals. They are a kind of resource, a cultural and mysterious resource that enables a people to express their humanity even though they don’t have many resources intellectually and otherwise to express it. Baldwin only finished high school. Wright only the ninth grade. But he still had his say. And B.B. King never got out of grade school. And Louis Armstrong hardly went to school at all. Now, I said to myself, if Louis could blow a trumpet like that, forget it, I’m gonna write theology the way Louis Armstrong blows that trumpet. I want to reach down for those resources that enable people to express themselves when the world says that you have nothing to say.”
“People who resist create hope and love of humanity,” he said. “The civil rights was a mass movement, but a movement defined by love. You always have both sides. You have bad faith and good faith. I like to write about the good faith. I like to write about faith that resists. I like to write about faith that empowers. I like to write about faith that enables people to look another in the eye and tell ’em what you think. I remember growing up in Arkansas. There were a lot of masks. I wore a mask in Arkansas as a child, not in my own community but when I went down to the white people’s town. I knew what they could do to you. But I kept saying to myself ‘one of these days I’m gonna say what I think to white people and make up for lost time,’ and so the last 40-something years that’s what I been doing. I write to encourage African-Americans to have that inner resource in order to have your say and to say it as clearly, as forcefully, and as truthfully as you can. Not all would be able to do that ’cause white people have a lot of power.”
“Now white churches are empty Christ churches,” he said. “They ain’t the real thing. They just lovin’ each other. That’s all, that’s all that is: socializin’ with each other, that’s what they do most of the time. You seldom go to a church that has any diversity to it. Now how can that be Christian? God was in Christ reconciling the world unto God’s self. Well, it’s in white churches that God and Christ separated us from white people. That’s what they say. And I’m sayin’ as long as you are silent and say nothin’ about it, as Reinhold Niebuhr did, say nothin’, you are just as guilty as the one who hung him on the tree because you were silent just like Peter. Now if you are silent, you are guilty. If you are gonna worship somebody that was nailed to a tree, you must know that the life of a disciple of that person is not going to be easy. It will make you end up on that tree. And so in this sense, I just want to say that we have to take seriously the faith or else we will be the opposite of what it means.”
“My momma and daddy did not have my opportunity, so when I write and speak I try to write and speak for them,” he said. “They not here. They never had a chance to stand before white people and tell ’em what they think. I gotta do it somehow. I try to do that all over the world. I think of Lucy Cone and Charlie Cone, and of all the other Lucy Cones and Charlie Cones that’s out there who cannot speak. I think of them, I don’t think of myself, I think of them. It deepens my spirituality. It gives me something to hold on to, that I can feel and touch. It’s a very spiritual experience, because you are doin’ something for people you love who cannot and will never have a chance to speak in a context like this. So, why do I need to speak for myself? I need to speak for them. If you feel passion in my voice, you feel energy in this text, that’s because I was thinkin’ of Lucy and Charlie, my daddy, and my mama. And as long as I do that, I’ll stay on the right track.”
Tags: chain gangs, cheap labor, incarceration rates, labor, labour, modern day slavery, prison industrial complex, prison labor, prison population, prisoners, racism, rania khalek, slave labor, slavery, unicor, us prisons
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strategy in the eternal quest to maximize profit.
are able to get away with paying them wages that rival those of third-world
sweatshops. These laborers have been legally stripped of their
political, economic and social rights and ultimately relegated to second-class
citizens. They are banned from unionizing, violently silenced from
speaking out and forced to work for little to no wages. This
marginalization renders them practically invisible, as they are kept hidden from
society with no available recourse to improve their circumstances or change
They are the 2.3 million American prisoners locked behind bars where we
cannot see or hear them. And they are modern-day slaves of the
It’s no secret that America imprisons more of its citizens than any other
nation in history. With just 5 percent of the world’s population,
the US currently holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In 2008,
over 2.3 million Americans were in prison or jail, with one of every 48
working-age men behind bars. That doesn’t include the tens of
thousands of detained undocumented immigrants facing deportation, prisoners
awaiting sentencing, or juveniles caught up in the school-to-prison
pipeline. Perhaps it’s reassuring to some that the US still holds
the number one title in at least one arena, but needless to say the
hyper-incarceration plaguing America has had a damaging effect on society at
According to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy
Research (CEPR), US prison rates are not just excessive in comparison to the
rest of the world, they are also substantially higher than our own longstanding
history. The study finds that incarceration rates between 1880 and
1970 ranged from about 100 to 200 prisoners per 100,000
people. After 1980, the inmate population began to grow much more
rapidly than the overall population and the rate climbed from about 220 in 1980
to 458 in 1990, 683 in 2000, and 753 in 2008.
The costs of this incarceration industry are far from evenly distributed,
with the impact of excessive incarceration falling predominantly on
African-American communities. Although black people make up just 13
percent of the overall population, they account for 40 percent of US prisoners. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), black
males are incarcerated at a rate more than 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5
that of Hispanic males and black females are incarcerated at approximately three
times the rate of white females and twice that of Hispanic females.
Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow that more black men are in jail, on probation, or on parole than were
enslaved in 1850. Higher rates of black drug arrests do not reflect higher rates
of black drug offenses. In fact, whites and blacks engage in drug offenses,
possession and sales at roughly comparable rates.
Clearly, the US prison system is riddled with racism and classism, but it
gets worse. As it turns out, private companies have a cheap, easy labor market,
and it isn’t in China, Indonesia, Haiti, or Mexico. It’s right here
in the land of the free, where large corporations increasingly employ prisoners
as a source of cheap and sometimes free labor.
In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant strategy in the
eternal quest to maximize profit. By dipping into the prison labor
pool, companies have their pick of workers who are not only cheap but easily
controlled. Companies are free to avoid providing benefits like
health insurance or sick days, while simultaneously paying little to no
wages. They don’t need to worry about unions or demands for
vacation time or raises. Inmate workers are full-time and never
late or absent because of family problems.
If they refuse to work, they are moved to disciplinary housing and lose
canteen privileges along with “good time” credit that reduces their
sentences. To top it off, the federal government subsidizes the use
of inmate labor by private companies through lucrative tax write-offs. Under
the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), private-sector employers
earn a tax credit of $2,400 for every work release inmate they employ as a
reward for hiring “risky target groups” and they can earn back up to 40 percent
of the wages they pay annually to “target group workers.”
Study after study demonstrates the wastefulness of America’s
prison-industrial complex, in both taxpayer dollars and innocent lives, yet
rolling back imprisonment rates is proving to be more challenging than ever.
Meanwhile, the use of private
prisons and now privately contracted inmate labor has created a system that does
not exactly incentivize leaner sentencing.
implications of such a system mean that skyrocketing imprisonment for the
possession of miniscule amounts of marijuana and the the expansion
of severe mandatory sentencing laws regardless of the conviction, are policies
that have to potential to increase corporate profits. As are
the“three strikes laws” that require courts to hand down mandatory and
extended sentences to people who have been convicted of felonies on three or
more separate occasions. People have literally been sentenced to life for minor crimes like
Reinvention of Slavery
The exploitation of prison labor is by no means a new
phenomenon. Jaron Browne, an organizer with People Organized
to Win Employment Rights (POWER), maps out how the exploitation of
prison labor in America is rooted in
slavery. The abolition of slavery dealt a devastating economic
blow to the South following the loss of free labor after the Civil
War. So in the late 19th century, an extensive prison system was
created in the South in order to maintain the racial and economic relationship
of slavery, a mechanism responsible for re-enslaving black
workers. Browne describes Louisiana’s famous Angola Prison to
illustrate the intentional transformation from slave to inmate:
“In 1880, this 8000-acre family plantation was purchased by the state of
Louisiana and converted into a prison. Slave quarters became cell units. Now
expanded to 18,000 acres, the Angola plantation is tilled by prisoners working
the land—a chilling picture of modern day chattel slavery.”
The abolition of slavery quickly gave rise to the Black Codes and Convict
Leasing, which together worked wonders at perpetuating African American
servitude by exploiting a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for
crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the
United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The Black Codes were a set of laws that criminalized legal activity for
African Americans and provided a pretext for the arrest and mass imprisonment of
newly freed blacks, which caused the percentage of African Americans in prison
to surpass whites for the first time. Convict
leasing involved leasing out prisoners to private companies that paid the state
a certain fee in return. Convicts worked for the companies during
the day outside the prison and returned to their cells at
night. The system provided revenue for the state and profits for
plantation owners and wasn’t abolished until the 1930s.
Unfortunately, convict leasing was quickly replaced with equally despicable
state-run chain gangs. Once again, stories of vicious abuse created
enough public anger to abolish chain gangs by the
1950s. Nevertheless, the systems of prisoner exploitation never
Today’s corporations can lease factories in prisons, as well as lease
prisoners out to their factories. In many cases, private
corporations are running prisons-for-profit, further incentivizing their stake
in locking people up. The government is profiting as well, by
running prison factories that operate as multibillion-dollar industries in every
state, and throughout the federal prison system, where prisoners are contracted out to major corporations by the
In the most extreme cases, we are even witnessing the reemergence of the
chain gang. In Arizona, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in
America,” Joe Arpaio, requires his Maricopa County inmates to enroll in chain gangs to perform various community services or
face lockdown with three other inmates in an 8-by-12-foot cell, for 23 hours a
day. In June of this year, Arpaio started a female-only chain gang made up of women convicted of
driving under the influence. In a press release he boasted that the
inmates would be wearing pink T-shirts emblazoned with messages about drinking
The modern-day version of convict leasing was recently spotted in Georgia,
where Governor Nathan Deal proposed sending unemployed probationers to work in Georgia’s
fields as a solution to a perceived labor shortage following the passage of the
country’s most draconian anti-immigrant law. But his plan backfired when some of the probationers began walking off
their jobs because the fieldwork was too strenuous.
There has also been a disturbing reemergence of the debtors’ prison, which
should serve as an ominous sign of our dangerous reliance on prisons to manage
any and all of society’s problems. According to the Wall Street Journal more than a third of all U.S. states allow
borrowers who can’t or won’t pay to be jailed. They found that judges signed off
on more than 5,000 such warrants since the start of 2010 in nine
counties. It appears that any act that can be criminalized in the
era of private prisons and inmate labor will certainly end in jail time, further
increasing the ranks of the captive workforce.
Prior to the 1970s, private corporations were prohibited from using prison
labor as a result of the chain gang and convict leasing
scandals. But in 1979, Congress began a process of deregulation to restore private sector involvement
in prison industries to its former status, provided certain conditions of the
labor market were met. Over the last 30 years, at least
37 states have enacted laws permitting the use of convict labor by private
enterprise, with an average pay of $0.93 to $4.73 per day.
Federal prisoners receive more generous wages that range
from $0.23 to $1.25 per hour, and are employed by Unicor, a wholly owned
government corporation established by Congress in 1934. Its
principal customer is the Department of Defense, from which Unicor derives
percent of its sales. Some 21,836 inmates work in Unicor programs. Subsequently,
the nation’s prison industry – prison labor programs producing goods or services
sold to other government agencies or to the private sector — now
employs more people
than any Fortune 500 company (besides General Motors), and
generates about $2.4 billion in revenue annually. Noah Zatz of UCLA law school estimates that:
“Well over 600,000, and probably close to a million, inmates are working
full-time in jails and prisons throughout the United States. Perhaps some of
them built your desk chair: office furniture, especially in state universities
and the federal government, is a major prison labor product. Inmates also take
hotel reservations at corporate call centers, make body armor for the U.S.
military, and manufacture prison chic fashion accessories, in addition to the
iconic task of stamping license plates.”
Some of the largest and most powerful corporations have a stake in the
expansion of the prison labor market, including but not limited to IBM, Boeing,
Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq,
Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern
Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and
many more. Between 1980 and 1994 alone, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Since the
prison labor force has likely grown since then, it is safe to assume that the
profits accrued from the use of prison labor have reached even higher levels.
In an article for Mother Jones, Caroline Winter details a
number of mega-corporations that have profited off of inmates:
“In the 1990s, subcontractor Third Generation hired 35 female
South Carolina inmates to sew lingerie and leisure wear for Victoria’s
Secret and JCPenney. In 1997, a California
prison put two men in solitary for telling journalists they were ordered to
replace ‘Made in Honduras’ labels on garments with ‘Made in the
According to Winter, the defense industry is a large part of the
equation as well:
“Unicor, says that in addition to soldiers’ uniforms, bedding,
shoes, helmets, and flak vests, inmates have ‘produced missile cables (including
those used on the Patriot missiles during the Gulf War)’ and ‘wiring harnesses
for jets and tanks.’ In 1997, according to Prison Legal
News, Boeing subcontractorMicroJet had
prisoners cutting airplane components, paying $7 an hour for work that paid
union wages of $30 on the outside.”
Oil companies have been known to exploit prison labor as well. Following the
explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and irreparably
damaged the Gulf of Mexico for generations to come, BP elected to hire Louisiana prison inmates to clean up its
mess. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state in
the nation, 70 percent of which are African-American men. Coastal residents
desperate for work, whose livelihoods had been destroyed by BP’s negligence,
were outraged at BP’s use of free prison labor.
In the Nation article that exposed BP’s hiring of inmates, Abe
Louise Young details how BP tried to cover up its use of prisoners by changing
the inmates’ clothing to give the illusion of civilian workers. But
nine out of 10 residents of Grand Isle, Louisiana are white, while the cleanup
workers were almost exclusively black, so BP’s ruse fooled very few
Private companies have long understood that prison labor can be as profitable
as sweatshop workers in third-world countries with the added benefit of staying
closer to home. Take Escod Industries, which in the 1990s abandoned plans to open
operations in Mexico and instead moved to South Carolina, because the wages of
American prisoners undercut those of de-unionized Mexican sweatshop workers. The
move was fueled by the state, which gave a $250,000 “equipment subsidy” to Escod
along with industrial space at below-market rent. Other examples include Ohio’s Honda supplier, which pays its prison workers
$2 an hour for the same work for which the UAW has fought for decades to be paid
$20 to $30 an hour; Konica, which has hired prisoners to repair its copiers for
less than 50 cents an hour; and Oregon, where private companies can “lease”
prisoners at a bargain price of $3 a day.
Even politicians have been known to tap into prison labor for their own
personal use. In 1994, a contractor for GOP congressional candidate Jack Metcalf
hired Washington state prisoners to call and remind voters he was pro-death
penalty. He won his campaign claiming he had no knowledge of the
scandal. Perhaps this is why Senator John Ensign (R-NV) introduced a bill earlier this year to require all
low-security prisoners to work 50 hours a week. After all, creating a national
prison labor force has been a goal of his since he went to Congress in 1995.
In an unsettling turn of events lawmakers have begun ditching public
employees in favor of free prison labor. The New York
Times recently reported that states are enlisting prison labor to close budget gaps to offset cuts in
federal financing and dwindling tax revenue. At a time of record
unemployment, inmates are being hired to paint vehicles, clean courthouses,
sweep campsites and perform many other services done before the recession by
private contractors or government employees. In Wisconsin, prisoners are now taking up jobs that were once
held by unionized workers, as a result of Governor Scott Walker’s contentious
Why You Should Care
Those who argue in favor of prison labor claim it is a useful tool for
rehabilitation and preparation for post-jail employment. But this
has only been shown to be true in cases where prisoners are exposed to
meaningful employment, where they learn new skills, not the labor-intensive,
menial and often dangerous work they are being tasked with. While
little if any evidence exists to suggests that the current prison labor system
decreases recidivism or leads to better employment prospects outside of prison,
there are a number of solutions that have been proven to be
According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, having a history of
incarceration itself impedes subsequent economic success. Pew found that past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11
percent, cut annual employment by nine weeks and reduced yearly earnings by 40
percent. The study suggests that the best approach is for state and
federal authorities to invest in programs that reconnect inmates to the labor
market, as well as provide training and job placement services around the time
of release. Most importantly, Pew says that in the long term, America must move
toward alternative sentencing programs for low-level and nonviolent offenders,
and issuing penalties that are actually proportionate with real public safety
The exploitation of any workforce is detrimental to all
workers. Cheap and free labor pushes down wages for
everyone. Just as American workers cannot compete with sweatshop
labor, the same goes for prison labor. Many jobs that come into
prison are taken from free citizens. The American labor movement
must demand that prison labor be allowed the right to unionize, the right to a
fair and living wage, and the right to a safe and healthy work
environment. That is what prisoners are demanding, but they can
only do so much from inside a prison cell.
As unemployment on the outside increases, so too will crime and incarceration
rates, and our 21st-century version of corporate slavery will continue to expand
unless we do something about it.
Everything you know about the Civil War is wrong June 9, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in History, War.
Tags: abolition, abolitionists, abraham lincoln, anti-catholic, Civil Rights, civil war, confederate states, david goldfield, frontier, harriet beecher stowe, history, horace greeley, jim crow, joan walsh, nativism, racism, reconstruction, Republican Party, roger hollander, slavery
Roger’s note:I have long mused over the question of whether the Civil War with its death toll of a half million was the only way to end the disgusting and inhuman institution of human slavery in the United States. Among other reasons, I believe the question is important because the noble objective of ending slavery is what we have always used to qualify the Civil War as a “just war.” Just as historian David Goldfield demonstrates complexities and underlying motives in play alongside the Abolitionist project, we find a parallel in the hidden dynamics behind the loose and disingenuous logic used by Obama and others to qualify as “just war” the aggressions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya … I am going to stop listing countries here because the under the emerging Bush/Obama Doctrine the so-called war
against terrorism “justifies” the making war on each and every inch of the globe.
Almost. Historian David Goldfield exposes how evangelical Protestants turned a conflict into a bloody conflagration
On the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Americans are engaged in new debates over what it was about. Southern revisionists have long tried to claim it wasn’t about slavery, but rather “Northern aggression” – which is a tough sell since they seceded from the Union despite Lincoln’s attempts at compromise on slavery, and then attacked the federal Fort Sumter in South Carolina. That would be Southern aggression, by any standard.
But there’s still room for smart revisionism. Instead of the traditional view that finds the Civil War a great moral and political triumph, David Goldfield calls it “America’s greatest failure” in his fascinating new book, “America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation.” It killed a half-million Americans and devastated the South for generations, maybe through today. And while many Northern Republicans came to embrace abolishing slavery as one of the war’s goals, Goldfield shows that Southerners are partly right when they say the war’s main thrust was to establish Northern domination, in business and in culture. Most controversially, Goldfield argues passionately — with strong data and argument, but not entirely convincingly — that the Civil War was a mistake. Instead of liberating African Americans, he says, it left them subject to poverty, sharecropping and Jim Crow violence and probably retarded their progress to become free citizens.
Whether or not you accept that premise – more on that later – Goldfield shows definitively that Northern evangelical Protestants were the moral force behind the war, and once they turned it into a religious question, a matter of good v. evil, political compromise was impossible. The Second Great Awakening set its sights on purging the country of the sins of slavery, drunkenness, impiety — as well as Catholics, particularly Irish Catholic immigrants. Better than any history I’ve seen, Goldfield tracks the disturbing links between abolitionism and nativism. In fact, he starts his book with the torching of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Mass. in 1834, a violent attack on Catholics which Goldfield shows was “incited” by Lyman Beecher, the father of the Beecher clan, most of whom turned out to be as anti-Irish Catholic as they were anti-slavery. To evangelical Protestant nativists, Catholicism was incompatible with democracy, because its adherents allegedly gave their loyalty to the Pope, not the president, and the religion’s emphasis on obeying a hierarchy made them unfit for self-government. Also, rebellious Irish Catholics didn’t show the proper discipline or deference to conform to emerging industrial America. The needs of Northern business were never far from some (though not all) abolitionists’ minds.
Still, though nativism was widespread in the North, and within the Republican Party (which absorbed some old Know-Nothing and nativist Whig party remnants), abolitionism remained at the party’s fringe. Most Republicans were seeking compromise, not the abolition of slavery, in the years before the war, including Abraham Lincoln. Our first Republican president didn’t like slavery, and he fiercely opposed its extension to the Territories, but he also expressed doubts about African-Americans’ capacity for democracy, and he opposed black suffrage. Lincoln supported the Fugitive Slave Act, which let slave-owners call on law enforcement even in free states to capture their runaway “property.” (As a lawyer, he’d represented a slave owner trying to recapture a fugitive slave.)
And as a strict constitutionalist, Lincoln resisted abolitionism, because like it or not, the Constitution made room for slavery. The president disliked slavery, but his priority was the union. He famously told abolitionist Republican Horace Greeley (who later turned against Reconstruction and ran for president as a Democrat, abandoning African Americans as did too many other abolitionists): “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
In fact, during Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign, Republicans went so far as to argue that they were the real White Man’s Party, because their commitment to keeping the Territories slave-free wasn’t about the evils of slavery; it was about keeping the West white, so white families alone could enjoy the bounty of the frontier without competition (except from Indians, who would be eradicated.) Democrats insisted they were the White Man’s Party, because slavery liberated white men to be the property owners and entrepreneurs God intended them to be, while an inferior race did their manual labor, for free. Most Republicans and Democrats agreed on white supremacy; they differed on the right way to maintain it.
Yet as the war went on, Lincoln came to see slavery as a moral cause, and he wouldn’t entertain compromise armistice proposals that let the South keep black people in bondage. In a book with few heroes, Lincoln emerges as one over time, virtually alone as an American politician in blending compassion for slaves with compassion for white Southerners. It’s popular to suggest that had Lincoln lived, Reconstruction would have been more successful. But Lincoln’s pattern of compromise throughout his political career makes speculating on what he’d have done very difficult. Goldfield makes clear, though, that Lincoln wanted reconciliation with the South, not Southern humiliation. In his subdued Second Inaugural Address, he refused to blame the war on the Confederacy, or trumpet the righteousness of the Northern cause. Because the Founders legalized slavery, he believed the country, North and South, shared responsibility for it. Lincoln closed with words made more poignant by the fact that the outcome he envisioned didn’t come to be (and still hasn’t):
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Lincoln even proposed a plan to compensate slaveowners for their losses. That might make our blood boil today, but it was actually the way slavery had been abolished in other countries. Clearly, the Southern economy was destroyed, and families suffered hugely. Most of the war took place on Southern battlefields, destroying farms, homes, churches, businesses. A quarter of Southern men between the ages of 20 and 40 died; more than 28 million Southerners, white as well as black, fled the devastated Confederate states in the decades after the war. And while Northern wealth increased 50 percent between 1860 and 1870, the South lost 60 percent of its wealth in those years, roughly half of it human “property.” Lincoln proposed legislation establishing a $400 million fund to compensate Southerners for giving up slavery, if they would recognize national sovereignty and ratify the 13th Amendment emancipating the slaves. We don’t know what Southern leaders would have said; Lincoln’s own cabinet nixed the idea.
It’s also possible Lincoln might not have taken from Confederate leaders the right to vote and hold office away, while giving it to former slaves, as Congress did after his death. Again, however fair that may seem from our distant (presumed) consensus that the pro-slavery Confederacy deserved whatever it had coming, it let Southern leaders complain they’d been “disenfranchised,” even though the stricture only affected a fraction of the Southern male population. It was also rank hypocrisy, as eight northern states rejected black suffrage, while forcing it on the former Confederacy. But we’ll never know what Lincoln would have done; he died. Meanwhile, the view of Henry Ward Beecher, staunch anti-Catholic (and a villain in this book, if it has one) prevailed: In a speech just before Lincoln’s death, he gave a sermon at Fort Sumter:
The whole guilt of this war rests upon the ambitious, educated, plotting, political leaders of the South…A day will come when God will reveal judgment and arraign at his bar these mighty miscreants…And then [they] will be whirled aloft and plunged downward forever and ever in an endless retribution.”
Contrast that with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and then try to figure out which man is the actual Christian leader.
Goldfield’s book has been well-reviewed, because if it’s sympathetic to Southern whites, it depicts the savagery of slavery and post-war white terrorism with unflinching and gut-wrenching clarity. (Literally. The book’s tales of slaves’ abuse and Southern white post-war savagery will make you sick.) Still, this Civil War history challenges the absolutism of the “Northerners were heroes, and Southerners were vicious, violent racists” school of history. He exposes and excoriates Southern whites’ violence against black people before and after the war. But he also links the war to the pro-business evangelical Protestant crusade to eradicate native American Indians, Mexicans, Irish and German Catholic immigrants, and an emerging class of landless Northern laborers – anyone who stood in the way of their vision of clean, hard-working, business-friendly American progress. And he counts the South as a victim of that Northern evangelical crusade. Southerners were another group that simply wasn’t conforming to their doctrine of “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men,” as the title of Eric Foner’s equally complicated and fantastic Republican Party history puts it.
Republicans were first and foremost the party of small business, an emerging class of industrialists, the nascent middle class, and anti-Catholic nativists. They despised the working class – or denied it existed. Lincoln himself talked of the emerging caste of wage-earners optimistically as “young beginners,” who would work for a time, save money, then buy land and/or their own business. Republicans either couldn’t imagine an America with a permanent class of laborers (like Lincoln), or they dreamed of one, but found ways to convince those workers it was all in their interest. In their defense, in the decades after the Civil War, the Horatio Alger, rags to riches story was never more true.
It’s indisputable that Republican zeal for the liberation of black people was always a fringe sentiment – and even among that fringe, it was short lived. After the war, Northerners wanted to get back to business, and they did, with a vengeance. During the war, the federal government had flexed muscles of taxation, conscription and land annexation. The post-war era’s emerging robber barons pointed to the Union army’s successes as a justification of their march toward monopoly. “Who can buy beef the cheapest – the housewife for her family, the steward for her club or hotel, or the commissary for the army?” Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller asked. Oil and steel businesses boomed. The transcontinental railroad was completed — as was the near-eradication of American Indians.
Goldfield shows how leading Union generals almost immediately became warriors on the frontier, bringing the zeal with which they decimated the backward South to the task of decimating backward “savages.” That new crusade had direct ramifications for Southern blacks. Even when President Ulysses S. Grant tried to use the military to beat back white Southern paramilitary groups literally massacring African-Americans trying to execute basic rights, he couldn’t, because soldiers were deployed out West in the new Civil War against Indians. One hero of the book, Mississippi Republican Gov. Adelbert Ames, tries to use his power to protect blacks from Southern Democratic violence, but there were no Federal soldiers left in his state to call upon, they were all on the anti-Indian front. As the state’s “White Line” paramilitary group tore through Mississippi to violently intimidate black voters, Ames was forced to give up his governor’s position and flee. Early in the book, Goldfield quotes a Northern newspaper editor proclaiming “We can have no peace in this country until the CATHOLICS ARE EXTERMINATED.” Near the end, he finds a Birmingham News headline that reads: “We intend to beat the negro in the battle of life, and defeat means one thing: EXTERMINATION.” That doesn’t feel heavy handed; it’s fact, and it’s tragic.
Meanwhile, attacks on Irish Catholics continued. Although the famed Civil War Irish brigades fought bravely, the Organization of Union Veterans wouldn’t include them – or black Union veterans, either. And if certain abolitionists hadn’t already shamed themselves with their anti-Irish Catholic bias, they would later, when they dropped their concern for African Americans – and in fact, joined slavery advocates in concluding that blacks were unfit for self-government. After the war, Henry Ward Beecher began hawking watches and preaching “The Gospel of Prosperity;” he also wrote a novel whose hero was an industrious white Southerner, and whose main black character was a stupid, drunken man-child incapable of self-support. Beecher remained viciously anti-Irish Catholic and opposed to the emerging labor movement (those two things were connected, by the way, for quite a few abolitionists), arguing that the era’s strikes showed that the working class was “unfit for the race of life.” During the Great Railway Strike of 1877, he denounced the strikers in his loathsome “bread and water” sermon, where he thundered: “Man cannot live by bread alone but the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live.” A few days later he proclaimed: “If you are being reduced, go down boldly into poverty.” I wonder if Scott Walker is an admirer.
Harriet Beecher Stowe moved to former Confederate Florida, became an Episcopalian, wrote a best-selling book about home decorating for women, and never again troubled herself about the (former) slaves. Abolitionist Horace Greeley gave up on Reconstruction and black rights quickly. His New York Tribune, which once crusaded against slavery, began to feature “exposes” of Reconstruction, including tales of black “corruption” and political incompetence. Even the Nation magazine, which we remember as a journal of abolitionism, soured on the experiment with black suffrage. Editor E.L. Godkin proclaimed that the “blackest” legislators were the worst, particularly in South Carolina, where blacks possessed an “average of intelligence but slightly above the level of animals.”
Part of the problem was that at the same time, the North was experiencing its own political growing pains, which former egalitarians suddenly blamed on universal (male) suffrage. New York recoiled at the Boss Tweed corruption scandal of 1870. Tweed himself wasn’t Irish, but some of his on-the-take top lieutenants were, and he relied on the votes of Irish Catholic immigrants – who produced votes in excess of their already large, pro-Democratic numbers, thanks to the Tammany machine, as vote fraud was rampant. The New York Times used Tweed’s corruption as “an example of the Irish Catholic despotism that rules the City of New York.” At the same time, the once-abolitionist paper blamed “ignorant Negroes” for South Carolina’s corruption issues, which had of course predated black suffrage and would survive it.
Suddenly white Northern Republicans had a reason to sympathize with white Southern Democrats: Universal suffrage blighted both sides of the Civil War conflict. There’s no better symbol of the transformation of Northern abolitionist sentiment than the work of cartoonist Thomas Nast: The pro-Union Harper’s artist once graphically depicted the perfidy of Confederates and championed civil rights for slaves. But his most famous cartoon, from 1876, depicted Irish Catholics and African-Americans – two simian creatures labeled “Paddy” and “Sambo” — as “The Ignorant Vote.” Northerners had new appreciation for the South. It made the country whole: The North stood for reason, the South romance. Northern industrialists were happy to preserve the Old South in amber, a land of sweet magnolias and even sweeter women, who hadn’t been “masculinized” by either labor or freedom, as Northern women were. It became a shrine to our agrarian past as worshipped by the founders, permanently left behind.
In this same period, even a couple of liberal heroes fell down too. Mark Twain and Walt Whitman both lamented the messiness of universal suffrage. Their worries, paradoxically, came out of a certain kind of populism. Whitman concluded that “the appalling dangers of universal suffrage” seemed to be empowering a rapacious post-war business class. Likewise, Twain railed against the greed of “The Gilded Age,” a searing term he coined to describe the cruel era of robber barons, but he believed poor uneducated voters were letting the rich run rampant. A dinner companion reported Twain railing against “this wicked ungodly suffrage, where the vote of a man who knew nothing was as good as the vote of a man of education and industry; this endeavor to equalize what God has made unequal was a wrong and a shame.” Both troubadours of democracy believed that universal suffrage was dooming democracy, as uninformed voters backed politicians who colluded with robber barons to destroy the country. Thus they concluded, Goldfield writes, “It might be prudent to restrict democracy in order to save it.”
For many reasons, Northern Republicans gave up on the early goals of Reconstruction: to grant free blacks civil and economic rights. Goldfield quotes a Northerner observing a general desire to forget the war, and particular “apathy about the Negro” – shades of the “compassion fatigue” that would be diagnosed by neoconservatives 100 years later, after the Great Society. The parallels between the backlash against Reconstruction, and the backlash against Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights reforms, are unmistakable and chilling. The Republican Party of the 1860s, just like the Democratic Party of the 1960s, paid dearly for championing the rights of African Americans. And both parties backed away from their commitment to addressing the economic barriers to black inclusion once they dealt with the era’s pressing moral problem: In Lincoln’s case, Southern slavery, in Johnson’s, violent Southern suppression of black civil and voting rights. After each morally overdue reckoning, the parties suffered, and then they changed sides. Republicans were trounced after Reconstruction, as Democrats became the party of the South; 100 years later, Democrats were trounced, and Republicans became the party of the South. The Civil War is still not over.
Here is where Goldfield’s scrupulously fair and heart-breaking story softens up even the most ardent civil rights advocate, to begin to sympathetically contemplate his notion that the Civil War could have been avoided, and slavery eradicated without it. As much as I love this book, and believe anyone concerned about race relations and the country’s current political stalemate should read it, I couldn’t quite get there. I understand Goldfield’s reasoning. In an interview with Leonard Lopate, he contended that the abolition of slavery was inevitable “in a world that was hurtling toward the Industrial Revolution.” I can imagine that, had a more politically creative group of politicians tried to compromise on a way out of slavery – perhaps offering to compensate slaveholders for their slaves, the way every other country that abolished slavery did – we maybe, maybe, might have avoided the Civil War.
But that’s such starry-eyed conjecture, it’s hard to go there. One of the most persuasive arguments for Goldfield’s theory is the fact that it took another hundred years to end Jim Crow. And almost 50 years after that, African Americans still aren’t completely free: the legacy of what we lamely call “structural racism,” in the criminal justice system, the health care system, the housing and job market, lives on. That makes it easy, in a way, to fantasize: Hell, yeah, there had to be a way to do this in less than 150 years!
I wish. While it’s possible, I just don’t see the evidence in Goldfield’s meticulously researched, passionately argued book. Yes, decent Southerners had doubts about slavery, and even some of those who didn’t tried desperately to save the union. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens of Georgia was an old Whig friend of Abraham Lincoln’s, and he didn’t want war. But he couldn’t compromise on slavery, not even when he met Lincoln for a secret peace summit early in 1865, as the Confederate Army lay bleeding after Sherman’s march and Grant’s late victories. And after the war, which perhaps made Southerners bitter in a way that foreclosed compromise, Goldfield depicts few if any ex-Confederates voicing contrition about their role in the war, as Lincoln did, let alone a desire for reconciliation – and certainly not support for equal rights for former slaves.
Still, with half a million Americans dead on Civil War battlefields, and 150 more years of bitter conflict, it’s worth pondering Goldfield’s challenge — if only because it might give some modern visionary a way to see beyond our current social, racial and economic stalemate. I have no doubt about Goldfield’s premise that we are still fighting the Civil War. We still need a way to end it. This book models the complicated, even contradictory, compassionate vision that might make that possible. Eventually.
- Joan Walsh is Salon’s editor at large. More: Joan Walsh
Lies About the US Civil War 150 Years Later April 13, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in History, War.
Tags: civil liberties, civil war, david swanson, history, lincoln, permanent war, roger hollander, slavery, war, war casualties, war deaths
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Tuesday marks 150 years since the start of the US Civil War. Newspapers everywhere are proclaiming it the deadliest war in US history, the costliest US war in terms of the loss of human life. That claim, like most things we say about the Civil War, is false.
Most humans, it will surprise our newspapers to learn, are not US citizens. World War II killed 100 times as many people as the US Civil War, with World War I not far behind. US wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq are among those that have killed far more human beings than the Civil War killed.
The South, we’re told, merely wanted to be independent; slavery had nothing to do with it. Of course, this is nonsense. The South wanted to be independent in order to maintain slavery.
The North, we’re told, merely wanted to free the slaves; power, empire, profit, and politics had nothing to do with it. Of course, this too is nonsense. The war was well underway before Lincoln “freed the slaves.” Actually he did not free those slaves whom he actually could free in the border states, but only those he could not free unless the North won the war. Freeing the slaves, like bringing democracy to Iraq or saving the Jews from Hitler, was a belated justification for a war that had other motivations. Adding that moral mission to the war helped keep European nations from backing the South and helped keep Northerners killing and dying in sufficient numbers.
Regardless of who said what when, the war did end slavery and was therefore justifiable. Or so we’re told. Yet, every other nation that ended slavery did so without a civil war. Similarly, we justify the American war for independence because it brought independence, even though Canada and countless other countries achieved independence without war. If we had used a war to create public schools, we would denounce critics of that war as opponents of education. To seriously justify a war, however, would require showing that anything it accomplished could not have been accomplished without all the killing, wounding, traumatizing, and destroying. What if the North had allowed the South to secede and repealed the fugitive slave law? What if an independent North had used trade, diplomacy, and morality to pressure the South to end slavery? Would slavery have lasted longer than the Civil War raged? If so, we are still talking, at best, about a war to hasten the end of slavery.
Even if the war was really launched for national power, to keep states together in a nation for the nation’s sake, we are all better off as a result. Or so we’re taught. But is it true? Most Americans believe that our system of representative government is badly broken, as of course it is. Our politicians are bought and sold, directed by corporate media outlets, and controlled by two political parties rather than the citizenry. One reason it’s difficult to bring public pressure to bear on elected officials is that our nation is too darn big. Most US citizens can’t join a protest in their nation’s capital if they want to. A resistance movement in Wisconsin can’t very well spread to other key cities; they’re all hundreds or thousands of miles away. In the years that followed the “preservation of the union,” the United States completed its conquest of the continent and began building an overseas empire, driven in large part by pressure from the same interests that had profited from the Civil War.
Secession has as bad a name as socialism, but Wisconsin could secede, ban foreign (US) money from its elections and create a government of, by, and for the people by next year. A seceded California could be one of the most pleasant nations to live in on earth. Vermont would have a civilized healthcare system already if not for Washington, DC Yes, the North helped end Jim Crow in the South, but the South did most of that on its own, and we all helped end Apartheid in South Africa without being South Africa. In the absence of viable representative government, we won’t do much else on a national scale that we can be proud of. We now, in the United States, imprison more people of African descent than were enslaved here at the time of the Civil War, and it is national policies, completely out of the control of the American people, that produce that mass incarceration.
Those who fought in the Civil War, regardless of the politics or results, were heroes. Or so we are told. But most of the men who killed and died were not the generals whose names we are taught. They were soldiers, lined up like cogs in a machine, killing and dying on command. The vast majority of them, as with soldiers on both sides of all wars prior to late-20th century conditioning, avoided killing if at all possible. Many simply reloaded their guns over and over again, fetched supplies for others, or lay in the dirt. Killing human beings does not come easily to most human beings, and many will avoid it — unless properly conditioned to brainlessly kill — even at risk to their own lives. To be sure, many killed and many who did not kill died or lost their limbs. There was much bravery and sacrifice and even noble intention. But it was all for a tragically pointless exercise in collective stupidity, lunacy, and horror. Reassuring as it is to put a pretty gloss on a tragedy like this, we would be better served by facing the facts and avoiding the next one.
A century and a half after this madness burst forth, the United States has established a permanent military and permanent war time, with military bases in over 100 other countries, multiple major wars, and numerous small-scale secretive wars underway. Our weapons industry, born out of the Civil War, is our biggest industry, the world’s biggest arms supplier, and the source for the armaments used by many of the nations we fight our modern wars against. The civil liberties, the right to habeas corpus, everything that Lincoln temporarily stripped away for the War Between the States, also known — quite accurately — as the War of Northern Aggression, has now been stripped away for good by Justice Department lawyers and prostituted pundits pointing to Lincoln’s example. The legacy of the Civil War has been death, destruction, the erosion of democracy, and the propaganda that produces more of the same. Enough is enough. Let’s get our history right. Let’s glorify those years in our past during which we did not all try to kill each other.