The Great Bamboozling Continues

{The following essay was inspired by the book, CONFEDERATE RECKONING by Stephanie McCurry, Harvard University Press, 2010. I am grateful to her for helping me see today’s insanity in light of America’s 19th Century madness, otherwise known as The Civil War.}

The Fattest of today’s Fat Cat Republicans (who used to be called Democrats in the 1850’s) have always excelled at bamboozling white and blue collar white males—-the so-called “yeoman class” who spend their lifetimes believing they have a chance at The American Dream. Unfortunately, all the working class ever gets is spider bites while their “Betters” on their lush tuffets get the curds and whey in a cruel sleight of hand by some very talented and nasty folks. I ought to know. My ancestors were on the wrong side of what they preferred to call “The War of Northern Aggression”. My progenitors in the 19th Century helped give the working class in the South a monumental screwing and 150 years later the 1% is still doing it as we speak.

Consider a new perspective on the war among the United States that always seemed so romantic—a dashing and heroic lost cause against a wise and empathetic Honest Abe. Southern war deaths were an estimated quarter of a million and “change”. Valiant slaveowners fighting for a way of life in which no white man would ever be made to work as a valet or bootblack, a field hand chopping cotton or cane… And yet the actual numbers are staggering: Only an estimated 7% of those valiant Sons of the South owned black men.

Ponder that box score: Of the estimated 258,000 young Southern men who died only 18,060 actually had an actual economic “dog in the fight”, a good old Dixie expression. Pray ask yourself: How on earth did the 7% convince the 93% to lose arms, legs, brothers, fathers, sons and lives in a doomed cause to support a Slave-ocracy? Were the poor and middle class whites on the sidelines praying that some fine day they could own a slave or three?

I asked some young men the same sort of question back in 1990’s Chicago. Good staunch and white, these kids were firemen, cops and office workers on the first three or four rungs of their careers. Our modern yeomen. “You all going to vote for Al Gore?” I asked, assuming far too much.

They laughed as if I had just stepped out from an alternate universe. “Bush?” I asked, really puzzled. They nodded. “But,” I continued in my foolishness, “not one of you makes over $100,000 a year. Why on earth would you vote against your own economic interests?”

Rather than engage in an argument with an out-of it Left Winger from the East, they went back to their chat about The Bulls, the Bears and hunting—Basketball, Football and Deer. I am guessing that their choice of a Republican President netted them very little in the way of cash.

That same election cycle I was astounded by a good motorcycle buddy, a retired firefighter who was as ardent a Republican as one could be. Over the course of several hundred miles’ worth of trips around California, Nevada, Arizona and farther east, my pal, whom I’ll call Dave, laid out his belief structure: You make your own bed and you lie in it and nobody gets to have a government bed maker. He quoted the old Ronald Reagan meadow muffin about the Cadillac Welfare Mother (code for “Negress”, as my late parents would have said) and the Food Stamp Abomination and Gays and Lesbians wrecking marriage between normal folks and this intolerable living in a deficit which FDR invented and Social Security which will be gone by the time anyone’s grand children or great grandchildren reach 65 or 70 if they jigger the deal or 75 or God knows what-all if all the babies aren’t aborted by then. And where in The Constitution does it say that OSHA can come in and make American factories so “safe” that we have to export them to Bangladesh? Costing us jobs?

I gave up. I was too weak, too confused, and too blown away by how beautifully was Dave’s constructed defense of the very people who had made and would continue to make a bloody mess of the United States for the rest of us.

In 1859-1860 I would not have been alone in the South. There were Unionists as they were called and they tried to point out the insanity of and the treason of seceding from the United States over an issue as abominable as defining personhood and citizenship by one’s color (and gender for that matter). The Unionists were more successful in the Upper South than the Lower South, but, after President Lincoln called for an army to deal with South Carolina and other yahoos who might decide to follow that treasonous path, Southern Unionists were tarred and feathered, murdered, or forced to run North if they didn’t change their beliefs with celerity. (Some stayed, at risk of life and limb, and worked as spies for the North, forever ostracizing themselves from the core of Loyal Southerners.)

The question remains: How did the outrageously entitled wealthy 7% convince the social and economic middle and lower classes to have their limbs blown off to preserve “Our peculiar institution” as planters liked to call owning people of color…well, not people actually. Property, more like.

It kind of makes you ask, why did the planters have to convince anyone of anything? Weren’t they numerous enough to fight their war for their slaves all by their entitled white selves?

No.

First and foremost, they had to get scads of warm bodies to fight their war, warm bodies who would choose “patriotism” over common sense and self preservation. The planters would all be officers, especially cavalry officers with swords and sashes like my relative, General Earl Van Dorn, but full-scale war on the 19th Century Napoleonic model needed bullet-catchers, waves of grape-shot absorbers and an infinite number of color bearers. And thus was trotted out the favorite word of the 1% when they are really up to something tricky: DEMOCRACY! They had to convince the yeomen that it wasn’t about slavery, it was about human rights. (I am puzzled that no one broke into gales of sarcastic laughter whenever planters spoke of human rights as owners, who traded, killed, raped and branded live humans.) (I do recall my father explaining to me in the 1940’s that “…slaves had a much better time of it than the poor whites who had to eke out a hardscrabble living.” I believe my father had been told this by his father and his father’s father. Thus it was traditional that I imbibe at the same font. A few years later my older brother came home with Josh White’s recording of “Strange Fruit”—“…hanging from Southern trees”, a song about lynching Black people, my father confiscated it because it was repulsive. Inherited Southern guilt took many odd forms.) I do not doubt that my father (born in 1906 New Orleans) had witnessed a lynching or knew people who had. I do remember his telling us that Blacks were happier among their own kind.

[Democracy is that word that the 1% (or, in this case, the 7%) uses to imply that we are all equals, all in this together with equal rights and equal stakes.]

The 7% of the South began the great bamboozling of the 93% by painting a picture of terror if the horrible abolitionists laid waste to the slave states. The dialogue changed from owning slaves to core values of the unique South. Picture this! All of a sudden Negroes would be free to wander around loose with the same rights as Whites who were evolutionarily and scientifically and socially and geopolitically superior. The agitprop of the Deep South made it clear that white jobs would be at risk if slaves were free to compete for the same jobs as their betters. More importantly, however, white jobs took a back seat to the much-bruited fear of freed slaves taking white women—wives and daughters and sisters and mothers—willy and nilly, by force or choice. (Holy Smoke! What if it were true that white women might prefer the stronger, more “primitive” black males?)

It hardly needs elaborating here that the newspapers and the prime media outlets of the day were owned then as now by the folks with the most to lose if the status quo were tossed into the trash. Handbills, posters, papers, travelling lecturers, all combined to create a fearful future for poor whites. That soon morphed into a nobly romantic struggle to protect white women (who were not citizens and required paternal protection) against hordes of marauding Yankees and the over-sexed rampaging former slaves.

This brings to mind the brilliant but not by any means new “Southern Strategy” the Republicans employed to gull erstwhile Southern Democrats into following Reagan and Nixon and a bunch of Bushes. (Hell, young Bush even used it against his own party hopeful, John McCain, by alleging he had fathered a black child out of wedlock.) And Reagan had that Welfare Momma laughing all the way to the bank fleecing the poor but honest white kids who actually worked for a living. (It is interesting that one minute Blacks are shiftless lazy parasites and the next they are job thieves depending upon whom you are trying to terrify. Affirmative Action anyone?)

If being terrified of slaves raping everyone’s mother weren’t enough, how about them voting? Democracy as understood by the elite involves any number of hypocritical contortions. Democracy is fine so long as the poor don’t get a hold and try to steer the damn thing. Lately we have seen a few Republicans building all manner of restrictions and barriers designed to keep the really really poor from voting for their own interests. The same thing happened in the run-up to the very Un-Civil War as anti-secessionist votes were “lost” or destroyed. Unionists were threatened with arrest for treason in their refusal to allow the States to commit their own version of treason. Oddly enough, the Northwestern chunk of Virginia pulled back so hard that it seceded from the secession and became that little bit of Heaven called West Virginia.

Reagan’s famous quote about the most dangerous words in the lexicon were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help…” is not all that far from the Slaveocracy’s claim that Abolitionist Yankee Black Republicans were going to wreck the South’s unique and wonderful way of life with their interventionist government regulations. The phrase “Black Republican” was enough to send shivers down the spines of any poorly educated dependent Freemen (not Black and not female) and those shivers motivated them to enlist in the local militia. In fact, the Planters used them as Political Gangs to help convince treasonous doubters about the wisdom of secession.

The 7% didn’t stop there. They played another Ace, an inverted sense of fatherland worship. The concept of patriotism became distorted into a unique fantasy of the Cavalier South, that place where family values and a “sensible” patriarchy fought daily against the grinding mercantile grasping of the industrial north. Today’s Republicans are frequently guilty of painting a picture of an America before Big Government and the Nanny State where freedom ruled and anyone could grow up to be President, a millionaire or both.

The fact that the picture was a gaudy fabrication worthy of the “Painter of Light”, Thomas Kincade, doesn’t seem to bother anyone but co-dependent Liberals. (If you want to see a horrible example of that lie on film, check out Disney’s SONG OF THE SOUTH where the happy slaves and their kids [otherwise known as property] are having a fine time singing, dancing and loving their “protective” environment and benign Massa’s.)

The malady lingers. Confederate Battle Flags still fly on staffs, in decals, on stickers, on the hearts of folks who would never dream of walking shoulder to shoulder onto a hillside blanketed with Union artillery. The romance of The Lost Cause is infectious and keeps Cain from sitting down with Abel because Abel is better off, more gifted, dad’s favorite. Instead we have created a parody in which there is more truth than humor—“You might be a redneck if you have at least one relative named ‘Gator.” The modern Republican strategy demands there MUST BE A THEM. The Southern voters must be reminded that the Democrats think they are stupid and need to be kept down, that their religion is dismissed as crazy fable, their mores outmoded and primitive, that they eat too much fat, weigh too much, drive gas guzzlers which must be taken away along with their guns and personal freedoms.

And the Blacks…well…

And so… “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”