Monday, December 13, 2010

Nothing to Celebrate, Ctd.

Much to my surprise, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal ran an editorial last Sunday which echoed my post about the secession celebration.  As I expected, the local head of the Sons of Confederate Veterans replied with the same tired claim that "slavery was not the primary cause" of the Civil War.  The Herald-Journal published my reply yesterday:

Mark Simpson’s letter Thursday objecting to the Herald-Journal’s unassailable case that South Carolina seceded to protect slavery is an example of distraction and diversion masquerading as argument.
Mr. Simpson never actually addresses the subject of the motive behind secession. Instead, he makes the point that Northerners were complicit in slavery. That’s true, but it is irrelevant. It tells us nothing about why Southerners seceded. He tells us there was no “nationally funded program” to end slavery before the Civil War. Again, true but irrelevant.
Lastly, he notes that Southerners generally (but not universally) opposed the tariff. True again. But no serious student of the secession crisis can argue that this was a meaningful motive for secession. At the South Carolina secession convention, delegate Lawrence Keitt stated this fact as plainly as is possible: “The tariff is not the question which brought the people up to their present attitude. ... Our people come upon this on the question of slavery. ... It is the central point from which we are now proceeding.” Not a single delegate contradicted him.
Real respect for history means listening to the past. Mr. Simpson asserts that “slavery wasn’t the primary cause.” The people who made the decision said it was “the central point.” When the South Carolina secessionists say repeatedly that they seceded to protect slavery, I believe them. Mr. Simpson would have us believe that they either didn’t know why they did what they did or that they lied about it. I take them at their word.
Mr. Simpson’s dilemma is this: He condemns slavery, but the people he venerates not only supported it but considered it a “positive good.” Unable to resolve that dilemma, he throws up a smoke screen to distract from it. No matter how much be objects, he cannot change the facts.

Mr. Simpson's position is truly puzzling to me.  He is not stupid.  His response to the editorial shows that he knows quite a bit about the facts.  For example, when I teach the Civil War, I always make the point that slavery was an American problem, as Simpson does in his letter.  But as I note in my reply, he employs facts to distort rather than illuminate.

In a previous exchange we had four years ago, it was the same.  It is hard to see this as mere misunderstanding, or an inability to comprehend causation.  This is denialism: a state of being so invested in a specific position that no amount of evidence, no degree of logical argumentation can put so much as a dent in the near-religious certainty.

Where that comes from I don't pretend to know.  But the existence of such imperviousness to reason has real consequences for our politics.  If 150 years later we cannot find agreement on something which the perspective of history should leave us with no doubt about, the chances of true consensus on contemporary controversial issues begin to seem rather slim.

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