Daniel Nasaw is one of the handful of Beeboids working the US beat who was actually born and raised here. In his latest feature for the BBC online Magazine, a “From Our Own Correspondent” segment, he visits a Civil War battle reenactment to use as a metaphor for a primary Narrative about the current state of US politics we hear across the spectrum of BBC broadcasting: an historic, extreme polarization.
Nasaw doesn’t so much get the basic relevant history bits of the Civil War wrong as he does the lesson which he’s trying to invent from it.
(Audio “From Our Own Correspondent” version is here, beginning @17:18)
In addition to the morale-boosting effect for the North (it was a strategic draw, really but ended Gen. Lee’s push into Union territory), the Battle of Antietam is pretty legendary because of the carnage, so it’s a good choice for Nasaw to hold up as a symbol of how horrible the splitting of the nation was. Which becomes the problem, as we’ll soon see. First, a bit about the whole reenactment thing, which seems to baffle our not-so-humble correspondent as well as amuse him much in the way natives in exotic locations reenacting colorful tribal rituals amuse the tourists.
It really is a pretty big hobby, as Nasaw says. Lots of groups all around the country – even in places that weren’t remotely involved in the conflict – many with the same kind of enthusiasm and attention to detail as any historical hobbyist group. They can be as hardcore as any bunch of enthusiasts, and relaxed about it at the same time. They’re there mostly to have fun rather than declare their allegiance to any political ideology. Not that the history behind the game isn’t on some people’s minds in many cases.
Unlike Nasaw, who seems to have approached this event from another culture entirely, I’ve actually participated in one of these battle reenactments. As these things happen, a friend of a friend knew someone involved with the local historical society who was putting on one of these battles. They needed bodies, so I jumped at the chance. Also unlike Nasaw, I had no ancestors involved in the Civil War, as mine didn’t even get to the US until
more than almost 40 years after it was over. I ended up dressing for the Confederate (“Rebel”) side, simply because that’s where they needed bodies. I was supplied with a period costume of civilian clothing, not a uniform, as the South couldn’t always afford everything for their troops. This also struck home the fact that – as Nasaw points out but apparently doesn’t accept – many really did come out to fight for their homes and safety of their families more than for any political ideal, or to keep their right to own slaves.
We did a few minutes of actual drills from some period military book, and learned to load and fire the percussion muskets (all replicas, not rifled IIRC) used at the time. Having to stand there furiously attempting to reload after one shot while a wall of guns fired at me from the other side, and the next rank of my team running forwards into the volley to their next spot before taking their next shot, told me in about thirty seconds a whole lot more about why these battles were so bloody and not always conclusive than anything I’d ever read on the subject. It’s all a bit of a joke to Nasaw, but it can be a real lesson. As for who decides who dies when, naturally I asked the same thing he did, but didn’t take offense like he seemed to at being told that was a rookie question. As it turned out, there were a few veterans in charge of each side who would just occasionally say, “You’re dead….now you can die….we need a couple people to die on this next volley,” and so on. Not a big deal.
Now for why Nasaw is wrong to use the Civil War for the message he wants to get across. First of all, the concern about States’ Rights goes back long before the Civil War, right back to the founding of the United States of America. It was a vital issue debated by the founders for years before and after independence. In fact, the Civil War wasn’t even the first time secession came into the picture. Of course, what’s going on here is that Nasaw is trying cast light on the polarized political situation we’re in today. We keep hearing from our media elites that the country is more divided, political discourse is more polarized than ever before. Mark Mardell likes to cite claims of grizzled veterans that we all used to get along so well, politicians were never so partisan, etc., as part of his proof that it’s never been this bad before. They’re all at it, really, because that’s the same Narrative we hear from the mainstream Left-leaning media in the US. And they’ve been doing it for some time, not just recently. It all started, we’re supposed to believe, when the US elected a black man as President. All those anti-Bush protests and the ChimpyMcBushitler posters and celebrities crying about Bush hating black people after Katrina, that wasn’t polarization, you see. It’s only when a Democrat President – particularly this One – doesn’t get His way that we’ve suddenly gone horribly wrong. For example:
March 2010, Mardell: Is US politics nastier than ever?
January 2011: Jonny Dymond ponders “the anger and polarisation apparent in today’s American polity” in regards to a mentally unstable person attempting to assassinate a Democrat politician and murdering a few people in the process
October 2011, Mardell: US ‘divided society’ protests spread (Oh, hang on, that was about their darling Occupiers’ class-war rhetoric, and no Beeboid was fretting about how they were polarizing politics)
August 2012: Paul Mason says the pick of Paul Ryan for VP has “polarized US politics”
September 2012, Justin Webb: What happened to America’s community spirit?
Andrew Marr’s upcoming special film about the four years of The Obamessiah’s reign will see him push the same Narrative.
I’m sure everyone has seen or heard other examples as well. So what’s the most obvious historical example of the US being divided? Exactly. Because subtlety isn’t a quality trait with media types bent on getting convincing you about their world view, Nasaw needs to spell out just how relevant this is to today’s situation. It’s where he delves into the issue of States’ Rights and slavery that he gets it wrong.
Long before Lincoln was elected, slavery was a known problem. In fact, while quite a few founders were slave owners, quite a few more were not, and even the top figures who owned slaves at the time knew it was a bad idea. However, there’s a significant economic dimension to the problem as well. Slavery was actually kind of dying out because the trade became less economically viable, but the arrival of the cotton gin kept it going long after its sell-by date, to the point where it was becoming massively difficult to shift the South’s economic engine away from it. The South would have had to diversify economically eventually, but it wasn’t going to happen any time soon. Nasaw, like so many who don’t actually understand the history, sees the Civil War as being exclusively about protecting slavery and the concept of States’ Rights as a smokescreen behind which to hide it. Although it’s watered down in the printed version, in the audio version Nasaw is more explicit about this (beginning @19:18:)
“That’s the familiar slogan wielded by Americans who want to whitewash the stain of slavery from the War’s glory.”
Well, yes and no. While it’s true that slavery was the key right which led to the secession, it’s not something that’s been a major issue from the start. There’s also the fact that many in the South have a particular cultural heritage they want to defend (this feeling might just be familiar to some of you, no?) which has precious little to do with slavery. That gets suppressed every time someone whacks them with the slavery cudgel, which leads to no small amount of resentment. Plus we mustn’t forget the trials of the Reconstruction, when much of the South was occupied militarily and politically by the North. In some places they tend to teach that era of history as if Gen. Sherman left only last week and the remains of buildings are still smoldering in the streets. That’s caused a scar on the regional psyche which goes far beyond a single issue. In short, there’s much, much more to the whole thing than slavery alone. But that muddles the issue, and gets in the way of the metaphor you’re meant to have jammed into your brains. It’s possible that Nasaw is simply unaware of all this, didn’t learn anything other than the standard liberal tropes (history being not only written by the victors but updated by future elites), and really does see it in the simplistic terms he lays out here due to ignorance and not just pure ideology. In “reporting” from this biased perspective, he’s denigrating millions of United Statesians.
Nasaw gets a Civil War expert to tell us that today’s debate goes all the way back to the War, it actually goes back much further. Of course a Civil War expert is going to focus on his area, and of course this makes it a nice red herring. It’s here where Nasaw starts to make some offensive parallels. His goal is to make a direct tie from today’s Tea Party protests and critics of ObamaCare to those desirous of keeping slavery going. He wants to show that it’s the same mentality, the same people, the same belief system. That’s how he sees it, and that’s the story he set out to tell.
I probably don’t need to point out how this also ties right in with the overall BBC Narrative that there is really no legitimate opposition to the President’s policies and that all those complaints are really driven by crypt0-racism, but reminders can be found here, here, here, and here.
While many of the Founding Fathers were slave owners, many equally felt that it was wrong, and that it was something that would eventually have to go away. But more important than that specific issue is that, besides the North-South divide we know about today, there was also originally a kind of chasm between the wealthy Eastern States – industrial and mercantile Northeast, coastal trade cities, etc. – and the poorer, rural West. When I say “West”, however, I’m using it as defined at the end of the 18th Century. Back then, the western parts of Kentucky and Tennessee were a largely unexplored frontier. In other words, very rural, and not wealthy. Even in the country’s early years there was a kind of resentment from those States.
Added to this strain is the more obvious cultural division between the more industrial, mercantile North and the largely agrarian South. Different European heritages also played a part. A further cultural difference was that many in the Southern region looked to Republican Rome for an example of how things should work. This was fine for a largely agrarian nation, not so much for an increasingly urban and commerce-driven one. So there was an innate suspicion of too much central government power from the very start, and for a variety of reasons. Slavery was not the only causus belli.
In fact, the State of New York under Governor Clinton (not the guy from Parliament-Funkadelic, and no relation to the former President) threatened to secede back in 1788 because he felt the ratification of the very Constitution we’re talking about today actually went too far in curtailing his own State’s autonomy. That was all about finalizing borders and maintaining the independence of a country – a State with a capital “S”, which is why I tend to write it that way – which he had been enjoying until then. Like several other key figures, he accepted it once they added the Bill of Rights. Even more important was Clinton’s objection to the new Federal Government imposing a national tariff on foreign commerce, New York’s cash cow. In other words, very much like the kind of objection involving States’ Rights and the Federal Government’s ability to tax commerce we heard about ObamaCare in front of the Supreme Court. More secessionist noise was going on under President Jefferson a few years later for other reasons, which is partly why Clinton was brought in as his Vice President (Somebody ask Paul Mason about a VP pick polarizing the country, right?). Yet Nasaw wants you to focus exclusively on slavery when discussing the concept.
Basically, the Civil War was the culmination of all this stuff, which had been brewing for more than 75 years. The right of secession had long been accepted. The irony of the early instigators of the Revolution’s feelings of being slaves to the British Crown while owning slaves themselves wasn’t lost on them. They knew, but were for reasons best left to people much more intelligent and informed than I, ultimately incapable of sorting it out early on. Lessons hadn’t been learned well enough, the South became too economically dependent on free labor, a lot of people in power didn’t want to suddenly have hundreds of thousands of opposition voters appear on the scene all at once (like in Mississippi, for example, where blacks would have instantly outnumbered whites) and the rest is…well, you know.
But Nasaw doesn’t seem to know any of this. All he sees is a chance to equate slavery enthusiasts with people who oppose a Federal Government wanting to “reform healthcare systems”. The very term “reform” is loaded with positive connotations, a biased perspective on its own, although that’s a discussion for another time, and one we’ve had before anyway. Any opposition, then, to new powers of the Federal Government are similarly tainted. This stifles debate even before it begins. When a couple of the people he meets object, Nasaw sneers. He gives the game away when he asks those playing the Union side if they feel “morally superior” to the Rebels. It’s all black and white to him (no pun intended, although it’s pretty unavoidable).
If one is going to have an honest discussion about the origins of the States’ Rights debate, one has to go way past the Civil War, all the way back to the years before the founding of the country. The concept is entrenched in the US Constitution for a reason: it was vitally important to the founders, who had been debating the topic for years already. It’s about something far beyond a single issue, even one as culturally and morally important as slavery. To simply dismiss the whole thing by tainting it with support for slavery, full stop (subtext: You’re A Racist!), does a disservice to the audience, to the debate itself, and to the nation’s history.
I understand that no humble correspondent can be an expert on every subject, and it’s impossible to do in-depth research for every story. But this is a clear example of a reporter having a preconceived story he wants to tell, one that is exactly in line with the perspective put forth by nearly every other report on the subject, and really screwing with history to get his point across.
PS: Amusingly, Justin Rowlatt’s preceding segment about Las Vegas’ economic struggles gives you in a few seconds more information about the looming economic catastrophe in China than pretty much all other BBC reporting in the last few months put together. Unfortunately, though, he’s yet another Beeboid who see that the money has run out but is unable to grasp why that is.