Saturday, July 13, 2013

Libertarians, Rand Paul, the Civil War, neo-Confederates, and why none of this matters

What you think you know about the significance of this
photo of elderly US and CS veterans is very likely as
wrong as what you think you know about Civil War
history, at least if you haven't read David Blight or
John Coski or Ervin Jordan, and instead depend on
Thomas DiLorenzo or Paul Krugman for your history.
Now that Paul Krugman has felt compelled to attack "libertarian populism" (which is his own particular formulation and absolutely nothing to do with libertarians, just sayin'), it is evident that a lot of people are worried about the influence of ideas that just a few years back they dismissed as lacking any traction at all.

Krugman, of course, is attempting to pile on to the Rand Paul/Jack Hunter "controversy," and the attempt not just to tar the Kentucky Senator (who may or may not be sort of a libertarian depending on who you talk to) with neo-Confederate leanings, but to claim that Libertarians will never shake their neo-Confederate ties.

This is, of course, a clever coded way of saying that Libertarian theory as well as every Libertarian (to include our "small-L" libertarian cousins) is racist.  Some are more urbane about it than others, but deep down we are all willing to court racists to get into power:
That’s not say to say that the Pauls are racists themselves, but rather that they’re beholden to a constituency who is. Libertarianism is, right now, a very small movement very much on the political margins. The neo-Confederates continue to make up a significant portion of the libertarian movement (if not its intellectual ranks)...
This is pure bunk (oddly, what Krugman calls the 'libertarian populism' he made up) for several reasons, and at the risk of taking too long I will lay them out for you:

1.  All politicians, all political movements, and all political theories are about molding the present rather than understanding the past.  Therefore, they distort "the lessons of history" to serve their own purposes.  This is neither a liberal nor conservative nor libertarian nor even green particularism, but it is a feature (rather than a bug) of popular politics.  For those convinced that their own side is relatively oriented toward fact rather than distortion, feel free to bring it on.  You will lose.  And lose.  And lose.  And lose again.  (I especially like that last one, it's from 1994.)

2.  Distorting history and getting away with it is so easy because (a) the American people aren't really interested in history in the first place, and (b) our so-called "standards-based" public education curriculum is a vast failure so far at imparting the critical thinking skills necessary to make people understand something as basic as the difference between posing questions and offering evidence.  We live in a world wherein journalism (no matter how shoddy) is confused with history, history is confused with memory, and memory is tinged by mythology.  History--real history as painstakingly practiced by professional historians--can tell us a great deal about the past, but that discipline is slowly fading into academic obscurity  I could fill this paragraph with links to that effect, but you wouldn't click through and read them anyway.

(But do this thought experiment with me:  if a knowledge of history is a necessity for keeping a well-informed citizenry, which is a necessity for keeping our republic from sliding further into autocracy and oligarchy, then why is history always considered to be the least important and most expendable of the "core" academic subjects?  It's not because you need English/Language Arts to teach history--you don't.  I've successfully taught history to kids who were functionally illiterate.  It's not that high-school science is any more relevant to the everyday lives of 95+% of high school graduates than history--it's not.  They are not going to ever design a bridge or build a motor, but they will potentially vote for President multiple times.  It's not even that high-school algebra is critical to real-life success whereas history isn't.  There is another--quite clear--reason, and I will leave that as an exercise for the student.)

3.  The people screaming about "neo-Confederates" and "Confederate apologists" the loudest don't actually know squat about Civil War historiography.  Most of them will, in fact, have to click that link to figure out what historiography is in the first place.  (Go ahead; I'll still be here when you get back.)  They like to disdain Thomas DiLoreno's interpretations of the Civil War and especially Abraham Lincoln, but they really don't know why DiLorenzo's work is considered to be so ridiculous by virtually all Civil War historians of whatever personal political ideology, because DiLorenzo's work is not only bad, it's intellectually dishonest.  You can find out why, if you really want to know, but you'll have to actually pay attention to the internet sources beyond the first three pages or check some real academic sources.  Neither of which the overwhelming majority of people bashing Libertarians over people like DiLorenzo because they are far more interested in the potential for bashing than in understanding the history.

In point of fact, understanding the American Civil War (its causes, its course, its aftermath, and the way its history was written and remembered) is pretty much a lifetime study, but if you want a quick primer that will only send you through a few books of several hundred pages each, here is it is:

The two books you need to read to have a fundamental understanding of the origins and function of the "Lost Cause" mentality and how public memory has distorted history are Rollin G. Osterweis The Myth of the Lost Cause and David Blight Race and Reunion:  The Civil War in American Memory.  There are dozens of other good books and good authors like Gary Gallagher and Emory Thomas on these issues, but these will give you the basics, and you will discover that how the Civil War has been remembered North AND South has much more to do with the politics of the time doing the remembering rather than the facts of the time being remembered.  (Sound familiar?)

Washington DC 1926:  no Confederate flags in evidence
when the KKK marches.  Wonder why?  Read Coski.
If you want to discover that the whole "Confederate flag" question is NOT what you thought it was, you should actually read John Coski The Confederate Battle Flag:  America's Most Embattled Emblem.   Among other things, you will discover why (as in this photo of the great KKK march on Washington DC in 1936) until about 1948 it was the American flag that was the symbol chosen by racist groups, not the CSA battle flag.  It took a very important football game to change that.  No, I'm not kidding.  Read some real history by a professional for a change.

If you want to understand why the American Civil War, which ultimately turned out to be about human freedom, nevertheless became a grand failure (at least in the short term--say the next 125 years) for African-Americans, then try Eric Foner Reconstruction:  America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 or the John Hope Franklin classic Reconstruction After the Civil War.   Likewise, if you want to understand how the twisted history of the Civil War and race has played out in American Southern history, you could not do better than Victoria Bynum The Free State of Jones:  Mississippi's Longest Civil War or Ervin L. Jordan Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia.

Want the best Lincoln biographies or monographs out there so you can understand while DiLorenzo is so full of crap?  David Donald Lincoln is still the best available, while LaWanda Cox Lincoln and Black Freedom and John Waugh's Re-electing Lincoln are both excellent if much narrower studies.

Perhaps you even want to understand how the 14th Amendment (which, yes, did pass and was ratified) was changed by a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1870s-1880s to become the corporate protection act:  see Robert G. McCloskey, American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise.

Every book I have cited above is a well-respected book by a professional Civil War historian, and if you are really interested in the subject I recommend (unabashedly) two articles I have done on comparable subjects;  "African-Americans Resist the Confederacy:  Two Variations on a Theme" and "Evaders, Resisters, and Predators:  Patterns of Anti-Confederate Behavior."  (The links sorta suck here because the main North & South magazine page is down, but if you really want to read them let me know.)

You won't (the overwhelming majority of you) go read any or all of these because it would be a massive undertaking, and because (especially if you are a political activist of any stripe) you don't have the time.  You are interested in changing the present, not learning in depth about the past--at least not that small a segment of the past.

(That's also why most Libertarians do not understand the very limited examples of free markets in American history--since the colonial days there has been governmental regulation of our markets--or the distinction that Fernand Braudel proved between markets and capital (and why the development of "capital" between 1500-1800 was not necessarily a good thing for economic freedom).)

All of which is an excessively long-winded way of saying that all this political rhetoric about Libertarianism and its supposed neo-Confederate roots amounts to the willfully ignorant taunting the woefully misinformed--and nobody's got a good point.


Hube said...

Great stuff, Steve. Curiosity is piqued. I read DiLorenzo's book way back (even blogged about if memory serves), but now I gotta get some of these ...!!

kavips said...

I too would contest that libertarianistic populism is not dead. I have said the secret to understanding today's Supreme Court is accepting libertarianism. Furthermore after reading this, I would conjecture that it is due to the intransigence between the two major parties, that all which can get through our blocked Congress these days, is Libertarian stuff, supported by the wings of both parties. With those two realities I would conjecture we are living in a "Libertarian Age". I can't remember any more Libertarian time. Asking if you can?

That readily explains the recent acceptance that gays have rights like non gays. It accepts that all people are created equal, including those here who crossed illegally. It accepts that the government really does not have the right to control guns even though many think it should, especially after a tragedy where guns were irresponsibly used. It means that corporations should be less governed, than they have in the past. It means that regulations applying to corporations, if they don't protect the public from some dire consequence, shouldn't really be there because they are obsturctionist.

The reality of our political environment is very libertarian now, and has gotten more so in recent years. The main stream medias and those not attuned to what Libertarians truly are, are beside themselves. Because to them, it appears that the Republicans are winning on business and tax and finance and gun issues, and the Democrats are winning on gay, trans-gender, and anti-conservative religious issues... and they throw their hands up as if the "World Turned Upside Down."

Truth is, we are Libertarians, and the party is still considered a splinter party solely because it has not risen to "own" the movement which is currently being fueled at the grassroots and whose fire is being run by the more passionate firebrands on both the left and right.

kavips said...

Crap, since the comment box was so little, I missed that I was contesting libertarianism was NOT dead. I was saying is was not dead, by contesting Krugman's thought it WAS dead. Sorry for the mix up.

delacrat said...

Well, the GOP's "cuts in unemployment benefits, food stamps and Medicaid" is consistent with minimal government Libertarianism.

Anonymous said...
Good cops wear AND SHARE cameras.

Jay said...

An interview on NPR of Coski's book, interesting; now I need to get the book. As I was looking for the books, I saw it and thought I'd post it.

Terry Hulsey said...

You say "DiLorenzo's work is not only bad, it's intellectually dishonest."
Would you care to back that up? Something a little more honest than linking to books on Amazon, eh? -- Not to suggest that you haven't read or understood any of the books, you know.
Let's hear what you've got.

The Federal Farmer said...

I guess I *could* read books about the past and whether our founders were "libertarian" or not, but I'd much rather read (or listen to) the words of some of the guys on the losing side, not the civil war, the folks who lost to the federalists.

(But you won't read/listen to it. You've read excerpts in High School or College, and already know that they lost because they were just wrong.)

tom said...

"But you won't read/listen to it. You've read excerpts in High School or College, and already know that they lost because they were just wrong."

ah yes, Might Makes Right. a fine basis for morality if ever there was one.

Steven H. Newton said...

Terry Hulsey

DiLorenzo's The Real Lincoln is rife with quotations taken out of context (or context ignored); assertions that ignore and do not deal with contrary evidence; mischaracterizations of other people's work.

I could go through it page by page for you, but I'm not.

Go find and read the few academic reviews of the book.

Or, you know, simply ignore my observation, write me off and go back to live in your bubble.

Steven H. Newton said...

As for notmyname:

I've been teaching the ratification debates for nearly thirty years; I've read the anti-Federalist papers quite thoroughly, thanks.

In order for you to argue that the anti-Federalists are evidence for libertarianism in the early Republic you would first have to prove:

1) that the anti-Federalists were, in fact, representative of a significant body of the population at the time, and not simply a disaffected elite minority (that would be tougher than you think)

2) that the governments and societies created by those anti-Federalists were in any sense libertarian (which is a tough sell in slave-holding states); that they were minimalist is true, but that has to do with resources and not intention. In point of fact those societies has very socially intrusive laws and the anti-federalists only really objected to statism on a national not philosophical level

3) that the revolutionary rhetoric of the founders pre-1776 was somehow libertarian--it simply wasn't, at least not the most of it. Their objections to british taxation were in fact process objections, not philosophical objections to the power of the state to tax

NCSDad said...

tom said...

@kavips, I disagree entirely, although i suspect that what you describe as living in a "Libertarian Age" is the opposite side of the coin from the way i think of it.

Every time that I can remember was more libertarian than now in the sense that the average person had substantially more liberty.

Think back ten years to 2003: Government at all levels was half as big and half as costly. the PATRIOT Act was most egregious abuse of power imaginable.

Go back another ten years to 1993 and nobody was talking about the unfunded liabilities of SS or Medicare as a percentage of GDP because such extravagant government outlays were unthinkable. And corrupt cops had to carry drugs to plant in suspect's houses or cars in hopes of justifying the sort of abuses that are routine and even expected today.

When I started to think of myself as a libertarian around 1980, almost nobody agreed w/ us or had ever heard of us, but the average person was significantly more free and only infrequently had any contact w/ government agencies. the total spending of the Federal government plus all 50 states, plus all the thousands of county & local governments was less than a trillion dollars and the total debt was only T$1.2. Today the three largest states spend & owe significantly more than this.

the fact that libertarian ideas are gaining acceptance in mainstream culture merely shows that the statists have gotten so overconfident that they have started scaring the sheeple into waking up and paying attention.

mynym said...

We live in a world wherein journalism (no matter how shoddy) is confused with history, history is confused with memory, and memory is tinged by mythology.

This is why false flag attacks work. And even "libertarians" are dragged along into the concept of giving up their civil liberties based on the work of someone like Zelikow. I.e. a dual citizen with a degree in managing public myths.

mynym said...

“An act of catastrophic terrorism that killed thousands or tens of thousands of people and/or disrupted the necessities of life for hundreds of thousands, or even millions, would be a watershed event in America’s history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented for peacetime and undermine Americans’ fundamental sense of security within their own borders in a manner akin to the 1949 Soviet atomic bomb test, or perhaps even worse. Constitutional liberties would be challenged as the United States sought to protect itself from further attacks by pressing against allowable limits in surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and the use of deadly force. More violence would follow, either as other terrorists seek to imitate this great ‘success’ or as the United States strikes out at those considered responsible. Like Pearl Harbor, such an event would divide our past and future into a ‘before’ and ‘after.’” November 1997-August 1998: Future 9/11 Commission Staff Attend Terrorism Study Group; Predict Consequences of ‘Catastrophic Terrorism' The mentality: "We're an empire now. Perceptions are reality. So you're left to study what we do, as the actors of history." Etc.

NorskeDiv said...

"The mentality: "We're an empire now. Perceptions are reality. So you're left to study what we do, as the actors of history.""

An asteroid could hit earth and kill every human being.

That is an unlikely possibility, one even more unlikely than massive terrorist attacks. Does that mean that because NASA concerns itself with this possibility that if an asteroid hits the earth, NASA was responsible?

What sort of backwards logic is this?

NorskeDiv said...

Actually, I distrust any libertarian whose criticism of the patriot act starts with the premise that 9/11 was a false flag attack. The source of attacks against the country should make no difference if you believe in the inviolability of your right to privacy.

What I've found arguing with such people is usually that they believe in the need for surveillance, seizing of assets, arrests and a large police force so as to stop globalist conspirators, both in the media and government.