Some comments that have appeared on the backup site

I maintain a site on blogspot that consists almost entirely of reposts from this site.  This site is a backup, so that I won’t lose too much of my work in case something happens to WordPress.  As of now, there is little reason for anyone to read that site.

Every so often, a person offers a comment on the blogspot site.  I rather feel for these people, since there is virtually no chance that anyone but me will see what they have written, and I will occasionally go for weeks or even months on end without checking.  So, early in July, someone posting under the screen name “erplus” wrote this, in reply to my notes on an essay on theoretical studies in biology that Miriam Markowitz wrote for The Nation magazine last year:

please see the reader letter below which The Nation refused to publish neither in print nor online; tell me about esprit du corps.
Miriam Markowitz did not do her home work for an article that contains way too many platitudes imported from secondary sources. Just two examples.
A) Markowitz writes that Darwin’s “only explanation for the evolution of sterile insects was the good of the group.” This is a lie long peddled by Hamilton and his sycophants. In the The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote clearly that “This difficulty, though appearing insuperable, is lessened, or, as I believe, disappears, when it is remembered that selection may be applied to the family, as well as to the individual, and may thus gain the desired end. Breeders of cattle wish the flesh and fat to be well marbled together. An animal thus characterized has been slaughtered, but the breeder has gone with confidence to the same stock and has succeeded” []. Here “the family” does not stand for the mafia and “stock” does stands for a kin group. These passages and others by Darwin about “kin selection” are highlighted and justly celebrated in DJ Futuyma’s textbook of reference Evolutionary Biology and in EO WIlson’s Sociobiology. This intellectual heist by the late Hamilton and his sycophants is perhaps the most brazen ever, since it’s literally Darwin whom they insist(ed) in trying to rob!
B) Markowitz treats Dawkins as a scientist but he is not. In the said “Evolutionary Biology” textbook, e.g., Dawkins’ popular-science books are cited for the metaphoric syllogism about genes with intentionality; otherwise there is only a citation for a paper with trivial applied math. Dawkins indeed has never made a discovery. Had Markowitz talked to say E.Sober or even Futuyma, she would have written a much better article.
Given the above and much much more, Nation readers stand warned that almost nothing in Markowitz article has any depth, especially her cheapo-melodramatic pieties towards the end (albeit certainly not because Dawkins and Co. are right about anything).

I didn’t see this comment until Sunday, almost two months after erplus posted it.  I felt bad about that, especially since he had asked us about the original posting before turning to the blogspot site.  I apologized for my negligence there, and repeat that apology here.  Sorry, erplus!  I hope you find it in yourself to forgive me.

I have served a couple of other commenters slightly better, at least to the extent of reading their comments in a timely fashion.  Charles J. Shields gave us the following:

Just a note to let you know about a book blog I’ve started with a different twist: “Writing Kurt Vonnegut.” Every Saturday, I post another excerpt from my notebook as Vonnegut’s biographer— profiles of the people I met, the difficulties encountered, and the surprises, such as finding 1,500 letters he thought he had lost forever. It’s a blog written in episodes about being a literary detective.

Perhaps you’d like to give it a look at

All the best,

Charles J. Shields
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, November 2011)

That was in response to my repost of “Kurt Vonnegut, Junior, on Extended Families.”  Writing Kurt Vonnegut is worth a look, and so I thank Mr Shields for letting me know about it.


Of what narrative is the US Civil War a chapter?

A couple of days ago, I found a mass mailing from the libertarian Independent Institute in my inbox.  It included these paragraphs:

The 150th Anniversary of the Outbreak of the U.S. Civil War

April 12 marked the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War, when Confederates fired on U.S. troops holding Fort Sumter, in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor. Although people routinely succumb to the temptation to reduce the cause of the war to a single factor (e.g., to the slavery issue or to “states’ rights”), the cause was more complex. Independent Institute Research Fellow Joseph R. Stromberg discusses one causal factor that often gets short shrift in public discourse (although he cites many historians who support his analysis): interest groups with material, rather than ideological, stakes in promoting the war.

Antislavery, Stromberg writes, “was one of many themes generally serving as the stalking horse for more practical causes.” The Republican Party Platform of 1860, for example, focused less on antislavery grievances than on proposals designed to benefit northeastern financial and manufacturing interests and Midwestern and western farmers–policies that would have become harder to implement if southern states were allowed to secede. Lest he overgeneralize, Stromberg hastens to add that northern trading and manufacturing interests that bought from the suppliers of southern cotton–“the petroleum of the mid-nineteenth century,” as he puts it–were aware that they would face severe disruptions if war broke out.

In a post on The Beacon, Independent Institute Research Editor Anthony Gregory argues that April 12, 1861, also marks the date of the federal government’s repudiation of the Founders’ vision of the American republic and the birth of Big Government. “The war ushered in federal conscription, income taxes, new departments and agencies, and the final victory of the Hamiltonians over the Jeffersonians…. Slavery could have been ended peacefully, to be sure, but ending slavery was not Lincoln’s motivation in waging the war–throughout which this purely evil institution was protected by the federal government in the Union states that practiced it, and during which slaves liberated from captivity by U.S. generals were sent back to their Southern ‘masters.'”

“Civil War and the American Political Economy,” by Joseph R. Stromberg (The Freeman, April 2011)

“The Regime’s 150th Birthday,” by Anthony Gregory (The Beacon, 4/12/11)

“The Real Abraham Lincoln: A Debate,” an Independent Policy Forum featuring Harry V. Jaffa and Thomas J. DiLorenzo (5/7/02)

“The Civil War: Liberty and American Leviathan,” an Independent Policy Forum featuring Henry E. Mayer and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel (11/14/99)

“The Bloody Hinge of American History,” by Robert Higgs (Liberty, May 1997)

It’s true enough that “people routinely succumb to the temptation to reduce the cause of the war to a single factor… the cause was more complex.”  Though I would not disagree with this statement, I would go on to say something subtly different as well.  Much public discussion of the US Civil War turns on a rather odd question.  This question is, “Of what narrative is the US Civil War a chapter?”

As the press release above suggests, libertarians tend to say that the war was a chapter in a narrative titled “The Growing Power of the Nation-State in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.”  Anthony Gregory’s description of the powers which the federal government first exercised during the war, and never renounced, gives an idea of the structure of this narrative.  Right-wing libertarians like Gregory focus on the conflict between the growing power of the nation-state and the unregulated operations of the free market, while left-wing libertarians like Joseph Stromberg point out that no unregulated free market has ever existed and focus instead on the role of the nation-state in forming the economic elites that actually have wielded power throughout history.

Most other Americans tend to say that the US Civil War was a chapter in a narrative titled “The Rise and Fall of Human Slavery.”  In this narrative, the United States figures as the champion of Emancipation and the Confederate States figure as the champions of Enslavement.  This story elides the facts that Gregory and others point out, that six slave states remained in the Union, that federal forces enforced slavery in the South throughout 1862, and that President Lincoln took office vowing to leave slavery alone.  However, it is undoubtedly true that all the Confederate states were slave states and that its leaders bound themselves time and again to defend and promote slavery, while the United States did eventually move to abolish the institution.

It should be obvious that the question, “Of what narrative is the US Civil War a chapter?,” is a meaningless one.  Of course the Civil War is a chapter of “The Growing Power of the Nation-State in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” of course it is a chapter of “The Rise and Fall of Human Slavery,” of course it is a chapter of any number of other narratives.  Why, then, is this nonsensical question agitated so intensely?

I blame the schools.  More precisely, I blame the tradition of presenting history to students as a grand narrative.  It’s natural for people who have spent a decade or so of their early life hearing history presented as a single grand narrative to go on assuming that every story is part of one, and only one, larger story.  Perhaps schools must present history this way; if so, I would say that it is a point in favor of a proposal left-libertarian thinker Albert Jay Nock made early in the last century.  Nock recommended that schools should teach mathematics “up to the quadratic equation,” Greek and Latin, and a course in formal logic.  Equipped with this training, students would be able to educate themselves in everything else, with some here and there finding it possible to benefit from association with some advanced scholar.

Be that as it may, in US schools, the grand narrative of history is usually packaged under some label like “The Story of Freedom.”  The word “freedom” in these labels raises the question “freedom from what”?  For libertarians, the freedom most urgently needed today is freedom from state bureaucracy.  In the story of that freedom, the US Civil War cannot but figure as a vast reverse.  For others, the freedom most urgently needed today is freedom from white supremacy.  In the story of that freedom, the war may appear as an advance, albeit a rather problematic one.  For still others, the freedom most urgently needed today is the individual’s freedom from domination by irresponsible private interests, whether employers, families, or other groups in civil society.  In the story of that freedom, the war stands as a moment of triumph, perhaps the supreme moment in American history.

Few would say that the freedom most urgently needed by the United States today is freedom from foreign domination, but I would point out that if the war had ended differently this need might very well be felt very keenly indeed.  When the war broke out, Southern leaders claimed that their cause was the defense of slavery, while Lincoln disavowed any plan to interfere with slavery.  By the end of the war, Southern leaders were discoursing earnestly about the theory of state sovereignty, while Lincoln declared that “if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another, drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said: ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”  What remained constant through all this flip-flopping was the Northern intention to protect the domestic US market with a high tariff, while the South wanted to trade on equal terms with the industrial centers of the North and those of Britain.  The world economy being what it was in the mid-nineteenth century, a nominally independent Confederate States of America would likely have been drawn into Britain’s economic sphere, and thus into the orbit of the British Empire.  We should therefore add “US Resistance to the British Empire” to the list of narratives in which the US Civil War figures as a chapter.

Seceding from the Nation

Eric Foner is a major historian of the mid-19th century USA and a regular contributor to The Nation magazine.  In a recent issue, he reviewed two books about politics in the South during and after the Civil War, Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning and Victoria Bynum’s The Long Shadow of the Civil War.  This paragraph of Foner’s got me thinking:

McCurry begins by stating what should be obvious but is frequently denied, that the Confederacy was something decidedly odd in the nineteenth century: “an independent proslavery nation.” The Confederate and state constitutions made clear that protecting slavery was their raison d’être. Abandoning euphemisms like “other persons” by which the US Constitution referred to slaves without directly acknowledging their existence, Confederates forthrightly named the institution, erected protections around it and explicitly limited citizenship to white persons. McCurry implicitly pokes holes in other explanations for Southern secession, such as opposition to Republican economic policies like the tariff or fear for the future of personal freedom under a Lincoln administration. Georgia, she notes, passed a law in 1861 that made continuing loyalty to the Union a capital offense, hardly the action of a government concerned about individual liberty or the rights of minorities.

I can certainly understand Foner’s exasperation with neo-Confederates who see the Old South as a proud symbol of liberty and elide the role of slavery in the Civil War.  In the legal documents he cites, the Confederate States of America advertised its cause as the defense of slavery.  In prominent speeches delivered at the outbreak of the war, such southern leaders as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and Confederate President Jefferson Davis said openly that the cause which justified secession was the threat that the newly ascendant Republican Party would free blacks from slavery.  While Stephens and Davis each spent a great deal of time after the war trying to explain his earlier remarks away and argue that he had been motivated by concern for something other than the maintenance of human bondage, it is hardly unreasonable to attach greater weight to the contemporary documents and to say that in the Civil War, the South fought to defend slavery. 

What is less reasonable is to leave it at that, with the implication that the North fought to abolish slavery.  The evidence would suggest that when the United States armed forces were sent to quash secession, the men who sent them had little interest in emancipating anyone.  Emancipation came later, propelled by the exigencies of war.  As Davis and Stephens would shift their public statements from prewar calls to defend slavery to postwar invocations of the rights of the states, so too did the leaders of the North change their stands very substantially as the war went on.  The most obvious example may be the contrast between Abraham Lincoln’s two Inaugural Addresses.  Lincoln delivered his First Inaugural Address in March of 1861, when the war had not yet broken out.  The Second Inaugural Address was delivered in March of 1865, a few weeks before the end of the war.  Lincoln spends much of the First Inaugural Address vowing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and leave slavery alone in all the states where it was a legal institution.  In the Second Inaugural Address, he looks back on the war as a struggle to emancipate the slaves and declares that it would only be just were God to decree that the war should “continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” 

In the First Inaugural, Lincoln capitulates to every demand the South could possibly make in regard to slavery.  Time and again, of course, Lincoln would declare his belief that people whose ancestors came from Africa could not live among whites except in conditions of subjugation, and he rarely missed a chance to distance himself from Abolitionists.   These facts do not mean that the South was not fighting to keep blacks enslaved.   Seeing that the Republicans, a party which did include a sizeable antislavery bloc, could elect as president a candidate who did not receive a single vote in the ten states south and west of Virginia, slaveholders might well have drawn the conclusion that their grip on the national government was permanently broken and that some future president would lead the push for abolition.  While Lincoln himself might not in 1861 have had the inclination to take that task on, proslavery southerners may well have thought that it would have been unwise to wait for the crisis they feared.

What the First Inaugural does show, however, is that whatever the South may have been fighting for, the North was not at the outset of the war fighting against slavery.  Why did the North fight to keep the South in the Union?  Why for that matter did so many Northerners vote for Lincoln when it should have been clear that the election of a purely regional candidate would trigger secession?  I suspect Foner’s dismissal, in the paragraph above, of the tariff as a cause for the war applies only to the motivations of the South.  The South opposed a protective tariff because it wanted equal access to the products of industry in the North and in England.  Indeed, the South wanted Northerners to bid competitively with English interests for Southern cotton.  Since the chief goal of US policy since 1776 had been to get the British out of North America, the idea that the southern states of the USA would form an economic relationship with English industry that might very well lead to their absorption into the British Empire could hardly be expected to meet with general approval in the rest of the country.   

The Second Inaugural is among the most widely read of all Lincoln’s writings, certainly the most widely read of his state papers.  That is no surprise.  Not only is it an extraordinary specimen of eloquence, but it also flatters Americans’ national self-esteem.   The Second Inaugural caters to Americans who want to look at the Civil War and see a moral awakening to the evils of human bondage and to the possibility that black and white might live together in equality.  Beyond that; it also allows us to cast that moral awakening as a drama in which our enlightened twenty-first century selves have the leading role.  The Civil War, Lincoln invites us to believe, was fought so that later generations of Americans could be untainted by the guilt of slavery.  In other words, the dead had to die, so that we could look down on them.

If, instead of reading the Second Inaugural and congratulating ourselves on our superiority to our ancestors, we Americans read the First Inaugural and put the Civil War in the context of international Realpolitik, we might shed some of our national narcissism and be warier next time some group of con artists try to sell us another war.  We wouldn’t necessarily be any less proud of our country- opposing the British Empire was a mighty project in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it isn’t every country that would have the patience to stick with such a project until the UK’s prime minister openly declares his country to be the USA’s junior partner in world affairs.  But we might learn to express pride in our country without pretending that the country itself has some divine commission to institute a world order based on pure justice.