Guest column

Reflections on Charlottesville

The impression many Americans have of recent events in Charlottesville, Va., is that the country is having a nervous breakdown. How have we come to this, people ask? Frequently with irrational behavior, the key to recovery is in analyzing and understanding the underlying cause.

Sometimes it's helpful to start with the obvious: This pathology is rooted in slavery, the Civil War and its aftermath. Everything before the Civil War is cause and everything after is effect. One cannot understand this country without understanding the following:

1.The scourge of slavery: Until recent history ours was a world of slaves and masters. Slaves of all colors and races built the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, the Parthenon of Athens, the dams of China, and everything in Rome. As a result of the First Big Step, the Agricultural Revolution with its insatiable demand for cheap labor, over 90 percent of the world's population were serfs, peasants and slaves. Muslim slaves built the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela honoring St. James, Christian slaves built the great Mosque of Kutubiyya in Marrakesh to honor Allah, and Jewish slaves built the Colosseum of Rome to honor the Caesars. Roads, temples, mines and fields were coffled by yoke and chain; we all descend from some form of bondage.

Then 11 million souls were sold by African kings to the Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch, British, and finally the New Englanders and New Yorkers. (Only 5 percent came to this country.) All traded in the rich market of trinkets to Africa, slaves to the Americas, then to Europe sugar, molasses, rum, cotton and back again. Eventually the Guinea coast rum-for-slaves trade became the virtual monopoly of New England. By 1776, 80 percent of New England's export trade was sullied by slavery. As one historian put it, "It was the wealth accumulated from the West Indian slave trade which more than anything else underlay the prosperity and civilization of New England and the Middle Colonies." The South bought the slaves the North sold her.

Two triangles developed, one European and one American, that fueled globalization by building banks, railroads and cities. In New York, Wall Street's very walls were built by slaves sold in a slave market, literally and figuratively, capitalizing Lehman Brothers, Aetna, J.P. Morgan and much of American enterprise. France employed over 1,640 ships in the coffee-sugar-slave trade, and Britain by 1792 obtained four-fifths of her overseas income from it.

Historian Hugh Thomas said that the slave trade "had become the most important commercial activity in the world by the 18th century." The slave, sugar, cotton, tobacco and coffee nexus bankrolled the Second Big Step, the Industrial Revolution. It was this development that made possible the mechanization that would eventually break the tragic hold of slavery, serfdom and peonage on humanity. But it gave rise to a new phenomenon, the industrial working class, and now threatens to eliminate human labor altogether. That is emerging as a terrible postmodern problem. Yet, like most momentous things in history, they materialize more as developments than decisions.

2.The Civil War: The South was producing about 80 percent of the world's cotton and over half of U.S. exports picked by 4 million slaves valued at $3 billion in 1860 dollars. She needed low tariffs and cheap slave labor; the North needed high tariffs and cheap immigrant labor. This gave rise to labor conflict and the Trade Union movement as well as abolitionism.

The 13 colonies pretending to be one country had in fact always been two, culturally, politically and economically. Abolition became a burning issue. A typical abolitionist sentiment was expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the New England Transcendentalist and pacifist, who declared, "The South must be destroyed!" He didn't mention that his great-grandfather Waldo made the family fortune in the slave trade sailing and selling in his good ship Africa.

The issue of slavery was the powder, and hotheads in the South lit the spark exploding the country into a war that killed over 600,000. The South was conquered and occupied, its economy ruined, many of its cities burned, one in five white males killed or maimed. In Arkansas the guerrilla war was so vicious that several counties were virtually denuded of people.

As blacks longed for Northern victory and freedom, some stayed and others ran away, yet mistreatment by the Union army was common. Known as "contraband," many blacks were forced back on plantations and others were confined in camps where they died by the thousands. This abuse of the Freedman by the Federal army, according to historian C. Vann Woodward, "wrote some of the darkest pages of the war."

3.The failure of Reconstruction: Returning Confederates were embittered, disenfranchised and impoverished, while the freed slaves were totally unprovided for. As one said, "the slave was freed and the Negro abandoned."

Yet the demand for cotton and cheap labor was impervious to peace so that soon the freed blacks and poor whites were played off against each other by demagogues, becoming trapped in a sharecrop servitude which lasted well into this writer's lifetime. Liberated by mechanization, the problem was never really solved, only moved.

The Southern region became the stepchild and national "sin­-eater" of a grand new Union under Northern domination. Germany got the Marshall Plan, but the South got Reconstruction. In punishing the South, the North punished America, punished our poorest people, the freed blacks and landless whites. A terrible price was paid in poverty, ignorance and Jim Crow denial of civil rights. In a sense, the South has never recovered, and with it our nation. The failure of Reconstruction has been one of America's greatest calamities.

For the South, this catastrophe was bitterly difficult to accept. Heroes were needed. For whites, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and returning Confederate soldiers fulfilled this need, while blacks found heroes in Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, and Lincoln. The Confederate flag and monuments developed a tragic binocularity: whites seeing one thing and blacks another. This persists today.

4.Civil rights and the War on Poverty: The civil rights movement achieved certain very important successes but, married to the War on Poverty, it has not achieved what was hoped. Too many have been left behind.

Segregation was an abomination, but every reform brings new and unanticipated problems. Integration destroyed the black mercantile class, and their small businesses­ became non-competitive with corporate America. This has never been rectified.

Add freeway white flight, a well-intentioned welfare system that undermined the black family; mix in drugs, failing schools, crime, gangs and the destruction of traditional culture by insatiable consumerism, and you have a colossal social disaster. Frustration has to go somewhere, and one cannot be surprised when it is directed at police, "white racism," and what is viewed as symbols of oppression and slavery.

On the other hand, the Southern white working class has been marginalized economically, socially and politically; disparaged as redneck, its religion belittled, its heroes and culture undermined and attacked, and discriminated against by "affirmative action." In the face of massive immigration, it feels more and more exiled in its own country. The federal government is seen as the enemy, intent on its final ruination through gun control. The NRA sticker "Stand and Fight!" sums it up. And they will. Excoriation only deepens the resentment.

Add to this dysfunctional mix a highly affluent, powerful coastal elite that does not understand or seem to care for the rest of flyover country which it either condemns or at best condescends to, and we have deep and very dangerous political fissures that may not be amenable to mending.

It's critical that we strive now for understanding, tolerance, rule-of-law and assimilation. Otherwise, this time we may lose America. And if that happens, what will the Third Big Step be?

Phillip H. McMath of Little Rock is an author and trial lawyer.

Editorial on 09/03/2017

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