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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

Print Headline: Reflections on Charlottesville

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Archived Comments

  • RBear
    September 3, 2017 at 7:53 a.m.

    McMath takes the time to do what many of us have known, but never had the column space to express. But even with the space he's provided, there are still more layers to this onion of racial division that should be uncovered. Those include a vengeful South who would use every opportunity afforded to hearken back to that Confederacy through monuments and statues to their fallen "heroes."
    ...
    Add to that the constant reminders provided by the Stars and Bars through the Lost Cause ideology. Even to this day, people still carry the Lost Cause mentality as justification for retaining these statues and symbols. It's worth the time to read through the tenets listed in Encyclopedia Virginia. They mirror many of the arguments presented by those supporting retaining the monuments, statues and symbols.
    ...
    It will take time for our nation to move through this period, much like it has taken a century for us to get to this point. But we will move through it and we will survive as a nation. Still, just as Southern loyalists hampered the move to equality for all those who continue to deny the right to equality will stand in the way of progress through excuses and lies.

  • Foghorn
    September 3, 2017 at 8:20 a.m.

    How very disappointing. After a very interesting history lesson, McMath ends with what is basically a 'white lives matter', xenophobic rant complete with a shoutout to the NRA. Sounds to me like an irresponsible call to arms. So much for a return to rule of law.

  • WhododueDiligence
    September 3, 2017 at 9:21 a.m.

    McMath' column provides a much-needed cold, hard, accurate look at history. This type of unflinchingly honest and accurate historical writing is what's needed to help get America out of its current mess. Unflinchingly honest and accurate history is what should be taught in high schools. Instead we have a trend toward historical revisionism orchestrated by extreme ideologues such as the Texas board which seeks to force their ideologically-based narrative into America's high school history books, even to the absurd extreme of kicking Thomas Jefferson out of chapters when they discover Jefferson said something not to their liking.
    *
    "It's critical that we strive now for understanding, tolerance, rule of law and assimilation."
    That's a great concluding statement by McMath. Accurate teaching of history--from various perspectives as demonstrated by McMath in this column--is a key factor. The negativity of too much government bashing, too much teacher bashing, too much science bashing, and way too much political extremism needs to be overcome, and accurate honest education can go a long way toward improving our country's "understanding, tolerance, rule of law, and assimilation."

  • Morebeer
    September 3, 2017 at 11:46 a.m.

    This is valuable in that at least now we know what they talk about at that pre-Civil War club up on Cantrell Road. When the author posits that Southern white voters have been marginalized politically, he apparently has forgotten that gerrymandering minority voters has delivered control of Congress to the white party, and the electoral college has allowed low-population rural states to punch beyond their weight in presidential elections. Lastly, he should explain how the "coastal elite" has oppressed the lives of "flyover country" other than providing health care opportunities and fighting for Social Security and Medicare. Some sort of oppression is insinuated but not shown. The last personification of "coastal elite" would be former N.Y. senator Hillary Clinton, who grew up in the Midwest and spent many of her prime years in Arkansas.

  • RBear
    September 3, 2017 at 1:38 p.m.

    Amazing what you miss when you overlook one paragraph. As I read the comments, I went back to see what the crafty attorney had slipped passed me and I discovered it. To McMath, are you serious in your closing arguments? I'm not sure what you're angling for other than maybe a run for political office, because you are a part of that elite that looks down on the white working class.
    ...
    To start with, no one is belittling anyone's religion. What you are seeing is resistance to those trying to force their religion down the throats of others through public policy. Discrimination against LGBT individuals is real McMath and you should acknowledge it. If resisting some Bible thumping idiot from Bigelow and his quest to discriminate is considered belittling, then sign me up for a double dose of it. The truth is that there are several religions who don't try to oppress individuals and they are doing just fine. The only ones who feel they are being attacked are those attacking others.
    ...
    Regarding "mass immigration," that is hardly the case. I'm sure when you look at a Hispanic you think immigration, more specifically illegal immigration. I suggest you take a visit to San Antonio where Hispanics make up over 60% of the population. Those are Hispanics born and raised in the US. They are as legal as you are amigo. But of course, when you're cooped up in your white's only enclave all the world is an immigrant.
    ...
    No, I'm so sorry that I even suggested you might have a good comment because for all the good you started with you derailed it in those closing paragraphs. It just goes to show you, never trust an attorney. They're just one step above a politician.

  • WhododueDiligence
    September 3, 2017 at 1:44 p.m.

    Yes, the word "coastal" could have been left out of the phrase "highly affluent, powerful coastal elite" because many among the highly affluent, powerful elite don't live on either coast. But their extreme affluence buys connections in Washington in the form of lobbyists, in the form of politically ideological "think tanks" which aren't allowed to think outside their rigid ideological box, and in the form of nasty political attack ads in primary and general elections. This produces a powerful divide-and-conquer element which as McMath warns, contributes to "deep and very dangerous political fissures which may not be amenable to mending."
    *
    The way I read this column, McMath is looking at the problem from various perspectives--from the perspective of the Southern white working class, from the perspective of non-whites, and from the perspective of labor nationally in its historical struggles. And looking at the problem from various perspectives is the correct way to look at it considering the goal is to unite the United States.

  • PopMom
    September 3, 2017 at 3:07 p.m.

    It's time for the South to stop blaming the North for holding it back economically. Arkansas and much of the South is behind economically because people are poorly educated in an era in which the world is becoming more complex and a higher skill set is needed for employment. Unless you are lucky enough to be one of the privileged elites in Arkansas who go to one of the private schools, your prospects for a good education and promising financial future are limited. Virginia is the only Southern state which cracks the top 10 wealthiest in the nation, and Virginians predictably are the best educated Southerners. State by state and county by county, wealth pretty much follows level of education except for areas which are rich in oil etc. Unfortunately, the less educated do not appreciate the value of good schools and do not push their children to read and study and do not support good local schools. The cycle of poverty is rooted in lack of appreciation of education.

  • PopMom
    September 3, 2017 at 3:14 p.m.

    For those of you who may be more recent transplants to Arkansas, McMath's father, Sid McMath, is considered one of the greatest governors in Arkansas history and was a champion of school construction and rural electrification.

  • Foghorn
    September 3, 2017 at 4:34 p.m.

    I would argue 'coastal' elites have far less influence in politics today than 'flyover country' billionaires like the Koch's and Waltons.

  • pcrasehotmailcom
    September 3, 2017 at 5:28 p.m.

    An excellent column Mr. McMath. A breath of fresh air, full of much truth.

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