Thursday, August 18, 2011

Civil War tragedy, continued

So I've received both criticism both constructive and not regarding my last post. It is well taken that I was too harsh on Coates and let my exasperation color too much of my writing. My exasperation comes in part because when Coates's obvious eloquence is married to a clearer aim and more focused project, he's very effective. Take, for example, his column on Obama and extremism. It remains, in my view, the definitive take on Obama's rhetorical style and its failings. I also take as constructive the point that I am critiquing his posts for a lack of clarity while failing to be clear myself. I hope to fix that below.

Comments that I don't find constructive (and you can consider this a bit of housekeeping) are those that make some sort of psychosocial comment on me by way of that post, or those that attempt to define my criticism for me in a way that contradicts the content of what I actually said.

Here is my critique as plainly as I can state it: I think that Coates is taking a broad, complex, and semantically loaded question ("Was the Civil War tragic?") and reducing it to a consideration of a much narrower set of questions. I would best express some of these as "Given the realities of the Civil War era, was it possible to avoid the war while moving towards the end of the slavery state? Would it have been morally preferable to avoid the war and its attendant bloodshed if doing so required a more gradual dismantling of the slavery state?" But that's my gloss, and I'm sorry to try and define his project for him. My specific complaint is not that he is this focused, but rather that he seems to regard the broad question as synonymous with the narrower ones, and further criticizes (quite harshly) those who respond to different aspects of the broader question, in essence accusing them of taking a position on the narrower questions that they perhaps haven't taken. And I finally think that he makes this conflation more likely and more difficult to navigate with some of his outsize rhetoric.

For example: this latest post crystallizes the way in which Coates is bringing up an enormously rich set of issues and yet balking at the idea that people might approach those issues from a different vantage. He says, "I don't know that the Civil War should, or shouldn't, have been fought." Fair enough! Some of us are interested in that question, and I have found that there's a consistent resistance from Coates, his commenters, and other bloggers to any consideration of different but equally generative criteria when it comes to this issue.

I understand that Coates is looking at these issues from a particular and limited vantage. That's his prerogative. What I object to is the way that he is attempting to police what vantage one can look from. When drive by-commenters said "Coates isn't arguing the point you're arguing," I say, yeah, exactly. He's reacting with a misplaced zeal against those who argue other points as if they are making incorrect arguments about his point, and he's doing it in a way that explicitly and purposefully uses our emotionally and racially charged dialogue about the Civil War as leverage to enforce his point. You can look to Erik Kain's considerations of this issue, and the way he has been consistently and shamefully misrepresented, to see what I mean.

If you merely think that I am wrong in ascribing a kind of myopic attitude towards Coates, fair enough. I would argue that he is so passionate about the issue that it effects his rhetoric in a way that makes his argument scattershot and vaguely targeted. Again, with the zingers-- "I decline all offers to mourn the second American Revolution. No one mourns the first." This has the typical failings of a sentence that is written to be admired: it swipes at a deeper resonance at the expense of meaning. Who is the target of this argument? If you can find someone who calls for mourning of these wars, context wouldn't merely be important; context would be everything.

And what does it mean to "mourn" the first or second American Revolution? Yes, there are ways that such an argument could be written which would be offensive, even racist. But isn't there a valid, humane, and entirely racially sensitive argument to be made that the human lives that were lost in the Civil War are in fact worthy of mourning regardless of the righteousness and importance of the war effort? If Coates was more deliberate in his use of mourning, if he took more care in defining his terms and arguments, there would be less indeterminacy in his judgment

In the specific way that he seems to define the contrasting viewpoint, yes, I find much that is offensive within it. Those who would have traded the bloodshed of the Civil War for a gradualist, compromised end to the American slavery state would be endorsing the continued imposition of one of the most noxious regimes in human history. The problem is that I don't see a lot (or any, really) of this argument. Yes, of course, demonstrating greater concern for white soldiers than for black slaves is cruel and wrong. But I frankly find no one doing that. In fact I find most people commenting on this issue to be falling all over themselves to point out that they aren't doing that. If some are, they deserve criticism, but in looking for his targets I mostly find straw.

As for the question of whether there would have been any way to simultaneously end American slavery while preventing the Civil War, well, yes, it would be very unlikely. It would not be impossible, and there's no greater virtue in denying the possibility of that in the pursuit of some blinkered notion of maturity through the insistence of the inevitability of violence. This is one of my consistent problems with the blogosphere, and particularly the liberal blogosphere: the constant desire to find examples of righteous violence. I can be persuaded that violence is sometimes necessary but I am disturbed by the longing for necessary violence. It's particularly a problem with liberal bloggers who are used to arguing against wars. They seem to be looking for their turn to celebrate bloodshed.

17 comments:

reflectionephemeral said...

"Again, with the zingers-- "I decline all offers to mourn the second American Revolution. No one mourns the first." This has the typical failings of a sentence that is written to be admired: it swipes at a deeper resonance at the expense of meaning. Who is the target of this argument?"

I disagree with that take on Coates' statement.

I took his statement to mean: "yes, it is obviously a bad thing that many people died in the Civil War. But it's also obviously a bad thing that people died in the Revolutionary War. You don't hear anyone talking about what a tragic waste that was-- because we all agree that the cause of independence was noble and just. Well, it is my belief that the cause of ending slavery was every bit as just, so the Civil War was every bit as worth fighting-- and no more worth lamenting-- than the Revolutionary War."

I thought it was a powerful and eloquent way to make that point.

hookstrapped said...

"As for the question of whether there would have been any way to simultaneously end American slavery while preventing the Civil War, well, yes, it would be very unlikely. It would not be impossible, and there's no greater virtue in denying the possibility of that in the pursuit of some blinkered notion of maturity through the insistence of the inevitability of violence."

I think this is the crux of the issue, and upon it sits the difference in definitions of "tragic." Is an event or situation tragic because it was avoidable or because it was inevitable? Rather contrary definitions.

If you think that tragedy "occurs because there is some failing within the tragic character (here the United States) which makes that tragedy inevitable," then of course the Civil War was tragic. But you seem to be hedging on what I took to be your position in your prior post that the Civil War was inevitable with your concluding statements here.

The question of whether American slavery could have ended without the Civil War depends on when are you talking about… 1820, 1840, 1860, 1880, 1900? The only thing we know for sure is that by 1860 only a Civil War could end it. To suggest that to end slavery in the 1860s without a Civil War was "possible" stretches the meaning of the word possible so thin that it's meaningless. And it's not the result of a "blinkered notion of maturity through the insistence of the inevitability of violence," that I say that. Just from reading history – there was no path away from slavery except through war at that point in time. The political defeat of slavery arose out of the need to militarily defeat secession. There was no plausible scenario to end slavery absent of war.

In other words, I think the Civil War was inevitable, and tragic because of the failing you describe so well in your prior post.

Anonymous said...

I need a quick, snark free history lesson here. I've heard a lot of libertarians (of the Lew Rockwell bent) say that it's absurd to suggest the civil war was necessary to end slavery, since the rest of the world managed to end slavery without war. Is that just totally incorrect?

One more point of clarification. Is the word tragic in this argument being used rhetorically (or whatever) to make a larger point/mean something else? So many people dying (and in such horrible ways) is obviously tragic, so I presume it's being used to mean something else, but I'm not sure what.

None of the above is feigned obtuseness, so actual clarifying answers would be much appreciated. Thanks!

Q said...

"Here is my critique as plainly as I can state it: I think that Coates is taking a broad, complex, and semantically loaded question ("Was the Civil War tragic?") and reducing it to a consideration of a much narrower set of questions. I would best express some of these as "Given the realities of the Civil War era, was it possible to avoid the war while moving towards the end of the slavery state? Would it have been morally preferable to avoid the war and its attendant bloodshed if doing so required a more gradual dismantling of the slavery state?" But that's my gloss, and I'm sorry to try and define his project for him. My specific complaint is not that he is this focused, but rather that he seems to regard the broad question as synonymous with the narrower ones, and further criticizes (quite harshly) those who respond to different aspects of the broader question, in essence accusing them of taking a position on the narrower questions that they perhaps haven't taken."

And here is my problem with your critique as plainly as I can state it: you want to have the benefit of academic, semantic quibbles about the etymology and Shakespearean application of "tragedy" while divorcing the discussion and the motivations for the discussion from the racial components of the Civil War, the result of the Civil War being fought and the consequences of not fighting at all. The argumentative narrowness - as you describe it - of Ta-Nehisi's critique is a direct response to the cushioned, primarily white rhetorical inclination to think that the Civil War should be blithely discussed under the lens of, say, ideological pacifism instead of in terms that emphasize that a world where the Civil War doesn't happen is a world where there are still black slaves in America. To say it as simply as I can, if there's no Civil War, there's no freedom, no rights, no representation and no agency for blacks. You know that. I know that. Imagine what it is to be a black person that knows that. Now imagine why they might take a minimal amount of umbrage toward efforts to pretend that the event that guaranteed their freedom should, for some reason, have been delayed, stopped or frowned on just because people who wouldn't be in the same boat have some ideological or pedantic gripe with the sentiments expressed.

The continuing issue with your framing is that in your willingness to critique what you see as making the "broad" synonymous with the narrow, you seem to be ignoring that Ta-Nehisi's intent is to argue the "broad" as inseparable from the "narrow". When someone says that 600,000 people died in the Civil War, they're omitting that 600,000 people died because the south seceded to maintain slavery as an institution. It's something that's true whether it's stated and acknowledged or not. When someone says that the Civil War is an issue of states rights, they're omitting that the Civil War was about the right of the state to enslave blacks. That, also, is true whether it's stated and acknowledged or not. What you're dubiously calling "narrow" innately undergirds the motivations and the rationale behind the entire war and why it took place. One should realize that for the people who the institution of slavery directly effects (i.e all African-descended Americans), the issue isn't "narrow" at all. It's astoundingly pervasive and justifiably significant. To dismiss that is to minimize it, and to pretend that all questions about the Civil War don't involve and effect that subject is to engage in sophistry.

Q said...

(continued...)

There's a wide swathe of America dedicated to seeing the Civil War as an abstraction that happened to Those People a Long Time Ago. If the substance of your critique is no deeper than frustration with his prose, annoyance that his "zingers" aren't cool or substantive enough for you or distaste toward the fact that he doesn't like people saying that the event granted him his present agency is "tragic", you can join them and simply make this topic a pedestal for you to sound off against your various complaints and pet peeves. But I will note that this is one of those rare instances where you're showing an almost Yglesias-esque disregard for the experiences of people not you.

By minimizing the pervasiveness of the Lost Cause and how those arguments lead to precisely the framing that informs both Ta-Nehisi's commentary and his prose, you minimize the effect of living in a society where it can still be nonchalantly entertained that you and your kin should probably have been shackled for just a bit longer so fewer white people could die. The racial element is there regardless of how you dress it, and no amount of intellectual motivation for "exploring other questions" diminishes its offensiveness. Ta-Nehisi just comes at this from an angle and background that challenges a narrative that's informed by white insouciance toward the ongoing implications of this topic. For you, this is a springboard to criticize liberal bloggers who perform x generalized behavior you dislike. For him, this is ABOUT him and where he would be without a Civil War.

And as a side note, I would caution you to rethink the assumptions behind what you deem "racially charged". If only because racial neutrality tends to be defined by ignoring, dismissing and minimizing the effect of the white hegemony external to black culture and black perspectives. It subsists on the racial convenience inherent to white-advocated and white-beneficial "color-blindness". Something tells me that a non-"racially charged" discourse on the topic would be go more favorably for people who seem annoyed that blacks take indirect statements about where they are and where they "should" be personally. One would hope you'd join me in finding "emotional" and "racially charged" discussions of the topic preferable to approaches that feed a predominately white effort to avoid historical and cultural discomfort.

Freddie said...

Now imagine why they might take a minimal amount of umbrage toward efforts to pretend that the event that guaranteed their freedom should, for some reason, have been delayed, stopped or frowned on just because people who wouldn't be in the same boat have some ideological or pedantic gripe with the sentiments expressed.

1.I've expressed no such sentiment, at all

2.Coates's argument is, to me, exactly pedantic and ideological. Yours doesn't even reach the level of pedantry. What content is there?

When someone says that 600,000 people died in the Civil War, they're omitting that 600,000 people died because the south seceded to maintain slavery as an institution.

Um... no, they aren't? Who is this someone? When have I omitted such a thing?

When someone says that the Civil War is an issue of states rights, they're omitting that the Civil War was about the right of the state to enslave blacks.

Who is this someone? It isn't me. This is such blatant strawmanning.

One should realize that for the people who the institution of slavery directly effects (i.e all African-descended Americans), the issue isn't "narrow" at all. It's astoundingly pervasive and justifiably significant. To dismiss that is to minimize it, and to pretend that all questions about the Civil War don't involve and effect that subject is to engage in sophistry.

Again, who has dismissed it? Who is pretending that? If you can't argue with an actual arguer, my advice to you is to give up. And I would caution you that your discussion of African-descended Americans is so pregnant with condescension that it can't possibly have the effect you imagine.

Freddie said...

If the substance of your critique is no deeper than frustration with his prose, annoyance that his "zingers" aren't cool or substantive enough for you or distaste toward the fact that he doesn't like people saying that the event granted him his present agency is "tragic", you can join them and simply make this topic a pedestal for you to sound off against your various complaints and pet peeves.

Where is the content in this statement?

By minimizing the pervasiveness of the Lost Cause and how those arguments lead to precisely the framing that informs both Ta-Nehisi's commentary and his prose, you minimize the effect of living in a society where it can still be nonchalantly entertained that you and your kin should probably have been shackled for just a bit longer so fewer white people could die.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with my stated position; I stated quite clearly and explicitly that I denied the righteousness of that opinion. So what does that have to do with me? Go find someone who is actually arguing the things that you are complaining about. To keep wailing away against someone else's stupid argument is to give the game away.

The problem with ascribing all sorts of psychoanalytic positions to arguments you don't like is that these absurd Freudian readings reveal your own baggage. As studiously as you've worked to maintain a dispassionately cutting tone-- I give you a B-, personally-- your commentary here is absolutely pregnant with racial anxiety. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But you are insisting that your discourse policing is acting in some sort of service to the descendants of African slaves, when in my opinion-- since we're apparently in the business of projecting all kinds of nefarious psychological issues onto each other-- this is all about ameliorating your own white guilt by finding, in me, a convenient proxy, even while you fail to prosecute an argument against me myself.

E.D. Kain said...

@reflectionemphemeral - I actually tackle this question in my second post on the matter here. The fact is, there are people who mourn the American Revolution, but either way it was a very different war. The level of destruction and death was nowhere near the horror of the Civil War. 25,000 died in the AmRev, while over 600,000 died in the Civil War. It's an apples-to-oranges comparison.

redscott said...

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it 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, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.""

A. Lincoln, 2nd Inaugural Address

I'll go with that. The war was a scourge and a tragedy, but when it came it needed to be seen through, and it was, with results for Coates' ancestors that we justly celebrate. We mourn the flower of a generation lost, and we celebrate the freedom of the bondsman. To steal from King Lear, our flawed hearts, caught between two extreme passions, joy and grief, burst smilingly when thinking about what happened. That may be ambivalent and conflicted, but it's human.

Charles said...

"When drive by-commenters said "Coates isn't arguing the point you're arguing," I say, yeah, exactly."

The issues you're slamming your readers for bringing up are something like this. They're the context you're ignoring for the convenience of your argument. Yes, you aren't saying all of the things Q mentioned, and some of those things are the part of the context of Coates' position.

So if it seems odd to you that readers seem to be slamming your writing here while simultaneously denying that they're defending Coates, please consider that from where I'm sitting it feels like we aren't reading the same Coates. In that context it doesn't make sense to defend him. If I don't think your criticisms are actually responses to him, what's the point?

Look...in the very paragraph you quote from Coates' recent post, he begins to articulate reasons why, given the actual history, the kinds of points of view you're defending don't make sense. This isn't "policing the discourse" -- it's pointing out that in this case, a lot of the counterfactuals are myopic, that they fail to take into account things that actually happened. It feels like you want to argue this without actually doing the legwork. A real attack would say something like, "No, there are all kinds of plausible counterfactuals, you're trying to shut down the discourse by making them look absurd." But you can't say that, so you're calling him smug and talking about policing the discourse.

Lastly, in what I hope will come across as actually constructive criticism, your bafflement at the somewhat personal and vicious nature of the comments here is itself baffling. You set the tone for this space. Your last post included psychological guesswork as to the motivation of another writer. ("Coates has always struck me as a man who accesses nuance out of a desire to be given credit for it.") You know, that's fine; it's clever, it's biting, and it may be what you want to say. But to turn around and describe what goes on in the comments as "very, very strange" is, well, strange. You sometimes get personal and vicious, both in your posts and in your replies to comments. It shouldn't be too surprising that you get that back from your readers.

edwin said...

"I decline all offers to mourn the second American Revolution. No one mourns the first."

"we all agree that the cause of independence was noble and just. "

Well, the wording of mourn does give some pause to analyzing what is being said by Coates. The rephrasing by reflectionephemeral is much easier to deal with.

Perhaps the answer to "we all agree that the cause of independence was noble and just" can be taken from a punch line over a joke regarding the TV program Zorro.

What do you mean "we", white man?

It is worth noting in all of this that the British Empire banned slavery though most, but not all of the British Empire in 1833. Let it at least cross our minds that slavery might have ended much earlier had the first civil war been lost.

Q said...

Your first comment to me is disappointingly unresponsive to my argument and almost gleefully obtuse. We're talking about the Civil War. We're talking about how the Civil War has been manipulated and euphemized by Lost Causers and people ignorant of the Civil War's implications. We're talking about responses to that manipulation from writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates as well as the assumptions and historical/cultural context that undergird his commentary (and explain its emotional import for him). The quotes you highlighted were never intended to be summaries of your positions; they're intended to illuminate the contexts that motivate his prose. Just because the post is in response to you hardly means that it's about you. "When did I say this?" is a nonsequitur in that light. Meaningfully contesting the claim would require demonstrating that they're untrue. Do you think they are?

You seem to be looking at my post as a rebuttal that's bored enough to exclusively discuss you and your positions. It's not. It's more fairly viewed as an attempt to explain why your arguments have come off as myopic and dismissive of the things that would cure that myopia. You can find that explanation unpersuasive if you wish, but it's a poor reading of my statements to think I'm trying to strawman your position instead of trying to summarize the factors that make your attempts to contest Ta-Nehisi unsatisfying. Telling me how those explanations are wrong would be more topically progressive than telling me that my arguments suck because they're insufficiently about you.

I'll respond to your second post shortly.

Q said...

"Where is the content in this statement?"

It's in the words themselves. You just don't see the argument, so I'll make it. Again. The only true constant with your wildly shifting complaints about Ta-Nehisi is how annoyingly petty they are. When you're talking about your problems with his prose, when you're going into some masturbatory treatise that strokes yourself for summoning the "classical, Shakesperean definition of tragedy" (I, for one, was impressed), when you're ineptly pretending that the "second revolution" line is too insufficient of a "zinger" because you can think of multiple definitions for the word "mourn", you're betraying how little this discussion means to you and how little this discussion affects you. It belittles the subject matter, it betrays a stunning insensitivity to the motivations that inspire Ta-Nehisi's remarks and it does absolutely nothing but register irrelevant contrarianism toward a blogger we all know you have inconsequential quibbles with. That's why the line you omitted is the most important in the paragraph you quoted. This mirrors nothing so much as Yglesias when he's talking about poverty. It's the flaunting of a writer with such undo confidence in the substance of what he's arguing that he's entirely unaware of the way his own blindspots inform his conclusions and motivations to the detriment of the actual issue.

In the first Ta-Nehisi post you discussed, he makes the following statement in the comments section: "But as I said before, when I think about the Civil War I am, on a human level, giddy. We were born there. We couldn't have existed without it. It's very hard for me to think of my genesis as tragic". The "we" is black people. Ta-Nehisi - very understandably and rationally - connects the Civil War to his existence as a black man in America. A free black man, no less. To call that tragic is, to him, calling his freedom tragic. No amount of philosophically argumentative narcissism will make that impulse unreasonable or wrong. That, like slavery itself, is inseparable from the topic at hand, and it's the perspective that informs nearly every word he's made on the subject. You may think he's arguing about nothing, you may think he's saying nothing, but this discussion has always been about something - it's just that the "something" in question relates to what you seem to be culturally insulated from needing to understand, see or address. And that's fine, as far as it goes, but don't act shocked when people are frustrated with your desire to make an issue about the foundation of free black culture a place to elaborate on some academic moral quibble. This is about real people, not just then, but today. You don't strike me as particularly sympathetic to that.

The only psychoanalytic assumption I've made is that by virtue of either class, ethnicity or argumentative stubbornness, you're not really capable of opining on this subject in a way that's worth thinking about. It's more than a little childish to think that pointing that out is somehow "policing commentary". I haven't stopped you from making a single post. I can't. I won't. You have precisely as much freedom to speak as I do. The specter of a culture police somehow restricting your arguments is paranoid figment of your imagination. You're as free to make racially dismissive comments today as you were yesterday and the day before that. You should really reflect on your impulse to view "racially charged" arguments as bad and comments that are irked by racial implications you seem to be unaware of as indicative of "racial anxiety". The ability to not view such a thing as inherent to discussions on the topic and America at large is, itself, a privilege you would do well to reflect on and analyze more closely.

conorpwilliams said...

"Those who would have traded the bloodshed of the Civil War for a gradualist, compromised end to the American slavery state would be endorsing the continued imposition of one of the most noxious regimes in human history. The problem is that I don't see a lot (or any, really) of this argument."

I used to hold something like this to be true, and I used it to justify what I thought was a conciliatory, Lincoln-esque ("Lincolnian?") take on the period. Something like: "there is no nobility here, no legacy in need of defense, etc." After all, why celebrate a victory that no one regrets?

After a little time in the academy, I'm no longer so sure. Neo-Confederatism (Motto: "The Original Neo-Cons!") is surprisingly virile amongst my fellow graduate students and a number of paleo-con professors. This isn't a handful of people here and there. It's a pretty common position. I know this is simply guy-on-the-Internet-street anecdotal—but I DO see a lot of people making these kinds of argument.

All of this is to say that I'm now willing to take a much harder line on the Civil War. I'm willing to defend the hell out of Lincoln's legacy, blemishes and all.

Anonymous said...

"The "we" is black people. Ta-Nehisi - very understandably and rationally - connects the Civil War to his existence as a black man in America. A free black man, no less. To call that tragic is, to him, calling his freedom tragic."

Wait, hold up. That's exactly the kind of thing that Freddie was describing as policing: It take an extremely broad general statement, interprets it through a narrow lens, and spits it back as the claim that the speaker's opinion can only be understood as a racial affront.

I don't see why it's so difficult for people to hold more than one thought in their head at once; it is, in fact, absolutely necessary to describe the many crimes and horrors of history, many of which involve immense and incommensurable suffering on all sides.

Is it triumphant that the Civil War brought an end to one of the greatest monstrosities of history? Yes, of course it is. Is it tragic that 600,000 people died in the birthing of freedom? Yes, it is as well. The deaths of human beings are incommensurable - we can say that it was NECESSARY, but we can't deny any tragic element, as Coates does, without effectively denying the humanity of the dead.

-A

Anonymous said...

If even liberal bloggers in 21st-century America are looking for occasions to celebrate bloodshed, isn't that more evidence in favour of the belief that violence is inevitable?

redscott said...

No, it just means that the people who succumb to violence or to advocating violence without exhausting the alternatives are assholes. I'm sure all of us see plenty of assholes (inluding ourselves, sometimes) doing dumbshit things again and again without thinking that the dumbshittery is inevitable. Just because we fail a lot doesn't mean we can't succeed.