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.