I happened to catch an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air the other day with Adam Goodheart, the author of a new book called 1861, about the beginnings of the American Civil War. The interview really got me thinking about the many ways that America today is like the South was before the Civil War. Sounds far-fetched, I know, until you start to think about it.
First of all, there is the question of extreme inequality. Back then there were essentially three groups, the plantation owners, the slaves, and the poor farmers, shopkeepers and tradesmen that made up the rest of society.
Virtually all of the wealth was controlled by the plantation owners. For all intents and purposes, they were the only ones that mattered when it came to the decisions made in the state houses of the time. According to Goodheart, the human capital value of all slaves far exceeded the market value of all the factories and facilities of the industrial North.
For comparison purposes, consider the following item from this week’s news. Top executives at the failing Borders bookstores are being handed millions of dollars in bonuses after laying off 6,000 unimportant workers even as the company goes up in flames, and is in debt by close to a billion dollars, largely due to the bad decisions of these same important executives. Of course the magnitude of this boondoggle is puny compared to what has happened and continues to happen on Wall Street. Does anyone else see a parallel here? Do I really need to point out who the “slaves” are and who is the elite at this point in time when the wealthiest 1% of Americans control more than one-third of the country’s wealth and the political agenda while the rest of us are treated as insignificant pawns?
The next similarity comes from our choice of energy supply. Today we are heavily dependent on both oil and coal, “guilty necessities” that our whole economy has come to be totally dependent on. We know we should really give them up because they are unsustainable, bad for the planet and for future generations, a threat to world stability and national security. In other words, continuing to invest in them is essentially an unethical path. But we can’t seem to give up these fuels because we are hooked on them and because they are so deeply woven into the fabric of our society. As Goodheart points out, this is pretty much the way most Southerners felt about slavery in the years leading up to the war. Slaves, after all, were the primary energy source for the South’s agricultural economy.
Finally, who were the Southerners that fought and died in the Civil War? Were they the plantation owners and their families, the ones who were benefiting the most from the corrupt scourge of slavery? For the most part, it was not them, but the poor farmers and merchants who had little to gain from the economic system they gave their lives to defend. These folks had been whipped up into a fighting frenzy by the secessionist rhetoricians of the day, folks like William L. Yancey and Alexander Stephens, whose “subordination,” of the inferior “to the superior race” formed the cornerstone of the Confederacy. These men, who convinced the uneducated masses to fight for the rich plantation owners that they served, might well have been the great-grandfathers of the O’Reillys, the Becks and the Bachmans of today. They did it by convincing these poor working folks, that there were still those that they could feel superior to: the slaves. The main difference between today and 150 years ago in the South, is that it is wealth, rather than race that determines who matters and who doesn’t. That might be a notch or two higher on some kind of moral continuum, but not much more than that when you consider how much wealth is inherited and how much is gained through unscrupulous means, hardly the meritocracy of conservative fantasy. Today’s Tea Party Patriots like to trace their ideology back to the angry citizens assembled at Boston Harbor preceding the American Revolution, but it might be more accurate to trace them back to the Southern farmers and merchants who fought in the Civil War.
So where do we go from here? Back then we had the Union Army, swelled by the ranks of morally outraged citizens who gave their lives to restore justice and order. They were led by principled leaders who would not bend to the ethically unsupportable arguments of the Southern elite or be seduced by their riches, even when faced with the threat of secession. Who do we have today and what can history teach us?
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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