Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Not All Slave Owners Were Rapine Beasts: Ron Paul's Musings on States' Rights and the "Tragedy" of the Civil War
Over the last few days, I have watched this interview with Ron Paul several times. Something about his tone of voice just doesn't sit right with me, the detached indifference rubs me the wrong way.
It is easy to flatten history, in doing so to generate stories of evil men, barbarous and incomprehensible deeds, and frothing at the mouth villains. This is true when the history is personal and your people would have been the vanquished, the oppressed, the conquered, or the exiled. Ironically, the need to hold on to a fiction of two-dimensional monsters and evildoers is also true of those who are the present day descendants of the dominant, the winners, the exploiters, the "in-group," and the conquerors.
By painting "those people" into a box where only the most wicked were racist, prejudiced, genocidal, chauvinist or the like, a safe distance is created between the present and the past. Cartoon versions of the past are very comforting for those on both sides of history's accounting sheet: nuance is a shared enemy for those seeking simple and validating stories.
For example, it is easy to imagine all white slave owners as rapine beasts who crawled into the beds of black women and girls, using them as their personal sex toys, where inevitably these same white men would either sell off their own mulatto sires for a profit, or throw them into the fields as "free" labor. Likewise, we can envision the babies of newly arrived African slaves being smashed on the ground, killed during the seasoning process that the human cargo of the slave ships endured upon arrival in the New World.
In black masculinity's shared collective memory there exist memories of wives and loved ones taken before our eyes, we being rendered powerless to intervene by the barrel of the gun or the edge of the blade, and where inevitably the lustful eyes of the white slave owner, his sons, and friends turn to us as objects to sate the wickedness of their reckless and violent libidos. This is a secret pain, one little discussed in the shared history of blacks and whites together in the Americas and elsewhere. And of course, every overseer was an evil debased man like Mr. Covey of Frederick Douglass' famed autobiography, a degenerate piece of poor white trash who, like many of his class, lived for nothing but the sadistic pleasures that came with "breaking" black slaves as he made them suffer under his whip, ax handle, cat of nine tales, scold's bridle, or branding iron.
But, what of the white slave owner who struggled to reconcile his "Christian faith" with the owning of human beings, and in a fit of guilt, convinced that he would go to hell because of his wickedness, freed his human property? How do we make sense of the white slave owner who manumitted the children of slaves on his plantation, or the feelings of loyalty and closeness that some slaves felt for their "white family?"
Perhaps, most troubling for a two dimensional version of American (and Atlantic) slavery is that plantations were run like factories. Of course, there were yeoman whites who owned one or two slaves, and lived in close intimacy with them, as privations were shared, and struggles (if not successes) were experienced in common across the colorline. But the plantations that occupy American memory, The Gone with the Wind version of history, were in reality, based on detached principles of labor efficiency. The owners of these business enterprises exchanged journals, notes, and theories about how to improve the yield of their crops. Therein, rubrics about the relationship between the ideal amount of punishment (the whip) and selective incentives in order to produce the maximum amount of productivity were divined and ciphered.
For the most profitable slave-owning whites, chattel slavery was a business. In many instances, it was a very impersonal one (where on some plantations the owner would never dispense punishment personally as it was a distasteful act and would make his slaves resent and fear him, while on other plantations it was only the head of the house who could wield the whip or the lash--overseers were not to be trusted to act judiciously or fairly). In all, African American bondsmen and bondswomen were entries on a ledger sheet; they were "workers" whose productivity had to be maximized by any means available.
There is an odd intimacy here. On one hand, slavery on the largest plantations was business and never personal. As a practical matter, slavery could never be anything but the latter.
It is not Ron Paul's piss poor understanding of the historical underpinnings of the Civil War and chattel slavery that is most disturbing. No, it is the idea that in his detached musings, I can hear in my ear the whisper of the assassin doing a hit, or a slave owner assessing the value of his latest purchase on the auction block, that this is "business, never personal," just before they pull the trigger or sign the check.
As we have seen in other moments throughout his campaign, there is an utter lack of human empathy (and sympathy) for black personhood in Paul's speech to his Redemptionist, white racist, Neo-Secessionist public that yearns for the states' rights narrative. This is the root of my disturbance.
Ron Paul's counter-factual about gradual or compensated manumission (where the freedom of blacks held in bondage was purchased as a means to end chattel slavery) is problematic on a number of levels. Primarily, it ignores the significant psychic wage that whites invested in the personal owning of black bodies, their attachment to a society that validated white superiority over people of color, and where even though a majority of whites did not have bloody hands from the direct business of chattel slavery, they could aspire to one day own slaves as a sign of upward mobility and success.
Ron Paul's musings about the civil war as an avoidable conflict, save for the desire of the North to impose its will on the poor South--and thus violating states' rights--is also ahistorical. We do not need to hypothesize about why such proposals as compensated manumission did not come to pass on a wide scale in the United States. It is not a mystery or puzzle. There is a rich historical record which details the many failings of such a scheme, and slave owners' rejections of it in the name of perpetual white supremacy.
In all, Ron Paul's desire to frame the Civil War as a tragedy for the South at the hands of a villainous North, a federal force that only wanted to take away the liberties of white people, is an ideal-typical example of libertarianism's failings on matters of race and justice. Ron Paul does not seem to identify slavery--the owning of black people by white people in perpetuity--as a de facto state of war and tyranny. If libertarians were to find a historic freedom struggle to claim as their own, one would think that abolition, accomplished by any means necessary, would be at the top of their list.
Second, Paul places his principle of "non-interference" over the rights of African Americans (and others) to be treated as full and equal citizens. Whites have the freedom to discriminate against, violate, and terrorize black people. The latter's liberty and freedom are secondary to those of the former. By virtue of that most basic standard, Ron Paul is a polite white supremacist who enables and supports a herrenvolk Apartheid America in theory, if not fully in practice.
The detached manner in which Ron Paul valorizes the Confederacy as "the victim" of federal tyranny, is to my eyes at least, one of the most frightening faces of contemporary, "color blind" white supremacy. Here, black people are secondary to his principles; slaves do not really enter into the calculus because as a privileged white man he cannot imagine himself as existing in such a state of existential duress and oppression.
In keeping with the universal "I" of whiteness, the "normal," the race-neutral "we," the African American held in bondage is secondary to Ron Paul's higher order principles. "We the people," and "the states' rights" apparently do not include the will of African Americans to not be held as human property. Ron Paul's whiteness is blinding, deafening, and utterly transparent in this regard. It is ugly. I dare say that there is something evil about it.
I thought long about that last statement of moral and existential judgement. I own it. I believe it.
Just as the plantation owner entered profits and losses, births and deaths, crops and yields, in his ledger, we can all take comfort in the fact that Ron Paul's particular version of white racism is "business, and never personal." That makes it okay, doesn't it?