Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 9th, 2010
Last weekend I went to the “One Nation” march — a rally designed at least in part as a rebuke to Glenn Beck’s 8/27 event at the Lincoln Memorial, hijacking the date and meaning of the March on Washington 47 years earlier. At least one “Tea Party” advocate stood alone (and unmolested) among the swirling crowd near the Washington Monument on their way towards the event. His sign had words to the effect “I’m with the Tea Party . But I’m not racist, I don’t hate.”
Maybe not. Few people like to think they’re racist. Many people try not to be. But we’re not usually the most objective judges of whether we’ve succeeded.
More to the point here, when their leaders — by intent, by ignorance, or by intentional ignorance — misrepresent the history of race in America that they claim to be explaining, the practical effect is racist. Listen to the ‘MediaMatters’ tape excerpt of the October 1 Glenn Beck show, starting at 2:14:
…I would like to propose that the president is exactly right when he said “Slaves sitting around the campfire didn’t know when slavery was going to end, but they knew that it would.” And it took a long time to end slavery. Yes it did. But it also took a long time to start slavery. And it started small, and it started with seemingly innocent ideas. And then a little court order here and a court order there, and a little more regulation here and a little more regulation there, and before we knew it, America had slavery. It didn’t come over on a ship to begin with as an evil slave trade, the government began to regulate things because the people needed answers, they needed solutions. It started in a courtroom, and then it went to the legislatures. That’s how slavery began. And it took a long time to enslave an entire race of people and convince another race of people that they were somehow or another “less” than them. But it can be done. I would ask you to decide: are we freeing slaves, or are we creating slaves? That’s a question that must be answered.
Hokaaay. There’s a whole discussion one might have about how all this is delivered — the weary would-be freedom rider’s ‘yes it did,’ the oddly mocking, skeptical ‘evil slave trade.’ But it’s the content that concerns me here: where in God’s name does Beck come up with this stuff?
W.C. Skousen and the Lost Cause
The answer appears to be that ‘in God’s name’ is about right: it may be largely from one Willard Cleon Skousen (1913-2006). National Review Online’s Mark Hemingway described him as “by turns an FBI employee, the police chief of Salt Lake City, a Brigham Young University professor, consigliore to former secretary of agriculture and Mormon president Ezra Taft Benson and, well, all-around nutjob.” (emphasis added)
Hemingway may regret that last bit now, because Skousen also authored Beck’s favorite book, “The 5,000 Year Leap.” That book argues that the United States Constitution — or Skousen’s cramped, hyper-strictly constructed version of it, anyway — is another miracle from God in a chain stretching back to the Ten Commandments. And as MediaMatters’ Simon Maloy notes, other books by Skousen describe slavery as all but harmless, and its opponents as the true problem. In “The Making of America” Skousen quoted Fred Albert Shannon’s Economic History of the People of the United States (1934) at length on the subject of slavery. Here are but a few of the many examples Maloy cites:
“The tendency was to sell families as units, if for no other reason [than] to keep the slaves contented. The gangs in transit were usually a cheerful lot, though the presence of a number of the more vicious type sometimes made it necessary for them all to go in chains.” [...]
“In some ways.” “Almost.” From “Making of America”, by
C.W. Skousen. (Via MediaMatters.)
“The Southerner was bothered by the race problem but knew how to handle the individual Negro, while the Northerner professed a benign interest in the race so long as its members were as remote as possible. [...] Some Negroes, having been freed and sent to any Northern state which would receive them, became so miserable as to solicit a return to slavery.” [...]
“Gradual emancipation by legislative action was talked about in the South for two generations after the Declaration of Independence. A fierce contest, waged over this issue in the legislature of Virginia as late as 1832, was lost by the emancipationists largely because of resentment against the interference of Northern abolitionists and terror over the Nat Turner insurrection of the preceding year.” [...]
“Numerous observers, of various shades of opinion on slavery, agreed that brutality was no more common in the black belt than among free labor elsewhere, and that the slave owners were the worst victims of the system.”
Shannon’s fairy tales mirror those of the “Lost Cause” movement of the late 19th and early 20th century: slaves were well treated and loyal, race relations were amicable before the Civil War, abolitionists gave blacks dangerous ideas they weren’t ready for.* When not using weasel words like ‘tendency,’ or openly fantasizing about scenes he could not possibly be familiar with, Shannon was flatly, destructively wrong. For instance, historian David Blight notes that “for slave children, between 1820 and 1860, living in the Upper South or the Eastern Seaboard, they had approximately a thirty percent chance of being sold outright away from their parents before they were ten.“ Thirty percent. By age ten. That’s how the Southerner ‘knew how to handle the individual Negro.’”
Beck’s most curious notion — that government regulations caused slavery, rather than merely recognizing or regulating it — is just as hard to support in the historical record, or even find direct counterparts to among polemicists.
However, the charge echoes another turn of the century “Lost Cause” and reconciliationist trope: Southerners weren’t responsible for slavery, the nation as a whole was. Thus, the United Confederate Veterans would argue in 1895, “Slavery was the South’s misfortune, the whole country’s fault” — and threw itself into the task of rewriting as many text books on the subject, with regrettable success. Similarly, Robert E. Lee’s grandson could claim with a straight face in 1911, “If the South had been heeded, slavery would have been eliminated years before it was. It was the votes of the southern states which finally freed the slaves.” A Washington Post editorial argued two years later –on occasion of ceremonies commemorating the Battle of Gettysburg! — “the burden of responsibility should be shouldered by the North for [slavery's] introduction.”**
Blight doesn’t go into just how these notions were defended, but the charge seems to have to do with Virginia Assembly resolutions pleading for a ban the importation of slaves during colonial times — not, however, from sudden concern for the human rights of kidnapped Africans, but because of fear of the growing slave population. At the time, some New England ports were profiting from the slave trade, and some merchants may well have lobbied against the measure; at any rate, the British Parliament refused to ban the trade, and Virginians resigned themselves to the bitter necessity of continuing to provide the demand side of the slave trade equation.***
What is clear is that it was desperately important — then as now — to assign responsibility for slavery elsewhere. And, then as now, it was always important to do so with variations on that most childish of arguments, “tu quoque” — you’re another.
The gist of Beck’s, Skousen’s, and other fellow travellers’s ideologies, such as they are, is that liberals (progressives, call them what you will) have dragged the nation away from its hallowed constitutional roots. The liberals — those bastards — accomplished this by seeing a role for government in what one might call “promoting the general welfare” and by taking steps to limit the harms one group can perpetrate on another: polluting the environment, selling rotten meat, running mines unsafely, shooting people for attempting to vote while black, enslaving them, what have you.
It thus becomes important for little men like Beck and Skousen to deny the urgency of the problems being solved. When that won’t fly, as in the case of slavery, the next line of defense — as ever — is to imply hypocrisy: the problems were created by the solvers too, and their bid to solve it leaves their own (allegedly) critical role unexamined.
And when that won’t fly, the next line of defense is to cut to a commercial.
===== FURTHER READING ON BECK’S HISTORIOGRAPHY
Skousen: Beck guru Skousen’s “story of slavery”… ( Simon Maloy (SSM), MediaMatters.org); The Man Behind Glenn Beck’s Chalkboard (Tim Murphy, Mother Jones); Meet the man who changed Glenn Beck’s life (Zaitchik, Salon.com); Glenn Beck, America’s Historian Laureate (Grandin, Mother Jones). Anti-progressive: Glenn Beck’s partisan historians (Michael Lind, Salon.com)
* Shannon’s assertions echo none other than Jefferson Davis’s words. Again, David Blight in a 2008 lecture:”Blacks, said Jeff Davis, had been, quote, “put to servitude, trained in the gentle arts of peace and order and civilization. They increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers. Their servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their abode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal attachments secured faithful service. Never was there happier dependents of labor and capital on each other. The tempter came, like the Serpent of Eden, and decoyed them with the magic word, freedom. He put arms in their hands and trained their humble but emotional natures to deeds of violence and bloodshed, and sent them out to devastate their benefactors.”
**All from Race and Reunion, David Blight, Harvard University Press 2001: UCV, p. 281; Lee’s grandson p.283; Washington Post, p.387. I review this excellent book here.
*** See Arguing About Slavery, William L. Miller, pp. 245, 248-249.