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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Speculative Fiction

Confederate General Robert E Lee's adjutant, Major Walter Taylor, wrote of Special Order 191 (the Lost Dispatch):

What a fatality was there for General Lee! What an advantage to the Federal commander — to be instantly made aware of the division of his adversary's army, the wide separation of his columns, and to have the details of his plan laid bare!
There is no parallel to it in history. A victory for the South at that time meant the recognition by foreign powers of the independence of the Confederate States. Victory that seemed assured for General Lee trembled in the balance, and by this fortuitous incident eluded his grasp. It looks as if the good Lord had ordained that we should not succeed.
General Lee could manage General McClellan well enough under normal condi- tions, but this looks like an interposition of Providence to thwart his designs. Some will say that this check to the wheel of Confederate fortune was not due to the act of God, but to the carelessness of some one at the head- quarters of General D. H. Hill, to whom the copy of the order was addressed;* to which the fatalist will reply that it was predetermined and could not have been otherwise; and this contention will never be settled until the line is established that marks where Divine Sovereignty ends and human free-agency begins.

The next graf lays on the Lost Cause spackle pretty thick, fitting with Taylor's entire tome.  But this passage does seem to jibe with a general consensus that had SO191 not been lost, providing the Union with an intel boon, Lee's first invasion of the North would've yielded great fruit including, most likely, recognition by the UK and France, and thus independence.  One need not be a Southern apologist or Harry Turtledove to see this happenstance, whatever its cause, as the war's inflection point.

Of course history is as history did, but speculating about the what-ifs can sometimes be instructive if you're trying to learn how one might handle future situations differently.  Greater communications security, for example, gives one a battlefield advantage--something learned very well during WWII that impacted US commercial policy (regarding export of crypto mechanisms) for generations.  And being timid when having a superior force and a notion of the enemy's troop disposition dooms you to a longer, bloodier conflict--perhaps Stormin' Norman picked up on that at the Point.

Anyway, in a roundabout way I thought of this particular incident after reading Joan Walsh's recent piece on Obama's history lesson about compromise and slavery (which appears to be a theme with her this week):

[I]t's worth noting Frederick Douglass's point of view on Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. It's complicated, as befits Douglass's passion combined with his long-view pragmatism, which we all should work to combine. In his memoir, Douglass wrote about anxiously awaiting the proclamation in Boston, with a group of abolitionists. Some feared Lincoln might not even go through with it, he admitted, describing the 16th president in words that today he might use to describe our own: "Mr. Lincoln was known to be a man of tender heart, and boundless patience; no man could tell to what length he might go, or might refrain from going in the direction of peace and reconciliation." Douglass and his Boston group rejoiced when word of the proclamation came through. As he wrote at the time, "We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree."

Then came some disappointment. "Further and more critical examination showed it to be extremely defective," Douglass recalled in his memoir. "It was not a proclamation of "liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof," such as we had hoped it would be; but was one marked by discrimination and reservations." Douglass and other black abolitionists also criticized Lincoln's decision to pay black soldiers who enlisted to fight for the Union a lesser wage than white soldiers. They wanted Lincoln, who they admired, to do more, and do it faster.

So there have always been people who, even if ostensible allies, try to push leaders toward the ultimate goal.  They serve an important purpose in the political process and as they shift the debate with their passion and persistence, they eventually help foster necessary change.

On the flip side, there are also always folks who don't appreciate the role that gadflies and activists play.  Returning to Lee for a moment, he wrote in response to a message to Congress from President Pierce:

Although the abolitionist must know this, must know that he has neither the right nor the power of operating, except by moral means; that to benefit the slave he must not excite angry feelings in the master; that, although he may not approve the mode by which Providence accomplishes its purpose, the results will be the same; and that the reason he gives for interference in matters he has no concern with, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbor,—still, I fear he will persevere in his evil course. . . . Is it not strange that the descendants of those Pilgrim Fathers who crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom have always proved the most intolerant of the spiritual liberty of others?

I'm sure most of the General's sentiment comes from the same disdain for "outside agitators" as was common through the ante bellum, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and modern eras.  But it inherently must at least be based in part on a disdain for people who criticize and/or disrupt the status quo.

Yes, it's certainly true that some abolitionists were extreme, and some extremely violent--Harpers Ferry comes to mind--which did "excite feelings" in the South and put Northern gradualists in uncomfortable positions.  That said, the problem is solely with the people resisting change and justice, not the people who refuse to wait for God or the President to finally do the right thing.

I wonder what it would've looked like had Quakers not founded the first anti-slavery organizations on this continent.  I wonder what it would've looked like had Elijah Lovejoy, whose death disturbed Illinois state representative Lincoln, had not published an anti-slavery paper.  I wonder what it would've looked like had John Brown not attempted to raise a rebellion.

Perhaps things would have gone down more or less the way they did, with a nation convulsed by war.  Yet I can't help but think that without people agitating for change, the entire foundation of our sectional strife would have been non-existent.  What would have pushed us to the brink if nobody had been doing the pushing?  What would've shifted the Overton Window from passive, Biblically-justified acceptance of human bondage to recolonization of Liberia to Equal Protection?  What would've helped slaves escape to Free States or created the pressure for the 13th Amendment and Emancipation Proclamation during a war fought to preserve the Union?

So even if abolitionists didn't end slavery per se--our Civil War obviously was the clincher--their activism was clearly a significant factor in the Peculiar Institution's ultimate demise.  Lincoln might have had to go incrementally with cautious compromise, he also had Frederick Douglass and Horace Greeley riding herd all the way for a valuable, political purpose.

I'd say the same goes for the civil rights movement, which ultimately pressured (and supported) Johnson and Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act.  And the gay rights/marriage equality movement that has had so many successes thus far at the state level.

It seems that much of the change happens so stealthily and with little notice in spite, or because, of the "in your face" agitation that some folks complain "sets the movement back".  Activists push the bounds of what's acceptable and next thing you know, attitudes have changed and the unthinkable becomes political reality.  Activism is the gravity that bends the arc of history toward justice.

Similarly, as we don't generally think about gravitational forces' impact on our daily routines over the course of our lives, many people often aren't consciously aware of the benefits and successes of forces for change.  For example, it's easy to take for granted the 40 hour work week and other things labor won for us all, whether we belong to a union or not.

Thus one could say the Wisconsin protests failed, as state GOP passed their anti-working class laws.  But they did change the dynamic: what would've been an easy, silent stripping of rights was thrust into the sunshine, showing the entire nation what extremists are doing; a safe race for an incumbent GOP justice turned into a nailbiter against an obscure Democrat; Governor Walker's approval has tanked; the whole situation has fueled a major recall effort that could tip the balance of power in the state and could even change the national 2012 environment.  None of that would be true without people bringing their passion to Madison.

One might also say the antiwar movement has failed because we've been in Afghanistan longer than Vietnam.  Some folks have gone so far to muse that there is no antiwar movement mobilized against the former conflict, and some posit the reason is because it failed to end the latter.

I guess I take issue with both contentions.

First of all, it would be completely understandable if the movement had disappeared, but my friend Medea Benjamin forcefully notes that that's not the case: we've necessarily transformed.  There's also always been a lot of work that flies a bit under the radar because if it ain't a march, it's not so conducive to headlines, thus many pieces of the antiwar effort--counter-recruitment campaigns, regular local vigils, war tax resistance, etc--go unnoticed by the casual observer.

It's sad that DC protests are fundamentally all that many Americans see and think of when it comes to such a movement.  I've often heard the refrain, "but we marched in 2003 and it didn't prevent the invasion!"  Well, duh.  Marches don't stop wars--you need many more tools.

Anyway, sure we're still in Afghanistan and Iraq, but again I have to wonder what it would look like if there were no antiwar movement, such as it is, especially when you consider how invisible Afghanistan was when the nation focused on Iraq, and how invisible Iraq is now.  Would popular opinion be so against wars with a relatively low American body count?  Would members of Congress like Peter Welch be proposing withdrawal and voting against appropriations?

And that's partly the source of my objection to a not-entirely-unpopular idea that the anti-Vietnam movement failed.  How else would we have gotten out without collective action?

Mass mobilization changed the dynamic.  Without it, LBJ wouldn't have stopped bombing, sued for peace and dropped out of the '68 race.  Nixon couldn't have ridden a wave of disgust against the Democrats' war with his secret plan and Vietnamization and all that (nor executed his precursor to Reagan's October Surprise)--and couldn't have been re-elected in '72 by claiming American involvement was ending.  

The Elites wouldn't have feared a nonexistent movement, wouldn't have recoiled in horror at Kent State and the resulting backlash.  People wouldn't have started voting for more dovish candidates.  Heck, we wouldn't even have a 26th Amendment had it not been for the antiwar movement.

So let's remember that criticism, dissent and activism are not only rights, but responsibilities.  There's always attendent risks, but you never know what will turn the tide so we must make the effort.  Remaining passive only guarantees failure--that's not fiction or speculation, but cold, hard fact.


July 23, 2011 | Permalink


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