The Problem of the “Poor Confederate:” AKA the Redemption of Richard Nixon
The PBS Biography of Ulysses S. Grant ends part 1 with Confederate Soldiers lamenting their fate. One explains that the only thing he has to live for is hatred of Northerners. Other scholars cite a deserting Confederate soldier exclaiming, “they took from me the only thing of value I ever had, my white skin.”
Such pathology was born of a brutal war. Sherman’s March to the Sea, the Battle of the Wilderness and a Cruel War without Mercy for Civilians. The barbarity of war was preceded by a long exploitation of “white trash” by wealthy whites to preserve their systems of economic exploitation. For us to move forward as a nation we need to understand the deeper roots of this not just “southern,” but “American” white identity crisis.
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It began in the tangled history of colonization. First came the wealthy planters who were the shock troops of an invasion. They stole land from the local indigenous inhabitants while spreading diseases like smallpox and bubonic plague, each far more lethal than Covid-19.
Throughout the hemisphere they displaced and looted tribes like Powhatan, Abenaki, Wampanoag, or Naragansett. When the “poor” whites could not complete the tasks they compelled poorer whites or the “racially other” to do their dirty work for them. That is the true story behind Pocahantas and the first Thanksgiving. Newly enslaved and displaced “Natives” succumbed to “virgin soil epidemics” causing a severe labor shortage.
The survivors of the plagues were then brutally attacked in a series of wars, most notably the Pequot War and King Philip’s War in New England. In New York, rivalry between the Dutch, French, and English led to a series of “Beaver Wars” where newly armed natives slaughtered one another for access to preferred European trade goods. The pattern was repeated in the South and in the Spanish Colonies leading to the Pueblo Revolt.
The invaders committed atrocities that would today be described as genocidal war crimes. As the “winners” of the war they absolved themselves of sin by creating a myth of their own innocence and the barbarism of the conquered. The resilient survivors of the conquest blended in, intermarried with free blacks, or retreated toward Mexico or Canada.
Thus was born the American story. Virtuous white founders had founded a “Virtual, Virginal Eden” and then proceeded to rape it. The toxic stew of self righteous founders needing a new myth to justify their conquest. John Winthrop, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson were happy to provide the pious revolutionary language to justify the conquest.
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But this tale keeps us locked in a “red, white, and black” narrative that lacks nuance and compassion for other victims of the imperialist state.
Meanwhile, back in Virginia, the poorer whites who had arrived as indentured servants were growing restless. They had been brainwashed by “slave holder” religion to “obey their masters.” The first families of Virginia systematically kept them locked out of the exclusive schools, the marriage markets, and opportunities for prime land.
The result was a predictable slaughter. Poor whites under the direction of Nathanial Bacon were armed and began a campaign of extermination against peaceful Indians. When Governor Berkeley of Virginia refused to bless their efforts they turned on him and burned Jamestown to the ground. Bacon “fortunately” died of dysentery and the crown restored order, of sorts.
The mutual recriminations lived on through the generations. With each side struggling to cast themselves as the victims of class and race based oppression. The First Families of Virginia quietly pocketed the cash and the best land to the west.
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The fruit of the rebellion was a new racial caste system where the elites “hired” poor whites to serve as armed militia men and slave drivers. Poor white compliance with racial supremacy was purchased by rich slavers. The victims included the bodies of enslaved blacks and the souls of white folks, rich and poor.
Most of this story was fully available to college students and professors by the late 1980s in books like. Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror.
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The “popular version” which was at times used to displace “conservative” textbooks was Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States.
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New versions of the book are pushing down into younger grades and with timely updates are increasingly available. The unfortunate result is that many students, especially in bluer states, are taught to sympathize with the victims of class struggle, slavery, militarism, colonialism etc. That is all well and good, but it involves a necessary condemnation of their civic ancestors. There are no more “good, dead, white men.” What does that suggest about the living?
All of this has been a needed corrective of the white supremacist “history of the winners turned whiners.”
More recently within #exvangelical communities a repudiation of the “myth of redemptive violence” has emerged.
The archetype central to Jewish and Christian understanding is of a father’s anger being appeased by the self-sacrifice of their sons and daughters. Cue tape on Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ or any retelling of the Binding of Isaac by Abraham at G_d’s command. The founding American civic religion has been revealed as a demon and is being cast out.
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But we are also left with a gaping hole in our self identity. Do we now describe William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, John F. Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton as the willing scapegoats of white male privilege. They also enjoyed that status and literally sacrificed themselves on the alters of their own ambitions and their husbands or fathers careers.
But if the tearing down of statues in not accompanied by a healing of wounds then where are we left?
How many more of our sons and daughters do we propose to sacrifice to our quest for a “more perfect union?”
Do we have to exile Barack Obama because he was late to the Gay Pride parade? Can we forgive him for being a politician trying to hold an unwieldy coalition together?
Furthermore, if we neglect the voices of those who had been center stage in the previous regimes but now lie exiled from the pantheon where does that leave us?
For the most provocative of questions, “What would Richard Nixon say, if he could speak into our present moment?”
The historian, Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People provides a kind of primer into the Nixon administration and the conservative mind. Similar to many progressives his objectivity appears to fade the closer we get to the present.
I have been at times bemused and horrified by his description of Watergate as a coup d’etat of the press corps.
Paul Johnson - Charlie Rose
Author Paul Johnson discusses "A History of the American People."
Maybe Charlie Rose is not the best interviewer to post as he has had his own problems with the #metoo movement. Yet, if we stop listening to the exiles we become the proverbial “blinded one” whom no one will trust to lead.
Some commentators have argued, “I watch Fox News so you don’t have to.” Perhaps I have read Paul Johnson so you don’t have to. But maybe you should.
Then maybe you can understand the world view of William Barr and many of his highly educated acolytes on the courts.
Roger Ailes, Fox News and the grievances of Vietnam Veterans did not emerge out of thin air.
If you want to know why they still support the 45th president of the United States, you had better ask them. It usually has something to do with protecting the lives of the unborn and being loyal to the soldiers and cops who have defended the country and private property, albeit imperfectly.
Unless we grapple with the “Conservative Mind” with the goal of understanding the roots of their rage at contemporary America we will only be repeating the patterns of self righteous exclusion.
Yes, expose the wounds. Yes, clean out the gangrene, and treat them with the appropriate antibiotics. But then allow them All of US to heal. Allow us to have a shared and fully inclusive narrative and myth of America.
That is the the progress dreamed of by Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Truman, Martin Luther King, and President Obama.
We need an Unum ex Pluribus, or we should all just give up and go back where we came from leaving Turtle Island to its original inhabitants.