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Minimizing historical injustices

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, December 21, 2010 14:57 EDT
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One of the most fascinating phenomenon aspects of collective psychology to me is collective willful ignorance. I wrote about this some in terms of Wikileaks and how it disturbs collective unknowing, and I think Ricky Gervais touched on it when talking about atheism as a matter of letting yourself know what you already know. I get why people don’t want to know certain things they do know, and why they suppress that knowledge, but that we can do it—and that we can it collectively—is truly fascinating. And that people who speak the truth everyone is ignoring can disturb the ecosystem of collective denial is also fascinating to me, probably in no small part because the vast majority of hostility I’ve experienced from others has directly stemmed from their being upset with me for saying out loud what we’re supposed to collectively ignore.

One of the most routine kinds of collective denial is historical denial. It’s the result of cognitive dissonance caused when your belief that your people are generally good people is disturbed by historical evidence that your people in the past did great evils. The urge is to minimize the evil. The most extreme of this is denialism, which crops up when people not only wish to minimize the great evil, but also generally agree with the principles that caused it and want to make the historical facts that disturb their sense that they’re right about what usually amounts to bigotry. So they deny the Holocaust because they don’t want to confront what their own anti-Semiticism led to in the past. Or, in the case of the trolls on #mooreandme, they deny that rape is a real problem and always has been, because they don’t want to confront their own resentments of women’s right to control their own bodies, or really struggle with the fact that most of their people (in this case, men) have, throughout most of history, treated women like they were subhuman. And then you have neo-Confederates, who are basically like Holocaust denialists, but for slavery.

Denialists often can’t completely deny a historical reality, so they just go to great lengths to minimize it. Holocaust denialists rarely say there was no Holocaust, at least if they’re speaking to a Western audience. They just claim that the numbers of people killed were negligible, and then go on to argue, either directly or through implication, that the Jews made it all up so that they could have cover to do [fill in one of the millenia-old anti-Semitic theories about a Jewish conspiracy to run the world]. Neo-Confederate arguments are basically identical. The argument is that the South seceded for reasons other than slavery, and while they admitted that slavery was legal (since that’s basically undeniable), they minimize how many people owned slaves, how much of the Southern economy was based on slavery, and how miserable slavery was. They argue that the South seceded because of taxes (ignoring that the tax arguments were about slavery), or that it was to prove a point about federalism (ignoring the fact that the South’s biggest beef with the Union was that the federal government wasn’t using its power enough, to return escaped slaves to the masters). The conclusion reached by denialists is that blacks and liberals exaggerate slavery in order to steal money from white people and give it to black people. If you ever hear someone screeching about “reparations”, for instance, they are 99.9% likely to be a slavery denialist. The “Never Forget” movement grew in the wake of WWII in response to this common problem of human nature, and it was effective. Holocaust denialism has been marginalized. Sadly, slavery denialism is mainstream in the United States, precisely because the winners of the Civil War were more interested in making nice than holding people who committed treason in defense of slavery accountable. This week, there were actual celebrations of the anniversary of secession, and the only reason that happens is that slavery denialism has given them cover to fantasize openly about being able to own slaves. Slavery denialism is so mainstream that its myths have been absorbed by people that reject its conclusions. Even on this blog, I’ve seen well-meaning people who’ve absorbed slavery denialism myths suggest that the reasons for secession were more complex than they were, for instance.

Which is why I was thrilled to see that the South Carolina newspaper The State published an article denouncing slavery denialism, and arguing that, contrary to widespread myth, the South seceded for one reason: slavery. Their proof of this is from original documents from the era, namely the secession declaration from South Carolina, the first state to commit treason. (Via.)

What we found most striking in rereading the Declaration was the complete absence of any other causes. After laying out the argument that the states retained a right to secede if the Union did not fulfill its constitutional and contractual obligations, the document cited the one failing of the United States: its refusal to enforce the constitutional provision requiring states to return escaped slaves to their owners. “This stipulation was so material to the compact,” the document declares, “that without it that compact would not have been made.”

Emphasis mine, because I know this myth that the South had reasons other than slavery is so widespread pushback in comments is inevitable (and distressing, since it serves racist ends). One of the common distraction arguments is to say the South seceded over the right to secede, which is like divorcing someone to prove that it’s legal. It’s not entirely untrue to say that by the time of secession, most Southerners had decided they felt very strongly about “states rights”, but the only reason they developed this belief was it rationalized slavery. By the same measure, the only reason “states rights” is an issue now is it rationalizes racist, sexist, and homophobic laws. Then, as now, “states rights” believers support broad federal powers when those powers serve their ends, such as support for Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 then, and support now for federal laws restricting gay rights or women’s rights. Indeed, the idea that secession was obviously a right wasn’t a given in the South until it was convenient to say so, and even then, the Confederacy didn’t allow secession itself. All claims that the South seceded for reasons other than slavery fall apart even under cursory examination.

So that’s straight up denialism. But I’m also interested in the other end of the willful ignorance spectrum, which is a squishier liberal “they weren’t that bad, were they?” kind of thinking. This applies only rarely to trying to minimize the ugliness of slavery and secession, because that’s so far in the past that I think it’s easier for people to think that we’ve left it behind us. And believing we’ve left it behind us is the main desire that drives this softer kind of denial, instead of the strong denialism, which is driven by wishing to justify affection for the old, bigoted ways. It’s when it comes to more recent history that you see more liberal-minded people give into the desire to minimize.

I jokingly call it the “all segregationists evaporated in 1964″ belief. For at least my entire lifetime, it’s been basically considered improper and impolite to suggest that anyone living today was a segregation supporter, even though that’s physically impossible. (When I was born, the Civil Rights Act was only 13 years old, to put this into perspective.) They didn’t all die when segregation was banned. They kept on—many of them, like Jerry Falwell, fighting for it until the bitter end. But saying out loud that Falwell was a segregationist became impolite, even though it was true, and when he died only a couple of people in lefty magazines were courageous enough to note that Falwell built his career opposing civil rights, and only switched to anti-feminism when racism stopped being the source of the biggest checks. Conservatives love to take advantage of this collective willful ignorance, because it gives some of their more odious figures free license to say straight up racist things without paying any real penalty for it. On the contrary. They can expect people to leap up to minimize what they said.

Take yesterday, for example. I wrote a post about Haley Barbour’s comments praising a racist group that ran the KKK out of town only because they had strategic differences with the KKK, not because they had different aims. I noted that Barbour mentioned that he went to a civil rights rally in 1962, which he spun as if it was an innocent thing to do, and I suggested that he was probably there to intimidate and threaten people. The fact that I said this by insinuation was supposed to be a joke, a riff on the fact that no one is supposed to say out loud that segregationists are still among us. Even with my long experience in dealing with people’s kneejerk and well-intended desire to minimize, I didn’t expect folks to do that in this case, since it seems so obvious to me that Barbour is a bully and a thug, and the same kind of vicious redneck I’ve have to deal with for much of my life.

And yet, a sample of people trying to suggest there’s an outside possibility that a conservative white man living in a segregated Mississippi town that is basically run by organized racists went to an MLK speech out of curiosity or boredom.

It was 1962 in Mississippi: what the hell else was there to do?…..

I actually think Mr. Barbour’s account is fairly true. If you live in the boonies you went to whatever show came round regardless of whether you personally interested in it. So they went to see King speak and having no personal interest in civil rights, or current events, or good speech writing Barbour and his friends hung out in the back of the crowed to drink beer/flirt with girls. To imply that they went there with the idea of causing trouble is ridiculous. I doubt any of those boys had enough nerve or drive to go to a rally and actually start shit. If someone else started shit they would probably gleefully join in, only to fade into the crowd when the cops showed up looking for responsible parties, each one crafting a story of how he daringly made a stand against those ******’s, single-handedly fighting off fifty of them before giving the slip to the corrupt authorities.

The last one is quoted at length to highlight the ignorance of how pro-racist the police usually were in places like Yazoo County, Mississippi. Skulls cracked at civil rights events didn’t usually belong to the opposition.

I find Barbour’s memories of his youth to be completely believable. (And lynchings happened everywhere in the country, not just in the South, so I doubt his presence at the event was to intimidate blacks. Picking up girls was a much more likely explanation.) Those citizens groups may or may not have been better than the alternatives, but they were still racist. I can excuse some ignorance about his childhood, and think his adulthood is what should be focused upon. That’s where Haley Barbour can prove to be a racist fucktard or a man who outgrew the world he came from.

And the racist fucktard wins by a mile.

Singled out because I want to highlight that people minimizing the realities of segregation often do so with good intentions—they may even be willing to sign off on the idea that Barbour is racist, but are just reluctant to imagine that a bunch of good ol’ boys in their adolescent cockiness in Mississippi would think it was a fine time intimidating civil rights activists. Particularly as he has expressed open admiration for a white supremacist group.

Here is Michelle Goldberg, dropping some historical context that suggests that my reading, and not the “we can’t accept that someone that blatantly awful made it this far in politics” reading, is the correct one.

At the beginning of the century, Yazoo was a violent enough place to earn prominent mentions in almost every history of lynching, with 19 men dying at the hands of white mobs before 1930. Anti-black violence continued through the 1950s, when Barbour was growing up. In 1957, for example, a white farmer murdered a black soldier for the crime of sitting at a table with the farmer’s sister.

Barbour reports that when Martin Luther King spoke at the Yazoo County fairground in 1962, blacks and whites alike went to see him, though Barbour remained in his car on the rally’s outskirts, which suggests that he was there for reasons other than solidarity. No reporter was present to capture this moment of interracial comity, unique in the history of the South. But journalists were there when King spoke in Yazoo in 1966 during a freedom march, pleading for nonviolence while “[n]egroes and whites exchanged gunfire in a town 75 miles away,” as one dispatch says. About 100 whites stood, staring, on the gathering’s periphery, but the report makes it pretty clear they weren’t there to lend their support.

Odds are that Barbour is remembering an actual event that he did go to, but he’s misremembering the year, probably conveniently. After all, one of the excuses proffered for him is that if he did this in 1962, he was a minor and folks like the last commenter suggest that we should therefore treat it as a juvenile offense. But the rally actually happened in 1966, making Barbour 19 and not a minor, and it was only two years before he went into politics himself to help Richard Nixon’s campaign with its Southern strategy. Notably, this is after the Civil Rights Act, which is probably another reason Barbour is motivated to move the actual date back four years. God forbid we admit that segregationists didn’t just evaporate on the day that bill became law.

As for any suggestion that the White Citizens Council was somehow a gentler, less violent group than the KKK—instead of just one that was more interested in putting the face of upper class respectability on the same old thuggery—I offer this:

When black parents in Yazoo filed petitions to desegregate county schools, the Citizens Council took out a full-page newspaper add with their names and addresses. The same information, Dittmer writes, was posted on placards in every store in town. All the signatories with white employers lost their jobs.

Let me repeat: all. The chance that Haley Barbour was a real stand-alone guy with anti-racist feeling in the 1960s in a town where white people were fairly uniformly opposed to desegregation is pretty much too impossible to believe, especially since someone who was legitimately anti-racist from that era would have not defected from the Democrats to the Republicans after the Democrats turned civil rights into law.

I understand the urge to minimize. Acknowledging how ugly people can get to places of power in our country is hard to do. But please don’t. Because people make excuses and minimize is why someone like Barbour can get as far as he has.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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