10 February 2014

'Caring equally for all:' pacifist democracy and revisionist history

Kristin Y. Christman is the author of The Taxonomy of Peace, self-described as a "Comprehensive Classification of the Roots and Escalators of Violence," including "650 Solutions for Peace." She wrote an op-ed piece that was probably intended to appear closer to the Martin Luther King holiday but only ran in a local paper this weekend. Christman believes that we'll improve our "potential for peace" if we rethink history and question "the usefulness of each past war." To her credit, she doesn't go for an easy target. Instead, she questions whether the American Civil War was worth fighting. She thinks not.

The war did not stop the exploitation of labor in the South or North. Nor did it sever the connection between wealth and power that stifles economic justice and plagues us today. Freed slaves were subject to lynching, starvation, and the sharecropping system that trapped them in false debt. Northern white workers were fainting from starvation at the profitable Pullman rail car factory outside Chicago.

True enough, but Christman succumbs to an old idealistic account of the war. She seems to believe, on the evidence of this column, that the war was fought, if not initiated, to end slavery. This assumption is important to her argument, since she proposes an alternative scenario in which slavery would have ended without war.

Christman works under the assumption that all parties to a conflict with the potential for war have legitimate concerns that should be addressed in order to keep peace. Since "the essence of democracy is 'caring equally for all,'" democratic governments must "seek to resolve conflict rather than take sides." To assert that one side is wrong is too often to "lure the compassionate into support for war, especially when attention to that inhumanity cloaks hidden purposes of war." While Christman doesn't go so far as to say that no side can be wrong, she insists that "inhumanity could be better addressed non-violently," or should be whenever possible. This entails addressing the "fears" that presumably motivate inhumane conduct or constrain inhumane actors from changing their ways.

How does this apply to the Civil War? Christman's assumption (so I infer) is that the war came because the North insisted on the abolition of slavery. If the South felt compelled to resist, that was because the North made demands without offering anything in return. While she doesn't seem like a Neo-Confederate -- she does seem convinced that slavery is inhumane -- Christman seems to endorse a once-popular quasi-Marxist interpretation of the conflict that portrays Northern capitalism as its driving force, and seems to suggest that slaveholders had concerns the Union was obliged to address.

Why was no effort made in congressional negotiation to link the abolition of slavery with the easing of economic conditions for the South? The North seemed to be forcing the South into a corner, to be squeezing it, by insisting simultaneously on low prices for Southern cotton, high prices for Northern shipping and manufactured goods, a tariff that favored the North, and the end of slavery. Instead of creating economic conditions and human relations initiatives that would facilitate the South's survival without slaves, the North seemed to use the slavery issue as ammunition to foment belligerency toward the South. Billions that could have reimbursed each slave and slave owner went down the drain.

The problem with this account is that we can't tell when this "negotiation" over abolition took place. It certainly didn't happen before secession, since abolition wasn't on the agenda of the incoming Lincoln administration. Lincoln had no intention of freeing the slaves until the war itself seemed to justify it; however much he hated slavery, he felt himself constrained from abolishing it by the Constitution. What he insisted upon, and would not give up in negotiation -- what made his election alone sufficient cause for secession in many Southern eyes -- was that no further territories in the west would be open to slavery. This was abolitionist only in the long view, insofar that confining slavery to the South would put it, as Lincoln did believe, on the course of ultimate extinction. Would Christman have preferred that Lincoln consent to the settling of slaves all the way to the Pacific, or is it her belief that "creating economic conditions and human relations initiatives" would have reconciled slaveholders to their exclusion from the west? She can certainly believe that such initiatives should have reconciled fearful troublemakers to constraints on their inhumanity, but should is no guarantee of would. The weakness of this sort of pacifist reasoning is the assumption that negotiation inevitably will discover a rational basis for conflict resolution -- that the fears that presumably spark or exacerbate war are fundamentally reasonable and amenable to reasoned negotiation. If you're confronted with irrational fears, what then? How much do you give to keep the peace?

To be fair to Christman, hers is always a fair question to ask. What is really worth risking your life, and others'? What is worth killing people? Was it worth the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people either to preserve the Union or free the slaves? At the extreme, the pacifist questions whether anything justifies killing. Whether capital punishment undermines the reverence for life that it's intended to reinforce is a related question. But it can also be asked whether, absent the ultimate rationality upon which Christman's approach to conflict resolution depends, pacifism only perpetuates injustice. When she proposes an alternative to the Civil War including compensated emancipation, many will object to the idea of "rewarding" slaveholders in any way, but she can ask whether your moral objection justifies the deaths of slaveholders and their antagonists alike. The ultimate question may be: what merits death? Some will answer: nothing. Others will disagree. The disagreement defines two conflicting ideals that might be described as hedonist and utilitarian. To the hedonist, and by extension the pacifist, the violent death of anyone is intolerable. For the utilitarian, the concept of the greatest good for the greatest number often allows for the exclusion of a lesser number. Christman's concept of democracy -- "caring equally for all" -- is essentially hedonist. It requires us to keep caring even for the oppressors, even when it seems that you care more for them than for those they oppress. But hers is only one conception of democracy. Others may stress that power is open for all to share in, but exists to be used -- on people, not to mention property.  In this view, democracy always contains an element of command with an "or else" stipulation, with submission to a ruling will implicit in membership, or else we're actually describing anarchy. None of this rules out "caring equally for all" as a democratic objective, but it can set conditions for all and each -- and that may be what democracy is really about for some people. Declaring each human life inviolable may seem supremely democratic from one perspective, but from another doing so may preempt democracy in crucial ways. I'm not declaring any winners in this debate, but I'm pretty sure the ultimate resolution of questions of justice and peace won't be as easy as Christman wishes.


Anonymous said...

I really get sick of the 'tards who believe the civil war was solely about ending slavery. That was really merely an excuse. What the civil war was about was the refusal of conservatives to abide by democratic rule when their guy doesn't win the election.

Regardless of whatever excuse they want to use, it comes down to that plain fact.

Samuel Wilson said...

Lincoln himself saw the war as a defense of democracy, i.e. government by, of and for the people. I wonder whether Christman considers the Gettysburg Address as no more than propaganda, or whether she believes government by, of and for the people could ever be worth killing for.