Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a post about Ron Paul the other day. He featured a clip of Paul talking about the civil war. In the clip, Tim Russert asks Paul about his statement that “Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war. There were better ways; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery.” Paul stood by his previous statement,
600,000 Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn’t have gone to war. He did this just to enhance and to get rid of the original intent of the republic…Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. The way I’m advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years. Hatred and all that existed. Every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. That doesn’t sound to radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.
Coates put up the video to demonstrate Paul’s ignorance about the civil war, one of the reasons he could never vote for him. (Ever hear of a little place called Haiti, Ron?) The post inspired a lot of comments about war and pacifism. Being Coates’s blog, they were mostly intelligent and thoughtful.
Not so intelligent or thoughtful was this screed on Mondoweiss. Jerome Slater refers to Ron Paul as simpleminded and then goes on to make that tired argument about what Howard Zinn referred to as the “good wars.” I mean what kind of evil, naive, stupid person couldn’t see that we needed to fight the nazis in WWII? Right?
Howard Zinn never claimed to be a pacifist. But he did challenge conventional beliefs about the American Revolution, the Civil War, and WWII. You can see one of his presentations here. Here is what he had to say about the civil war.
You can’t deny that the civil war is fought and slavery is ended. But even while not forgetting that – that is very, very important – it is worthwhile at least looking at the other side of the balance sheet. 600,000 dead in the civil war…in a population of 30 million…600,000 today would mean we fought a civil war in which 5 million people died.
What if we want to end racial segregation, or maybe even slavery? Should we fight a war in which 5 million people died in order to end slavery? Of course, we want slavery to end. But is this the only way it could have been done, with a war that takes 600,000 lives? There are countries in other parts of the world and in the Western hemisphere that did away with slavery and without a bloody war, all over Latin America and the West Indies. It is worth thinking about.
It is not that we want to retain slavery. No. We do want to end slavery. But again, we have to let our imaginations go. Is it possible that slavery might have been ended some other way? Maybe it would have taken longer. This is a very important factor. If you want to avoid horrendous violence and accomplish something, you may have to wait longer. The nice thing about violence, it is fast. You want to accomplish something fast, violence will do it. But very often you can accomplish the same thing without violence if you have a more orchestrated plan of – not submission, not appeasement, not giving in, not allowing the status quo to go on, but – gradually eroding the status quo…
We did not really end slavery. It is not simply they were slaves and now they are free. No they weren’t free. They were put back into serfdom, not slavery, but serfdom after the civil war. They were left without resources. They had to go back and work now for the same plantation owners that they were enslaved by with the same kind of restrictions on them because they had no resources. So to say slavery was ended, not quite true. And as you know, black people then went through 100 years after the supposed end of slavery and after the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments are passed to the constitution promising racial equality. For 100 years after the supposed end of slavery black people are segregated and live as second class human beings.
I think the similarities between what Ron Paul said and what Howard Zinn said are striking. The thing is, I don’t ascribe the same intentions to Ron Paul as I do to Howard Zinn. Paul is a politician who has been associated with all kinds of nasty racism. Zinn was a teacher and civil rights activist who was beloved by former students like Alice Walker.
Kevin Drum says that “Ron Paul is such a profoundly toxic messenger that his support for a non-interventionist foreign policy probably does the cause more harm than good.” He may be right about that. But I think the bigger problem is that we are all to often only capable of hearing ideas when they come from sources we like.
Let’s take another quote.
Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?
That quote almost sounds anarchist. I might think that the person who said it had some interesting ideas. Unfortunately, the quote came from Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address.
One of the truly unfortunate things about politics is that politicians adopt the language of ideas that people respond to, but they only adopt them in order to gain power. Then we associate that language and those ideas with the actions of dishonest, smarmy politicians and close our minds to the ideas themselves.
I’m not trying to defend Ron Paul here. I sure as hell won’t be voting for him (or anyone else). I also think that there are quite a few more things to factor in when thinking about whether or not there was another way to end slavery. Slavery was violence. Slaves were beaten, raped, and killed every day. But it upsets me that people can’t keep an open mind, even when the idea is delivered by a hideous messenger.
Nobody is right all the time. Nobody is wrong all the time. Important ideas can come from unexpected sources. And we need to be able to question everything, to weigh everything, particularly where lives are at stake. It is only by keeping ourselves open to all information, no matter where it comes from, that we have any chance of not repeating the mistakes of the past.
Unlike Paul, Howard Zinn did not make a definitive statement about whether or not the civil war should have been fought. He only asks us to contemplate if there could have been another way.
You have to imagine something that didn’t happen as opposed to accepting something that did happen…Otherwise we are going to be stuck with history. Otherwise we are going to be stuck with doing the same thing over and over again, because this is the only way it can be done.
How is that simpleminded?