Mountains out of Molehills: Confederacy Edition

There’s been a lot of gleeful handrubbing in Libertarian circles recently as we all solemnly agree that the Confederacy Was a Very Bad Thing, Mkay You Guys? And, sure, it was a bad thing. Draconian central government dedicated to preserving slavery? There’s nothing for a libertarian to agree with there.

Nevertheless, I have a couple of compaints about the discourse surrounding this “discussion” (in shock quotes because, as implied above, no one is seeking any dialogue with Confederacy defenders that I can tell – it mostly looks like seizing an opportunity to grandstand for non-libertarian onlookers).

One is specific. In a related post, Ilya Somin drags out what he terms Eugene Volokh’s “clever” “invention,” the Reverse Mussolini Fallacy. That’s when you automatically assume that whatever your opponents support must be wrong. Like so many things, it is neither clever nor an invention. We already have a term for this: guilt by association. Can we maybe just use that instead? And what’s especially irritating is Somin thinking Volokh’s clever for having reinvented the original. See, the part that everyone crows over in the “Reverse Mussolini Fallacy” is the “reverse” bit – because apparently they think the standard version is the one where you excuse someone’s bad actions by pointing out that he did good things too. (You know, Mussolini makes the trains run on time, and that’s good, therefore we can/should excuse some of the other things he did.) I would reluctantly accept an independent “Mussolini Fallacy,” but I would prefer to call it the Selective Attention Fallacy, which is the more general term. The point is that it’s only “reversible” in the specific context of it being a political position that people oversell on the basis of a few dubious examples and the kneejerk response of wanting to claim that even those examples are ultimately bad. Perhaps it’s psychologically insightful to note the developments that lead up to a guilt by association brain fart, but it’s still just a guilt by association brainfart, and we don’t need a new term for something that’s already covered by a better-known term.

My real complaint, though, is general. I do think there’s something like a Reverse Mussolini going on in libertarian defenses of the Confederacy. The distaste for PC piety is so strong, that they work to find defensible things in the things politically correct people hate. But, and this is the point, there’s no need to leap to the conclusion that this is spiteful or reactionary.

There may be some libertarians who are just contrarians by nature (Murray Rothbard … I definitely have him in mind here) and who just enjoy taking up indefensible positions and seeing how far they can get with them. I can, indeed, well imagine that that tendency is more pronounced among libertarians than people of other political persuasions. There may also be some libertarians who are outright racist and are using historical defenses of the Confederacy as a cover for that. Both groups richly deserve to be shot down. To the extent that the current crowing over libertarians who like the Confederacy is a response to these kinds of people, I have no problem with them.

But I think most libertarians who have nice things to say about the Confederacy are of a third stripe – the kind of person who intensely dislikes piety, and dislikes it because he understands that it is at best simplistic – but is generaly a censor’s trojan horse. These people know from experience and common sense that life is almost never completely black and white. There are the occasional examples of regimes that are just across-the-board horrible (Nazi Germany, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, etc. etc.), but they are always aberrations. The crucial question in all of these cases is: how do we keep it from happening again? And the answer always hinges on understanding that the regimes in question had something to offer that resonated with people.

In the case of the Confederacy, it’s far from difficult to understand how it happened and why it was like it was, and that’s because none of the Confederacy’s positions on anything were all that rare for the time in which it existed. That is not a defense of those positions. It’s just to point out that the vast moral gulf between the North and South that we’re sold in school is … well, oversold.

The reason that people defend the Confederacy is because we know that history has little to do with why people denounce it – that the Confederacy they’re denouncing is in fact a historical fiction constructed to be a boogeyman to scare people into believing whatever it is they’re really getting at. The best way to fight a boogeyman is to deny that it is scary – and that’s what people are doing. As soon as they hear that something is irredeemably evil, they smell a rat, and they go looking for what they expect to find and do almost always find – that in context it isn’t as bad as claimed.

Notice that this isn’t exactly the Reverse Mussolini. The primary motivation isn’t to spite PCers by gainsaying everything they say, and it doesn’t rest on the assumption that anything PCers oppose must be good. It’s much broader than that. Spiteing PCers may be a fun side-bonus, but the primary motivation is to deny them their simple morality tale, to insist that they offer up real arguments for their positions rather than trite Guilt By Association (among other) fallacies. And the underlying assumption isn’t so much that PCers are always wrong as just that any time someone is saying that a human institution was uniquely evil, they are probably wrong. After all, the same kinds of people who made the Confederacy also made the Union, and in the same historical context.

As I said, I agree with their main points. There is no credible libertarian defense of the Confederacy, and to the extent that libertarians who defend it are defending it (a) just to be contrary (a la Rockwell or Rothbard) or (b) because they’re possibly closet racists (a la Jesse Helms), then cut them loose, agreed. But in most cases what’s going on is neither of these things, but rather something more subtle and definitely valuable. And in that spirit, I think it’s worth asking the people who are on their anti-pro-Confederate kick whether they’re fighting the right enemy. Is it crucially important to have a forceful condemnation of the Confederacy, or would you trade that for historical discussion that’s accurate, understands its context, and tried to learn from the past?

I think it bears repeating that the version of the Confederacy that most PCers are condemning and the version of the Union that they’re praising are cartoons. There were no such places in reality; they are each what the commentators need them to be to make their political point. And you can see some of that going on in the screeds of the anti-pro-Confederate screeds of the past couple of days. For example – from Ilya Somin:

As Mill hinted, many 1860s whites did not consider blacks to be “human beings, entitled to human rights.” But anyone who rejects such racist assumptions must recognize that Confederate secession cannot be justified on the basis that it somehow represented the will of the people.

Right, but what people in 1860 rejected such racist assumptions? Certainly very few in America. This is presented as though as a matter of convenience for an evil end the South simply disregarded what everyone knew to be a part of its legitimate population. But this is exactly where some balance would be helpful, because it’s not as though blacks were regularly allowed, or, where allowed by law, encouraged to vote in Northern states either. When the Civil War ended in 1865, 19 of 24 Northern states (that’s 80%) still did not allow blacks to vote. 10 did not allow them to testify in court. In 1860 no state in the Union allowed them to serve on juries. It’s like Ilya Somin, lawyer, is unaware that the 15th Amendment took until 1870 (5 years after the Civil War ended) to pass, and only got any momentum behind it because the Republican Party decided it needed black votes to win future presidential elections. So, where is this fantasy land where, in 1860, it was generally acknowledged that blacks must be consulted before a state can make a decision to secede? England, maybe? Because it wasn’t the United States.

The claims about immigration are similarly telling. Jacob Levy has a lot to say about immigration and libertarianism in his own bit on confederate sympathies among libertarians:

Being anti-immigration in any broad way is simply, clearly incompatible with libertarianism. It’s easy, it’s straightforward. If I’m going to write about the evils of immigration restriction, it’s not going to be aimed at the people who fail to see that; it’s going to be aimed at people who don’t care about libertarianism as such one way or the other.

So that’s an interesting thing to say for someone who wants any defense of the Confederacy off the table in libertarian circles – because Northern states were pretty unanimously opposed to black immigration from the South – and (I point this out because I am starting to worry that people like Somin and Levy don’t get this point if it isn’t pointed out to them) for entirely racist reasons. It wasn’t a commitment to equal rights that caused Ohio to line musketeers along its border with Kentucky to keep black freemen from crossing over.

The problem is, of course, that the Confederacy is frozen in time, unable to defend itself either through polling (we are actually unable to go back in time and ask black people what they thought about it, for example – it’s not inconceivable to me that they simply didn’t care whether the South seceded or not because they – rightly – didn’t expect to get a fair shake from the new regime either, and realized that freedom meant an end to any obligations their masters had to feed and house them), or through later historical evolution. It’s easy to forget that the North was every bit as segregationist as the South, and probably quite a bit more racist in general, in the 1860s because it later wasn’t so. It had an opportunity to change, and there’s more to judge it by. With the Confederacy, we just have to use our imaginations.

My overall point is that while I don’t think there’s a case for a libertarian defense of the Confederacy, there’s plenty of need for anti-anti-confederate positions to be heard. Like with so many other blazing lines that we can all agree shouldn’t be crossed, I have a sneaking suspicion that once the handful of Confederacy defenders are irrevokably booted from the movement, we’ll never get around to correcting the false impressions the general population has about the Union and the Civil War. It’s the same thing that turns me off of the gay marriage movement. I’ve heard the arguments a thousand times, that’s it’s a libertarian cause because it’s about property rights and self-determination, and we have to support the fight for gay marriage now as a critical first step to getting the government out of marriage altogether. But all that does is beg the question why we can’t fight for decoupling marriage and politics now, if that’s really the ultimate goal. Here’s a hint: saying that we have to respect the anti-polygamist prejudices of the majority so we can fight their anti-gay prejudices just excuses prejudice. Which is exactly what only ever focusing on Confederate failings does, He Said Pointedly. Just like I don’t believe for a minute that all these people who are worked up about gay rights will continue to be worked up about property rights once gays get marriage (quite the contrary – a lot of them will revert to form, using property restrictions as a back door to social engineering – just like they are doing now with marriage, HE SAID POINTEDLY), I don’t believe for a minute that all of these people who are oh so concerned about the racist implications of defending the Confederacy are ever going to get around to pointing out the racist implications of defending the Union from the same time period. Nor the anti-immigration implications. Nor the anti-due process implications. Nor anything else that would get in the way of their having a hootin’ good time being Absolutely Right. Just like what gay marriage advocates are really fighting for is inclusion on the list of Official Accepted Lifestyles, what these libertarian anti-Confederates are really fighting for is inclusion on the list of Officially Non-Racist Political Movements. Well, it’s a lost cause. We should just be who we are. On marriage, we should defend property rights and self-determination, because that is what liberarianism is. We should not defend officially-sanctioned government lists of acceptable relationships. On history, we should defend telling the truth and learning the appropriate lessons. We should not defend official taboos and Correct Interpretations that mostly just serve the political interests – through mythmaking – of the so-called “progressive” left. It’s absolutely correct to say that telling the truth about history means not romanticising the Confederacy. But it’s also a highly selective view of reality that identifies romanticising the Confederacy as the problem. The Confederacy is not coming back, no one serious supports it anymore, and no one serious has done in well over two generations. It has been effectively sidelined and shoved into the political fringe – and we have just seen yet another example of that another time again already as even someone who offers a rare sincere apology for past pro-Confederate views is forced to resign, because defending the Confederacy is a mortal sin you just never recover from. That particular danger has long past. Meanwhile, real damage continues to be done by the widely-believed myth that the Union side was the unambiguous good guys – both in the North’s unwillingness to confront its own lingering racism under the cover of that being “a Southern problem,” and in the prejudiced assumptions that the rest of the country makes about Southerners, not to mention the ways that myth has been used to justify expansions of federal powers.

What’s wrong with people like Ilya Somin and Jacob Levy is time allocation. They have a lot of time to talk about the fringe of pro-Confederate writers that actually doesn’t matter, but very little time to talk about setting the historical record in general straight. But you know, just like insisting on staying focused on property rights does an effective end-run around the marriage issue, insisting on historical accuracy kills two birds with one stone here too. If they national myths about the Civil War weren’t as pervasive as they are innaccurate, what Jacob Levy likes to call the “Conferatistas” would have less to play with – AND we’d get a central powers left with one less peg to hang their bullshit on. How ’bout it, guys?

I won’t hold my breath.

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