The Mission


As stated by Drew Gilpin Faust:

While we can continue to abhor the system of human bondage that flourished in the Old South, there is much we can learn from a more dispassionate examination of the arguments used to defend it. We have sought to distance the slaveholders and their creed, to define them as very unlike ourselves. Yet their processes of rationalization and self-justification were not so very different from our own, or from those of any civilization of human actors. The persistence of modern racism is but one forceful reminder of the ways that human beings always view the world in terms of inherited systems of belief and explanation that only partially reflect the reality they are meant to describe. By understanding how others have fashioned and maintained their systems of meaning, we shall be better equipped to evaluate, criticize and perhaps even change our own.

This is basically why Faust is my favorite historian of the Civil War, and maybe my favorite period. I don't know if that's an accolade worth repeating; I am, quite flagrantly, an amateur and surely the benefit of this site is to conversate with the actual professionals (Deathbypapers, Cynic, Sara Mayeux, etc.) who populate this space and could probably offer a more informed critique. But, for my taste, Faust rather brilliantly combines the best of history with the best of fiction. This isn't to say fiction, as in making things up, but fiction as in being obsessed with character and story, with the workings of actual humans. She is, to my eye, E.L. Doctorow--but in reverse.

This quote is from her anthology Southern Stories, a collection of some of her essays. They are fascinating. I've spent much of my adult life groping at what it meant to be a slave, and I think I have some understanding. But much more elusive to me is what it meant to be a slave-master. We have come to a point where we stress granting the slave humanity in the story we tell. I think this is, quite possibly, the easier portion of our labor. The slaves are sympathetic; they are almost ennobled by their suffering. The master class, though, can easily be rendered the spawn of Yacub, and granting them humanity can feel like absolution. For if they are human, and we are human, if there is no real difference between us, what right have we to hold them to account?

I have no actual answer for that question, mostly because I am not so much obsessed with holding them to account as I am with understanding how they could it. With that in mind, granting them humanity is not absolution, it is a necessity. It is not the soft-minded relativism of political hacks and trend-spotting journalists. It is the muscular, essential, compassion of ordinary intellectuals, of those who write to live. It must be true that I could have been a slave, or slave-master, for if it is not, how else can I understand?

Recognizing our world is filled with creationists, liars, charlatans and necromancers, we should not live for them. We can not practice history, even at this lay level, with the strict aim of humiliating that racist dude at the barbecue. It must be more than Houdinism, more than corrective, disabusing and debunking. There has to be something beyond evil. Crying evil is not enough. Understand and confront their "systems of meaning," and maybe--just maybe--we can come to understand and confront our own.

I claim all of it. I claim the worst of it.