In a recent post I remarked that MLK is a figure well worth stealing. And NR obliges me with the first sentence of their anniversary editorial. “The civil-rights revolution, like the American revolution, was in a crucial sense conservative.” They do admit a few paragraphs on that, “Too many conservatives and libertarians, including the editors of this magazine, missed all of this at the time.” And then manage to wreck it all again with the next sentence: “They worried about the effects of the civil-rights movement on federalism and limited government. Those principles weren’t wrong, exactly; they were tragically misapplied, given the moral and historical context.” No look into the question of how such a misapplication transpired, since that would not produce gratifying results. After all, if we are talking about what actually worried people, then plainly federalism and limited government were more pretext than motive. The tragedy is that so many people wanted to do the wrong thing, for bad reasons. But they couldn’t say ‘Boo justice!’ So they said stuff about … federalism. There is obviously no point to conservative’s revisiting how they got things wrong without bothering to consider how they got things wrong. But let’s be positive about it. “It is a mark of the success of King’s movement that almost all Americans can now see its necessity.” Yay justice!
I’m sitting down to read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen [amazon]. I’m planning to agree with it, but the framing is odd.
And so I began to examine a number of moral revolutions, looking to see what could be learned from them. I noticed almost immediately that the disparate cases I looked at — the collapse of the duel, the abandonment of footbinding, the end of Atlantic slavery — had some unexpected features in common. One was that arguments against each of these practices were well known and clearly made a good deal before they came to an end. Not only were the arguments already there, they were made in terms that we — in other cultures or other times — can recognize and understand. Whatever happened when these immoral practices ceased, it wasn’t, so it seemed to me, that people were bowled over by new moral arguments. Dueling was always murderous and irrational; footbinding was always painfully crippling; slavery was always an assault on the humanity of the slave.
This was a surprise about what had not happened. The second — and, for me, much more surprising — observation was about what had: in each of these transitions, something that was naturally called “honor” played a central role. This led to the inquiry whose results are gathered in this book. It is, of course, hardly astounding that dueling had to do with honor; nor even that the end of dueling came with new ideas about honor. But it is striking, to my mind, that ideas about national honor and the honor of workingmen far removed from the plantations of the New World figured so largely in the ending of footbinding and of modern slavery, respectively.
Isn’t the importance of honor obvious? But never mind: I confidently expect Appiah’s book to provide proof of the obvious, serving the incidental but salutary and worthwhile purpose of embroidering it with heretofore unknown (to me!) facts that point to perhaps under-appreciated conceptual twists.
I just finished another book that was surprisingly rich on this score: The Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Antebellum South, 1830—1860 [amazon].
Here’s what surprised me: the only writer in this group I had read before was George Fitzhugh, who turns out to be unrepresentative. (The editor of this volume says he was popular and influential , but most of these other writers tried to distance themselves from him, because he was not respectable and argued for stuff like expanding the disenfranchise – I guess you would call it – to include poor whites.) Slavery must be defended because the Pope is a socialist! (Yes!) Fitzhugh would have made a good blogger and lit up Twitter.
I thought the whole book would be like that: the rhetorical equivalent of Preston Brooks versus Charles Sumner. Paranoid-style jingo triumphalism plus loopy-cranky pseudo-scientific stuff plus fight-or-flight bursts of logic, concluding in abortive, daft neo-Feudal utopias that evaporate back into conservative stubbornness.
But most of these writers are barely polemical. The tone is concessive, gentleman-scholarly, mild, punctuated by patronizing sighs and arched eyebrows, to add some tone. Of course slavery is … unfortunate; but you can’t expect this old world to be perfect so we must make the best of it together. Does anyone have a plausible, practical plan for abolishing slavery, starting tomorrow? No. So what are we talking about? Just a bunch of Northerners who won’t be personally called on to do anything so painful. Yet they expect Southerners to give up most of their wealth, and destroy the value of their land in the process? Is that plausible? Abolitionism is so wrong not because slavery is so right – it isn’t! – but because utopianism must always fail. Indeed, it must always cause suffering, by the law of unintended consequences. Better to respect existing property rights, even though we know that if you look far enough in the past, there will always be ugliness at the root. It is the wonder of human institutions that beauty may flourish even from ugliness! (It is only utopians who do not appreciate this!)
I’m not surprised to meet these arguments. Fitzhugh makes them, too. And they are completely obvious. But I’m surprised by how all of these authors, except Fitzhugh, make only these arguments. They are a pack of George F. Wills with only one joker – one Southern Avenger – in the deck. I pick George F. Will because he seems a good example of someone who works primarily by trying to suck up all the oxygen, preemptively, by projecting an air of etablishment wisdom. You narrow the range of respectable positions and then puff yourself to fill that space, exclusively. Just the right balance of seeming to appreciate life, as it is, and world-weariness. Ever will it be so! In order to pull that off, you have to be pretty boring, lest you open the door to odd ideas and intemperate modes of expression. The thing about Fitzhugh is that he is an unapologetic moral revisionist. A future-bound moral revolutionist! If they’d had talking-head shows back then, most of these guys would have been the guy who was a regular, for 25 years. Fitzhugh would have been the guy who kept getting kicked off, like Pat Buchanan, but then rehired because you gotta love a guy who speaks his mind!
(Am I hinting that George F. Will is secretly especially bad about race stuff? No! I’m just looking for the best example of a conservative establishmentarian figure. What is established is variable. The manner in which the establishment is upheld is a characteristic type.)
There’s nary a whiff of explicit anti-black animus – not even from Fitzhugh (who is, as I mentioned, in favor of expanding slavery to include white people.) There’s white supremacy. There’s utter stereotyping. But it’s all in the whites are good parents-blacks are good children mold. There’s no ‘those people!’ scolding. This makes sense because you can’t simultaneously draw blacks into the happy family circle of actually existing benevolent Patriarchy and exclude them as Other. You can’t tell people you hate your children because they are uncontrollable little alien menaces, by nature, and offer that as a reason not to remove them from your custody. (I’m not talking logic. I’m talking rhetoric.) This is interesting because if you ask people what ‘racism’ means, a keyword in the response is sure to be ‘hate’. Racism is about hating the Other, right? It’s good to remind ourselves how a regime based on explicit racism could be, as well, a regime not based on explicit race hate – at least on its public, racist face. The Nazi analogy confuses us here, probably. I think there is a corollary point to be made about how racist rhetoric becomes more explicitly hateful in the Reconstruction period, obviously because the rhetorical pressure against that falls away with emancipation. (Fitzhugh is an example. He goes from arguing that slavery is not about race, before the war – which made him a weirdo – to being obsessively anti-black.) Obviously all this is a matter of degree and distinction. There are the things you say in public, when trying to project an air of moderate reasonableness to undercut political enemies, by casting them as extremist. The things you say in public, among your political allies, to stiffen their spines. And on down the line to the thing you think but never say. (I am sure someone is going to be eager to point out, in comments, that people don’t always speak truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So I just want to reassure: I got the memo.)
Related point: I hadn’t anticipated how the wretchedness of the state of European (especially British) industrial civilization in, say, 1840, is a powerful argument for anyone wielding conservative moral complacency like a flaming sword. (Here is where the most polemical bits of these writings come in.) Once we’ve admitted life is always wretched for a lot of people – and God is cool with that – are we so sure adding slavery to the list of human miseries is worse than English kids worked to death in factories and mines? I hadn’t thought about how hindsight affects this view: we see slavery as doomed so we add that insult – you all died for a dead-end! – to the ghastly pile of injuries. Industrialization, we now know, was at least going to raise a lot of boats. The poor in England were about as badly off as they had ever been, or ever would be. (Though the future is a long time! We’ll see what the 22nd Century may yet bring!) Here’s a quote from an 1842 Parliamentary report [UPDATE: I’m quoting this from one of these proslavery writers. I didn’t go find it myself.]:
Collieries.—“I wish to call the attention of the Board to the pits about Brampton. The seams are so thin that several of them have only two feet headway to all the working. They are worked altogether by boys from eight to twelve years of age, on all-fours, with a dog belt and chain. The passages being neither ironed nor wooded, and often an inch or two thick with mud. In Mr. Barnes’ pit these poor boys have to drag the barrows with one hundred weight of coal or slack sixty times a day sixty yards, and the empty barrows back, without once straightening their backs, unless they choose to stand under the shaft, and run the risk of having their heads broken by a falling coal.”—Report on Mines, 1842, p. 71. “In Shropshire the seams are no more than eighteen or twenty inches.”—Ibid., p.67. “At the Booth pit,” says Mr. Scriven, “I walked, rode, and crept eighteen hundred yards to one of the nearest faces.”—Ibid. “Chokedamp, firedamp, wild fire, sulphur, and water, at all times menace instant death to the laborers in these mines.” “Robert North, aged 16: Went into the pit at seven years of age, to fill up skips. I drew about twelve months. When I drew by the girdle and chain my skin was broken, and the blood ran down. I durst not say anything. If we said anything, the butty, and the reeve, who works under him, would take a stick and beat us.”—Ibid. “The usual punishment for theft is to place the culprit’s head between the legs of one of the biggest boys, and each boy in the pit—sometimes there are twenty—inflicts twelve lashes on the back and rump with a cat.”—Ibid. “Instances occur in which children are taken into these mines to work as early as four years of age, sometimes at five, not unfrequently at six and seven, while from eight to nine is the ordinary age at which these employments commence.”—Ibid. “The wages paid at these mines is from two dollars fifty cents to seven dollars fifty cents per month for laborers, according to age and ability, and out of this they must support themselves. They work twelve hours a day.”-Ibid.
And on and on. Was it obvious in 1840 that the future of industrialism wasn’t 1840 conditions, or worse, forever?
Fitzhugh is the firebrand prophet of the neo-Feudal future, with the South its Shining City on A Hill. Eventually everyone will have to admit laissez faire means industrialism and industrialism is a ratchet of ever-intensifying wretchedness for the ‘free’. Ergo, we need slavery, with its reciprocal privileges and duties – however unequal – to ameliorate the very worst conditions. These other writers don’t say it, because they are allergic to moral revisionism, but they seem to feel just a touch of it. Slavery is regrettably inevitable, but Southern Civilization is on the grow! King Cotton! The South is getting rich, rich rich! Probably the lives of the descendants of our slaves will be a bit better, so their suffering – should they have one of those few cruel masters (mostly Northerners who have married Southern heiresses!) – is not for naught! No one is promising that, in the future, slaves will live as well as masters do now. But the carrot of modest, steady, upward trends is dangling out there. Why can’t these abolitionists see how much more plausible marginal raising of all boats is than some hare-brained scheme for raising money for boats to found a colony in Liberia?
(Be it noted: I’m not saying I’m surprised pro-slavery writers defend themselves by relative comparisons of fond ideals of Southern slave life with the worst industrial nightmares. That’s obvious. The bit I missed was how the future looked in 1840. How natural it is to project straight-line trends at odds with the line we – who know the Civil War is going to happen – see.)
Exception to the moral complacency point: these writers stand very firm when they seize the Biblical high ground, which they all do. This is perfectly predictable, not just because the Bible does indeed offer some highly supportive bits but because even a George F. Will-type needs moments of rhetorical firmness. (You can’t be effectively complacent, without sometimes seeming the very opposite of that.) But this produces very strange turns. Slavery is a horror, yes, but God says it’s ok, even “in its most revolting form.” so if you say slavery needs to be abolished, because it’s a horror, you are holding yourself to a higher moral standard than God, which is surely some kind of Satanic pride on top of all the utopian dangers. “And when men, professing to be holy men, and who are by numbers so regarded, declare those things to be sinful which our Creator has expressly authorized and instituted, they do more to destroy his authority among mankind than the most wicked can effect, by proclaiming that to be innocent which he has forbidden.” (I’m using this one next time I teach Euthyphro. Divine Command Theory buffs, this is one for the record books!)
Bonus: if you want to abolish slavery, consistency demands you admit that genocide against Native Americans, just to take their land, was morally impermissible! Put that in your Yankee pipe and smoke it! I’ll file that in the ‘one man’s modus ponens …’ pile.
Morally complacent arguments look like worldly wisdom, so long as the world doesn’t change. Then it looks like the craziest White Queen logic: morality yesterday and morality tomorrow but never morality today! (I know, I know. I wasn’t expecting to buy the pro-slavery arguments, when I picked up the book. But since I knew it was crazy, I expected more yelling.) George Fitzhugh: “When a public opinion is formed on a state of existing facts, and of anticipated results, and an entire change of facts and anticipations takes place, public opinion itself must also change.” Only he has a different change in mind. “Fifty years ago all Christendom believed that if the negroes were emancipated, they would become more moral, intelligent, and industrious. The experiment of emancipation has been tried in every form, and on the large as well as the small scale.” Haiti is a mess. Ergo the future is neo-Feudal. Funny how the world changes. It’s very important that anything like the Civil War is unthinkable, in practice. War might come, but no one is contemplating Total War. There are all these calculations of costs that obviously no one is going to be willing to pay. And that was very reasonable thinking, really. (Who thought the white South would voluntarily impoverish itself in the process of morally abasing itself?) Only both sides ended up paying a lot more than anyone had dreamed of suggesting might be necessary, either way.
I’m not going to bother guessing how this relates to Appiah’s discussion of slavery before I’ve read it. But it’s perfectly obvious that the evolution of Southern attitudes towards slavery are dictated by a powerful sense of honor. There needs to be a sudden change of noble steeds, mid-stream, when slavery is abolished. Fitzhugh has a great quote from Edmund Burke (Corey Robin, I hope you know this one!)
In Virginia and the Carolinas they have a vast multitude of slaves. Where this is the case in any part of the world, those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. Freedom is to them not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege. Not seeing then that freedom, as in countries where it is a common blessing, and as broad and general as the air, may be united with much abject toil, with great misery, with all the exterior of servitude, liberty looks among them as something more noble and liberal. I do not mean to commend the superior morality of this sentiment, which has at least as much pride as virtue in it; but I cannot alter the nature of man. The fact is so; and those people of the Southern colonies are much more strongly, and with a more stubborn spirit attached to liberty, than those to the Northward. Such were all the ancient commonwealths; such were our Gothic ancestry; such, in our days, were the Poles; and such will be all masters of slaves who are not slaves themselves. In such a people, haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom, fortifies it, and renders it invisible.
The great bit about the quote is that I’m not totally sure whether Burke is saying (or thinking) that haughtiness of dominion combined with a spirit of freedom makes the former invisible or the latter. I think he is saying the latter. It is non-obvious that Southerners love freedom, because they are slave-owners, so we think of them as being anti-freedom. We don’t see how being anti-freedom for some is, in effect, the spirit of freedom for others. But it would be equally true (whether Burke meant it or not) to flip the thought. Southerners see themselves as powerfully pro-freedom, so they literally can’t see that they are really not ‘liberal’, since they are feudal through and through. They are not freedom-loving so much as obsessed with rank and privilege. Freedom is loved as a badge of superior caste privilege. If you love medals, and you are wearing a medal that says ‘free’, you think you love freedom. But really you love medals. Fitzhugh is pro-feudal and explicitly anti-freedom, so he thinks we need to think Burke’s thought through to its logical conclusion. (This is why his fellow pro-slavery writers regard him as unsound.) Fitzhugh has these funny flights of consistent logic, between grouses about socialism and avowals of the spirit of true conservatism and proposals to enslave some white folks, for consistency’s sake, and to do a spot of work around the place.
Of course it’s funny to say that both thoughts are true. Haughtiness of dominion combined with the spirit of freedom hides both values – each behind the other. And yet it’s sort of true. They take turns, depending on the occasion.
But Fitzhugh’s logic always fails him at the very last step (one step past the point where, as he likes to point out, the logic of these other pro-slavery writers gives out). He himself regards it as contemptible to live for anything but honor. This becomes totally clear in his post-war writings. He muses about how unreasonable it is for the conquerors to expect welcome in the South, because that would look like fawning, unmanly conduct. You can’t expect a man to like being under another man’s heel, hence you can’t expect him to act as if he does! Furthermore, no Southern white man can be – or at least should be – bribed into willingness to live with blacks on equal terms. Mere material advantage, even if it can be had, is no argument here. All the broadly consequentialist arguments for neo-Feudalism are now nowhere to be seen. Consequentialist arguments for equality are regarded as foolish, but (if that weren’t the case) contemptible. The feudalism does not really rest on any calculation about the future course of industrial civilization. It’s honor all the way down. Honor no longer requires slavery, however. Because if it did, there would be no honor. Since there is no slavery, and no prospect of its restoration – but we must have honor! The Lost Cause is all well and good, but it’s no good to look like a total loser. You need some honorable value you can attain and, with a bit of confabulatory ingenuity, maintain that you have always already maintained. Plain old white supremacy is now the only game in town for Fitzhugh, but it’s only the only game after slavery is abolished. That’s ironic! And the Lost Cause won the culture war for another century! That’s ironic! Projecting this timonocentric spiral of moral irony down to this day: the civil rights struggle will be a good thing to conservatives on the day that the check of justice can be cashed only at the First National Bank of Conservative Values – the decrepit bank of Civil Rights Struggle down the street having gone satisfyingly bankrupt in the meantime. As the NR editors say: “Where he spoke of a “bank of justice,” they just trade in grievances.”
And of course it’s not as though I, liberal squish, am immune to the complaint that I’m a squish who would, yet, like to be a noble person. (As Louis CK says, I have my ‘believies’ that I’m better than everyone else, just like everyone else.) No one but a Utopian is immune to the charge that they are settling for second best. And if you settle for second best in part out of complacency – you can’t ask people to be saints and heroes! – well, you sacrifice some honor. How not?
I like to quote Chesterton, as you know:
Let me explain a little: Certain things are bad so far as they go, such as pain, and no one, not even a lunatic, calls a toothache good in itself; but a knife which cuts clumsily and with difficulty is called a bad knife, which it certainly is not. It is only not so good as other knives to which men have grown accustomed. A knife is never bad except on such rare occasions as that in which it is neatly and scientifically planted in the middle of one’s back. The coarsest and bluntest knife which ever broke a pencil into pieces instead of sharpening it is a good thing in so far as it is a knife. It would have appeared a miracle in the Stone Age. What we call a bad knife is a good knife not good enough for us; what we call a bad hat is a good hat not good enough for us; what we call bad cookery is good cookery not good enough for us; what we call a bad civilisation is a good civilisation not good enough for us. We choose to call the great mass of the history of mankind bad, not because it is bad, but because we are better. This is palpably an unfair principle. Ivory may not be so white as snow, but the whole Arctic continent does not make ivory black.
Was Southern slave civilization ‘bad’ versus ‘not good enough’? Or ‘now we are better’? It was a neat – if pseudo-scientific in its race theorizing – knife in the backs of certain people. Chesterton would say: glass was half full. No civilization is without its unjust victims. It wasn’t bad – bad, just bad for African-Americans. But the problem isn’t the socially perfectionist delusions of utopia, as Chesterton would say (because he loves to hear himself talk about it.) It’s the personally perfectionist delusions of honor. People don’t want to be honorable only in the sense that in the past there were even less honorable people. (Which there were!)
Let’s turn back to Appiah (even though I haven’t read him yet!) This discovery-that-honor-is-important frame of his is a dramatic device in a book that aims to be semi-popular. (Was Descartes ever really shocked by sudden realization of the power of the Dream Argument as he seems, on the page?) It’s less exciting to say: we all know humans are always totally caught up with anxieties about honor and status, the second they stop starving to death. They’re touchy as hell about it! So however moral revolutions work, you can be sure it’s going to be substantially a matter of people ensuring they stay on the right side of all that. Revolutions will be a matter of the old stuff looking dishonorable AND people seeing some new source of honor, so they can switch horses midstream while pretending the horse they rode in on is the same one they rode out on. (Switching horses in a raging river is hard. Switching stories, mid-tale? Not hard. Especially if everything is freaking falling apart around you!)
Or is it a dramatic device? Appiah emphasizes that philosophers are stubborn about this, so the obvious needs to be not just stated but demonstrated. The source of the block would be this. Normatively, honor oughtn’t to play such a key role. So we shouldn’t regard it as crucial in practice. So all the wisdom of Plato and Rousseau and Hegel and Nietzsche and on and on about the crucial role that ideas of honor play goes by the wayside. Do you think academic philosophers who write on ethics are really so blockheaded about this? (I’m not sure.)
Maybe the reason his colleagues kept telling Appiah honor doesn’t – or shouldn’t – matter is that it is an inegalitarian value, and they’re a bunch of Harvard boutique liberals! It’s hard to be egalitarian and admit that an inegalitarian impulse makes the moral world go round, in practice, always. (It’s easier for egalitarians to want equality, after all. They get to wear it as a badge of achievement. My believies!) Whatever equality we get is going to have to arise out of a process that seems to run contrary to that. That seems true.