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The Spirit that Drove Us to Civil War is Back: The Spirit of the Slave Power Since Slavery

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This is the fifth entry in the series*

Patterns tend to persist in cultures over long periods.

Sometimes, when a spirit has seized hold of a society and then driven it into disaster or disgrace, that spirit can be eradicated, or at least exiled into the recesses of the culture. Think of the way that Nazism has been systematically driven out of the German nation and the German psyche.

Nothing remotely like this happened with the spirit that took possession of the South and led it into catastrophic defeat in the Civil War.  

If it was an evil spirit that inflamed a region to fight to preserve slavery, neither the South nor the nation as a whole ever decided to drive that spirit out.

The South has continued to honor that spirit, and its fateful consequences. My wife went to Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. Forrest was a main founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The other high school nearby was named for Jefferson Davis, who attempted to prolong the war after Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses Grant. The South continues to form its identity around the spirit that animated it during that era of destruction.

After the Civil War, the same spirit that had roused the South to fight to preserve its “peculiar institution” – to defend both its existence and Southern claims about its rightness — continued to dictate the region’s values, claiming that the “Lost Cause” was noble and that its defenders were the good guys.

After the war and Reconstruction, that spirit created the Jim Crow South. It was a regime that wielded power through racial terror and oppression, forming the heart of the region’s politics and power relations for the better part of a century.  Although slavery had been abolished, its basic dynamics were resurrected, with blacks exploited and kept in humiliating and degrading conditions.  

The spirit that created Jim Crow also exploited the brokenness of its devotees, socializing a great many people from the dominant race to be ready to punish the most vulnerable group of people in their midst if any of them stepped out of line.  It built into the culture a readiness to punish a black man for looking the wrong way at a white woman, or for failing to show sufficient deference to whites, or for objecting to second-class citizenship (e.g. wanting the right to vote).  

The regime ended when the nation as a whole rallied — nearly a century after the Civil War — to enforce equal protection under the law.  Segregation was dismantled.

But that spirit is back.

Since the end of segregation, the once solidly Democratic South has become the base of a Republican Party that preys on the most vulnerable and expresses contempt (behind closed doors) for the “47 %”( of whom it has a most distorted picture). It hosts a political culture that is more likely to blame and belittle the downtrodden than to want to help them. It’s a culture that would rather children go hungry than that the richest should pay a cent more.

This Republican culture, moreover, seeks to impose its dominance in the name of morality, while really being driven by an insistence on power and control.  And like the earlier ante-bellum expression of this spirit, today’s version presents itself as the bastion of Christian values.

In these ways, the spirit expressing itself through today’s Republican Party resembles what worked for decades to defend human slavery as right and good and just. It is a spirit that drives people into dominating and exploiting others, and covering it over with hypocrisy.

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The first four entries have been

The Spirit that Drove Us to Civil War is Back: Introduction,

The Spirit that Drove Us to Civil War is Back: The Wolves’ Version of Liberty ,

The Spirit That Drove Us to Civil War Is Back: Looking Closer at that National Nightmare, and

The Spirit That Drove Us to Civil War Is Back: A Spirit that Made Slavery Its Priority.

The next four entries will deal with the issue of where the responsibility lies, in both the Civil War era and the present day, for the breakdown of the political process into ever less cooperation and ever-escalating levels of conflict. These pieces, about the spirit that prefers war to peace,will appear beginning in two weeks.

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Andy Schmookler, recently the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia’s 6th District, is an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher.  His books include The Parable of the Tribes:  The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.   His website is at www.NoneSoBlind.org .  An archive of some of his earlier Blue Virginia postings can be found at  

http://www.bluevirginia.us/use…  .