Friday, November 17, 2006

Sen. Jim Webb and neo-Confederate ideology

Jim Webb, the newly-elected Senator from Virginia, hasn't always been a Democrat or a liberal - economic, social or political.  As Billmon explains in Comrade Webb 11/15/06, Webb earlier build a record for himself as "a died-in-the-wool reactionary".

One aspect of this was his embrace of the neo-Confederate pseudohistory.  The invaluable Edward Sebesta called attention to this aspect of Webb's record in James Webb's Confederate consciousness Anti Neo-Confederate blog 10/28/06.  Sebesta links to this speech of Webb's at the Confederate Memorial on 06/03/1990.  Among other things, Webb said in that speech:

And so I am here, with you today, to remember.  And to honor an army that rose like a sudden wind out of the little towns and scattered farms of a yet unconquered wilderness.  That drew 750,000 soldiers from a population base of only five million-less than the current population of Virginia alone.  That fought with squirrel rifles and cold steel against a much larger and more modern force.  That saw 60 percent of its soldiers become casualties, some 256,000 of them dead.  That gave every ounce of courage and loyalty to a leadership it trusted and respected, and then laid down its arms in an instant when that leadership decided that enough was enough.  That returned to a devastated land and a military occupation.  That endured the bitter humiliation of Reconstruction and an economic alienation from the rest of this nation which continued for fully a century, affecting white and black alike.

I am not here to apologize f or why they fought, although modern historians might contemplate that there truly were different perceptions in the North and South about those reasons, and that most Southern soldiers viewed the driving issue to be sovereignty rather than slavery.  In 1860 fewer than five percent of the people in the South owned slaves, and fewer than twenty percent were involved with slavery in any capacity.  Love of the Union was palpably stronger in the South than in the North before the war - just as overt patriotism is today - but it was tempered by a strong belief that state sovereignty existed prior to the Constitution, and that it had never been surrendered.  Nor had Abraham Lincoln ended slavery in Kentucky and Missouri when those border states did not secede.  Perhaps all of us might reread the writings of Alexander Stephens, a brilliant attorney who opposed secession but then became Vice President of the Confederacy, making a convincing legal argument that the constitutional compact was terminable.  And who wryly commented at the outset of the war that "the North today presents the spectacle of a free people having gone to war to make freemen of slaves, while all they have as yet attained is to make slaves of themselves."

This is stock neo-Confederate fiction-writing, with the customary maudlin tributes to the Confederate dead of 1861-65.  It was slavery that generated the war.  And the armies on both sides were literate and had just lived through a decade of intense national controversy over slavery.  Whatever their individual motivations for joining, including conscription, the Rebel soldiers knew they were fighting for what Confederate orators like to call "our sacred institutions of slavery and white supremacy".

In what was no doubt unintentional at the time, Webb did let a slice of reality slip through in the paragraphs just quoted.  As unintuitive as it sounds on first reading, this statement is probably true: "Love of the Union was palpably stronger in the South than in the North before the war".  That's because from 1845 through 1860, the Presidency was held by partisans of the Southern bloc.  And national policy during the 1850s with abominations such as the Fugitive Slave Act was heavily oriented to defending slavery with the power of the national  government even when that meant overriding the "states rights" that they later claimed to be defending.  The partisans of slavery loved the Union, that is, when the national government was a partisan for slavery.

The version of history Webb gave in that speech originated as a post-Civil War ideology that survived throughout the decades of segregation and beyond. With the neosegregationist "Southernizing" (in the worst sense) of today's Republican Party, the neo-Confederate ideology long popular on the radical and racist right has become increasingly acceptable in the authoritarian Republican Party.

Kevin at the Civil War Memory blog also posted on this in Senator Jim Webb's Confederacy 11/14/06.  He links to this article in the New York Sun, Jim Webb's War by Seth Gitell 11/14/06.

Sebesta in a follow-up post links to this article by David From, the former Bush speechwriter credited with the more-than-unfortunate "axis of evil" phrase, America is still a conservative country by David Frum Daily Telegraph (a Rupert Murdoch property) 09/11/06. From is defending the sadly desperate Republican Party line that last week's midterm elections were somehow a conservative triumph.  (Tom Tomorrow has a good take on this particular line.)

Part of the way he does that is this:

Perhaps the most hilariously shameless Democratic repositioning took place in Virginia. Determined to defeat George Allen, whom many liberals execrated for his neo-Confederate affections, Democrats nominated … a genuine neo-Confederate, James Webb, formerly Secretary of the Navy under Reagan, whose son Robert has just shipped out to Iraq.

It's important to understand the political-ideological context of From's little concoction.  In order to make the ludicrous argument that conservatives won last week, the Reps have been saying things like, oh, look, such-and-such a Democrat who just got elected is opposed to gun control.  And, as the neosegregationist Republican base - which heavily overlaps with white Christian fundamentalists, though not exactly - becomes more and more influential in the national party, we see Republican publicists going beyond the College Republican comma-dancing that we've been hearing for years into the mind-bending goofiness of the kind that Southern segregationists and John Birch Society devotees used to crank out in the 1950s and 1960s.

One of those has been the meme that "Martin Luther King was a Republican", accompanied by racist quotes dug up from Southern Democrats a half-century ago to say "look how racist the Democrats are".  Maybe some other time I'll speculate more about the psychology behind this kind of witless argument.  But the point here is that From's argument that Webb is a "genuine neo-Confederate" is mainly meant to be the same kind of thing.  It's also meant to legitimize the neo-Confederate narrative, which Republican candidates and spokespeople feel they have to be careful about criticizing since so much of their base is friendly to that way of thinking.

But regardless of how Republican propagandists use it, it's a legitimate question to ask to what extent Jim Webb has left behind his previous rightwing perspectives, including the neo-Confederate nonsense.  Hopefully some reporter will ask him about it one of these days.

As Billmon explains, much to his surprise Webb looks today like a real, honest-to-God Jacksonian Democrat.  Okay, "Jacksonian" is my reading of what Billmon is saying.  Actually what he says is that not only is Webb anti-Iraq-War but he sounds on economic and class issues a lot like the legendary reformist and militant labor organizer Walther Reuther.  Joe Conason doesn't go quite that far in Sen. Webb, true conservative? Salon 11/17/06.  But Conason does expect and hope that Webb will take a strong stand for due process in the treatment of military prisoners and fight the arbitrary, show-trial policies of the Cheney-Bush administration for terrorist suspects.

It's certainly clear that in the public policy positions he's currently articulating, Webb has undergone a significant change from his very conservative positions of previous years.  Is that change permanent and/or sincere, or is it just opportunistic?  Without knowing a lot more about his biography than I do, I wouldn't even venture a guess.  Personally, I think sincerity is a greatly overrated virtue in politics (and in folk music).  If his ambitions lead him to fight for good, sensible Democratic causes, great!  I'll worry more about his effectiveness than his sincerity.

But, back to that 1990 articulation of neo-Confederate pseudohistory.  It was 16 years ago.  But we can hardly write it off as a "youthful indiscretion".  He was then the former Secretary of the US Navy, not some 18-year-old college student.  So I would be curious to hear a reporter ask him for his current thoughts on that topic.

As far as the issues raised by Seth Gitell in the New York Sun from Webb's 2004 non-fiction book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, most of them don't strike me as especially meaningful.  For instance, he quotes the following sentence as though it's self-evidently represhensible: "The Scots-Irish emphasis on soldiering builds military leaders with the same focus and intensity that Talmudic tradition creates legal scholars."  Most white Southerners even today are Scots-Irish.  But despite the fact that white supremicists sometimes try to assign a mystic, racial significant to that group, it's not in the least unusual for historians to talk about traditions among the Scots-Irish and their influence.

One of his quotes, though, does raise a question about whether Webb has rethought his previous prejudices about the Lost Cause.  Gitell quotes him from the book as saying that Scots-Irish people "suffered 70 percent killed or wounded in the Civil War and were still standing proud in the ranks at Appomattox when General Lee surrendered - but in today's politically correct environment this means that they were the ‘racist' soldiers of the Nazi-like Confederacy."

So there is a legitimate question here, however much partisan motivations may encourage the Murdoch papers to highlight it.  Will Webb be a future Zell Miller?  Or is he part of some more basic realignment that the folly of the Cheney-Bush foreign policy of preventive war and their crony-capitalist economic policies are causing?  Time will tell.

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