Thursday, May 25, 2017

Moral afflatus, war, and living with lies

In Black Reconstruction W.E.B. DuBois surprised me by repeatedly using a word I'd never encountered: afflatus. The Wiktionary tells me this means a sudden rush of creative impulse or inspiration, often attributed to divine influence. DuBois' enthusiasm for the word is of a piece with a feature of his history of Reconstruction that feels foreign to most contemporary historical writing -- he is interested in the power and consequences of vehement passions in shaping outcomes. This is particularly notable because the book is predominantly a materialist history. But for all his effort to apply a materialist framework to the Black experience in the U.S. between 1857-1880, DuBois often finds the motive force for particular people and events in a kind of moral excitement.

Thus, he attributes much of the momentary break in the pattern of relentless suppression of Black people that made possible the citizenship amendments of the Reconstruction era to the "moral afflatus" of the experience of the victorious war against the rebel South. Campaigning radical Republicans (the good guys of that era) knew what feelings would enhance their cause: in 1866, they could publicize how southerners were trying to re-enslave recently liberated blacks.

... [for] the ordinary everyday people of the North, who, uplifted by the tremendous afflatus of war, had seen a vision of something fine and just, and who, without any personal affection for the Negro or real knowledge of him, nevertheless were convinced that Negroes were human, and that Negro slavery was wrong; and that whatever freedom might mean, it certainly did not mean re-enslavement under another name. (p.180)

... the situation of the Negro was the most appealing thing that could be used to bring a majority to vote for the industrial North. It would increase the tremendous moral afflatus which made the war more and more symbolic in the minds of the people of the United States of a great triumph of human freedom. (p. 301)

... People had faith in laws and wanted some great enactment in keeping with the greatness of the war. It was a ripe time for amending the Constitution and inaugurating final reforms. These reforms might be in advance at the time, but they were worth trying, and there appeared to be no middle path. (p. 319)

The war they had just won (with a boost from freed Black troops!) unleashed a desire on the part of the mass of Northerners to feel good about themselves -- smart politicians (whose cause we too might think was just) knew how to harness those feelings.

Yet for all the positive consequences of the Civil War that DuBois recounts -- above all the opportunity that defeat of the Southern planter class gave the freed Black people to experiment with creating a short-lived social-democracy in the South -- he's very attentive to the social, economic and moral destruction that attend a large scale armed conflict. He describes the violent residue of the war that freed the slaves as persisting into the South's subsequent war against their freedom.

The lawlessness in the South since the Civil War has varied in its phases. First, it was that kind of disregard for law which follows all war. ... It is always difficult to stop war, and doubly difficult to stop a civil war.

Inevitably, when men have long been trained to violence and murder, the habit projects itself into civil life after peace, and there is crime and disorder and social upheaval, as we who live in the backwash of World War know too well.

But in the case of civil war, where the contending parties must rest face to face after peace, there can be no quick and perfect peace. When to all this you add a servile and disadvantaged race, who represent the cause of war and who afterwards are left near naked to their enemies, war may go on more secretly, more spasmodically, and yet as truly as before the peace.(p. 670)

DuBois saw the residue of war's terror permeating all of society. And he concluded that, despite any short term successes that could be built by harnessing that residue, war had prepared the ground for violent repression.

From war, turmoil, poverty, forced labor and economic rivalry of labor groups, there came again in the South the domination of the secret order, which systematized the effort to subordinate the Negro. ... How is it that men who want certain things done by brute force can so often depend upon the mob? Total depravity, human hate and Schadenfreude, do not explain fully the mob spirit in America. Before the wide eyes of the mob is ever the Shape of Fear. Back of the writhing, yelling, cruel-eyed demons who break, destroy, maim and lynch and burn at the stake, is a knot, large or small, of normal human beings, and these human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something. ...

How then is the mob to be met and quelled? If it represents public opinion, even passing, passionate public opinion, it cannot permanently be put down by a police which public opinion appoints and pays. Three methods of quelling the mob are at hand: the first, by proving to its human, honest nucleus that the Fear is false, ill-grounded, unnecessary; or secondly, if its Fear is true or apparently or partially true, by attacking the fearful thing openly either by the organized police power or by frank civil war as did Mussolini and George Washington; or thirdly, by secret, hidden and underground ways, the method of the Ku Klux Klan.

Why do we not take the first way? Because this is a world that believes in War and Ignorance, and has no hope in our day of realizing an intelligent majority of men and Peace on Earth. ...

DuBois was an unblinking realist about human behavior under extreme stress.

He also saw an additional consequence of the moral corruption in which the South wallowed as it fought back against freedom for all.

Particularly has the South suffered spiritually by the effort to use propaganda and enforce belief. This always results in deliberate lying. Not that all white Southerners deliberately lie about the Negro, but to an astonishing degree the honest South allows known lies to stand uncontradicted. The wide distortion of facts which became prevalent in the white South during and after Reconstruction as a measure of self-defense has never been wholly crushed since.

This still rings all too true. This is why the current effort to remove Confederate monuments -- the symbols of an untrue romantic history that covers up violence against Black humans (and white dissenters from the false narrative) -- is such an important step.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

His beautiful writing captivates me.

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