Clare Spark: American Slavery vs. Nazi Genocide





[Ms. Spark, an independent scholar, is the author of Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival.]

This blog is not about the Civil War or its causes, but about the hijacking of American history by some leftists, who write like the militant black nationalists I encountered at Pacifica Radio, and that David Horowitz described at length in his Hating Whitey. 2011 will see a huge upsurge in articles about whether that conflict could have been prevented by better statesmanship, the causes and objectives of the war, what exactly happened in the war, and what was the course of Reconstruction. I have already written a research paper on Reconstruction and its interpretation by Herman Melville in his poem on Robert E. Lee. The link is here: http://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/.

Here are two paragraphs from a book review by Miami University history assistant visiting professor Oleta Prinsloo, and posted on the NEH-funded Humanities-Net websites: “H-Civil War” and  “H-Slavery.” They are remarkable for their Doublespeak and unblushing partisanship. For while erasing historicism, they pretend to present examples of the historian’s craft. Instead of depicting the past as best they can using available sources, they proudly claim the role of activist scholars, specifically they aim to undermine the “conservative” idea of  American exceptionalism. Here are two paragraphs from the review:

“While the fashion in American history writing has been for historians to pretend to moral neutrality, (Steven) Mintz and (John) Stauffer argue that Americans cannot move forward (nor by implication can they honestly contemplate the significance of 9/11) until there has been a moral reckoning with the American past.  Mintz writes that “history without a moral dimension is antiquarianism” (p. 1).  Their undertaking is modeled on German writers since WW II who have tried to come to terms with the implications of Nazism on the past, an undertaking called _Vergangenheitsbewaltigung_.  Mintz defines the word as the “wrestling with the demons of German history through reflection, remembering, and moral reckoning” (p. 1).      

“The editors chose the essays according to five criteria: the wrestling with a fundamental moral problem, the centrality of ideas or an ideology “to connect economic and political interests and the realm of ideas” (p. 2), . the recognition of culture as involving contests for power, the placing of the U.S. experience into larger processes of modernization, and the relation of slavery to an understanding of modernity.  Most of the essays contain themes prominent in history writing on slavery, abolition, reform, and freedom since the 1990s.  By historicizing evil, these essays work to undercut the conservative American exceptionalism interpretation of U.S. history.”

This entire project and its presentation as a foray into uncharted waters is simply astounding. American historians have been preoccupied with the problem of slavery from the inception of the discipline. To be sure, estimations of its character and the causes of the Civil War have been strenuously debated. But the first thing we learned in graduate school in U.S. history was not to allow our own distaste or horror at the institution (or any other individual or institution) to interfere with our representations of the American past. (The common tendency to project our own morality into past societies was described as “present-mindedness” and opposed by such ideologues as Howard Zinn.) However, not only are the historians mentioned in the review openly identified with the Left (another no-no for objective historians), they are 1. transmitting a well-known theme in post-60s history writing in a line suggested by Eric Williams and others that the filthy lucre derived from slavery made capitalism possible, that slavery, capitalism, and modernity are chained together and coterminous (as opposed to slavery being an archaic,  quasi-feudal institution, and its overcoming a triumph of the bourgeoisie that, in so doing,  laid the foundation for a prosperous new nation built upon free labor); and 2. entirely misrepresenting the theory of American exceptionalism.

What made America exceptional was the lack of a hereditary aristocracy with its rigid class system. After 1787-89, the U.S. could boast of  a “constitution of liberty” (Hayek)  that made it possible for any common person to rise in income and status. In other words, America offered a meritocracy that rewarded hard work and skill–it was a land of limitless opportunity for free white men, rights that were gradually extended to freedmen and women. Because America fought a civil war and then pursued an extended and still persistent civil rights movement, the stain of slavery was washed away with  the blood of over 600,000 casualties (to put it perhaps too poetically). And yet many “interdisciplinary” scholars continue to indoctrinate their students with the notion of “white skin privilege,” in some cases blaming the Jews for inventing the slave trade, a myth strenuously opposed by such as Yale professor David Brion Davis, a major scholar mentioned elsewhere in the review as if he were in their camp. This fashionable notion is further carried over in the post-60s representation of American national character, said to be imperialist, patriarchal, racist, genocidal, and ecocidal. Obviously, such crimes demand reparations or even revolution, and revolution is what I believe these postmodernists/post-colonial scholars are advocating. Do not delude yourself, dear reader, into thinking that these voices are only marginal in current history departments.

What the reviewer reports in the excerpt above is even more outrageous in appropriating the German movement to “work through” its Nazi past in order to propose a similar breast-beating here.  This is tantamount to claiming that American history is Nazi-like in its essential character. In his show of Monday January 24, Jon Stewart presented a lengthy segment quoting various Fox News personalities who apparently were comparing certain leftists as resembling Nazis in their rhetoric. This as his riposte to Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen’s accusation that Republicans were spreading “the big lie.” These guys–all of them–should spend more time in the groves of academe where the destruction of history is perpetrated daily, with little notice in the blogosphere or in the presentations beloved by the hipsters among us.



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