Saturday, April 28, 2012

How an era came to an end

For the last two weeks I have been putting the finishing touches on a new week on the Vietnam War for one of the courses my department teaches, including a new lecture of my own, the last new lecture I'll be giving as a faculty member at the Naval War College. The basic text for the week is A Time for War by Robert Schulzinger, and while I inevitably have some differences of opinion with him on many points, the book's strengths far outweigh any weaknesses. He handles the domestic impact of the war especially well, and I could not help thinking once again that I and my contemporaries, as college students and soldiers, lived through what looms more and more as a great turning point in American history--and very possibly, as it turns out, in the history of the world.

The middle of the twentieth century, we can now see, was the climax of a development in western civilization that had been proceeding for the better part of three centuries: a faith in reason, and in particular, in the application of reason to solve human, as well as scientific, problems. This began, it seems to me now, with two 17th-century developments: the scientific revolution on the one hand, and the development of stronger European states capable of controlling domestic violence on the other. The latter development, beginning during the reign of Louis XIV in France (1661-1715), was a major theme of my book Politics and War. By the late 18th century it was leading to further efforts to rationalize state behavior and find ways to promote the common good. The American Revolution was the first dramatic outcome of these trends, and it has been so successful because it combined two key elements of the new rationalism, theory on the one hand--"all men are created equal"--and empiricism on the other--the successes of the British political tradition upon which the Americans hoped to improve. In the next decade, however, the 1790s, Europe got a harsh lesson in the dangers of rationalism. The French Revolution showed that reason could function simply as an excuse for destructive passion, and Napoleon showed how rationalism and reform could become excuses for endless expansion. The advance of rationalism in politics was checked in many ways during much of the nineteenth century. Even in the United States, the Civil War led to an outburst of selfishness rather than a further application of reason to politics. But the United States reversed that trend beginning around 1900, during the Progressive era. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, utopian ideologies, most of them socialist, were gaining ground. So were ideals of universal peace, but they had not gone far enough to prevent the First World War.

Old orders were dying, first in Eastern Europe and then in Western Europe and the United States, from the 1910s through the 1930s. In every case some rationalist alternative stepped forward to fill the gap. In Eastern Europe it was Communism, which accomplished an astonishing transformation of the old Russian Empire within two decades. In Central Europe National Socialism, which once again used reason as an excuse to act out some of humanity's basest passions, initially prevailed. The United States instead produced the New Deal--the first time a democratic state had enlisted its whole population in an attempt to create a richer and more just society. That maintained the vitality of democracy through the 1930s and paved the way for the subject of my current book, the extraordinary American effort that helped win the Second World War and brought the whole capitalist industrialized world under the American umbrella. The United States emerged from that war with a strong state and a consensus on the need for the government to seek full employment for its people, intervene to assure a minimum level of economic well-being, and promote the welfare of young families. It was that world into which I was born. Western Europe, meanwhile, began erecting welfare states in order to avoid anything remotely similar to the mid-century catastrophe--a process that continues to this day.

Even in the relatively conservative 1950s, the Eisenhower Administration embarked upon the interstate highway system and, in response to Sputnik, spent more money on higher education. But the traditions of the New Deal revived dramatically under Kennedy and Johnson. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 finally extended full rights to black Americans. The poverty program, while imperfect in execution, was noble in motive. The Kennedy Administration made progress in controlling inflation. Per capita income continued to grow rapidly, and marginal tax rates remained very high--and implicit recognition that the richest among us owed their fortunes to a healthy society and economy. All these developments were cresting in 1965. Then, one utterly disastrous decision brought them all to an end--as it turns out, for many decades to come.

Like Robespierre during the terror, Stalin during his Five Year Plans, and Hitler in the midst of the Holocaust, Lyndon Johnson justified the Vietnam War based on theoretical principles, specifically the principle that Communist aggression, if unchecked, would breed more aggression. Unlike his predecessor John F. Kennedy, he could not combine that principle with the western empirical tradition in order to realize that South Vietnam was a terrible place in which to try to apply it. By the time he left office four years later Vietnam was stalemated with half a million American troops on the ground, and the United States that had elected him by a huge margin in 1964 had ceased to exist. The casualties of that war eventually included not merely the 59,000 American dead and hundreds of thousands of wounded, but also, as it turns out, the rationalist tradition in politics.

As Schulzinger shows, albeit in far more restrained language than I am using, the hopeless enterprise of this endless war destroyed the consensus that had brought Johnson to power--especially within the Democratic Party and the left in general. To a large and critical mass within the Boom generation, it discredited not only Johnson's foreign policy, but all the rationalist claims of the elder generation--indeed, virtually every value that had been embodied in their parents' and grandparents' work. Some of this was both inevitable and healthy. The "greatest" or GI generation had made it through the Depression and the Second World War only with the help of an emotional restraint that could not possibly continue. That was already evident in the new music that had emerged in the mid-1950s and was now reaching its artistic peak ten years later, as well as in the new trends in film of the late 1960s. But without the perversion of the idea of a national effort for the greater good that Vietnam embodied, the very real political achievements of the preceding century might have survived. As it was, they did not.

The legacy of the Awakening that began around 1965 was self-expression--but for many reasons, that self-expression has steadily degenerated into selfishness. That selfishness among the Boom generation--now inherited, in many ways, by Gen X--has taken two forms. On the right it has revived the idea, which had been relegated to the fringes of American life by the 1950s, that greed is good, and that economic progress occurs when people can enrich themselves to the maximum extent possible. But on the Left--upon which society must almost always count for any sense of common national purpose--it has been equally destructive. The Left has encouraged its acolytes to see themselves as women, or minorities, or practitioners of alternative sexual lifestyles, rather than as citizens. The Obama Administration came to power more than three years ago in the midst of the worst economic crisis in 80 years. It's response has been tepid and much less effective, in percentage terms, than FDR's. As a result--as the fundraising appeals I receive almost daily confirm--its campaign is going to rely largely on social issues, particularly women's rights. It has offered much too little to all Americans as citizens, and thus has missed what was probably the last chance for generations to create a more united body politic.

The attack on the rationalist tradition has been most effective in the most critical theater of war, American universities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my own historical profession. History is no longer a matter of uncovering the truth, it's a question of examining (and creating) different ways of "framing" past events. That amounts to seeing the past through the eyes of the present, which makes it impossible to learn anything from the past. In addition, the humanities are now based largely on hostility to authority and institutions--which makes it almost impossible to contribute positively to what society needs.

Europe, as I have mentioned many times, does not seem to have gone as far down this path as we have, but the Europeans' failure to cope appropriately with their own economic crisis is disturbing. In any case, it is even clear to me now than it was when I finished American Tragedy (see at right) that 1965 marked a critical turning point in our history, and that we will not see anything like the world of that era again in any of our lifetimes. Perhaps my senses are heightened about all this because it happened to coincide with my 18th birthday.



Friday, April 20, 2012

An anniversary

This week was the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers--an anniversary I am always alive to, since Robinson's career, like the Truman doctrine and the Marshall Plan, began in the year of my birth. Jackie Robinson, we hear, broke the color line in baseball--and his number 42 has been retired by every team in the country. Interest in him and in early black players in general as increased during the last twenty years or so, particularly in the Society for American Baseball Research, and he is one of the names from American history that every schoolchild can be counted upon to know. Robinson was a very great baseball player who did not reach the major leagues until he was 28 and who performed at a superstar level for the next eight years. He was also an extraordinarily intelligent and courageous man who felt the enormous responsibility of his unique role very keenly. The strain of what he had to go through almost surely contributed to the diabetes and heart disease that killed him when he was only 53 years old. But the almost single-minded emphasis on his personal role in the events of 65 years ago is misplaced, because Jackie Robinson was not the most important person in breaking the color line in baseball, if only because he lacked the power to do so. The man who broke baseball's color line was Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who decided to sign a black player, scouted the Negro Leagues carefully, chose Robinson with superb judgment and great care, and did everything he could to make the experiment a success. And our failure to give Rickey equal credit tells us a lot about how skewed our perspective on these issues has become in the decades since integration took place.

We easily forget this now, but even when I was a child, the U.S. still thought of itself, as it had for at least 150 years, as the country in which every man had a fair chance to make the most of his abilities. The frontier and the lack of social distinctions among men had helped create this vision, and rags-to-riches stories were, of course, the stuff of legend. Of course there had been huge exceptions to this vision in practice. Black Americans had never enjoyed equal opportunity in slavery or in freedom, and women's career opportunities were also very limited. But Americans believed in this principle nonetheless, and that allowed immigrants, and eventually black Americans as well, to appeal to it in the first half of the twentieth century. Franklin Roosevelt's rhetoric also encouraged this. Above all, from 1940 to 1945, about ten million young Americans of every conceivable background enlisted in the military to fight a war against discrimination and for equality. From the time the war effort began, Negro Americans, as they then called themselves, viewed this as an opportunity to secure full citizenship. Jackie Robinson not only went into the Army, but as a graduate of UCLA, he was commissioned as an officer. Discrimination persisted in the military, but returning black veterans expected to receive the rights for which they had fought, and many sympathetic white Americans agreed that they could not be denied.

Branch Rickey, evidently, was one such. He came from rural Ohio--hardly a hotbed of egalitarianism--but he had had a black teammate on his baseball team in college. He was the shrewdest baseball executive of his generation, building dynasties in St. Louis and Brooklyn, and he understood that the Negro Leagues were an important untapped talent pool. He came from the Missionary generation, and like Henry Stimson, John L. Lewis, and Franklin Roosevelt himself, he had the courage of his convictions. Signing Robinson was bound to be a very unpopular move among his fellow owners, who had consistently resisted integration, and among many white players, who in those days came disproportionately from the South. But he did not care. He believed in the ideals of America and he knew he had a unique opportunity to start making them come true. He was fortunate to find Robinson, who understood the need for him to behave more or less like a New Testament saint for the first two years of his career, and whose still at every phase of the game won nearly all of hsi teammates over very quickly. Within a year he had found two other great players, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, as well. And he did not remain a lonely pioneer for long. In Cleveland, Bill Veeck, a young veteran who had lost a leg in the South Pacific himself, signed Larry Doby just a few months after Robinson reached the majors, and across New York Horace Stoneham was sonn fielding Monte Irvin, Henry Thompson, and, in 1951, Willie Mays. Legal equality was still about a decade and a half away, but the civil rights movement--a far more organized and powerful lobby then than now--was on the rise.

A google search for Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey turned up about 5000 hits during the last week. The same search for Robinson without Rickey turned up half a million hits. And at the top of the first search is an article from a blog called Deadspin entitled, "Did Branch Rickey sell Jackie Robinson out?," making a complicated argument that Rickey, for political reasons which are not really explained, decided to rush the signing of Robinson before he had made arrangements to sign several other players simultaneously as well. The headline is purposely and needlessly inflammatory.

Why is all this important? In part, because it is so representative of left-wing attitudes over the last 40 years, which more or less consistently insist that only oppressed minorities of one kind or another--be they racial, sexual, or gendered--have any sense of justice, while white males are, by definition, oppressors. Thus, Robinson has to be the man who broke the color line, more or less single-handedly. But in fact, justice for our society depends upon a sense of justice that cuts across class lines, racial lines, and gender lines. Fortunately we have a Constitution that reflects that, but the left-wing intellectual elite has been fighting that idea for many years. The late Derrick Bell, to cite one example--the first black law professor at Harvard, who left his position in protest in the early 1990s because he had no black female colleagues--insisted that American racism was permanent and could never be overcome. The attempt to lock minorities, gays and women into a permament, self-defined oppressed status has done enormous harm to all concerned.

Jackie Robinson was a product of his time. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962, he said he wanted to be remembered as a ballplayer, and his plaque originally made no mention of breaking the color line. When fashions changed years after his death, the wording of the plaque was altered--a symbol of my contemporaries' commitment to remembering, not moving beyond, eras of racial oppression. Let us face the facts squarely: minorities, in the nature of things, cannot achieve justice on their own. They depend upon a shared sense of justice, something well within the capacity of human beings, especially if we encourage and allow it to develop.

The left wing Boomer assumption that authority is inherently evil has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the good write off authority as a lost cause, who is to govern society? Eventually public service will become inspiriing again--but that may be some time off.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again

Readers of a certain age will recognize today's title, but few if any will anticipate where I am going with it. A couple of years ago, in a critical post, I speculated whether Obama was going to turn out like Hoover or Harman Muller and heinrich Bruning, the last democratically chosen German chancellors under the Weimar Republic, rather than like FDR. I'm afraid there is still a chance that he will, although at the moment the odds still favor his re-election. Even if he is re-elected, however, he will never be the new FDR--and the brief research I've been doing on the Hoover Administration shows why.

Franklin Roosevelt was an extraordinary President, but like the other progressive icons of our century, including Wilson, Kennedy, and LBJ, he could hardly have done what he did alone. Our whole twentieth century tradition began with the Progressive era, the climax, it appears in retrospect, of the era that began with the Enlightenment, in which two generations--the aging Progressives (born about 1842-1862) and the Missionaries (about 1863-1884) decided that social science and reason could solve social problems, increase economic justice, and build a healthier and more equitable society. They also concluded that money should not be allowed an unlimited influence over politics, and that enormous fortunes were inevitably destructive to democracy. Such views appear to have become stronger and stronger within universities during the first half of the twentieth century. (They became much weaker in the second half, but that's a story for another day.) Granted, believers in unfettered capitalism still remained strong, and they took over the reins of government during the 1920s. But Herbert Hoover--at that time--was not one of them. He had risen to fame under the Wilson Administration as a genuine progressive. And thus, it is interesting to look at the requests he made of the last Congress that met while he was fully in power, in December 1931, and at what the Congress did with his proposals.

Although economic distress was much worse then than it is right now and no recovery was as yet in progress, the federal budget was a source of enormous concern. By today's standards it was paltry: receipts for fiscal 1932 (ending in July of 1932) were forecast at $4.4 billion, less than 10% of the GDP of about $58 billion, and thus at least 50% smaller in GDP terms than it is today. But revenues were only about $2.2 billion, meaning that the government was nearly 50% a year in deficit, a much higher figure than today's. The budget had already been cut. What was to be done? Hoover decided to raise taxes, including taxes on the highest brackets, as an emergency measure. In particular, he wanted to double the surtax on incomes over $100,000 (in the neighborhood of $1 million today) from 20% to 40%. He also proposed a new lending agency similar to the First World War War Finance Corporation--one which became the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a powerful institution all through the New Deal and the Second World War.

The debate on Hoover's proposals was long and difficult, all the more so since the Democrats, having won almost 60 new House seats in the 1930 elections and subsequently, now controlled the lower chamber. They rejected a federal sales tax in the spring of 1932. When the House finally passed a bill in April, it adopted Hoover's top 40% income tax rate--one substantially higher, of course, than the top rate today. But in Senate hearings, a progressive Republican from Michigan names James Couzens argued that the nation, in the midst of an emergency, should return to the wartime tax rates of 1918, with a top marginal rate of 60%. This initially failed along with Hoover's sales tax proposals in the Senate, but a conference committee adopted an income tax schedule with marginal rates rising to 55% for incomes over $1 million--that is, about $10 million today. It also set the corporate profits tax at 14%--much less nominally than today's theoretical rate of 34% that Republicans constantly complain about, but considerably higher than what today's corporations actually pay.

Please think about that for a moment. In the midst of an economic crisis and a Presidential election year, the Congress, faced with a huge deficit and having already cut expenditures, passed a large tax increase, including a 55% marginal tax rate on the highest incomes. Today the Republican Party unanimously, without exception, opposes any tax increase of any kind and, indeed, refuses to cooperate with President Obama on anything at all.

Thus it is not the difference between Obama and FDR--real though it is--that differentiates our time from 1932; it is the almost complete lack of civic virtue throughout our political class, reflected in an almost universal inability to state problems clearly, face them, and propose adequate solutions. Our irresponsible political class, like that of the Progressive era and the New Deal, has taken two generations to grow. Unfortunately it will probably take at least two more to replace, as well. To anyone curious about today's Congress's failure to function I cannot recommend too highly this episode of the NPR radio program, This American Life, which gave me a new look into the world of Congressional fund-raising. We have not only created huge fortunes in our time, but we have now allowed them to buy our political system, and they are taking full advantage of the opportunity. Meanwhile, we have suffered a general erosion of any common values, sense of common purpose, or obligation to one another. If Obama wins, he will do so largely by mobilizing the aspirations and fears of certain demographic groups, not by creating a real sense of national purpose. (That I and many of my friends belong to those groups does not change that fact.) If he loses, we shall sink much lower. So far, only the strength of the edifice erected by our parents and grandparents has saved us from complete collapse.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Two nations

In 1845, Benjamin Disraeli, a British novelist and politician, published the novel Sybil, whose first chapter included this legendary passage:

"Well, society may be in its infancy," said Egremont slightly smiling; "but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed."

"Which nation?" asked the younger stranger, "for she reigns over two."

The stranger paused; Egremont was silent, but looked inquiringly.

"Yes," resumed the younger stranger after a moment's interval. "Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws."

"You speak of—" said Egremont, hesitatingly.
"THE RICH AND THE POOR."


Half a century ago, I would suggest, one could not have written that passage about the United States with a straight face. Even in the midst of continued segregation in the old Confederacy, black and white Americans belonged, recognizably, to the same culture, and could have conversed much more easily and calmly on a variety of political topics than many Americans could today. But now Disraeli's words have a new resonance--even though I would change the last line of the quote. "The North and the South" would not be entirely inaccurate, but "The Red and the Blue" probably captures it best. The contest between them is economic, political and social. Above all it is a fundamental contest of values, one that will in large measure determine the future of what we call western civilization, certainly in the United States. And this, I suspect, will be the single most important presidential election in determining how it goes.

The nature of the conflict is far too broad to handle in one post, and today I am going to focus upon one aspect of it: the Trayvon Martin - George Zimmerman case, and the "stand your ground" law that has so far allowed Zimmerman to stalk and eventually and kill a fellow human being without even being arrested or, it would seem, seriously investigated. While we do not know exactly what happened about six weeks ago when Zimmerman shot Martin, I am convinced that the case has profound cultural significance and deep historical roots--and that its resolution and repercussions will tell us some very important things about where the country is going.

Let me begin by quoting the relevant portion of Florida's law:

"Use of force in defense of person.—A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:

(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony; or
(2) Under those circumstances permitted pursuant to s. 776.013." [That section deals with intruders into one's home and is therefore irrelevant to this case.]

What this means is that if in fact Zimmerman, the neighborhood watcher who disregarded the suggestion of the police dispatcher and went out to look for Martin and became involved ina confrontation with him, had the right to shoot and kill him if he "reasonably believed" that Martin was about to use "unlawful force" (not lethal force) against him. And since Zimmerman seems to be the only surviving witness to what happened--at least as far as we know now--only his testimony can tell us whether he had, in fact, such a reasonable belief. In short, the law is practically a license to kill any stranger one meets in public as long as no one else is looking. And as such, I would argue, it reflects something relatively new--or rather, newly prominent--in our national life.

Now Paul Krugman has already pointed out that this law and others identical to it have been promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a right-wing organization funded by the Koch brothers, Exxon Mobile, and other conservative stalwarts, and closely allied with the NRA. Although ALEC's web site claims that it did not write the original text of the Florida law it admits that it has been promoting it in other states--and it has been passed by more than twenty of them. I would like to suggest that the law represents at least two profound currents in American history, one relatively recent, one very old indeed.

The more recent one is mainly the work of the NRA, whose philosophy has altered considerably as Boomers took over its leadership. It has always been my impression that the NRA's opposition to gun control (which surfaced after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which was the Roe v. Wade of the anti-control movement) originally related to the rights of hunters and sportsmen. As late as 1981, after the near-assassination of Ronald Reagan, I read an NRA piece defending the rights of handgun owners on the grounds that handguns were sometimes essential for hunting. But in the last twenty years we have moved way beyond such arguments. As anyone who has argued with pro-gun people on an internet forum now knows, their main argument is in effect that supposedly law-abiding citizens should replace the police as our first line of defense against violent crime. They want the maximum number of people walking around with concealed weapons, and they want few or no restrictions on where they can take those weapons--onto university campuses, for instance. They are, in short, totally opposed to the model of a largely unarmed, non-violent population, with a crime rate low enough for professional police forces to cope with. And they have managed steadily to increase the proliferation of firearms in this country over the last few decades, keeping our homicide rate much higher, as I pointed out here once before, than almost any other advanced nation. And, of course, they won a huge 5-4 victory in the Supreme Court quite recently, when the conservative majority created a new individual right to bear arms, throwing out precedents as well-established and venerable as the Dred Scott decision of 1857.

The NRA, then, has been fighting for an entirely new vision of what our society should look like, one that celebrates, rather than severely restricting, the individual's right to take the law into his own hands. I am particularly struck by this because I discovered what a struggle European governments had taking that right away from the nobility in the 16th and 17th centuries, and how important their success in the eighteenth century was to creating civilization as we know it. One of the most powerful lobbies in American life wants to undo that work.

This, however, is not all. The pre-modern tradition of settling disputes violently and personally, rather than turning them over to the legal system, has always been strong on the frontier, and above all, in the American south. W. J. Cash, a southern liberal who wrote his classic The Mind of the South in the late 1930s, identified the willingness to respond to an insult with a Bowie knife or a revolver as a sign of southern manhood going back at least to the 18th century. Such threats, indeed, were common in the House and Senate on the eve of the Civil War, and I wonder if I shall live to see Republicans demand that legislators once again be allowed to bring weapons with them onto the floor. And although many of us are not aware of it, the willingness spontaneously to respond to threat or provocation with murder is also enshrined in the most famous and widely read of all books about the American South, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. There, indeed, such conduct becomes a laudable aspect not only of white southern manhood, but of white southern womanhood as well.

Chapter XXVI of Gone With the Wind takes place in the midst of Sherman's march through Georgia,with Scarlet, her sister, and the saintly Melanie Wilkes huddling together in Tara without the necessities of life. One day a lone Yankee, sporting an unkempt beard, rides up to Tara and crosses the threshold, in search, Scarlet is certain, of something to steal. He enters with a drawn pistol, but when Scarlet confronts him and he sees that he has only a woman to deal with, he puts it back in his holster. As soon as he does so, Scarlet, who has armed herself, gets the draw on him and shoots him dead in the face. She initially feels some ambivalence over what she has done, but then, dear Melanie runs into the room and takes the scene in. "In silence her eyes met Scarlet's," the book continues. "there was a glow of grim pride in her naturally gentle face, approbation and a fiere joy in her smile that equaled the fiery tumult in Scarlet's own bosom.

"'What--why--she's like me! She understands how I feel!' thought Scarlet in that long moment. 'She'd have done the same thing!'

"With a thrill she looked up at the frail swaying girl for whom she had never had any feelings but of dislike and contempt. Now, struggling against hatred for Ashley's wife, there surged a feeling of admiration and comradeship. She saw in a flash of clarity untouched by any petty emotion that beneath the gentle voice and the dovelike eyes of Melanie there was a thin flashing blade of unbreakable steel, felt too that there were banners and bugles of courage in Melanie's quiet blood."

Nor is this all. Rhett Butler could hardly have won the heart of such a woman had he not shown similar qualities himself, and Mitchell allows him to recount his own moment of glory when he encounters Scarlett after the war after a stint in jail after he killed a black man. "I'll take an oath you weren't innocent," Scarlett says, after he explains how he bribed his way out with the help of a corrupt Yankee who is "quite high in the councils of the federal government."

"'No, now that I am free of the toils, I'll frankly admit that I'm as guilty as Cain," Rhett replies. "I did kill the nigger. He was uppity to a lady, and what else could a Southern gentleman do? And while I'm confessing, I must admit that I shot a Yankee cavalryman after some words in a barroom. I was not charged with that pecadillo, so perhaps some other poor devil has been hanged for it, long since.'"

[I apologize to anyone whom I offended, but I was quoting an American classic and I remain faithful to one ideal of the 1960s, the idea that words do not kill.)

Now I do not know exactly how the NRA adopted its new philosophy of self-defense or where the wording of the Florida statute came from, but it is clear that its effect, if not its purpose, is to legalize exactly the murders that Scarlet and Rhett committed. (The laws do contain an exception protecting law enforcement personnel doing their duty, but it is very clear that neither Scarlet nor her creator see the dastardly union soldier in that light.) Rhett could claim that the black man was threatening to commit a rape and that the Yankee was threatening violence, and even his bribe would no longer be necessary. Richard Zimmerman, of course, has not appeared in court yet.

The movie version of Gone With the Wind omitted these particular episodes, partly out of the sensibilities of its producers for whom racial prejudice meant anti-Semitism, and partly, undoubtedly, because northern audiences would not have been able to reconcile them with their own ideas of Scarlet, Rhett, and especially Melanie. Yet the beliefs they represented remained strong well into the 1960s, at which time no white man had yet been convicted of killing a black man in the state of Mississippi. The question is whether there is in fact an unbroken line of thought and feeling running from the antebellum South through Reconstruction and now, all the way into the NRA in its present-day form. The Florida law is a license pre-emptively to kill anyone whom the shooter believe threatens murder, injury, or the commission of a "forcible felony." If such laws now remain on the books, much of the United States may become a very different country.

And once again, the Martin-Zimmerman case is becoming another marker of our cultural divide, rather than an attempt to re-think an important issue of public policy. We are focusing on whether Zimmerman was a bigot or whether Martin was a good or bad kid, not on whether citizens of any race should have the right to pick a fight and turn it into an excuse for murder. Thousands march for the arrest of one man, not for the repeal of the law that seems to have prevented the investigation that should have taken place. President Obama, fighting for swing states where the NRA vote is strong, mentioned that if he had a son "he would look like Trayvon," but did not dare speak against the stand your ground law itself. I hope some one does.