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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.

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.


Bozon said...


Many thanks for this great essay.

Down here, it may seem, it is becoming every man for himself, so to speak, a Hobbesian war of all against all, so to speak.

(Yet many places in the country are similar really.)

They are talking as you no doubt know, in the NYT about the RNC in August and the squirt gun that can be banned but the hand gun that cannot.

All the best

NxNW 74 said...

So have the seeds of a return to a feudal society been germinated?

Anonymous said...

Why would ALEC, which represents large corporate interests, promote "stand your ground" laws in state legislatures around the country? Could it be to pave the way for the private security forces (effectively, private armies) of the one percent to control an increasingly impoverished, and restless, 99 percent? As you point out, there are cultural factors, such as the southern honor culture, as well. But I cannot make any other sense out of the corporate elite's interest in such statutes.

Anonymous said...

And some people say that Boomers aren't an angry, violent generation. They pass the laws and Gen X does the dirty work.

Anonymous said...

Martin Luther King Jr. held that racism , economic exploitation and militarism were America's greatest failings and that they were all tied to each other , to get rid of one all had to be attacked. Why is is the USA's first black President so failing to pick up where King left off ?

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading one book and had wanted to start Gone With the Wind anyway which I did after reading your post. I find it well written after reading the first two chapters, with an accurate cultural milieu from what I have read historically, for example in an E.A. Poe biography. I am also reading slowly an old yellowing version in Gothic print of older German language (1860) of Don Quixote and basically he goes about threatening people like a madman to fight for honour of ladies in the chivalric sense and it is shown that it is all absurd and that he is quite mad. It is really very romantic of course.

I think the Southern culture (European as well as USA) is really very romantic in terms of male/female roles and not as rational as in the north where men and women's roles are treated more similarly, as far as is possible. I think you can hardly change these things. Violence against women for example is in Europe highest in Spain (in marriage).

We must take in the fact that UK is about as north as Canada and has a very moderate climate and when a lot of Irish, English and Scots live only half a dozen generations in a very hot climate like the US South they start acting like spaniards it gives pause to think about what point is there to talking about universal cultural values in a country the size of a continent like USA. This is as absurd as trying to impose a Euro currency based on German work ethic in all of Europe. If this argument seems somehow racist it is just the opposite. We are a product of our immediate physical environment, if in the long-term of evolutionary development a few generations can be called immediate. It makes you think that when the earth heats up a few degrees in 100 years or so that our rational thinking will decrease and violence on earth will certainly increase about as much as if all the "Yankees" were now become Southerners and Germans were become Spaniards. Might be good to have less industrialism of course to save our earth's ecosystem.

I like reading historical novels as they give a real idea of what life was like and not a dry account of facts. The "N" word is repeated very, very often in Gone With the Wind. Mitchell was very aware of how people thought and felt and of social structure. As you say blacks and whites were very near to one another in the antebellum South, not like poor and rich today or ghettoized minorities in the North and the white middle classes in the suburbs. So modern technical progress is socially regressive perhaps in terms of communication between peoples. I work with people from many cultures (Africans, Thais, East Europeans, Latins, Turks) and feel this is helping my understanding currently of the world, for example to see the human portrayal of blacks (or The Irish father and French Mother of Scarlett) in her novel as being genuine and not "invented and artificial".

James50 said...

The left's obsession with regionalism is most interesting but bizarre. How can it be satisfying to speak of people you know only from a book printed 80 years ago?

As for Trayvon Martin - thank God we have a court system to decide guilt and innocence and we do not have to rely on news deliberately fabricated to pour fuel on a burning fire.


David Kaiser said...

James, speaking of a region based on a 60-year old book is exactly what I did not do. I began with the recently passed legislation and traced it back to that book and other historical roots. And thanks to that law, the court system would not have gotten involved in the death of Trayvon Martin at all but for the public outcry surrounding his death.

James50 said...

GWTW was published in 1936 - 76 years ago to be exact. It was about a time 150 years ago. Yet, the left loves to quote from it as if were indicative of the current SE US. Its as if the last 50 years since MLK including the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act just didn't happen.

Sorry, David, but extensive quoting of GWTW as indicative of the south today is just rubbish. Its as silly as quoting from the Scarlet Letter as indicative of current New England.

Anonymous said...

The Obama Rule
He says taxation is about fairness, not growth or

Forget Warren Buffett, or whatever other political
prop the White House wants to use for its tax
agenda. This week the Administration officially
endorsed what in essence is the Obama Rule:
Taxes must be high simply to spread the wealth,
never mind the impact on the economy or
government revenue. It's all about "fairness,"


Anonymous said...

I'm an avid reader and a big fan. This evening I related your observation about Rhett Butler killing a black man for being "uppity". Two friends told me they had read Gone With the Wind and that passage wasn't there. Can you give me the source, ie. page number or place in the book? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. It's clear to me that uber-rich US elites support these "right=to-kill" laws for a very utilitarian reason: divide and rule. An armed populace with a license to terminate their peers (in fact -- Zimmerman and Martin lived in the same world, and certainly not the Kochs)is less likely to turn its animus against their oppressors.

Larry Koenigsberg said...

See also No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society by Richard Maxwell Brown.

"Violence is as American as cherry pie" said H Rap Brown (no relation).

I believe that the psychology promoted by Stand Your Ground offers continued dominance to its adherents; similarly to that offered by forcing childbirth on rape and incest victims, creationism on biology students, and endless war on Muslims.

Concomitantly it offers the social vision presented by Mrs. Thatcher, who notoriously proclaimed, "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first."

Of course, this is all wonderful for those who wish to divert attention from such unpopular efforts as the ongoing destruction of the safety net and shifting of the tax burden from the wealthy to the 99%.

Bruce Wilder said...

An interesting essay, but I was distracted by this sidenote: "Above all it is a fundamental contest of values, . . . And this, I suspect, will be the single most important presidential election in determining how it goes."

I get that generational cycles in politics are a theme of this blog, but I would think that analysis would lead you to conclude that the coming Presidential election will be one of the least important in our lifetimes-to-date, probably the first of many, in which the interests of the rich and powerful will be defended by both Parties, and only trivialities will be debated, the domination of the plutocracy having been established and confirmed by the last two or three Administrations.

The fact that Romney, a Republican with ties to the West, the Midwest and the Northeast, unusually unpopular with his own Party's Southern base, can nevertheless secure his Party's nomination, pretty much leaves the Southern base impotent against the pro-plutocratic Party establishment. Noisy, fiery, but sealed in a bottle.

Romney will, no doubt, sound some themes dear to the (white) Southern heart, just as Obama will sound some (extremely mild) populist themes dear to liberal hearts, but neither spokesman-politician is credible as anything, but a tool of the boomer plutocracy, which is firmly in control of policy and media.

Symbolic issues, cultural issues, framed in ways that entail very little in the way of public resource costs, but which motivate people to partisan activity, will figure in the campaign. Such "hot-button" issues have been a mainstay of Republican politics since forever, and are now the whole of Democratic Party politics as well, as Obama pretty silences all effective opposition to perpetual war, torture, authoritarianism, financial regulation in the public interest, concern for the environment, income inequality, and neo-feudal globalization, while putting a "liberal" brand on the coming economic calamities, which are inevitable consequences of his policies.

Romney is tails the 1% win; Obama is heads, the 99% lose. There are no consequences to this election, because voting no longer matters. It will be contest to see which Party's partisan base is more disaffected and discouraged. At the moment, I'd say the smart money says, Romney will lose the election, but the smart money will win all that matters.

Of course, that's the economics, not the cultural stuff. But, Romney can hardly carry the Southern culture desiderata, credibly, can he?

In the end, I don't know that social liberalism can long survive economic decline. The increasing authoritarianism, necessary to protect the plutocracy's loot and its golden goose of usury and rent extraction, alone, dooms civil liberties, while the welfare state is just a good-bye, as you have observed previously.

David Kaiser said...

Thank you, Bruce, for a most provocative comment. You will enjoy today's post, I think. I suspect, though, that if Romney wins he will make more practical concessions to the right than you expect. And I also think the hard-right takeover of the state governments in much of the country is a very serious matters as well--especially since those are also the poorest areas of the nation.

publion said...

One of the anonymous family raised a worthwhile question: Why does Obama not get back to King's vision?

King was kicked to the curb by 1966. Among blacks, the Black Power separatism that had drunk deeply at the well of 'revolutionary' thought and praxis (that 'revolution' not being the one in 1776) considered him to be merely a collaborator with Evil (neatly combining the old abolitionist impatience with the Pact with Hell that was the Constitution and Gramsci's dissatisfaction with the bourgeois status-quo and all its pomps and all its works).

'Class' was kicked to the curb and the nation was divided up along different axes (Race, then Gender, and so on). Archie Bunker - with a steady job and providing for a family - became an object of wide ridicule, as did his entire worldview and his world (now long since deconstructed away).

I read recently in "The American Prospect" that Gender, Race, a-n-d Class are now all of them the offical progressive priorities.

Can that tactic work at this point?

Anonymous said...

I know this thread is old, but I haven't been by for awhile. The "Stand Your Ground" law portion of the law does not apply in this case. It is purely a self defense case. If Zimmerman's account is accurate (or believed by a jury), he was losing a physical confrontation with a legitimate concern for his life. If his account is not accurate (or not believed by a jury)then we have a manslaughter situation.

"Stand Your Ground" has a different connotation than is commonly thought. In most states when there has been a use of lethal force in a self defense situation, the defendant is literally guilty until proven innocent. The defendant must prove to a jury, after the fact, that he had no possible chance to escape at any time during the confrontation.

Stand your ground laws have been enacted to put the burden on the state to prove that the person is guilty of manslaughter or murder.

Again, this is not a factor in this case since if Zimmerman walked up to Martin, argued, had a fight, and shot him; that's manslaughter (not second degree murder, but that's another story). If they had a fight, Zimmerman was losing badly and feared for his life, then we have a self defense situation. No stand your ground is in play as no one has said that Zimmerman had a chance to run away or escape.