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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Slavers

When Brad DeLong posted a video of The Band playing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" on his blog, one commentator wrote that he hated seeing rockers defend "the slavers."

It was a stupid remark in that the song is about loss, not slavery, but it also struck me how trite his opinion was. Wow, you're against slavery, are you? That's a courageous moral stance you've adopted there!

But what would his stance have been had he been an upper-class white man in the American South in 1850? Given that you can read off every opinion this guy has from that one comment -- Abortion? A woman's right to choose! Someone is opposed to same-sex marriage? Homophobic! And so on. -- you can bet his views would have been absolutely conventional for the time, i.e., he would have been firmly for it.

15 comments:

  1. I would use the "strike" tag on this entire post if I were you.

    Whenever you find yourself getting angry at people for opinions they do not hold and deeds they did not do--well, then there is something badly wrong, isn't there?

    The crux of the Confederate experience is, as Ulysses S. Grant wrote, that they "fought so long and valiantly... suffered so much for a cause... [that was] one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse..."

    Any description of the Confederate experience that does not cover all five of those pieces--fought long, fought valiantly, suffered much, worst cause, least excuse--is, I think, a falsehood.

    And the fact that it does not talk about why they were fighting is why I called and call "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" "great song, lousy cause".

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    1. Brad, do you realize this post is not about your post, but about someone who commented on your post? I can only make sense of what you write here if I read it that you are mistakenly thinking I was addressing your post.

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  2. And you don't even have to get abstract as it being "about loss". Even insofar as it was about Confederates it was pretty clear they weren't "slavers".

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  3. What does this mean?

    Whenever you find yourself getting angry at people for opinions they do not hold and deeds they did not do--well, then there is something badly wrong, isn't there?

    It sounds like he's mad at you for something you didn't do...

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    1. It's like an onion! Layers upon layers of meaning!

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  4. I'm with Brad in finding this post pretty weak tea. In one sense, "you're both right." The song is about loss, not slavery. But it's also noteworthy what the content of that loss is. A gedakenexperiment in Godwinning would establish the limit case here. It's entirely valid to have an emotional or ethical reaction to the omission of the content of that loss, particularly in context.

    What's the context? This: For four of my five decades American discourse connived at minimizing the centrality of the slave question to the civil war. I'm a child of the North, and even where I grew up we largely accepted the Confederate framing. Helm was older than I am and grew up in a stronger version of the same consensus. It's only since MacPherson's restoration of the slave question to the center of the narrative filtered out into popular consciousness that there's begun a reaction against the Confederate consensus.

    Meanwhile, I don't think the victory of the (re)new(ed) narrative on the Civil War has been remotely as complete as you implicitly assume when you accuse this fellow of having this reaction because it's just the conventional opinion. And really, do you actually even know the guy's race, let alone his income level or where he lives. For all I know, the guy lives in Tennessee and is sick of the dominant narrative of his area. I'm reminded of one of Woody Allen's girlfriends in Annie Hall, after his peroration about "socialist summer camps," responding, "Thank you for reducing my life to a stereotype."

    Also, "Night" is a great song, but "Acadian Driftwood," also about loss, is better. It is known.

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    1. "Helm was older than I am and grew up in a stronger version of the same consensus."

      Levon Helm did not write that song. Robbie Robertson, a Canadian, did.

      As far as the context goes, artistically, the only question that is relevant is, "Would Virgil Caine (a working-class Southerner who would not have owned slaves) have brought up slavery in describing his sense of loss here?"

      No, I think he would not have. Robertson got this right.

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    2. Caine wouldn't have, no. But as you say, that's just the artistic context. (And not, really, all of the artistic context.) It's not the cultural context or the political context. It doesn't mean, for instance, that it doesn't contribute to what Brad's commenter experienced as way too many uncritical recapitulations of the Southron POV.

      Consider by way of contrast Huckleberry Finn. Huck spends a lot of time talking about how childishly superstitious black people are. At the same time, he is also constantly, with no self-awareness whatsoever, acting on and observing a myriad of superstitions held by the white people of his region. Huck doesn't get it but the reader does, because Twain gives it to us.

      Now I personally do not share Brad's commenter's disgust with the song for a couple of reasons. Not least, I always took the middle verse as establishing that confederate troops plundered his family farm. Wife sees Robert E. Lee (in Tennessee?). Lee & his presumed train remain the only grammatical referent for the "they" who "have taken the very best" at the end of the verse. On that reading, the Caine family is victimized by War rather than the North as such - they get it from both ends.

      But the middle verse of a song is always the one people overlook . . .

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    3. In any case, it's certainly not a defense of the "slavers."

      And I admit I was wildly extrapolating from one remark: that is why I did not bother linking to the particular guy. I was writing about a type and admittedly that guy might not have been an example of that type. I should have put that in, but... lazy!

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    4. I don't think the song is a defense of the slavers - who, by the way, really existed! So I'm not sure why the sneer-quotes are still hanging around.

      But do you agree or disagree that it's possible for works of art to sin by omission, either individually or as a cultural pattern? "Defense by default" IOW.

      To me, the answer is, "Obviously, yes." FWIW.

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    5. Jim, those weren't scare quotes, they were "weird choice of term" quotes: slaveholders is what I'd say. I'd never heard "slavers" before.

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    6. In fact, when I look up "slaver," it means a slave dealer, not a slave owner (except, of course, that dealers may own the slaves for a time to sell them). So commentator mis-used the term, and my quotes are fully justified.

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    7. Gotcha. Thanks. But what about the "by omission" question?

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    8. 'But what about the "by omission" question?'

      I have honored it by omitting my reply!

      But seriously, I am thinking.

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  5. You might like this post, which expands on much the same idea. It does a thought experiment where you imagine that you could send important present insights back in time to Archimedes, but the medium would transform what you say into something that Archimedes would believe for the same reason that you do.

    So, for example, "Women should be allowed to voted" would come through as "Property owning males should be allowed to vote"; that is, since you only (perhaps) hold that belief because it's the popular wisdom of the time, Archimedes only hears something on the same topic that is the popular wisdom of his own time.

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