Claude Bowers on racism and politics

Wednesday March 8, 2006

All right, Mr. Bowers, since I’m not doing the work I ought to be doing, let’s resume. I’m half through your book and the comparisons between the Radical Republicans of 1865 on and those of 1995 on are just startling! Stolen elections, blatant disregard of law to get what they wanted, ideological agenda (at least when Thad Stevens was alive; less so afterwards), a huge phony impeachment trial – though they expected to win the one in 1868 – and then giant, massive, unprecedented corruption. Unprecedented for Washington, which is saying something! And perhaps the longest-lived effect, the turning over of government and economy to the monopolies that developed from war contracts.

Our case is different because the slavery and Civil Rights issues are settled, but I seem to see an analogy in the ideology that sees “faith based” – meaning right-wing Christian – groups as being under social attack and needing government support. And behind it all, what Joseph Smallwood would call “hog-ism.”

Racism and class discrimination

I see, also, that your arguments and your impact are blunted by your racism – even if it was the racism of your day. So negroes were to sit with whites on public accommodations. Shameful! So they were to have equal access to theaters, etc. Horrible! We just don’t see it that way and you can’t expect us to.

Nor did I expect you to. But it was worth while to make the attempt. How far you can stretch your sympathies is a matter for your own concern. Let me say this on the subject of racism and then let us drop the subject – unless new questions come up – for some disagreements cannot be bridged.

If you will think of it in terms of income rather than color – for that is the way you discriminate in your time – you will not find it so hard to understand. In your heart you know this is so. People of different classes have different habits, mores, manners, preferences, tastes. They don’t fit easily together, except in certain public places. In the movies, loud ghetto kids disrupt the silence others expect – and so fewer people go to the movies who prefer silence and decorum. In public places like beaches, noise always drives out silence. In discourse, vulgarity and profanity drives out civility. In art, lesser discrimination always drives out greater, except when greater discrimination is accompanied by money.

If you were suddenly ordered, by an outside authority whose power you recognized but whose legitimacy you did not, to associate closely with homeless drunkards, or clannish non-English-speaking immigrants, or Mafiosi – you would not accept it as due to them as human beings; you would resent it as an imposition on you. As it would be!

The Civil Rights turmoil of your lifetime followed 80 years of reaction by white southerners against the dozen years of “reconstruction” as much as against the disruption natural to the total upsetting of the economic and social structure that was the end of slavery.

Again, you must not hear me to be an apologist for slavery. Neither am I an apologist for repressing natural ability and allowing it to rise. You call me a racist and I say that this is because you do not understand something you have a duty to understand, if you are to have an opinion on it.

The connections history doesn’t draw

Now, about the revolution within your mind that my book is causing. Thank you for your honesty in considering it. I realize it goes against what you have been taught, or perhaps it would be better said, it goes against what has been carefully insinuated and silently implied – for lies are more easily exposed than insinuations refuted. As your brother pointed out, your history does not draw the connection between the crony capitalism – as your age is calling it – of the reconstruction vultures, and the progressive and other “protest” movements that followed. Nor does it include – I would add – the strikers being shot down by the National Guard, the children being enslaved in factories, the immigrants being terrorized by the police and being used to hold down other groups of immigrants.

The entire age from the beginning of reconstruction to Woodrow Wilson was one ugly conglomeration of various forms of corrupt politics, and the lines connecting the dots are rarely drawn – and never in textbooks that have to be approved by committees! Wilson was Southern enough to feel the results of the lash, intellectual enough to connect some of the dots, arrogant enough to think that intellectually-derived formulas were enough to out-reform corrupt politics, politician enough to do what he had to do to get elected and get re-elected, and Presbyterian enough to assure himself – and need to assure himself – that he had done wisely and well, and had done nothing that could not be excused if seen in the proper light.

And it must be said, he did try! So did his predecessor, for that matter, but Taft, an honest man, had little freedom of maneuver, being necessarily captive of the Republican Party that had created him. [Theodore] Roosevelt was a lunatic, a financial simpleton, a brilliant attractive man of many excellences that sometimes served mostly to enable his abysmal failings. (In this he was rather like Winston Churchill.) Roosevelt in his self-justifying arrogance might as well have been a Presbyterian like Wilson. “We stand at Armageddon and battle for the lord”! McKinley, again a better man than his party allowed him to be, and as abysmally ignorant as misinformation and a corrupt news media could make him, with his somewhat inert assistance. Cleveland, rigorously honest, again with more freedom of maneuver than Republicans because his base was different. And so back to Harrison, Hayes and Grant.

I fear that your opinion of Grant has fallen quite a bit, as you put together my account of his throwing in with the radicals and betraying Johnson with what [Joshua Lawrence] Chamberlain said of his throwing in with Sheridan against Gouvernor Warren. In both cases, a deficiency of judgment, at best; and no need to assume corruption. Perhaps, let us say, a certain insensitivity to individuals when his own vision was fixed on something. But you do see, now, why Grant was so contemned by the end of his presidency. It isn’t that he was too dumb to know better; he wasn’t. It isn’t that he could not have known; he could have known and should have known. And it isn’t, quite, that he personally profited by the immense corruption that flourished in his time – and yet, it isn’t quite true that he did not, either. He did not steal and did not receive stolen money, but he was surrounded by thieves and neither punished nor denounced them. Worse, he not very indirectly profited from their activities – politically, not pecuniarily.

To return to Wilson. He did try. The Federal Reserve Act was designed to help farmers and small businessmen. At the last minute a small change was introduced, Congress as usual didn’t notice or didn’t understand except for those who knew full well and were well rewarded for not standing in the way – and there went America’s money, for reasons we won’t go into here. That was not Wilson’s intent, and I doubt if, to the end of his life, he realized what had been done.

If there were honesty in politics! I have heard you saying (reading my book) “if they didn’t agree, if they knew it was wrong, why didn’t they speak out? Why was party more important than country – especially when it was obvious that they were going to be cast aside anyway? Why not go down fighting publicly?” but it is hard for a person in politics to go alone, and very rare.

Politics and interest

I can hear some of my Republican friends saying sure, Bowers is a Democrat, so that’s all he favors.

In your day, it is harder to tell you the truth because you have all been mis-educated so long, and so insulated from reality by your long years in college and your association mostly with others whose background is similar. In my day – and even more in Lincoln’s day – it was understood that politics is based in interest. Find out what a man’s interest is, and that will tell you most of what you need to know about his politics. Other factors will enter in – “my father was a Democrat, so I’m a Democrat,” or perhaps some shining example – but mostly a man will vote his interest. Farmers just didn’t vote Republican once they realized that it wasn’t Lincoln’s party any more but a cabal owned and operated my monopolists and profiteers. Now, the bloody flag could be used to blind them to their interest – and was it! – but when not blinded by passions, interest resumed its sway. It is only natural, after all. Why should someone join a group (knowingly) that is devoted to the destruction or damage of his economic interest?

So, my argument is not that one or the other parties attracted better men. It is that one or the other party embodied certain interests and the wolves always run with the hunters, never with the deer. It isn’t complicated. And it doesn’t change.

Okay, I think we should break for now. I have been doing email between some of these paragraphs but it doesn’t seem to have lessened the overall fatigue.

Nothing wrong with experimentation.

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