Friday, August 18, 2017

Moderates and Other Impartial Spectators

Is it possible to remain impartial as the statues of an earlier era come down? As it turns out, Adam Smith, in "The Theory of Moral Sentiments", has plenty to say which highlights the polarization and political struggles of our time. Here, I'll include most of a quote which was also noted by Timothy Taylor:
In a nation distracted by faction, there are, no doubt, always a few, thought commonly but a very few, who preserve their judgement untainted by the general contagion. They seldom amount to more than, here or there, a solitary individual, without any influence, excluded, by his own candour, from the confidence of either party, and who, though he may be one of the wisest, is necessarily, upon that very account, one of the most insignificant men in the society. All such people are held in contempt and derision, frequently in detestation, by the furious zealots of both parties. A true party-man hates and despises candour; and, in reality, there is no vice which could so effectively disqualify him for the trade of a party-man as that single virtue. The real, revered, and impartial spectator, therefore, is, upon no occasion, at a greater distance than amidst the violence and rage of contending parties. To them, it may be said that such a spectator scarce exists any where in the universe. Even to the great Judge of the universe, they impute their own prejudices, and often view that Divine Being as animated by all their own vindictive and implacable passions. Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, therefore faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest.
While it's becoming more difficult to keep the open mind of an impartial spectator, in some respects the South has struggled with impartiality for a long time. Adam Smith's above quote serves as a reminder of the isolation I've often felt. There's a "price to pay" when we keep our distance from the fray, especially if we're white, and have never left the the South for a long period. Even though I've been fortunate over the years to encounter inspiring individuals with a moderate outlook, much of my inspiration has come from books whose authors lived well beyond my own environment and culture.

Now, tribalism even continues to grow in importance, as economic stagnation gives moderates less of a chance to build a more broadly shared economic consensus. Similarly, there's little room for middle ground, regarding the statues from the days of the Confederacy, which are now being removed. Yet as a Southerner with family roots going back generations, I unexpectedly find myself with mixed feelings.

Will history be "lost"? There's a mostly forgotten part of our economic history, which for me holds more meaning than those statues. For some observers, the harsh circumstance of our recent past - and what so greatly contributed to those circumstance - was never seriously considered. There's no denying that whites have remained guilty of excluding others who are perceived to be "too" different. Yet this exclusion was also a reflection, of a broader context in which everyone in the South remained essentially excluded from the dynamism and vitality of our own nation, for generations. Is it not evident for example, that military bases which bear the "wrong" names, serve as a sort of national apology, to encourage the Southern youth still willing to sacrifice their lives for a now united nation.

Oddly, I can't help but believe that things would have turned out differently - much more positively - had Abraham Lincoln not been assassinated. Since he died when he did, many in the South suffered harsher conditions and loss in the aftermath of the Civil War, than would otherwise have been the case. In some instances, the victors destroyed or took many of the worldly possessions of poor folk who had never owned a slave in their lives. Lincoln received a lot of blame from the South which he did not deserve, because he didn't want the devastation to go beyond what he perceived as necessary to win the war. He'd hoped for a level of understanding, which simply never had a chance to evolve.

Consequently, it wasn't just that the South lost the war, it was the ways in which everyone was forced to experience defeat, which left much of the country in what was essentially a third world status for rural areas, well into mid twentieth century.

What's mind boggling for Southerners such as myself is that tribalism suggests we're either "supposed" to harbor perpetual anger about what happened, or else completely deny the connections between long standing economic hardships and morally imposed punishment. Why should I have to take such an extreme position, regarding the devastation that happened to all the people involved, regardless of race? Was I supposed to either deny or be totally angry about that hardscrabble world, one still evident in the photo albums and memories of my family's past?

Perhaps the healing has been more difficult than it should have been, because the South continued to suffer for generations as the rest of the nation prospered. I wish for everyone concerned, that real healing was not so far out of reach. The worst aspect of it all, is that Lincoln didn't live long enough, to prevent the excessively harsh treatment of the people whose culture I've experienced and made my own peace with, over the course of a lifetime.

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