Tuesday, November 08, 2016


Remain critical and appreciate


This film, or series since it has nine episodes, is crucial for people, particularly young people and people outside the USA, to understand the nature of the Union behind the USA and why this Civil War was the real corner stone of US history. We always refer to the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution but we forget a simple fact: the USA is a centralized country that has mapped the various political fields between the federal government and the various states. The US Constitution itself clearly states that all competences or fields of political action that are not attributed to the federal administration can only be dealt with at state level. Recent US Supreme Court cases have shown that this principle is basic. For example the US Supreme court intervened in the case of gay rights because the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution was negated by some legislative rulings in some states, particularly cases that crossed the border between several states. And it is the reassertion of the 14th amendment stating all Americans are equal in front of all public agencies or services and that they all deserve equal protection against the negation of their equal rights that enabled the sweeping generalization of the opening of marriage rights to any couple whatsoever since it could only be solved at state level since it is not a competence of the federal state, both the government and Congress. That’s why the Defense of Marriage Act was repealed by the Supreme Court since it was beyond the competence of Congress.

This being said we can now understand why secession could not take place and could not be accepted on the basis of the US Constitution. If a state wants to get out of the Union it has to negotiate it with the Federal State, both government and Congress. It cannot secede on its own initiative and under its own authority.

What is surprising is that the war started on that argument in the north: self-declared secession is illegal and anti-constitutional. So it has to be fought against including with military might. And yet it could not be won on that single argument because it was a lie. What was at stake was the principle of the equality of all Americans including the Blacks. For the south the Blacks were slaves and as such not Americans and certainly not citizens. So for southerners they could not be considered as equal because they were not human. For northerners the Blacks were human beings and had to be considered as equal because they were created by God the same way as the Whites. Note the reference to God and creation in the declaration of Independence is bothering since it refers to one particular ideology, religion, that is always under the control of churches and both democracy and hierarchical organization in these churches can easily make the racial problem a religious problem. We must remember that in the south Blacks were excluded from churches and were even excluded from religion. That was the main difference between English colonization and French or Spanish colonization.

Actually we could consider the film is timid about this religious question. It sure considers the racial side of the war and the crucial emancipation of Black slaves, but it does not really consider the fact for instance that Louisiana went back into the Union rather early in the war because of the French tradition that had left behind a vast community of free Blacks and mulattos and a religious tradition with the Catholic Church that integrated the slaves into their religious rites and practices from the very start. Code Noir was a colonial tool for sure but all religious rights were asserted and recognized by it, including the obligation for slaves to be married and the obligation for slave owners to provide every week a day for matrimonial duties if the two members of the married couple were not on the same plantation. And the vote of Louisiana was crucial to ratify the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution and the vote of this Amendment with a one vote majority (two third majority mind you) is not even mentioned in any detail.

In fact the film insists too much on the opposition in the north against this racial development in the war which left the 55% majority of Lincoln in the 1864 election unexplained. It is quite obvious that the racial dimension was crucial and positive in the north. But that is not the first time the racial question is under-estimated. Even by 1990 when this film came out. But since then many examples can be quoted of this persistent under-estimation of the crucial character of the racial question; In 2012 for example practically all opinion polls announced Obama as defeated because they considered the Latinos as white, which they are, but they forgot that these white Latinos were not going to vote the same way as European whites, and they did not vote the same way as European whites so providing a majority to Obama.

On another side the film insists a lot on the gory character of this war. It was absolutely horrible but that was the fate of all wars in the 19th century. Napoleon’s wars were particularly bloody too. Dying of sickness or starvation as fighting soldiers as well as prisoners on both sides was common place, and too often both sides forgot to take prisoners or to collect the wounded from the battle field after battles. At times too the film insists too much on “facts” or “events” and does not see and mention the historical perspective. It is too easy to just menton the industrial development of the north and the blockade against the south but that was not the only dimension, or it was too circumstantial. The industrial north needed the southern market, including the Blacks, to make their industry profitable since they had to expand their market all the time, whereas the south needed exports to make their cotton profitable since they did not develop any textile industry for the simple reason that they could not use slaves in such an activity and they did not know anything about industry, apart, maybe, tobacco. But was tobacco in 1860, before the existence of cigarettes, a real industry? It is obvious the French of Spanish practices were different and enabled the development of sugar factories next to the sugar cane plantations with Black labor. And Cortez in the 16th century developed the first of these in Mexico. Such plantations then had a church for Black slaves, or provided them with the possibility to go to one on Sundays and they had their own cemeteries for Black slaves.

The film did not explore enough the role of Blacks in the Union army, and the great difficulties they were confronted to. At the same time they did not explore enough the common culture between the white soldiers of both armies since most of the soldiers on the south side were not slave owners but simple white workers or shopkeepers from the cities. The only common cultural item mentioned is the song Lorena, though it is not mentioned as a rewriting of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem Lenora. The song is nostalgic about the past love between the singer and his love Lorena and every stanza can directly be applied to the war, but let me quote the last stanza that soldiers sang on both sides:

“It matters little now, Lorena,
“The past is in the eternal past;
“Our heads will soon lie low, Lorena,
“Life's tide is ebbing out so fast.
“There is a Future! O, thank God!
“Of life this is so small a part!
“Tis dust to dust beneath the sod;
“But there, up there, 'tis heart to heart.”

Apart from these remarks we have to understand this film was crucial in 1990 and still is important. It is of course not aware of anything like Post Traumatic Slavery Stress Syndrome or Disorder because it had not been stated yet by Black psychologists or activists yet. And that explains how the end of the Civil War is too much identified for the Blacks as the end, liberty at last. We seem to forget Black officers in US Armed Forces were still very far away in the future, in fact practically 80 years away. The mention of the Ku Klux Klan at the end is not enough to explain what happened after the war: the soul wound or the long historical trauma is not explained and the way Black slaves resisted against the worst practices of slavery is not really detailed though the book “12 years a Slave” was a best seller in the 1850s and it gave, and still gives a lot of examples of the little things the slaves did to improve their lot and to keep the slave owners literally checked, and he gives the example of a woman who is the best in the cotton field and systematically does a lot better than the others who are working at a homogenized speed thanks to ,their chanting along, and this woman is repeatedly abused by her master and victimized and whipped in all possible ways at the instigation of the slave owner’s jealous wife. It is certainly not enough to do better than others to be appreciated, except of course as a live whipping body, if not simple prop.

This film is thus a vast basket of possible reflections of all sorts. Including the music of this period, though it is rather repetitive in the film.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?