Response to Douglas Dowd's Review of WAF
Counter Punch just (today, Dec. 6) published a review of Why America Failed by Douglas Dowd, a man I actually admire greatly, and one of America's leading economists. While I appreciated the review, I was greatly concerned about his misunderstanding and mischaracterization of ch. 4 of the book, the chapter on the Civil War. It seems to me he missed the nuance of the argument; a nuance that Amazon reviewers of the book, for example, did not fail to grasp. In any case, I just sent the following letter to Alexander Cockburn, the editor of Counter Punch, asking if he would run it in response, so that CP readers would have my side of the story. As follows:
I very much appreciate Professor Dowd taking the time and trouble to write a lengthy review of my most recent book, a review that is quite comprehensive. But I do want to respond to it, since I have a serious concern over what I feel is a misunderstanding of chapter 4. I make it explicit in that chapter that I do not condone slavery, that I don't regard it as a small thing in American history, and that the Civil War had to be fought to end it. But, following Eugene Genovese's work (which I regard as quite masterly), there is another side to the South besides that, and which the North never wanted to appreciate (to this day). This was the only political formation in US history that was opposed to laissez-faire capitalism and its accompanying way of life, that was in the alternative tradition of Thoreau et al., but that also had capability of being more than just exhortatory. That slavery was entangled, in the South, with a relaxed way of life is, as I note, part of the maddening paradox of the whole thing: that the worst of the South, and the best of the South, were not separable in practice. But they are separable at least in theory, which is very significant, to my mind; because one can and should, as Genovese does, rescue the South from being seen in a monolithic and one-dimensional way.
A familiar problem in this regard is the danger of what is known as "Whig history”: the belief that the people of the past should have had our present wisdom and insight, and recognized that things were supposedly moving toward our present enlightened state. Although, as I state, slavery was rather an anomaly by 1860, it wasn't totally so, on a world scale. Lots of societies had abolished slavery, but many hadn't; and the slow, noncapitalist way of life, in one form or another, was—as C. Vann Woodward pointed out—the world norm at that time (Northern American and Northern Europe being the obvious exceptions). Southerners were steeped in the Bible, which approves of slavery at a number of points; slavery was also enshrined in the Constitution. The fact is that very few individuals are able to live outside their time, including those of us today. Still, as I explicitly say, the Civil War had to be fought to get rid of slavery (although some historians claim it would have petered out soon enough without the war; I tend to doubt it, myself).
It also seems to me that an important aspect of chapter 4 is its discussion of the Northern destruction of the South as fitting into the pattern/narrative of Americans always needing an enemy, and as always regarding that enemy as “savages”--whether Native Americans, Mexicans, Southerners, or Vietnamese. The “scorched earth” policy of the North has been the norm, “shock and awe” in Iraq only being its latest manifestation. I would argue that it is crucial for Americans to start making these connections.
In a word, I believe the argument of chapter 4 is a fairly nuanced one, and I feel sad--and worried--that Professor Dowd missed this, that he was able to see my analysis in only one way, and to see the South through a very stereotypical lens. When all is said and done, nuance and paradox are not the same thing as “contradiction.”