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The Uncivil Servant: History and Civics Lessons

Mitchell Abidor
June 28, 2015

by Mitchell Abidor

[caption id=“attachment_37583” align=“alignleft” width=“233”]John Calhoun, by Matthew Brady John Calhoun, by Matthew Brady[/caption]

THIS HAS BEEN a week for exposing the public’s general ignorance about American history and our entire political system. My 7th-grade social studies teacher, Miss Kelly, told us that if we remembered everything we learned through the 6th grade, we’d seem like geniuses all our lives. Back then that was true: Who remembers the patroon system anymore, or learns about it? Explain it and you’re a certified New York history nerd.

The aftermath of the shootings in Charleston set people on a hunt for historical villains who need to be expelled from popular memory and sight in expiation. John C. Calhoun took a huge hit, and became pretty much the sacrificial lamb, or at least the punching bag, when people talked about removing Confederate statues from public spaces. Calhoun, however, died in 1850, so he wasn’t a bona fide Confederate. What is more, he was vice-president of the United States not once, but twice! (Jefferson Davis, also reviled and a prime candidate for statue removal, was the American secretary of war before he became president of the Confederacy.) That Calhoun’s ideas on states’ rights served as a foundation for Confederate ideology is certainly true, and the Nullification Crisis of 1832 was a dress rehearsal — an unarmed one — for the Civil War. Calhoun has been pilloried this week for his statements in support of slavery, as if he were somehow unique, rather than simply being the most articulate spokesman of a general Southern ideology, one shared to greater or lesser extents by almost every Southern politician, and many Northern ones as well. (Those who actively opposed slavery were a minuscule minority in the North and subject to criminal prosecution in the South.)

Calhoun is also remarkably contemporary. His most famous line was his response to Andrew Jackson at a dinner, when Old Hickory proposed a toast, saying “Our federal union, it must be preserved.” Calhoun rose in his turn and said: “The union, next to our liberty, the most dear.” His idea, in a nutshell, is the heart of the looney right that dominates so much of our politics: that the federal government is a threat to our freedom.

Calhoun was a reactionary monster, but if we use support for slavery and states’ rights as a litmus test, then the image or statue of almost every Southern politician of the 19th century deserves to be booted from its place of honor — starting with George Washington. Who cares about his posthumous nobility? He had slaves. As did so many of our Founding Fathers, so many of them Virginians, so many of them slaveowners. Kick ‘em all out. But it’s absurd to say, as Rep. Keith Ellison said that “the Calhoun statue is really strutting along; that’s among the most offensive.” Putting everything on Calhoun’s back, by saying, for example, that Calhoun Street in Charleston — where Emanuel AME Church sits — should be renamed is simply an easy way of avoiding looking at just how widespread and profound our racist legacy is — just as, as Marc Jampole wrote here, focusing on the Confederate battle flag is a way of avoiding speaking about guns. (Let me add that Jon Stewart, when talking about the Confederate flag, regularly calls it the Stars and Bars. The flag that flies over most statehouses in the South is not the Stars and Bars but the battle flag of the Confederacy — there are no bars on it, rather stars and the St. Andrews cross. The Stars and Bars was their national flag and had stars and bars on it.)

Even in fighting the flag, another point is being missed by both its attackers and defenders: in almost every case the Confederate battle flag went up on the statehouse grounds or was added to the state flag either during Reconstruction or during the battle against integration. They were intended to salute not (or not just) the bravery of the Confederate States Army, but as a Calhounian fuck you to the rest of the country.

THE SUPREME COURT decision on gay marriage also reveals stunning ignorance of the American system, not least by the Supreme Court itself. Justice Roberts rather absurdly asked, “Who do we think we are?” in invalidating “the marriage laws of more than half the states?” Look at your ID card, Roberts: you’re the Supreme Court, and that’s what the Supreme Court does, it decides when laws contravene the Constitution. It’s what your predecessors did in Brown v. Board of Education: It invalidated an iniquitous and unconstitutional law. That’s why the Founding Fathers set the damn court up, since the people and their elected representatives can’t be trusted to always pass laws that were constitutional. And when the egregious Clarence Thomas can speak of the misdeeds of “a bare majority of the court,” well, what does he expect? There are an odd number for just that reason, so majorities can be achieved. Didn’t a bare majority give us Bush and Citizens United? “Shut up!” is basically all one can say when the most reactionary members of the court question their own remit.

Scalia also made an odd point in his dissent, pointing out the home states and alma maters of the justices. There are no Protestants, he noted, four New Yorkers, and all are graduates of Yale and Harvard. Not one genuine Westerner sits among them. Indeed there are no Oklahomans on the Supreme Court, and so what? Barukh hashem. Robert Benchley once asked why having seen a cow made you a better person. Do we want grads of cow colleges determining our lives for generations? And if the best minds gravitate to our great cities, well, that’s the course of history. Which the four radical rightwingers on the Supreme Court can’t stop forever.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his translation of Emmanual Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His latest book is Anarchists Never Surrender, an anthology of anarchist writings by Victor Serge.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.