What causes the Reverend Jeremiah Wright to imagine that "the government gives
[young black men] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, [and] passes a three
strikes law" to incarcerate them? It is the same kind of unbearable grief that
still causes white Southerners to believe that their ancestors fought the Civil
War for a noble cause? It is too humiliating to think that the miscreants had
An uncanny parallel links the fate of young African-Americans today and that of
the young white men of the slave-holding South in 1865. Both cohorts have lost
a terrifying proportion of their number to violence. One third of black
Americans between the ages of 20 and 30 passed through the criminal justice
system in 1995, according to the Sentencing Project, a prisoners' advocacy
group. Nearly a third of military-age Southern men military age were killed or
wounded during America's Civil War. 
It is a measure of the inherent good-heartedness of Americans that they evince
a low threshold of horror. Three hundred thousand Confederate dead and millions
of ruined African-American lives are too awful to contemplate. Some part of
Senator Barack Obama's appeal derives from America's revulsion over the
destruction of a generation of young black men; electing an African-American
president would assuage part of the guilt.
From this great suffering arise two genres of American popular culture, the
Gone With the Wind ilk of Civil War epic, and the "Get Rich or Die Tryin'"
brand of gangsta tale. Both try to take the edge off the revulsion and placate
the dishonored dead by turning them into folk-heroes. That is understandable,
but also unfortunate, for America still has a great deal of killing left to do
around the world, and might as well get used to it.
"Get Rich or Die Tryin'" would have been a good epitaph for the Confederate
dead, who fought for land and slaves, not for "states' rights" or the sanctity
of their soil. Slave-owners along with want-to-be slave-owners had it coming.
The Union general William Tecumseh Sherman who said after he burned Atlanta, "I
fear the world will jump to the wrong conclusion that because I am in Atlanta
the work is done. Far from it. We must kill three hundred thousand, I have told
you of so often, and the further they run the harder for us to get them."
Given the sad history of racial oppression in the South for a century after the
Civil War, the only thing to regret is that Sherman didn't finish the job. I
stopped watching the film version of Gone With the Wind after Scarlett
O'Hara saved her plantation from the tax-collector. I wanted her to pick cotton
until her back broke.
It is appalling that the criminal justice system has devoured one out of three
young African-Americans, to be sure, but the number must be too small, because
the police will have failed to apprehend some who still commit crimes. I did
not attempt to watch the film Get Rich or Die Tryin'. I want the police
to incarcerate such people before they commit enough crimes to fill a
Europeans are far more attuned to horror. They have had the opportunity to get
used to it. Cannibalism was rampant in 17th-century Germany during the Thirty
Years' War, and in the Ukraine during Joseph Stalin's 1931 starvation.
Americans abandoned the horrors of the Old World. Terrible as the Civil War may
have been, it spared civilians. Sherman burned his way from Atlanta to the sea
in 1864, but the number of rapes and murders committed by his soldiers can be
counted on one's fingers.
Nonetheless, there is no market for Hollywood epics about Sherman's March to
the sea, arguably the most brilliant military campaign in the history of
American arms, while the film industry still grinds out kitsch about the
supposedly gallant losers. Perhaps one should feel sorry for the impoverished
privates who bled for the Confederacy. Few had slaves, yet they fought
stubbornly to preserve slavery, because they hoped that they, too, would obtain
land and slaves as the victorious Confederacy became a hemispheric empire. I
have expanded on this subject elsewhere (Happy
birthday, Abe - pass the blood Asia Times Online, February
The embittered fighters of the South sacrificed themselves in proportions
unsurpassed in modern history, excepting the Serbs in World War I. But there
was no honor, no gallantry, and no nobility in the blood-letting. They fought
for empire and advancement, like Albrecht von Wallenstein's freebooters of the
Thirty Years' War or Napoleon's ambitious Grande Armee. Sherman's belief that
the war objective was not to occupy this or that piece of territory, but to
kill 300,000 men, was almost exactly correct: the final total of Confederate
dead was 289,000, just 11,000 short of Sherman's estimate. Perhaps the 11,000
men Sherman failed to kill were the founders of the Klu Klux Klan.
In fact, Sherman's superior, General Ulysses S Grant, did far more of the
killing. Sherman burnt property and humiliated the South on their home soil.
But a people that has given its all for a defeat that is too terrible to recall
with clarity has nothing left but pride, and the wounded pride of the South has
turned Sherman's memory into a curse.
Southerners thought of themselves as an oppressed people, the descendants of
Scots-Irish immigrants driven out of their Celtic homelands by the English,
flying the X-shaped cross of Scotland's patron saint in the Confederate battle
flag, redolent of Scotland's "Lost Cause". The self-pity of the South pervades
American popular culture, from Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind,
to The Band's bathetic song, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". It is best
known in the cover version by Joan Baez, an old civil rights campaigner. Such
is the pull of identity politics.
With good reason, the descendants of Scots villagers expelled from the
Highlands after the rebellion of 1746 may have thought themselves oppressed.
Because they came from oppressed folk, their passion to better themselves
burned all the more fiercely. When they set to build a slave empire, they could
be stopped only by killing so many of them that insufficient numbers were left
to form the ranks. The South fought on with redoubled ferocity after the twin
Union victories of 1863, Vicksburg and Gettysburg, made Confederate victory
improbable. Most Southern casualties, I reported in an earlier essay (More
killing please!, Asia Times Online, June 13, 2003), occurred
after Southern hopes had faded, and the South surrendered only after its
manpower was too depleted to continue.
Sherman, who lived in the South and had many close Southern friends, understood
that the ambitions of the South could be quelled only by a sea of blood. He is
the decisive personality of the Civil War, yet there never has been a single
cinematic treatment of the man. Twenty-one films, by contrast, portray Jesse
James, the Confederate guerilla turned outlaw. He is the 50 Cent of the old
I do not mean to draw a moral equivalency between would-be slave-owners and the
descendants of slaves, but the functional parallel is compelling. According to
the Sentencing Project, "More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial
and ethnic minorities. For black males in their twenties, one in every eight is
in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified by the
disproportionate impact of the 'war on drugs', in which three-fourths of all
persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color."
A generation of African-Americans has been decimated. Murder is the leading
cause of death among young African-American men; an American black has a 5%
lifetime probably of becoming a murder victim (against a 0.7% probably for a
Wright offers one sort of explanation: it is all due to a conspiracy by a
racist government that wants to exterminate black people. The comedian and
actor Bill Cosby now is touring America to offer a different explanation: the
problems of African-Americans stem from a lack of individual responsibility,
especially among men. In the May 2008 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Ta-Nehesi
Coates reports on a Cosby event in Detroit, writing, "Cosby had come to Detroit
aiming to grab the city's black men by their collars and shake them out of the
torpor that has left so many of them - like so many of their peers across the
country - undereducated, overincarcerated, and underrepresented in the ranks of
Cosby speaks pure sanity to black Americans, but the circumstances are enough
to make a man crazy - Wright, for example. Sanity is conveyed through
humiliation. If young black men are killed in the commission of petty crimes,
Cosby told a civil rights conference in 2004, it is their own fault:
at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going
around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a
piece of pound cake! And then we all run out and are outraged, "The cops
shouldn't have shot him." What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his
It is horrific to die young, and humiliating to die for
the wrong reason. Living with the humiliation is the beginning of recovery. But
Wright and his congregation cannot bear the horror and humiliation any more
than the average white Southerner, who after a few Bourbons will tell you, "The
South shall rise again!"
Americans need a higher threshold for horror. Tragedies sometimes must play
themselves out, and the losers must be allowed to lose. Whole peoples can go
bad, and sometimes it is necessary to prevent them from doing evil by winnowing
their ranks. It is just as perverse to excuse Wright's paranoid outbursts as it
is to perpetuate the self-consoling myth of the gallant slave-holding South.
America will be on the right track when it celebrates Sherman instead of 50
1. Nearly four-fifths of Southern white men served in the Confederate Army, and
of these, half were wounded and a quarter were killed