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Torture seems to many to be a patently indefensible activity, up there with rape, incest, terrorism and piracy. Yet, as with each of these affronts to civilized behavior, there always proponents, and always practitioners.

For the reasons why a given person partakes or excuses harsh, harmful and sometimes lethal mistreatment of others vary widely on state of mind, economic station, culture, time, place and context.. and established customs and institutions.

Which brings us to what was once among the most widespread of customs, yet is now almost universally despised - slavery.

We've had people argue, to the point of civil war, for keeping and extending horrible values before

While we remember best the words of President Lincoln - well, he did become President after all - it is perhaps the words of Steven Douglas that set the stage best for an exploration of this nature.. to a past time when what to us seems a manifest error in moral judgment wasn't so clear.

Because the truth of the matter is, it wasn't so very an issue then. Oh, no. Not in the least.

Not five generations ago in this very country, even in a free state like Illinois, the very one that gave this country its first African-American president, the very idea that blacks and whites were equal was anathema - to slavers, states' rights advocates, populists and more than a few abolitionists, as well.

The first debate with Steven Douglas, held in Ottawa, Illinois on August 21, 1858 is useful for this exercise.

A review of this debate - and the others, and the many other conversation of the day - provides is an important reminder of why people embrace horrible compromises (especially those made by others for their benefit and in their name), and let go of them but slowly.

Lincoln's opponent in the debates of 1858 illustrates the muddiness of the political waters best.

from Mr. Douglas' Speech

To read Steven Douglas is to read the words of an especially eloquent and charismatic Karl Rove. The man had it going on as an orator, as a framer and reframer of values, of making persons who had otherwise no stake whatsoever in the outcome of a political issue and turning it into a must-have-else-our-way-of-life-is-over matter for them.

Douglas is the first speech at the link above. His is the speech that illustrates most clearly the visceral and practical political context of conservatives (the Democrats at this stage of American politics).

I summarize key points and observations of his speech here.

Once the competing parties ran on national patriotic platforms  - by implication, the rise of a party opposed to slavery is not just alien but hostile to American 'mainstream values' and interests, unto the existence of the Republic itself. Douglas will go on to make this claim as you will see.

Letting the states decide questions of slavery is just and patriotic - Douglas celebrates this as having a long, successful track record, invoking the names of the Framers as backup. (Hey,are Lincoln and his abolition friends making out like they know what's better for America than the Founding Fathers?)

up until formation of the Republican party, no abolitionist party existed - and Douglas clearly thinks this was a very good situation, playing on fears of Democrats and remaining Whigs that one party has been destroyed by this schism and another might fall as a result of playing up an issue that has wisely been skirted around as much as possible because of the volatile passions associated with it.

Abolitionism, the pacifism and cheese eating surrender monkeydom of the 1850s - to be adverse to the spread and existence of slavery was was painted as deceitful, devious, undermining of national unity, radical, subversive, etc.

Traitor is the New Black, literally. Douglas delighted in calling the Republican Party the Black Republican Party. He rarely referred to it as anything but in the first debate once he recognized how the crowd responded to it.

Douglas sought to get mileague mocking the strong points of Lincoln's positions, to excess His reading of the founding principles of the Republican party, intended to be a slam, was cheered by Lincoln supporters. Likewise he found it great sport to claim that Lincoln wanted repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act, outlawing of slaves in the District of Columbia, ditto a ban on interstate slave trade and that he was for a moratorium on expansion of territory of USA until slave issue resolved - high calumny in the manifest destiny era.

Circling back to pedigree of states' right to decide slave issue, Douglas effectively called the "house divided" argument a bunch of crap

Racist appeals happily made, and well received Douglas plays openly on prejudice against blacks. Many in the North were troubled at the prospect of franchise and citizenship for 'free Negroes'. Enslavement was, simply put, was a very effective way to keep blacks at arm's length - socially and politically, and for many whites in the north, at a geographic distance as well. The prospect of 'free Negro settlement' in Illinois subsequent to some hypothetical emancipation in Missouri was very unsettling.

Expressly racist views for the purpose and principles of the Constitution and the country's destiny. - The dog whistle these days is 'America was founded as a Christian country'.

The very idea that the Declaration of Independence really meant that 'all men are created equal' was laughed at openly.

Douglas does lots of abolitionist name-dropping and place name-dropping as well. Everyone had their Nancy Pelosi and San Francisco liberals. Back in the day, it was Maine's choise to extend voting rights to free blacks..and New York's to do likewise, albeit with a property qualification ($250 USD, not small change back in the day).

Mocks people who embrace notion of being equal to lesser race, asserts his own refusal to do so as evidence he is a person of superior dignity. Lincoln is out of necessity forced to speak likewise, albeit much more gently and affirmatively. His words on these matters are often taken out of context - comparison in near-real time to the harshness of a political culture were boasting of your racist chops often won votes, even in a free state.

Douglas invokes theology that God never intended equality of white and black.

Douglas softens a bit, established... moderate bona fides. Moderate in 1858 Illinois being respecting that rights under God included the blessing of liberty... but whites, being superior, got to decide which of these rights that blacks got to enjoy.

Repeated - the most important question to Northern and Southern voters alike with regards to the slave issue is, were slavery ended, what would be done with the free Negro? Douglas declares it openly and proudly - never franchise, never citizenship, and never equal.

Douglas establishes the stakes The ambition of the United States, embellishes a bit by calling the USA the most powerful nation on earth, then adding "Republic of America shall be the North Star that shall guide the friends of freedom throughout the civilized world." Very familiar language. Appeals to power and glory so long as we stay the course.

Accuses Lincoln and his ilk of deliberately exploiting volatile issue for purpose of starting a civil war. Blame the opposition for doing what your own policies threaten.

While, ultimately, it was not Union troops that fired on Fort Sumter, at the time of the debates open civil strife in Kansas over slavery had taken place. John Brown was indeed a colorful character... and the color for many was that of blood. As a result, the charge that abolitionists preached peace and practiced terrorism has sufficient legs in conservative circles that it was difficult for any to take the eventual election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency as anything but a dreadful development - the threads of common trust had worn through that completely.

And now, with some tweaks, a few words from Abraham Lincoln

Knowing the context through his opponent exploitation of fear and prejudice, vested interest and popular culture, we can understand just what a difficult row to hoe that Lincoln and the new Republican Party had before them.

"...as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world-enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites-causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty-criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest."

Swap out 'slavery' for 'torture', and read it again.

And apply the derision of the people of 1858 for blacks, free and slave, with their views on Muslims, be they of a radical sect that advocates terrorism or otherwise.

Do so, and you will see that there is more, much more, to this than just that there is torture. For torture, out of context, is bad for a much larger set of persons than when it is seen as being applied to a group of persons that the radio has been calling inferior and deserving of abuse, without surcease, for a very many years.

Because I think that the real issue is not that there is torture, or even torture of Muslims, but rather sending a signal that the good people of 1858 Illinois would appreciate - sending the signal to a much larger group of persons that they are not welcome here.

And that, I think, is why so many hesitate to denounce torture.

And why so many others, for the express purposes used so far, have no problem with torture at all... and have every problem with those of their fellow American who do.

Originally posted to cskendrick on Sun Apr 26, 2009 at 08:06 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tips for Justice..and against Xenophobia (40+ / 0-)

    The Victorian novel is right. Possessiveness, controlling others and not listening to your own heart always goes badly. - MKKendrick

    by cskendrick on Sun Apr 26, 2009 at 08:07:52 AM PDT

  •  Excellent, csk (6+ / 0-)

    I guess we haven't really come that far in the past 150 years.

    Thank you fucking George Bush. And your brother Jeb. One ruined my country, one ruined my state. Now it's personal, you bastards and your evil cabal.

    by donnamarie on Sun Apr 26, 2009 at 08:14:16 AM PDT

    •  Mass politics was just coming out (8+ / 0-)

      in the 1850s. Actual wire (telegraph wire) releases, and syndicated magazine and newspapers, huge turnouts for campaign events.

      A lot of what we think of as the fundamentals of modern campaigning were developed at this time.

      It's only been improved upon, from a technical vantage.

      The Victorian novel is right. Possessiveness, controlling others and not listening to your own heart always goes badly. - MKKendrick

      by cskendrick on Sun Apr 26, 2009 at 08:16:47 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I've long thought that the real issue here (14+ / 0-)

    with torture is the hidden prejudice that it is okay to do that to them because they are ultimately other.  They are not like us so we don't have to treat them with the humanity we afford ourselves.

    It is the same type of prejudice that goes into gay bashing or into racial profiling and police brutality.  Since they are not like us, then it is okay to treat them any way we want to.  Since they believe differently, then it is okay to take our agression out on them and their bodies.

  •  it is also an attempt (3+ / 0-)

    to force a "contest" in which there can be a clear winner and loser.  And, as is always the case with such contests, the winner obtains the power to speak, and the loser has to be forever silent.

    But what is masked here is the artificiality of these "contests."  For those who place their hopes of worth in "winning" must by necessity after every victory find or create a bigger and badder adversary.  To keep the boundaries between "us" and "them" clear, we must stimulate--and sometimes simulate--danger from "them."

  •  not a good comparison (0+ / 0-)

    Slavery had direct economic impacts and influences. Torture does not. While both were needless to say bad, one issue is WAY more prevalent into the contemporary period's life than the other, the other is primarily a Washington issue.

    First person to tell me why Joe Scarborough is such a pissy man who needs baby shampoo gets a cookie (whatever the cafeteria has).

    by ronin122 on Sun Apr 26, 2009 at 09:14:32 AM PDT

    •  oh but it does (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      snakelass, stargaze

      Torture is just a violent expression of xenophobia. Propaganda written in blood and broadcast in screams.

      People who support torture aren't worried that much about terrorists.. they are worried about the nice ones moving in and changing their communities, their attitudes, compete for jobs, take up space and public services.

      It's an immigration and general conservatism of culture issue.

      The Victorian novel is right. Possessiveness, controlling others and not listening to your own heart always goes badly. - MKKendrick

      by cskendrick on Sun Apr 26, 2009 at 09:18:06 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Slavery divides us still (4+ / 0-)

    Conservatives think it was a good thing. So good that they want to bring it back.

    Conservatives will think torture is good 150 years from now, and if we do manage to put an end to it, they'll mourn it the way they mourn slavery and they will never stop pushing to bring it back.

    •  At the heart of it - the right to "own" others (5+ / 0-)

      if not in title, then hold power of life and death over others in at least some instances.

      From that, a whole spectrum of other issues dear to the right come into focus. Property rights, gun rights, crime and punishment, immigration, national security choices, the works.

      The Victorian novel is right. Possessiveness, controlling others and not listening to your own heart always goes badly. - MKKendrick

      by cskendrick on Sun Apr 26, 2009 at 09:35:16 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's a survival strategy (0+ / 0-)

        There are two main survival strategies for our social species. One emphasizes inclusion and cooperation, the other exclusion and dominance. Both work to some degree, which is why both are present in the human psyche, at the level of instinct.

        Both strategies require a high degree of commitment to succeed. Few wars are won with partial commitment to half-strategies. Conservative defenders of torture may not actually want or intend to do it. But as a matter of principle, they don't want any part of their survival strategy to be placed off-limits.

        •  I do not think it is so utilitarian (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          snakelass, DBunn

          Else it would have worked.

          As demonstrated, they desired torture so much to validate lies and bad choices they failed even in the elemental goal of survival.

          Perhaps, in theory, there is a place for this statement.

          In practice, American conservatives as represented by the Republican Party are terrible at making and implementing even the most basic of public policy choices.

          Else they'd be doing a lot better by now.

          The Victorian novel is right. Possessiveness, controlling others and not listening to your own heart always goes badly. - MKKendrick

          by cskendrick on Sun Apr 26, 2009 at 11:36:33 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  My apologies (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            cskendrick, snakelass

            I've been kind of grumpy lately, which I hope excuses the seeming coldness of my comment above. I wrote a long and eloquent reply to you already, then managed to vanish it with a single spastic keystroke. This has not improved my mood :)

            I'll just say this: not every survival strategy is equally useful in every situation. Even useful strategies will fail if implemented by inept leaders. And most successful contenders employ a mix of cooperate/compete strategies, rather than pure adherence to one strategic pole.

            In practice, American conservatives as represented by the Republican Party are terrible at making and implementing even the most basic of public policy choices.

            The current GOP is scoring a sort of negative trifecta: the wrong strategy, directed by dim and clownish leaders, according to the rule of "purest is best".

            It is interesting to see that, as their world collapses around them, conservatives are not testing their ideas, but rather the loyalty of their remaining factional membership. I guess maybe that's a survival strategy too-- where the entity that survives is not the nation, or any specific individual, but the faction itself.

            •  The Greenland Norse did the same thing (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              snakelass, DBunn

              and died to the last man, woman and child.

              They could not make themselves do the things they needed to to adapt while they had time and resources to do so.

              Then they ran out of time and means.

              The good news of politics is that it is not always lethal to be wrong.

              The Victorian novel is right. Possessiveness, controlling others and not listening to your own heart always goes badly. - MKKendrick

              by cskendrick on Mon Apr 27, 2009 at 03:59:20 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Greenland settlements, at least the Eastern one (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                cskendrick

                were highly controlled by the church.  Until the onset of the little ice age, the church got a heck of a lot of valuable goods from Greenland.

                A man cannot lift himself by his bootstraps if he is barefoot. We must provide the basic footwear.--- Teacher Ken at Dkos

                by snakelass on Mon Apr 27, 2009 at 05:49:44 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  Once the trade ships stopped (0+ / 0-)

                  I am not sure what reach the Church had at all.

                  They might well have thought the Black Death killed off everyone in Europe, and they were the last of Christendom.

                  The Victorian novel is right. Possessiveness, controlling others and not listening to your own heart always goes badly. - MKKendrick

                  by cskendrick on Mon Apr 27, 2009 at 06:26:24 AM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  They knew better than that (1+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    cskendrick

                    Communication with Europe continued, on an increasingly intermittent basis, until late in the 14th century. (Last official government ship - 1368, bringing the last official Bishop, who died c. 1378; last known visit of any ship - 1406-1410.)

                    (The 1406 ship had gone off-course in a fog, and the crew stayed for four years before heading home to Iceland.)

                    It's more likely the cultural patterns had been so firmly set that it was literally unthinkable to break them.

                    Change WHO can believe in?

                    by TheOtherMaven on Mon Apr 27, 2009 at 08:24:07 AM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  Akin to genetic diversity (0+ / 0-)

                      Once the population falls to a certain point, you're kinda stuck with the behaviors you have, not the ones you know you should have?

                      The Victorian novel is right. Possessiveness, controlling others and not listening to your own heart always goes badly. - MKKendrick

                      by cskendrick on Mon Apr 27, 2009 at 08:44:11 AM PDT

                      [ Parent ]

                      •  Could be. (1+ / 0-)
                        Recommended by:
                        cskendrick

                        Jared Diamond's "Collapse" does a not too sensationalized analysis of the available (scanty) information.

                        That kind of cultural ossification is a point against the Algonquian hypothesis, incidentally. Could the Western settlement (or a significant portion thereof) really have broken with its cultural tradition so completely, even under the increasingly desperate conditions?

                        Change WHO can believe in?

                        by TheOtherMaven on Mon Apr 27, 2009 at 10:41:14 AM PDT

                        [ Parent ]

    •  Excellent characterization of conservatives (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      snakelass, stargaze

      but liberals are not as divided from them on that as liberals like to think they are.
      The point is that gross disparities in incarceration rates persist.  Gross disparities in arrest rates and conviction rates and death-sentencing rates (and other sentences, for that matter) ALL persist.
      There is not any sort of OTHER "divided" half of the country PROTESTING against this, or even seriously trying to fix it.  Barack Obama is not trying.
      He had $2 trillion to throw around and threw basically NONE of it AT this!  After all, being a black man HIMSELF, how would THAT have looked??

      The road to hell has not YET been paved with Republicans, but it SHOULD be -- Corrected BumperSticker

      by ge0rge on Sun Apr 26, 2009 at 10:35:44 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  slavery isn't really dividing us (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    stargaze

    nor did it then.

    Slavery continued in the south after Reconstruction ended.  The fact that the 13th amendment was part of the constitution meant that conservative judges were free to re-interpret it to mean just about anything, and they did.
    Besides, the 13th amendment has a big loophole:
    involuntary servitude is perfectly constitutional if it is imposed as punishment for being "duly" convicted of a crime.  "Duly" is in scare-quotes because due process was hardly available to the black men who got enslaved in Alabama in the late 1800s.  But it could easily be made to SEEM available, at least technically.  As long as the i's were dotted, the t's were crossed, and the proper hearings held, the manifest oppression and unfairness of the system were just irrelevant.  This was a time when a "crime" as simple as vagrancy could carry an open-ended sentence, as in "3 days plus hard labor".  With no requirement to set a time limit on how long the term of hard labor would be.

    Read A Book!

    My point is, slavery stopped dividing this country sometime around 1876, when the Republicans basically agreed to let it stop dividing us, in order to hold on to the presidency.  Since then, the country's general opposition to slavery has NEVER been LARGE enough to constitute ANY sort of "divide".  There are SOME black men who are managing to escape, but for the ones who don't, the problems remain ENTIRELY systemic.  And Barack Obama certainly isn't divided onto the side of people who actually plan on DOING anything about that.

    The road to hell has not YET been paved with Republicans, but it SHOULD be -- Corrected BumperSticker

    by ge0rge on Sun Apr 26, 2009 at 10:32:25 AM PDT

    •  So, you are saying with a straight face... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      stargaze

      ..that the slavery issue never divided Americans, because we still have prisons and the entire penal code is a game rigged to end-run the 13th amendment?

      So....

      ...what was the Civil War about again?

      The Victorian novel is right. Possessiveness, controlling others and not listening to your own heart always goes badly. - MKKendrick

      by cskendrick on Sun Apr 26, 2009 at 11:44:12 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  breaking the South's veto power in the senate. (0+ / 0-)

        After sesessions, much stuff got past that had been held up before, and war profiteering. Being scared of the fraticidal fragmenting happening in Europe The commitment to the newly freed slaves wasn't that much, when Jim Crow laws came in and stayed for so long.

        I'm for single payer universal health care

        by stargaze on Sun Apr 26, 2009 at 03:09:38 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Interesting, thought-provoking perspective. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cskendrick, sberel, snakelass

    I've been a foul mood all day after seeing a Scripps-Howard opinion piece published in the Saturday Carroll County Times (Maryland), which regurgitates all the Republican talking points in favor of torture, the biggest lie of all being that it supposedly really is effective and has saved thousands of American lives.

    Realizing how many Americans lazily agree with that infuriates me, makes me talk of moving to Canada.

    Trouble is, I thought the United States had reached a clear consensus on torture more than 50 years ago. We seem to be in a period of decay and barbarism.  I'm not sure the parallel to slavery is really that close.

    •  Meaning... we are instead going the other way? (0+ / 0-)

      Regarding slavery, I think the uptick for support of it happened over the first two generations of independence, plateaued along with the economic rationales for it, then began to fear for its own obsolescence... and fought back.

      I think we are in the stage where torture and the propriety of violence are on the uptick.

      It's a stage worth cutting short as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

      The Victorian novel is right. Possessiveness, controlling others and not listening to your own heart always goes badly. - MKKendrick

      by cskendrick on Sun Apr 26, 2009 at 11:41:18 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  How do you know it was out of... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    snakelass, yoduuuh do or do not, Olon

    Lincoln is out of necessity forced to speak likewise

    necessity? Lincoln's priority was not to free black people but to keep the union together and said so multiple times.

    I remember reading that he wanted black people to go back to Africa or down to Central America after the war was over. President Grant considered buying the Dominican Republic so black people could go live there.

    •  All it takes... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Olon

      .. is reading even one of the debates, and you will see a categorical difference in the degree of dislike of African-Americans.

      It was a long time ago, after all.

      The Victorian novel is right. Possessiveness, controlling others and not listening to your own heart always goes badly. - MKKendrick

      by cskendrick on Sun Apr 26, 2009 at 02:58:59 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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