It Helps If You Read The Words

Look, it’s not complicated.  The headlines are there to catch your eye; the articles are the part that you read to figure out what’s being said.  And that’s not just with me; it’s with everyone — every news source, every pundit, everything.

And with the article written by Bret Stephens on the Op-Ed pages of the Times, you’ve got to read the whole thing.  If you stop halfway, you’ll end up thinking he’s a rabid anti-science anti-Clinton conservative.  But if you read all the way to the end, it’s pretty clear that what he’s saying is that the enemy is arrogance.  It’s the tendency to state your conclusion and then find the data to support it.

Now, if you’ve read my stuff, you’ll know I’m not a Trump fan.  A lot of people have been talking about his most recent gaffe, about how the Civil War should have been talked through rather than fought, and that if Andrew Jackson had been in charge it would have been.  The difficulty, of course, is that Jackson had been dead fifteen years before they fired on Fort Sumter.  Needless to say, he’s been drawing a bit of flack for that.

The thing is, though — if you listen to the entire interview, not only is it in context, but it makes perfect sense.  (Which surprises me a bit; Mr. Trump tends to exhibit more personality than insight into historical nuance.)  Jackson was president during an earlier age, one where more states than just those in the South considered secession.  During his administration, he faced serious problems in Georgia, South Carolina, and in the markets (due to the banking crises), and they were the same ones faced later that led to the War.

Modern thought has it that slavery was the primary cause of war, but it’s important to remember that it was not the only cause.  The firing on Fort Sumter came about as a result of a crisis over taxation and defense spending — the same issue that forced Jackson to ask for a military activation to enforce tariffs in South Carolina.  The Nullification Crisis nearly sparked war in the 1830s, and it was only Jackson’s hard stance, coupled with conciliatory action, that prevented armed conflict over the dispute.

Now, I happen to disagree with Mr. Trump’s general premise, that negotiation could have prevented war while ending slavery.  In my opinion, economic forces would have been required to bring about the end of slavery as a popular rather than a private institution — and, thanks to the social reforms in England, those were active.  It’s no coincidence that led to Irish linen supplanting Southern cotton during the first years of the war — and slavery, as an economic force, could not have survived cotton’s end.  Without economic justification it would not have survived even as a social institution for very long at all.

But social change comes slowly when it comes.  It cannot be forced on the unwilling, and when it is, there is resistance; afterward, there is backlash and regression.  This is a constant, one that has never changed in the history of civilization.

It’s what got Trump elected, in point of fact.

So — no, negotiation wouldn’t have ended slavery and prevented war.  Gradual action coupled with economic cooperation might have accomplished it, but not over a four or even an eight year presidency.

But the perspective is a valid one, and the historical statement makes perfect sense — if you read the whole text of the interview, or better still if you watch it.  Granted, given that Mr. Trump “suffers from a deplorable excess of personality”, you might not want to — but that’s your choice.  If you choose not to, though, you ought to take my word for it.

And don’t worry; he’ll do something else you can rant at him for.  Judging by past performance, it won’t take very long.

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