The “Overton Window” and Secession

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In a recent article in the London Review of Books, the writer John Lanchester discussed a concept known as “the Overton Window” (bear with me, this does have something to do with secession):

The ‘Overton window’ is a term from political science meaning the acceptable range of political thought in a culture at a given moment. It was the creation of Joseph Overton, a think-tank intellectual based in Michigan, who died in 2003 at 43 after a solo plane accident. His crucial insight, one which both emerged from and was central to the work of the think tank Right, was that the window of acceptability can be moved. An idea can start far outside the political mainstream – flat taxes, abolish the IRS, more guns in schools, building a beautiful wall and making Mexico pay – but once it has been stated and argued for, framed and restated, it becomes thinkable. It crosses over from the fringe of right-wing think-tankery to journalistic fellow-travellers; then it crosses over to the fringe of electoral politics; then it becomes a thing people start seriously advocating as a possible policy. The window has moved, and rough beasts come slouching through it to be born.

As I read this yesterday afternoon, I was reminded (once again confirming Samuel Johnson’s insight that “men more frequently require to be reminded than informed”) of this: “Three out of Five Texans Support Secession if Hilary Becomes President.”

I have written about this potential scenario (see here) and am saddened to have my views confirmed. So, all the work over the years of individuals advocating the idea that secession was constitutional, or that the Civil War was about “states rights” and not slavery, or that secession was a good thing, have borne fruit.

Fortunately, Texas Governor Greg Abbot has said (see here) that “Texit” is not something he advocates. Good for Governor Abbot. But what amazes me is that the Governor of any state has to confirm this at all. And thus, to the detriment of the country, the “Overton Window” has shifted to the point where secession, over one-hundred-and-fifty-years after the Civil War, is once again an acceptable topic of discussion in American politics.

Brexit, a Clinton Victory, and the Importance of Senator Ted Cruz

Well, the British have decided to leave the European Union. I suspect that had I lived in Britain,  I would have voted leave, but I can’t be sure.

My concern here is the impact this will have on the United States, and, more specifically, Texas. There are people here (and elsewhere) talking about “Texit.” I know, I know, people say, this is not serious, don’t worry. Or, they tell me, jokingly, that they wouldn’t mind at all if Texas seceded (a curious view for Americans, or people who admire Union soldiers bravery and sacrifice in the Civil War, or Abraham Lincoln, to take). Take a listen here, or here, for a contrary view.

But consider this scenario: Hilary Clinton wins election in November and the Trump voters come to the conclusion that their “country” is gone and they’ll never it get it back. What would stand in the way of bringing secession – now with the example of “Brexit” and perhaps Scottish secession from the United Kingdom – up again at the next Texas GOP convention (I’ll leave aside the assumption that “Brexit” will be a disaster for Britain)? Senator Ted Cruz. Senator Cruz wants to be President of the United States, and I believe he is well-positioned to be the nominee of the Republican Party in 2020, should Donald Trump lose (in fact, I predict he will be the nominee). But, Senator Cruz’s political prospects surely cannot be served well by being the leader of a party (in Texas) that wants to leave the United States. So, if you don’t want Texas to secede (and really, do you want that?), it may be that your best bet is to inform Senator Cruz of your opinion and ask him to repudiate this movement.

Buildings That Whites Hate

Ibram X. Kendi has an excellent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the argument that buildings (or monuments, for that matter) named after individuals such as John C. Calhoun can be used as a “teaching tool.” To wit:

But the more I thought about it, and the more I saw it invoked, questions arose in my mind. I started seeing the teaching-tool defense from the reverse perspective. I can find museums and plaques but I am struggling to find prominent buildings and institutions, on or off college campuses, named after people whom white Americans commonly consider their enemies. I am struggling to find buildings named for those who terrorized white people on the scale that slaveholders, Confederates, and Klansmen terrorized black people. I started imagining these memorials and the teaching-tool defense. And the more I imagined the defense from the standpoint of white Americans, the more inconceivable this defense became.

Can you imagine New York University having a building named after Osama bin Laden? Can you imagine NYU officials arguing that retaining bin Laden Hall allows us to learn anew about 9/11? Isn’t bin Laden Hall unthinkable — and rightfully so?

Can you imagine Boston College having a building named after the anti-Catholic politician Nathaniel P. Banks? Can you imagine BC officials arguing that retaining Banks Hall ensures that we don’t downplay the withering persecution of Irish Catholics in the 1840s and 1850s, especially in Boston? Isn’t Banks Hall unthinkable?

Can you imagine Yeshiva University having a building named after the anti-Semitic radio preacher in the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin? Can you imagine Yeshiva officials arguing that retaining Coughlin Hall prevents us from hiding the history of attacks against Jews that Coughlin and so many other anti-Semites incited? Isn’t Coughlin Hall unthinkable? . . . 

When we peel back its progressive pedagogical covering, the teaching-tool defense is embodied in unequal reasoning. It is embodied in racist logic: our national inability to value the same, to reason the same, to think the same for different racial groups.

To name campus buildings after their enemies as a teaching tool is unthinkable for white Americans. At Yale, Oxford, and Oregon, and on campuses across the Western world, antiracist activists are simply asking for equal logic.

I noted in Loathing Lincoln at least one example (covered in newspapers at the time) of when a statue of Lincoln was dedicated in Richmond, Virginia, that this is how some – a minority, to be sure – reacted. Or, consider how people felt when a statue to tennis great Arthur Ashe was placed on Monument Avenue in the same city. So, I guess I would qualify Kendi’s point somewhat. Still, it is a thought-provoking essay, as is this one by James Loewen.

I’ll let Kendi have the last word:

To name campus buildings after their enemies as a teaching tool is unthinkable for white Americans. At Yale, Oxford, and Oregon, and on campuses across the Western world, antiracist activists are simply asking for equal logic.

In This World

This is one of my favorite letters of Lincoln (and appropriate for Memorial Day):

Executive Mansion,
Dear Fanny Washington, December 23, 1862.

It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer, and holier sort than you have known before.

Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.

Your sincere friend A. LINCOLN.

Miss. Fanny McCullough.

Depoliticizing the Confederacy

Well, it looks as if the monument to the Confederate soldiers in Louisville, Kentucky,  might not be removed.

Of course, one justification for such monuments, and for retaining them even today, is that they are a testament to “courage” and the ultimate sacrifice that these soldiers made (although the one in Louisville is “capped with a statue of Jefferson Davis.”).

Fair enough, I suppose. But consider what I wrote in Loathing Lincoln (page 107): “as historian Kirk Savage has explained, by glorifying military heroes such as Robert E. Lee, the UDC [the United Daughters of the Confederacy] ‘depoliticized the Confederacy,’ and ‘the story of the Lost Cause became a glorious military record rather than a political struggle to secure a slaveholding nation.'”

So, remember the courage of soldiers, sure. But why can’t that be done by placing the statue in a museum? What, specifically, do Americans gain by allowing these monuments to the stand?

The Monument Debate Continues

In my home state of Kentucky, “A Confederate monument will be removed from a spot near the University of Louisville campus where it has stood since 1895.” I wonder if Lexington will be next? Let’s hope so.

Also, there is a nice piece in the Houston Chronicle this morning on the arguments surrounding changing the name of Sydney Lanier Middle School. My friend and Ph.D. advisor, Eric Walther, is quoted throughout. Here are two of Eric’s quotes:

“Schools that have the names of high-ranking Confederates should change, and statues should go down and be placed in a museum – that is the right spot for them.”

“We don’t want to forget about this war. One side was fighting for a more universal cause of freedom, and the other was not. We should tell the story and let it be.  We shouldn’t purge people or their history. We shouldn’t be Stalinist about this.” 

I agree with this, although with the caveat that it might allow statues of Confederate soldiers – as representatives of the “rightness” of the Confederacy – to remain in the public square. In addition, to place a statue in a museum is no erasure of history, as it allows for the study of the past to continue rather than commemorating the attempt to maintain a slaveholding republic on the North American continent as somehow noble. It is rather, it seems to me, an acknowledgement that we, as a society, no longer share the values of the Confederacy.  By so doing, we all gain.

Finally, check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report on “Public Symbols of the Confederacy” around the nation. Their main findings?

“These include:

  • 718 monuments and statues, nearly 300 of which are in Georgia, Virginia or North Carolina;
  • 109 public schools named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis or other Confederate icons;
  • 80 counties and cities named for Confederates;
  • 9 official Confederate holidays in six states; and
  • 10 U.S. military bases named for Confederates.”

I’ve said this before, but does any one believe that the establishments of these symbols across the United States were disconnected from a particular type of politics that, let’s face it, advanced a white supremacist vision of America? Of course not, and thus there is nothing wrong with aspiring to a better politics, one in which these symbols are, to the extent possible, relegated to museums where they can be studied, but extolled as virtuous no more. 

A Question for the Presidential Candidates

According to the Houston Chronicle, “A handful of Texas Republican district or county conventions in March passed resolutions calling for a vote on secession, paving the way for a potentially awkward debate at the state GOP conference in May.”

So, for presidential candidates Hilary Clinton, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, do you support or repudiate this movement by portions of the Texas GOP?

 

Lincoln and Jefferson

Well, I have been so busy with directing the Lone Star Book Festival that is has been a long time indeed since I posted anything. But, as one more talented than me once said, I’m back.

One of the authors we had at our festival was Annette Gordon-Reed, and she spoke on her new biography (written with Peter Onuf) of Thomas Jefferson. The book is quite good and I think in some way confirms some of what Corey Robin has written about Jefferson, if not conservatism and libertarianism more generally.

At any rate, with last week being the anniversary of several important Civil War events (e.g. Fort Sumter, Lincoln’s assassination), one could be forgiven for forgetting that last Wednesday, April 13, was Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Lincoln had great affection for Jefferson (perhaps a bit too much), as this quote shows. Still, in honor of Jefferson’s birthday last week:

The democracy of to-day hold the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing, when in conflict with another man’s right of property. Republicans, on the contrary, are for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar. . . . 

This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.

All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyrany and oppression. Your obedient Servant A. LINCOLN—