Lincoln overcame a belief in ethnic cleansing to imagine an interracial future (Notes on my racism, part 4)

Israel/Palestine
on 25 Comments

The latest New York Review of Books has a great piece by James McPherson about Eric Foner’s new biography of Abraham Lincoln that emphasizes the transformation of Lincoln’s view of blacks, especially during the Civil War. The piece is behind a fire wall, but let me summarize its main points:

Lincoln was born and grew up in strongly pro-slavery country (KY, IN) and it is a sign of the majesty of his mind that he maintained a hatred of slavery through his youth and adulthood. Slavery was evil, he said often.

That belief was compatible in his mind with the belief that blacks were not the equals of whites, and indeed that slavery as an institution must be tolerated for the sake of peace, though of course he said as a failed Senate candidate in 1858 that he would “place it [slavery] where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction…”

Even as president, Lincoln subscribed to a policy of ethnic cleansing, or transfer, to use the phrases we use today. He was for the “colonization” of blacks, their return to Africa (Liberia).

And yet, according to Foner, Lincoln “began during the last two years of the war to imagine an interracial future for the United States.”

This mental process occurred through a remarkable series of events. During the war, 100,000 black soldiers made up about 10 percent of the Union forces, and Lincoln was staggered by their commitment, and saw the immorality of colonization in that light. The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 reflected these new views. “I should be damned in time & eternity,” Lincoln wrote (boy, presidents knew how to write once!) if he returned those men to slavery. 

Early on, Lincoln had respected racist public attitudes toward blacks, explaining that one had to respect a bulwark of public opinion, and change it slowly. “There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us.” Toward the end of his life he became more impatient with these attitudes. He hosted blacks at the White House during the second inaugural and endorsed the idea of black suffrage. At a speech on the White House lawn after Appomattox, he had an interracial audience.

He had, Foner writes, “developed a deep sense of compassion for the slaves he had helped to liberate, and a concern for their fate.” 

I offer Lincoln’s progress of course as a reflection of Jewish attitudes towards Palestinians and Arabs, and my own racism. In my life I have– through no virtue of my own, but because of social movements– overcome engrained prejudices against blacks, gays, women, even Irish- and Italian-Americans. I’m not saying I’m perfect (nor that I wish to remove considerations of cultural difference from my thinking; I don’t), but it is simply a fact that I have watched myself change dramatically due to changing societal attitudes. Some of my prejudice had to do with elitist Jewish attitudes I got growing up in an environment of high intellectual achievement. And I am sure that many others whites and Jews have overcome similar training in their modern lives. It’s a good thing, as Martha Stewart says.

The next hurdle is anti-Arab prejudice. Many in our country hate Muslims. The federal prison population is 6 percent Muslim, but the percentage is ten times that, 65 percent, in new and horrifying CMUs, or Communication Management Units, where prisoners are granted very limited contact with their families (as Alexis Agathocleous of the Center for Constitutional Rights explained in Manhattan the other night). I have wrestled with anti-Islamic prejudice in myself, I have struggled with a disdain for Arabs related to the Jewish community’s largely vicious view of Arabs borne by the attachment to Zionism–which has had to justify the demolition and dismissal of Arab political desires and hopes by demonizing these people as subhuman.

I think we can all learn from Lincoln’s progress, during our own two military occupations of Muslim countries. 

Another particular echo for me in Lincoln is his view that slavery had to be tolerated because so many were committed to it. On a similar basis, I have often supported the existence of the Jewish state– because millions of people believe in Zionism, and indeed international law granted a legal basis for that belief. I don’t recant that support here, if only because of the historical parallel, the Civil War; slavery was ended with a massive bloodletting that created hostility and bitterness for generations. I continue to hope that a peaceful transition to equal rights can be achieved in Israel and Palestine. But I would argue that that transition is largely mental; it will involve American Jews interrogating their attitudes towards Arabs and Palestinians and trying to give the goddamn news to their Israeli cousins. My money is on young Jews, to approach their Arab peers on an equal footing, remembering that our country has seen dramatic advances, all brought upon us by the revolutionary assertion that all men are created equal.

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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25 Responses

  1. annie
    November 13, 2010, 1:22 pm

    beautiful phil.

  2. pabelmont
    November 13, 2010, 4:49 pm

    “Another particular echo for me in Lincoln is his view that slavery had to be tolerated because so many were committed to it. On a similar basis, I have often supported the existence of the Jewish state– because millions of people believe in Zionism.”

    However, Lincoln had to deal with a society in which slavery was considerably popular (in the south at least) IN AMERICA, HIS OWN SOCIETY.

    The millions of people who support a Zionism (always remember to ask WHICH ZIONISM someone is praising!) that expels 85% of its country’s non-Jewish residents in a war of choice (the war to create a Jewish state in place of the then-existing multi-ethnic 30% Jewish Palestine) are not necessarily any sort of large part of the American populace (not, anyway, if the facts were laid bare to all Americans). I believe that most polls over the last 30 years have shown Americans 25% pro-Israel, and 55% pro-peace-and-justice-and two-states-and-all-that, with a few “don’t knows”. (Of course, it must be said that the political money does not split that way and that the 25% are often zealots whereas the 55% are usually laid-back nice-guys.)

    • Citizen
      November 14, 2010, 7:41 am

      Phil’s Lincoln analogy holds for American Jews and Israel; His blog itself is of course a player in the growing mental civil war between Jews everywhere. What grinds my heine (ass is too crass, tukas too baby ruckas, so is heine to0 cuddly heinous?) is all Americans are deeply caught up in this civil war of 2% of the American population, and so far all Americans have been paying for the [actually much overtly smaller] AIPAC-Israeli regime faction with their precious dollars, and the loss of any good reputation America ever earned abroad, whether they know it or not, not to mention, the specific motives found for 9/11, which attack by mostly Saudi zealots, has been used to turn our country into more of a police state, and not to mention has made our soldiers more vulnerable in the Middle East. It’s not just a question of values, identity, and humanity for the two mentally warring Jewish factions, but ditto for all Americans, the other 98% of America. Palestinians originated BDS, and by doing so they did both Uncle Sam and Israel a favor. I know where Lincoln would be by now. Perhaps a new Lincoln will eventually arrive, and Americans will actually make room for him–after the unexpected conseqences of an attack on Iran?

      • annie
        November 14, 2010, 9:12 am

        all Americans are deeply caught up in this civil war of 2% of the American population, and so far all Americans have been paying for the [actually much overtly smaller] AIPAC-Israeli regime faction with their precious dollars

        citizen, i don’t think life is that ‘neat’. lots of zionists are not jewish and lots of jews are not zionist and lots of zionists are not in touch w/the incredible amount of pain and abuse zionism has brought to this world. they are unintended facilitators whereas lots of non jews are very much intended facilitators. so if this 2% figure is meant to represent the american jewish community i think it is a misguided concept.

        life doesn’t work like that, not the way i see it.

  3. RoHa
    November 13, 2010, 8:19 pm

    (boy, presidents knew how to write once!)

    That was when people had some respect for language. (Though the Gettysburg address was criticised for its simplicity. At the time, florid oratorical style was the fashion. But see this:

    )

    Also, speakers didn’t feel they had to talk down at the level of lowest common denominator of their listeners. The audience was expected to listen “up”

    Even more recently, in 1968, Robert Kennedy quoted Aeschylus when informing a crowd of MLK’s death. How many politicians now would be prepared to refer to (or even admit knowledge of) Greek literature.?

  4. RoHa
    November 13, 2010, 8:23 pm

    And on the main topic:

    Where is the Israeli Lincoln?

  5. Avi
    November 14, 2010, 1:02 am

    Phil, am I misreading your articles on this issue?

    It seems to me that you are repeatedly equating the environment of “high intellectual achievement” in which you grew up with “elitist Jewish attitudes”, as though one nurtured the other.

    Some of my prejudice had to do with elitist Jewish attitudes I got growing up in an environment of high intellectual achievement.

    I suppose my confusion stems from the fact that I grew up in an environment of high intellectual achievement, but the opinions and views with which I was brought up were liberal and open minded.

    For example, as a child, in an effort to prevent me from developing socially ingrained gender biases toward the opposite sex, my parents bought me a few dolls in addition to the usual toy trucks, race cars and Lego. Society often imposes gender biases on individuals. A few decades ago, girls were expected to become housewives when they grew up, teachers, librarians or nurses. Meanwhile, men were expected to become lawyers, doctors, pilots, managers and presidents. These are gender biases which throughout history various societies have imposed on members of the group.

    The point is, a “bookish” household does not necessarily translate into “elitist” attitude or to bigotry, to the contrary. And that is from where my confusion stems in regard to that link which seems to be a common theme throughout the four “About My Racism” articles, however.

    I understand that regardless of a person’s level of education, some things are learned through social/cultural interaction. Some things are not learned from books.

    • annie
      November 14, 2010, 10:48 am

      It seems to me that you are repeatedly equating the environment of “high intellectual achievement” in which you grew up with “elitist Jewish attitudes”

      avi, the sentence of phil’s you blockquoted did not ‘equate’ the two although it may be true that was the way phil was brought up, to believe they were equated. there have been lots of studies done on self esteem and educational achievement. if one’s self esteem (or lack of) is associated w/a learned belief about one’s ethnicity that is attached to a conditioned expectation wrt educational achievement then one could equate the two. but the two are not equated.

    • Mooser
      November 14, 2010, 12:34 pm

      “Some of my prejudice had to do with elitist Jewish attitudes I got growing up in an environment of high intellectual achievement.”

      Aren’t you forgetting something, Phil? You have, in previous posts, described the conversations in your home, and your father’s attitudes. Somehow the two don’t really correspond, unless you think inculcating the lowest kind of social and ethnic prejudice is a “high intellectual achievement”

      • annie
        November 14, 2010, 1:20 pm

        ‘achievement’ is subjective mooser.

      • Mooser
        November 14, 2010, 2:33 pm

        “‘achievement’ is subjective mooser.”

        Don’t I know it!

  6. Citizen
    November 14, 2010, 8:16 am

    Yes, some things are not learned from books or ingrained family bias, cultural conditoning, ostensibly justified or not–the learning required comes from living cell osmosis when one is not looking for it, but simply living life outside “the box.” If one is born with an open core character, it will emerge.
    All it really takes for such a human is approaching individual humans as individuals, no matter where one finds them. The exception does not prove the rule; rather that exception makes life less physically and mentally convenient. Kant is resurrected, even if he is unknown. And the heart is opened. This is both enlightening and precarious. That we learn by association, whether consciously or unconsciously, whether from logic down or logic up, is often both practical and misleading.

    • Citizen
      November 14, 2010, 8:20 am

      BTW, any advice for those who, for example, grow up in a household where books are pushed, but mainly so that you don’t end up pushing a broom? Or for growing up in a household where the great dream is to become, e.g., a foreman in a steel factory mill, or a cop?

      • Mooser
        November 14, 2010, 1:38 pm

        Citizen, I got a big dose of that growing up. My parents had the most inmpossible, outlandish, ambitions for me, which completely transcended the reality of our situation. You may not credit this, but I can remember my Mom saying over and over: “I just hope he can stay out of jail!” Oh well, maternal love was always proof against the obvious.

  7. yourstruly
    November 14, 2010, 8:45 am

    There are those whose open-mindedness and life experiences enable them to overcome societal prejudices. Phil, for example. Yet there are a few (perhaps more than a few) whose actions suggest that if they ever were afflicted with racism, it had to have been a minimal dose and for a very limited period of time. One such individual comes to mind. It was in an African nation that had just won its independence. Only a few thousand (out of a quarter million or so) colonizers remained, most having returned to the so-called monterland, rather than giving up their dual citizenship. Roger, a health worker, was was one of the few who opted to remain. Back then another independence struggle was raging in nearby Southern Rhodesia. One morning there was a piece in the newspaper about a S. Rhodesian air attack on a border town in which more than a dozen Africans had been killed (the S. Rhodesian air force punishing those of its neighbors who sided with Rhodesia’s freedom fighters). Visibly upset by the what had taken place in that border town, from Roger, matter of factly – “Why are they slaughtering my people?” I could see that he meant it too. For me this was a WOW moment, because saying those words was one thing, but a former colonizer (or any Caucasian, for that matter)? And not only unhesitantly saying “my people”, but obviously feeling it? That’s beyond identification with the other, it’s being that other. The same phenomenum took place in our own nation during the days of the Civil Rights struggle. Undoubtedly there’s a bit of “Roger” in the “Bibi Five”. Not sure what accounts for the Rogers of this world, other than to say that they’re probably present in every liberation struggle (Rachel Corrie comes to mind), sometimes as leaders but always as manifestations of that purest and most unselfish form of love, the you are I, I am you, we are one in pursuit of a better world.

  8. Richard Witty
    November 14, 2010, 9:41 am

    “But I would argue that that transition is largely mental; it will involve American Jews interrogating their attitudes towards Arabs and Palestinians and trying to give the goddamn news to their Israeli cousins.”

    !! (That is hear hear).

    Palestinians are human beings (as are Israelis). Individuals may be criminals and only for their individual crimes.

    • Mooser
      November 14, 2010, 12:38 pm

      “Individuals may be criminals and only for their individual crimes.”

      A crime? Me? But I vass honly followink orders, Mein Herr

      Oh wait, I’m sorry, Witty! I see you are suggesting that all the settlers and any Israeli in the Army should be investigated and charged, if apropriate, for their crimes as an individual? Where will we jail them all?

  9. annie
    November 14, 2010, 10:27 am

    “Why are they slaughtering my people?” I could see that he meant it too. For me this was a WOW moment

    when i was a teenager i participated in an experimental alternative education program for the summer. we went to a remote area in the woods, formed tribes and depended on each other for survival. needless to say it was a bonding experience. ‘my people’ is learned from shared experience. shared mutual trauma or ecstasy being key bonding factors, more than race or ethnicity imho.

    • Mooser
      November 14, 2010, 1:32 pm

      ” we went to a remote area in the woods, formed tribes and depended on each other for survival.”

      I remember that! The girl’s camp was on the other side of the lake, and wowee, did our two tribes learn to co-operate! All night long we co-operated! There was nothing the counselors could do to keep us from our shared experiences.

  10. Richard Witty
    November 14, 2010, 12:58 pm

    The Jewish prejudices towards Arabs (probably a majority in significant forms), stems from multiple sources.

    The phrase “borne by the attachment to Zionism” is an oversimplification that would hinder your inquiry into your and others racism.

    More than hinder, it would contort your inquiry.

    • Mooser
      November 14, 2010, 1:29 pm

      “More than hinder, it would contort your inquiry.” ( My italics)

      Witty, did you mean “contest” or “contend”?

  11. Mooser
    November 14, 2010, 1:28 pm

    “The Jewish prejudices towards Arabs (probably a majority in significant forms), stems from multiple sources.”

    Don’t I know it! I still remember my mother, as she tucked my prayer shawl in to my pants and attempted to tighten my tefellin around my neck before I left for school, telling me to watch out for Arabs. Oh, Jesus, all those Arabs skulking around Long Island, New Jersey and upstate New York were a constant danger to Jews!

    Witty, you idiot, the great majority of Jews have never seen, in real life, an Arab or had any intercourse with them.

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