Hardball Strikes Out on Secession

First of all, apologies to South Carolina for the ridiculous national coverage of tonight’s Secession Gala in Charleston.  The coverage reinforces a number of assumptions about regional identification and race that are likely a thing of the past.  Tonight’s episode of Hardball with Chris Matthews is a perfect example of this coverage, which somehow managed to surpass the nuttiness of a recent episode of the Ed Show that featured Al Sharpton.  Matthews decided to interview Thomas Hiter of the SCV and columnist, Eugene Robinson.  All three were equally appalling.  Robinson decided to describe the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter as an “act of terrorism.”  Hiter did the usual dance around the issue of slavery and Matthews through out the hardball question of the night: “Was John Brown a good guy or bad guy?”  As far as I can tell none of these guys understands the history of secession and the Civil War.  To give you a sense of how bad this is, I actually think that Hiter won more points on the history.  And just think how easy it would be to find two guests, who could actually engage in an intellectual discussion.

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13 comments… add one
  • Bob Huddleston Dec 21, 2010 @ 9:50

    Re John Brown: if what he did to attempt to end slavery was condemnable, then what can we say about Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee fighting to continue slavery?

    • Margaret D. Blough Dec 21, 2010 @ 22:21

      I don’t have as much trouble with Harper’s Ferry as I do with Potawotamie (sp?) Brown wasn’t a government or a governmental actor & there are limits under treaty and international law on what can be done legimately. One of the more troubling developments in modern times is putting what are unquestionably military targets in inhabited areas (even a recent mayor of Hiroshima recognized that the city was a legitimate target. The men that Brown murdered were on the other side of the controversy in Bleeding Kansas but they were not an imminent threat to him. I think what he did there was cold-blooded murder just I regard what Quantrell did in Lawrence, Kansas during the Civi War as cold-blooded murder. Compliance with international law and treaty can be very imperfect but I’m not willing to say that the ends justify the means.

  • Lee Dec 21, 2010 @ 8:44


    Regarding John Brown, you said that “His zeal for abolition was laudable; his methods not so much.”

    I think if Brown were alive today, he would argue that (at least in retrospect) his methods were not necessarily misguided or wrong at all. True, killing people in Kansas wasn’t going to end slavery by itself, the Harpers Ferry plan was doomed to failure, and there’s a good chance the Civil War would have happened even if Brown had never lived. But nevertheless, while Brown’s activities didn’t put a end to slavery, when looking back at history as it actually occurred, they do appear to have a prominent place in the chain of events which led to a war that did indeed end it. This is particularly noteworthy given that, as others have pointed out, slavery does not seem to have been on its way out (at least in the immediate future) by peaceful means.

    And honestly, I think a good, moral person could conclude that helping to end a horrible, vile institution that enslaved millions of human beings justified killing a few civilians. Remember that in twentieth century wars, the United States did things which killed vastly larger numbers of innocent people in the name of preserving its freedom (firebombing Tokyo and Dresden, for example).

    I’m not saying that Brown clearly had to do what he did. But I am saying that just as arguing he was either a “good guy” or a “bad guy” is far too simplistic, saying “his goal was good but his methods were bad, end of story” is too simplistic as well.

    • Will Stoutamire Dec 21, 2010 @ 11:21

      Brown’s activities certainly played a role in precipitating secession, there is no disputing that. As did many other events that inflamed passions around the issue of slavery – some violent, some nonviolent. Given the way the institution was beginning to be adapted to more ‘modern’ modes of production, as we discussed last week, there does seem to have been no possible peaceful resolution to the issue (though I don’t like dealing in “what if” history).

      That being said, I think there might be an interesting study out there for someone to examine the often conflicting roles of violent and nonviolent social protest in American history and memory. When I say that John Brown’s actions were less laudable than his desire to end slavery, I say that within the context of the history of social unrest in America. It seems that the Harriet Beecher Stowes and MLKs of the world receive a far more favorable judgment in the history books than the John Browns and Malcolm Xs. That’s aside from the social changes that came about through purely nonviolent means – like women’s suffrage. We as a people seem to smile more on the nonviolent protestors. We tend to favor the writing of books and the giving of speeches over the incitement of armed revolt, and we seem to judge that the nonviolent protestors are far more effective in achieving their ends. No matter how praiseworthy the goal, there is a general disapproval of those who resort to physically harming other Americans in the process.

      Without getting too moralistic on historical events, it is from within that tradition that I believe statements like the one I made yesterday originate. It likely has something to do with what are considered to be, not just today but throughout American history, socially acceptable and unacceptable forms of protest. John Brown’s actions in Kansas and Harper’s Ferry are difficult to excuse, despite his abolitionist objective, because they fall far outside this canon.

      Your comparison to Tokyo and Dresden is duly noted, but I would also add that the need for and efficacy of both of those bombings (particularly the latter) is still questioned today. In addition, both were carried out by the American government as acts of war, whether justifiable or not, and not by private citizens on their own initiative – I think that is an important distinction that makes the comparison a little more difficult.

  • William Richardson Dec 20, 2010 @ 21:05

    A Toast to the secession of South Carolina’s.

  • Will Stoutamire Dec 20, 2010 @ 20:02

    Robinson’s comment about Fort Sumter is an example of presentism on par with Ann DeWitt’s assessment of Black Confederate “secretaries” and “entourages.” Then again, as you said, what more can we expect from the soundbite news media? These days “terrorism” is so often used to describe violent historical events against the mainstream of society as to be almost cliche. It seems to me that folks are trying to put past events into terms that modern Americans can better relate to, while missing the significant nuances between “terrorism” and “riot” or “rebellion.”

    Excellent point Margaret, re: John Brown. It is certainly far from a black and white issue (terrible pun not intended). His zeal for abolition was laudable; his methods not so much.

    Kevin, did you pick up on Hiter’s comment regarding the sequence of secession? He used the usual “Lincoln invaded the South” shtick, as is to be expected, but he also said something like “seven states seceded and six more after Lincoln’s invasion” – i.e., 13 total. I’m sure SCV-types say that a lot, but it just caught my attention tonight.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 21, 2010 @ 3:58

      The whole thing was pathetic and a complete waste of time. It’s what these programs do oh so well.

  • Margaret D. Blough Dec 20, 2010 @ 17:18

    While I generally admire Eugene Robinson’s work, calling firing on Ft. Sumter an act of terrorism is defining what constitutes an act of terror so broadly as to make it meaningless. It was a conventional military action in a rebellion. There was a lot of historical precedent and the customary international laws of war had the subject pretty well covered. As for whether John Brown was a good guy or a bad guy, that is so overly simplistic as to be mindboggling. The sincerity of his views on slavery are incontestable, and he made the most of the opportunity he was given at his trial, but there is no way of sugar-coating or excusing what he did in Kansas. Someone from the SCV being evasive about slavery is dog bites man, not man bites do.

  • Bruce Miller Dec 20, 2010 @ 15:41

    Kevin, I haven’t been tracking the coverage on the Secession Gala as much as you have. But I don’t quite understand what you mean by apologizing to South Carolina for the press coverage. Are you secretly a press baron?

    Chris Matthews has been a mess for the last 15 or 20 years. He does sloppy interviews, he drooled for years over John McCain’s manly manliness, and has been as big of a nut on the Clintons as anyone in the major media. He regularly garbles basic factual issues. Eugene Robinson isn’t as bad as Matthews, but his work is frequently sloppy, as well. He’s a liberal, but he operates within the confines of Beltway Village wisdom, which means his commentary often has a tenuous relation to reality.

    It’s not suprising the Matthews and Robinson did a rotten job dealing with an SCV guy. I doubt either of them have spent more than a few minutes, if that, acquainting themselves with present-day neo-Confederate ideology or the SCV’s variant in particular. So they were probably completed unprepared for his approach or his use of language. Someone like Dave Neiwert who actually knows far-right groups and their rhetoric would have been far more effective.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 20, 2010 @ 15:43

      I’m not sure I understand your question. All I’ve done is follow the press coverage from various news outlets, which overall has been appalling.

      • Bruce Miller Dec 20, 2010 @ 16:08

        I just meant that you’re not to blame for the sad state of our national media. (I guess my joke about your being a press baron wasn’t all that clear!)

        You’re right about how Matthews and Robinson handled that. It looks to me as though they weren’t prepared at all. Hider’s opening gambit to whine about the SCV’s right to hold the event is a standard far-right schtick; I call it the “whiny-white-guy” routine, but you tend to be more polite about such things than I am. But neither of them seemed to be the least prepared for it. That was a perfect opening for one of them to come back with something along the lines of, “I don’t hear anyone questioning their legal right to hold the event. What I’m asking is why your organization thinks it’s appropriate to celebrate an act of treason against the United States that was explicitly over the preservation of slavery?” It was a genuinely embarassing performance by both Matthews and Robinson. But I’ll bet they both think they did brilliantly.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 20, 2010 @ 16:16

          Sorry about that, Bruce. The problem, as you know, is that these shows are not really interested in intellectual discourse; rather, it’s about entertainment that safely follows the standard script. At least include a historian, who can provide some factual basis concerning the event at hand.

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