Abortion, Marijuana, and Slavery

                One of the topics I try to avoid in class is abortion. There is a good reason for this avoidance; it is one of the subjects that inspires such passion that it is nearly impossible for any real civil discourse.  Historically, abortion has been a key issue of every election since Roe V. Wade. However, it seems, at least to me, in the last couple elections, the abortion question has lost some significance. But, as we move closer to the 2020 election, it is looking as if the abortion issue may once again become a heavyweight question. I am not going to weigh in on the rights and wrongs of the issue, but I think it is worth giving some historical significance.

                My first historical observance with abortion is the political shift that occurs. One of the areas we can generalize about regarding the differences between Republicans and Democrats is the role of government. Today, Republicans tend to believe in smaller government, while Democrats believe in larger. This was not always the case, but that is a story for a different time. Yet, when it comes to abortion, the two parties switch positions. Democrats tend to want more regulation, more involvement in people’s lives. But when it comes to abortion, they suddenly back off and say it is completely up to the individual. Democrats tend to try to protect those who need the most help, but then change on this one issue. Republicans follow suit. They tend to push for more personal liberties, a more hands-off approach, yet push for more government regulation with abortion. Where Republicans are portrayed as the more uncaring party when it comes to issues such as separation of children at the border, they take a stronger stance on protecting the unborn. When it comes to debating abortion, they both attack each other on their inconsistencies. 

A similar circumstance happens when it comes to legalizing marijuana. Democrats argue it’s a state rights’ issue, while Republicans counter that it is a federal law. And while speaking of marijuana, it seems to me as if these two issues are connected. Marijuana is still against federal law, yet state after state have passed laws allowing for its use. Similarly, abortion is legal in the U.S. according to federal law, but after the marijuana laws began to pass with no reprisal from the federal government, states started to follow suit with abortion laws. Today several states have passed laws limiting the right to abort. 

The reason for the switch in position is because morality is involved. In my classes there are two times I discuss abortion. The first is when we discuss Roe v. Wade. The other is when we discuss compromises over slavery. I understand how odd that sounds. There is little the two have in common, yet when it comes to debating slavery and abortion, they are quite similar. 

For the first century of American history, our leaders were able to compromise on slavery. When I say compromise, I really mean agree to avoid discussing it. Slavery was always a difficult question, so they agreed to find ways to punt the problems to the next generation. The big compromises such as the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the 1850 Compromise, and the 1854 Kansas Nebraska Compromise were all attempts to remove slavery from the national discussion. All three of these compromises were efforts to answer, once and for all, which states or territories would be slave and which free. Our political leaders understood that slavery was too difficult a conversation for Congress. The closer we got to the Civil War, the more difficult the conversations became. 

As the anti-slavery movement grew into the abolitionist cause, more Americans began to see slavery as a moral argument. Once slavery was seen as a sin and slave-holders as sinners, it became impossible to have civil discourse. This is when I bring in abortion as an object lesson. I tell my students it’s like today’s abortion debate. If you are morally against abortion, there is no compromise. There can’t be. If you are pro-choice and see abortion as a fundamental right for women, you too cannot compromise. It’s not like tariffs. Most of us can give a little here or there with tariffs, infrastructure laws, or foreign policy, but once something is seen as a moral argument, compromise is over. 

I am not the first to see this connection. In fact, modern pro-life advocates have taken up the word abolitionist to explain their cause. They have borrowed many words, slogans, and images from the 19th century abolition movement to explain and promote their agenda.

I am not sure what this comparison means for modern Americans. Nineteenth-century Americans never figured it out. They were never able to find the magic solution and come to an agreement. It took a war and 700,000 lives to find the answer to slavery. I do not think abortion will lead to war, but history has shown that we may never find common ground to the abortion question. Pro-choice and pro-life will never find a compromise and, like the abolitionists and slaver holders, will continue to see themselves as holding the moral high ground even if the courts side against them. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at http://www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Historical Monuments

Sports, race, and culture are again making headlines and another statue has fallen.  Even though this is a sports story, the statue in question oddly is not an athlete, but Kate Smith, a legendary singer from the 1930s.  She has been connected to the Philadelphia Flyers since 1974, when she sang “God Bless America” before their Stanley Cup winning game.  Playing Smith’s version of the song became a tradition to the point that the team erected a statue of her outside their stadium.  Now, however, it has come to light that she may have been racist-based on some of the songs she recorded.  Here is my take, historically speaking. I know nothing about Smith, but I agree she was probably a racist.  How do I know? Because almost everyone in 1930 was.

As a historian, this has become a difficult subject. How do we handle past figures who may have been racist or, even worse, owned slaves?  I have concluded that basically every major figure in American history was racist.  Some were blatantly open about their beliefs. For others, you have to dig deeper into their personal lives.  I am convinced that, hopefully not recently, if you examine every conversation, every letter, and every aspect about their lives, you will find something either racist or sexist.  Why?  Because until now, it has always been socially acceptable.  Not right, but acceptable. 

If it were possible to know every conversation that our political leaders have ever had, I feel certain every president has said or done something racist or sexist, even those who did the most for civil rights.  Lincoln was an amazing man, but he was not an abolitionist.  He was against slavery but did not think blacks were equal to whites.  Truman signed anti-lynching laws, but his correspondence is laced with racist words.  JFK did finally get involved in the fight for civil rights but was brought in kicking and screaming.  He knew civil rights were not a popular subject for his Democratic base.  I do not have specific examples for LBJ, Carter, and Clinton, but all three grew up in the segregated South, where racism was a way of life, and I just can’t believe they never did or said anything racist.

Those are the ones who supported civil rights.  We have had twelve president who owned slaves, including some of our most respected.  For most of the history of the nineteenth century and even with some in the twentieth, the Democratic Party was the party openly of white supremacy.  Wilson is a good example of a progressive president who was openly racist.  I am not sure what the date should be, but I have no problem stating that almost every major white American personality was racist since at least before the 1960s, but probably even later than that. 

So what do we do?  Take down every statue of every American? Please understand I am not saying that it is fine.  Racism and sexism should never have been accepted, but they were.  A great example is Robert E. Lee.  Lee’s name and likeness are being removed across the nation.  I am not saying this is wrong, but I am saying we need to consider the difficulty of judging the past with modern ideals.  Lee has been accused of being a traitor and a racist.  Let’s tackle the traitor issue first.  Yes, with our current understanding, Lee was a traitor, but that is not so clear-cut in 1860.  To Lee, being a traitor meant fighting against Virginia.  Virginia was his home; it was Virginia that held his heart and loyalty.  It is easy to blame southerners for secession, yet when you look at American history, there are examples of Northerners embracing the concept.  During the War of 1812, New England delegates met at Hartford, Conn., to discuss breaking away from the country.  At the time, northerners were fed up with southern political advantages.  What changed by 1860 was that the north had taken over in terms of power.  The only difference between the states rights attitude between the north and south was the south was losing the political battle.  Was Lee wrong to fight against the Union? Yes.  But to him and the world that he lived in, fighting against Virginia would have been the real crime.

Slavery and Lee is more difficult.  There is no way to justify Lee’s owning of another human being.  What is difficult, however, is that as a man of God, his church taught that slavery was OK, his understanding of the bible taught that blacks were inferior; his family taught him that it was fine, and his political leaders and heroes all believed in the practice.  Even the Constitution of the United States accepted slavery.  I would love for Lee to have risen above it all and defended the defenseless, but are we not asking a lot of those in the past.

I have dedicated my life to studying the Civil War and dealing with these issues.  One of the best lines I have heard comes from the 1972 movie musical “1776.”  In it, John Adams tells Ben Franklin that they will never be forgiven for not outlawing slavery and Franklin’s response was, “What will posterity think we were, demigods? We’re men, no more, no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous god would have allowed. First things first, John, Independence. America. If we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?”

One last issue about taking down monuments: where does it end?  I believe Dr. Martin Luther King is one of the greatest Americans and deserves all the remembrances we give him.  However, as a minister in the 1950s and 1960s his views of the gay community may not be on par with the accepted views today.  There is not much of Dr. King’s thoughts on this subject, but there is a 1958 column in Ebony Magazine where he gives advice to a young man having same-sex attraction.  King calmly tells him that his feeling are probably culturally acquired and that he should see a psychiatrist who can help fix him.  He tells him that recognizing it is the first step to fixing it.  Acceptable answer for 1958, but not for 2019.  We know little more about MLK’s views towards the LBGT community.  His wife would go on to champion LBGT rights, but his daughter led a march to his grave against legalized gay marriage.  What many believe is that if Dr. King was alive today he would support gay rights.  I agree.  But I also believe that if Lee was alive today he would denounce slavery.  The problem is neither is alive today.  They were products of their time, not ours.

If we take down every piece of history that offends, I question what that will lead to and where it will stop.  I do not believe we should take down monuments of MLK, but what if his answer to the young man offends.  When I hear of taking down monuments of Lee, Kate Smith, or any others, I think of the line from George Orwell’s 1984, “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”  Orwell wrote this as a warning about the future, but it seems like the future is here. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at http://www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Historical Comparisons

Historical Comparisons

In a recent interview, basketball megastar LeBron James compared NFL owners to plantation slave owners.  He was not the first to do so.  In fact, it has become a common way to describe NFL owners.  In some ways, I understand the reasons to make historical comparisons.  This entire column is dedicated to doing just that.  Yet there are some comparisons that are, one, unfair and, two, dangerous.  The danger comes from making outrageous comparisons that strip away any common ground and have the potential to normalize past behavior. 

The comparisons I find most troubling lately are the NFL owners to plantation owners and political leaders we disagree with to Hitler and the Holocaust.  At first glance, the NFL comparison is easy–powerful rich white men with almost absolute authority over their predominantly black work force.  It is true that NFL owners hold a great deal of power over their players; owners can players them or trade them for any cause, but does that equate them to slave owners?

Slavery is one of this nation’s darkest experience.  Hundreds of thousands of Africans were forcefully taken from their homes and families to be shipped across an ocean and sold into bondage.  Once in America, slave owners used pure torture, both physical and psychological, to make those slaves and their descendants do their bidding.  Slaves had absolutely no control over any aspect of their lives, and most lived that way from the cradle to the grave.

Compare that to the NFL.  There may be issues between labor and management, but I find it difficult to see a strong comparison between an NFL player making millions of dollars to the life of a slave.  For one, slaves had absolutely no choice, whereas most NFL players have dreamed of playing in the league since their childhood.  Slavery was back-breaking labor, whereas football is a game.  Slavery was a life condition for the slave and their children, while professional football is a short time, and if money is managed properly, players can retire under forty.  Thousands of men across the nation are willing to sacrifice much for the chance to play in the NFL, even with the labor differences.  That is a far cry from slavery.  Yes, a player can be cut from the team, but there are few careers where an employed is not let go for lack of performance or for bad behavior.  Employees complaining about their boss is as old as America.  Why is the NFL seen differently? 

The other comparison I think we need to be careful of is constantly making comparisons to Hitler.  His is an easy name to throw around whenever we disagree with a political leader.  The most recent Hitler and Holocaust comparisons were with President Trump’s policy of separating children of illegal aliens on the border.  I am not going to argue this policy here.  It is safe to assume most disagree with it.  It is true that when illegal migrants were captured crossing the border they were separated by age and sex and put into holding facilities.  It is understandable that this may invoke comparisons of Jews being separated by sex when they reached concentration camps.  Yet that is where the comparisons end.  Immigrants were sent to camps where they were housed, fed, and given medical attention.

I am not saying separating a child from their parent is not a horrific situation, but during the Holocaust six million Jews were forcefully taken from their homes, distributed to different work or death camps, then tortured, starved, experimented on, and worked to death.  Those who did not die from the conditions were stripped naked, gassed in large chambers, then either mass buried or burned in Nazi ovens.  Hitler was a monster who tried to eradicate an entire race.  You may really hate President Trump, and he has done plenty to criticize, but he is no Hitler. 

There are plenty of good historical comparisons to make about our leaders.  I have done it several times in my stories, but if we continue to compare everyone to Hitler, the more we normalize what he did.  If Trump, Obama, and Bush are all like Hitler, and those comparisons have been made by their opposite side, then Hitler becomes just one in a list of unpopular leaders instead of what he truly was, evil. 

Also if Trump is Hitler, how do we ever work to find a middle ground?  If someone is as bad as Hitler, we are past compromise, for how can we find common ground with such a man.  I am not saying comparisons can never be made when looking at specific examples.  I remember comparisons being made with the Nazi practice of having papers to the Arizona law requiring the carrying of IDs.  Those practices are on par.  Comparing the separation of illegal immigrants to detention camps for the Japanese during WWII would make for a great future column.  I just find it difficult to compare what has happened on the border to what happened in the Holocaust.

History is an incredibly powerful weapon.  Churchill once said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”  While this is true, it may also be true that normalizing history can have the same effect.  Are NFL owners as bad as slave owners?  No.  Is Trump as bad as Hitler?  Also no.  We need to keep looking to the past to find comparisons and ultimately answers.  I know I will.  But comparisons need to fair and not normalize past bad behavior. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium.   Follow Historically Speaking at http://www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.