August 10, 2014


Numerous passages in Ecstatic Nation, an outstanding book by Brenda Wineapple, bring to life “the plague of the other” which is at the root of so much evil and such an embedded part, sadly, of human nature.  It is a demonstration of that all-too-present human tendency to elevate ourselves by comparing ourselves invidiously with “another” different from us, perhaps even threatening us, with whom we compare ourselves, ever so positively, and whom, because of this feeling, we come to the belief that we have every right to exploit them.

The first of these examples lies in the mind and words of Alexander Stephens, who became Vice-President of the Confederacy, having served in Congress for many years.

The “cornerstone” of the Confederate States, he said, “rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”  Speaking impromptu in Savannah, GA a few weeks after the inauguration of the Confederate government, he enthusiastically called the new Confederate government “the first in the history of the world, based upon this great philosophical, and moral truth.”  Its constitution has “put at rest forever all agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization.”  

Roll the clock forward and we come to our treatment of the Indians.  General Sherman, the same general that had waged war so effectively against the Confederacy in his march to Atlanta and the sea, declared, as Brenda Wineapple says so acutely “with typical amoral clarity” the following:  “The country is so large and the advantage of the Indian so great, that we cannot make a single war and end it.  From the nature of things we must take chances and clear out Indians as we encounter them.”  (General Sheridan, a Union General who fought the Confederacy, mirrored Sherman’s attitude as he remarked:  “The only good Indians I know are dead.”) 

The justification for this was deeply embedded in the warped minds of many people who, looked at today, one would say should have known better.  Take Francis Amasa Walker.  Walker served as Commissioner in the government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1871-72.  He was a well-known economist and Eugenicist and, if that wasn’t enough of a pedigree, he later was the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  

This well-educated and well-positioned man had this to say about the Indian:  “The Indian is unfortunately disposed to submit himself to the lower and baser elements of civilized society and to acquire the vices and not the virtues of the whites.”  

One journalist had this to say:  “To talk of the rights of the Indian today requires the same nerve and moral courage and conscientiousness it did 20 years ago to talk of the rights of the slave and the man who has searched them is considered just as mad, foolish and visionary as were the Abolitionists of 1840 or 1850.”

The New York Herald had this contentious comment to make about Wendell Phillips, the long-suffering, courageous leader for freedom of all sorts, including the African-American:  “Wendell Phillips’ new nigger is the ‘noble Redman’.”

Wendell Phillips had it right as he said:  “All the great points of the epoch have arisen out of this hatred between the races.”  To which Brenda Wineapple reprises:  “Race was, had been and would continue to be the issue dividing the United States.”  

The plague of “the other.”  On and on it goes.  Throughout all time.  To be resisted in each of our lives.  We see it today with Sunni vs. Shiite, right-wingers vs. left-wingers.  “We should never be able to be just to other races (or I’d add, people who are different from ourselves), or will reap the full benefit of their neighborhood, till we unlearn contempt,” Phillips said.  

To which I would add:  “Let us never fail to strive to see the other person in ourselves and ourselves in him.”