Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Why Did Florida Became a State?

Apropos of the controversy over "Old Joe" (yes, I attended the public to-do yesterday, on the side of those who wish to see a piece of history preserved, and I'm not unhappy with the Alachua County Commission's decision to hand the statue over to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the organization that put it up in the first place), I think the question in the title is worth thinking about.

Florida became a state because the adjacent slave states simply couldn't tolerate a territory next door where escaped slaves, displaced Native Americans and poor whites looking for land to settle were actually getting along. White supremacy could not be maintained near such a place, so something had to be done. And that something was to bully Spain into giving up Florida so that slavery and racial segregation could be imposed.

Not that it worked especially well. Multiple wars had to be fought over it.

You may have heard that the Seminoles were an "Indian tribe." Well, not exactly. The word "Seminole" is a corruption of the Spanish word cimarrĂ³n (an adjective describing someone as "savage, especially if he was domestic and has fled to the countryside").

The Seminoles were a melting pot of displaced Creek Indians, free blacks (especially escaped slaves), and people of mixed race (Osceola, the most famous Seminole leader, was born Billy Powell and was of Creek, Scots-Irish, and English ancestry). The horror! Again, something had to be done. And that something was three wars through which the US Army carried out the project of exterminating Creeks, imposing chattel slavery on blacks, and chivvying poor (landless or subsistence farmer) whites into identifying their interests with the interests of the landed plantation aristocracy.

Accomplishing all that was the purpose of Florida becoming a state.

The payoff:

After half a century of war to impose the plantation system on Florida and dupe poor whites into supporting it, those poor whites took up arms to defend that system in the most terrible conflict in American history, and many of them died doing so. 

But when the war was over, the whole south, not just Florida, faced yet another existential (to the rich white landed aristocracy) threat. Once again, racial harmony threatened to break out. Once Reconstruction formally ended, the aristocracy immediately went to work to reimpose its rule. Two elements of that rule:

  1. Racial segregation; and
  2. Ritual glorification (including through the erection of public monuments) of "The Lost Cause" with the purpose of getting those poor whites, many of them widowed or orphaned in service of said cause, back with the program.
Make no mistake about it: Jim Crow and Old Joe are fraternal twins whose shadow kept the south impoverished, both materially and morally, for more than half a century. We're only now just starting to recover from the legacy of white supremacy.

And that's precisely why I don't want to see the statue destroyed or moved somewhere away from public view.

Santayana was right: "Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

The Party (IngSoc) in Orwell's 1984 was right too: "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past."

Those who think that melting the statue down or whatever would accomplish anything in the fight against racism are misguided. Keep the statue. Use the statue to teach the real history of the matter -- especially to those who come to it in veneration for those whose deaths it commemorates. They have the right to mourn their ancient dead -- and to come to understand why, and in the service of what, those deaths occurred.

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