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Cartoons and the Honor Wars

Why Islamic rioters in the Middle East and Europe are like South Carolinians during the American Civil War.
 
 
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Ten years ago, when I was researching for my pre-Civil War novel, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, I ran across a book by former NYT reporter Fox Butterfield, called All God's Children, about the family and culture of a boy who committed murder -- the youngest person ever to be convicted of murder in the state of New York at the time the book was written.

What was interesting to me about Butterfield's book, in the context of my novel (which was set in Kansas Territory in the 1850s, a scene of considerable sectarian violence that was damped down for a while before erupting again in 1861 in the east) was his analysis of the different cultures of Massachusetts and South Carolina in the antebellum U.S.. Butterfield's view was that honor in South Carolina was defined more or less by status -- insults had to be answered immediately, usually with violence, in order to save face.

This led to a lot of dueling, and he cites statistics on the persistence of dueling and other forms of violence and fighting in South Carolina well into the twentieth century. By contrast, honor in the entirely different culture of abolitionist Massachusetts was more like what we think of today as self-respect -- the primary marker of self-respect was not to respond, but to remain stoic and dignified in the teeth of insults.

For most of ante-bellum American history, it happened that hot-blooded slaveholding South Carolinians and passionate abolitionist citizens of Massachusetts, who agreed on nothing culturally or politically, didn't have much contact with one another. Geographically, they were separated by the more mixed and moderate states of New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, etc. They constituted extremist wings of an American political culture that was forming itself through many types of dialogue, confrontation, and discourse.

In the Kansas Territory in 1855 and 1856, though, they ran head on into each other, unmediated by more moderate types, as a result of the Kansas Nebraska Act. In 1854, Congress had decided to let Kansas and Nebraska Territories decide for themselves whether to be slave or free, and the result was that the most extreme slave partisans and the most extreme abolitionists headed for Kansas Territory in order to settle the land and, more or less, stuff the ballot boxes.

When these two groups got to Kansas and saw one another, they hated what they saw. The Massachusetts settlers saw dirty, barefoot, ignorant, uneducated, and violent southerners, and the South Carolinians saw pompous, self-satisfied, elitist, mercenary, and cowardly snobs. To the Massachusetts settlers, the fact that the South Carolinians would fight and kill at the slightest provocation was a sign of their immature and low natures. To the South Carolinians, the fact that the Massachusetts settlers wouldn't fight was a sign not of self-respect but of cowardice and failure to actually believe in what they said they believed in.

There were lots of skirmishes, some open voter fraud, and one real terrorist attack -- John Brown's attack on five slave-owning Kansans. John Brown was an abolitionist who believed that God was telling him to free the slaves at any cost and that it was divinely ordained that the South was to pay for its sins through suffering, blood, and fire. When he was chased out of Kansas, he went to Maryland, and, many say, sparked the Civil War at Harper's Ferry.

So what? What do we learn from this other than that America is still at least partially in thrall to these two cultures? Well, we can also learn something about what is happening as Europe and the Middle East confront each other about the Danish cartoons. The differences are not only religious, they are also about what constitutes self-respect.

To the Europeans, self-respect means tolerating insults with dignity -- the sign that one's principles are strong and secure is one's ability to adhere to them in spite of attacks, and to refuse to admit, under threat, that one's principles are wrong or that anything other than reasoned dialogue can be used to modify accepted principles. Islamic rioters in both the Middle East and Europe are more like those South Carolinians -- to fail to respond to an insult is to fail to maintain one's honor. The humiliation seems worse than mere death or injury.

Americans did not succeed at negotiating the clash of cultures between Massachusetts and South Carolina. Moderate and possibly non-violent Americans in both the north and the south were more and more drawn toward the extremes until finally, war seemed inevitable.

War, of course, took place, and it was violent, bloody, and nearly impossible to recover from. The effects lasted decades, and, I would argue, are still with us in the suspiciousness of various factions of our culture toward various other factions.

Personally, I am on the side of Massachusetts in this; self-respect is about maintaining control and speaking reasonably, not about beheading cartoonists. But our side would do well to recognize that there is something visceral and instinctive about the reactions of the other side. We can give them the theory of free speech until we are blue in the face, and they will not necessarily find it believable or true in their hearts, compared to deep-seated cultural expectations.

There is another fact about the American Civil War that is worth remembering. The Kansans who were from Massachusetts in the late 1850s were outnumbered, but they had the advantage, in the fight, of an advance in weapons technology, the breech-loading Sharps rifle, which they carried with them and also imported to the territory. The southerners, at that point, continued to use unwieldy muzzle-loading weapons. But that didn't last long. By the time of the Civil War, everyone was well armed and the war-profiteers were thriving, as always. So we have deja vu all over again.

Whoever we are, we may feel that right is on our side in our engagement in whatever clash of civilizations we are talking about, but it's worth pondering whether things like freedom are to be won at a lesser cost in suffering, blood, and fire or at a greater cost. That is a question for moderates everywhere, and I think they had better step up and make their presence felt.

Jane Smiley's most recent book is Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel .