“The Government is Us”: Brahmin Tic and the Civil War

dead soldiers, from Ewell's May 1864 attack at Spotsylvania
Dead soldiers, from Ewell’s May 1864 attack at Spotsylvania

Looking back at American history, there’s one big group of whites that harnessed the power of the Federal government to oppress another big group of whites, in what was likely the largest of all internal American events other than the conquering of the country itself.

600,000 white people died in the process of one group of whites imposing its values on another group of whites. I happen to agree with the victors that slavery is a great moral evil, but I note that most other western countries managed to end slavery without slaughtering their own people in the process.

Now let me stop and declare outright: I am not a Civil War historian, and I know there are thousands, perhaps millions of people more knowledgeable on the subject than I am. I do know, however, that Southern secession was motivated by fear that the North would outlaw slavery and use the power of the Federal government to enforce it.

1 in 13 Veterans returned as amputees
1 in 13 Veterans returned as amputees

According to Wikipedia:

The war produced at least 1,030,000 casualties (3 percent of the population), including about 620,000 soldier deaths—two-thirds by disease, and 50,000 civilians.[12] Binghamton University historian J. David Hacker believes the number of soldier deaths was approximately 750,000, 20 percent higher than traditionally estimated, and possibly as high as 850,000.[20][208] The war accounted for more American deaths than in all other U.S. wars combined.[209]

Based on 1860 census figures, 8 percent of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6 percent in the North and 18 percent in the South.[210][211] About 56,000 soldiers died in prison camps during the War.[212] An estimated 60,000 men lost limbs in the war.[213]

You might think that all of this was at least for the good for the slaves, but according to historian Jim Downs of Connecticut College, thousands of the freed slaves died of hunger, disease, and exposure in the aftermath of the war:

as Downs shows in his book, Sick From Freedom, the reality of emancipation during the chaos of war and its bloody aftermath often fell brutally short of that positive image. Instead, freed slaves were often neglected by union soldiers or faced rampant disease, including horrific outbreaks of smallpox and cholera. Many of them simply starved to death.

After combing through obscure records, newspapers and journals Downs believes that about a quarter of the four million freed slaves either died or suffered from illness between 1862 and 1870. He writes in the book that it can be considered “the largest biological crisis of the 19th century” and yet it is one that has been little investigated by contemporary historians. …

Downs reconstructed the experiences of one freed slave, Joseph Miller, who had come with his wife and four children to a makeshift freed slave refugee camp within the union stronghold of Camp Nelson in Kentucky. In return for food and shelter for his family Miller joined the army. Yet union soldiers in 1864 still cleared the ex-slaves out of Camp Nelson, effectively abandoning them to scavenge in a war-ravaged and disease-ridden landscape. One of Miller’s young sons quickly sickened and died. Three weeks later, his wife and another son died. Ten days after that, his daughter perished too. Finally, his last surviving child also fell terminally ill. By early 1865 Miller himself was dead. …

Things were so bad that one military official in Tennessee in 1865 wrote that former slaves were: “dying by scores – that sometimes 30 per day die and are carried out by wagonloads without coffins, and thrown promiscuously, like brutes, into a trench”.

So bad were the health problems suffered by freed slaves, and so high the death rates, that some observers of the time even wondered if they would all die out.

re-interring the war dead
re-interring the war dead

The echoes of this moral imposition are still with us. There are those who refer to the government as “we” and “us,” as in “We ought to do something about poverty” or “we should make healthcare a basic right” and then there are those who refer to the government as something alien and outside, as in “the government killed 85 people in Waco.” (By the way, it looks like the Branch Davidians set their own compound on fire.) or “the government is raising taxes on the middle class.”

Or as Moldbug puts it:

Surely one of the most grievously forgotten authors of the 20th century is Freda Utley. In the immortal words of Rutger Hauer, Utley “saw things… you people wouldn’t believe” – she moved to Moscow as a Communist true believer in the 1930s, lost her husband to the Gulag, and never remarried. Her honesty and fearlessness did not make her popular, especially when she spoke out against American abuses in the occupation of Germany, or against Maoism 40 years before it was fashionable. …

Perhaps Utley’s most acute realization in Odyssey, though on a trivial subject, is when she notices that her friend Bertrand Russell always uses the word “we” to refer to the government. She points out that this little linguistic tic is an unmistakable mark of any ruling class.

Apparently this “nostrism” (if I can risk another obscure quasicoinage) was more unusual in the ’50s than it is now. Because, although I have tried repeatedly to break myself of the habit, I use exactly the same pronoun. It’s an unmistakable sign of my Brahmin upbringing. I can’t imagine counting the number of times I’ve heard someone say “we should…” when what they really mean is “the government should…” Language is repetition, and though my considered view is that it’s just as bizarre to define “we” as the US Federal Government, especially for someone who isn’t actually an employee of said entity, as it would be to use the first person plural for Safeway, Comcast or OfficeMax, habits die hard.

Today, Russell-style nostrism is peculiar, I believe, to the Brahmin caste. Certainly Helots, Dalits, and Vaisyas all think of the government as very much “they.” If Optimates go with “we,” it’s probably because they’re so used to having to pass as Brahmins. I find it rather hard to imagine a cardiologist or a hedge-fund hotshot genuinely thinking of Uncle Sam as “we.”

Given that this is Moldbug, this is actually a short quote.

Civil War cemetery, Andersonville, GA
Civil War cemetery, Andersonville, GA

More culturally, there are those who generally think the government is on their side and can be used to solve social problems, (or at least they did before Trump was elected,) and those who think the government is basically against them and creates social problems, and which side you’re on probably has a lot to do with whether or not the government marched in and burned down your great-great-great-grandparents’ farm in 1864. Today the South remains poorer than the North, which they blame on the long-term effects of the war and punitive reconstruction policies. (Which is about as true as the story about Japan being poor today because the US military bombed its cities to smithereens.) Nevertheless, much American politics can be simplified as a continuing conflict between poor southerners and rich northerners.

The group that currently talks a lot about “institutional racism,” “white privilege,” and the importance of using the government to correct social ills through programs like Welfare and Affirmative Action happens also to be on the side that did the marching back in 1864 (even if they are actually just the children of immigrants who only recently moved to the area.)

Let’s take a quick look at poverty in America:

(Obviously poverty is relative and few of us are living in what passes for poverty in the third world, but let’s stay on topic.) So here is the census data (pdf) on poverty rates by race:


Obviously blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans have the highest poverty rates, while whites and Asians have the lowest.

But remember that there are a lot more whites than anyone else in America. When you multiply poverty rates by actual numbers, you get 17.8 million whites in poverty compared to 10 million blacks. (source.)

And as you might have noticed, we still live in a democracy, where numbers matter.

Summary: The side that thinks it imperative that we listen to their ideas for how government should end the poverty of black communities doesn’t understand why the white communities whose ancestors were invaded and killed by that same government, who are actually the biggest community of poor people in the US, disagree with them on the matter.

This might just be coincidence. I’m certain there are other factors involved (including genetics.) But it might also be an important thing to keep in mind when trying to convince others of the importance of using the government to enforce social change.