Friday, August 20, 2010

The Quotable Rhett Butler: Down with Popery!

What better time to shout "Down with Popery!" than in the week we bragged about that most pious set of Gone with the Wind fans, the Catholic nuns? You see, we're all about denominational impartiality here, at How We Do Run On. So, as you probably already guessed, our (somewhat belated) Rhett quote for the week is this:
"Sometimes the rallying cry is 'Save the Tomb of Christ from the Heathen!' Sometimes it's 'Down with Popery!' and sometimes 'Liberty!' and sometimes 'Cotton, Slavery and States' Rights!'" --Gone with the Wind, Chapter XII
It is this line, uttered at Mrs. Elsing's silver musicale, that signs Rhett's exclusion from Atlanta's society. His stand in the entire speech is that of the perfect cynic, and as such is both hard to dismantle and extremely insulting for his idealistic countrymen. The current war is not sacred,  Rhett says, simply because no war is sacred. All wars are fought for money. All other reasons men go to war are just false reasons, pretexts and empty words fed to them by stay at home orators.

For years I believed this theory to be true. I think I know better now. I will try to explain, though, why this was such an appealing world view for me at one time, and why I now consider it to be flawed.

What Rhett is basically saying is what progressive historians say: economy precedes and dictates ideology. But then Rhett Butler (or should I say Margaret Mitchell?) makes this  significantly more appealing than any historian could. I don't know which one you'd rather be, the dashing cynical captain that harbors no illusions, or one of his compatriots that MM portraits as naive at best, but for me the choice was simple. *cue music* Enter Bugsie, the jaded 7-year-old (and yes, my parents were insane, but hey, MM's nephew had it read to him at age 5!).

For a long time my view of history was colored by this stance. With the exception of WW2,  I pretty much thought any war a "money squabble." It's not the worst way to be introduced to history either, I hasten to add. There are indeed economical patterns in history. Let's take Rhett's quote for example. First, admire its sneakiness, since the first rallying cries he chose are both from religious conflicts. And if one tried to find an ideological driving force for a war, religion would be the most obvious choice, so Rhett's mining the main counterargument to his theory right from the beginning. Let's see what events he's alluding to, and what economic causes lie beneath each of them.

  • Catholics against the world - 'Save the Tomb of Christ from the Heathen!': First we have the famous Crusades, the campaigns Western Europe waged to recapture the territories occupied by the Muslims. Did the Crusades have an underlying economic reason? More than one. Perhaps control over the Tomb of Christ was the first thing the Christians wanted to extract from the Muslims, but control over the sea ports at the Mediterranean definitely ranked a comfortable second. Not to mention the fact that a crusade was a fine way to occupy some of the warriors the medieval society was so good at producing and so bad at employing in a constructive fashion.

  • The world against Catholics - 'Down with Popery!': This a trickier one, since there are few things the world has enjoyed shouting more from the times of Henry VIII forth. One could link a multitude of violent conflicts to this cry, partially the English Civil War and definitely the Gordon Riots of 1780. Its echoes were still very much alive in the 19th century, even across the ocean. Economic reasons? Aplenty, from the larger scale ones related to the monarchs ascertaining political and implicitly economic control over their territories by rejecting the meddling of the Catholic Church, to the particular set of conditions that led to the Gordon Riots and that were only marginally related to the Catholics receiving rights (hint: poverty, low wages, inflation, unemployment. That sort of thing).

  • The world against Catholics & friends - 'Liberty': Again a pretty general cry, but I am going to assume it refers to that most celebrated of revolutionary mottoes (Liberté, égalité, fraternité), especially since Rhett will later compare the Southern aristocrats to the French ones, unaware of the fate lying before them before they climbed into the tumbrils. Again, one can trace multiple economic reasons for the French Revolution, like the financial crisis that preceded it, or simply see it all as passing the power and money from one group of people to another. The same idea applies if he's talking about the American Revolution.

So all three of these events can be (and have been) explained as "money squabbles." But here's the trick: while the economic cause is undeniably at work, it is not the only driving force behind these conflicts. It is very comfortable to reduce everything to money. But it is also terribly simplistic. Just as simplistic as reducing everything to some other cause, be it religion, wish for freedom etc. Took me a while to get it but a) history is complicated, b) cynic is not the definition of "right" and c) cynic is not the definition of "cool." (Okay, the jury is still out on that last one. ) In any case, enter Bugsie, less jaded twenty-something.

Rhett's position effaces some lines that I would like to keep and, in this particular case, serves as a subtle defense of a system I don't want to see either rationalized or defended. If everything is about economy, and nothing about ideology, then there are no moral issues to discuss about in a war. There is no right and wrong. And while that might hold true for some wars, I can't bring myself to say it holds true for all of them.

In any case, I think Rhett employs some dose of bravado when he exposes his views here, just like when he tells Scarlett at the bazaar that money can buy everything. And we know from him enlisting in the Confederate army and failing quite spectacularly in buying his wife's affection that both these stands were quite inaccurate.

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