Friday, June 24, 2016, I went to the first showing of the movie “The Free State of Jones” at my local movie theater. It was the day after the shocking vote in the United Kingdom where a majority of voters expressed their wish to exist the European Union. It was an OMG – Oh My God – moment for me. Why do I, sitting here in the United States, care what happens in the UK? It must be all that Masterpiece Theater on PBS, all that Downton Abbey and Poldark and Wolf Hall. It must be all that James Bond and Adele and Sting and Idris Elba. It must be Love Actually.
Watching this movie about a little known chapter of American Civil War and Reconstruction history where poor whites in Mississippi made common cause with runaway slaves, formed a community, and fought the Confederacy together made me think about how history can inform our thinking about the world we live in today.
As the fragments of my thoughts about the Brexit vote crashed against the confines of my mind, I saw on screen at least one yeoman farmer during the Civil War realize that this war was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. (Quiet as it is kept, most wars are such.) Conscription laws made it possible for men who owned at least twenty slaves to offer them for service to the Confederacy rather than go to fight and to die themselves. Men with no slaves had no choice but to go and fight when called. (In the north, the rich could also avoid the draft by paying others to take their place or by paying $300.)
Further, because of what was known as in-kind taxation, the Confederacy could come and take away a portion of a farmer’s harvest, livestock, and other goods to support the war effort. When Newton Knight, the hero of the movie, deserts, he helps women and children who are left behind defend their property against this confiscation. Life is hard enough. The reality of war made life harder.
The citizens of the UK who voted to leave the European Union must have felt that membership in the EU was making life harder. I was trying to understand why they would take such a vote. Some analysts cited discomfort with immigration into the UK from Europe. Too many people were coming into Great Britain, primarily from Eastern Europe, and competing for jobs and taking advantage of the National Health System and other social safety net provisions of the country. Brexit supporters wanted tighter restrictions. They understood the situation as a zero-sum game. They thought that leaving the EU would protect them from people who they thought were making their life harder.
While one reason for support of the leave faction may have been disdain for the bankers, business people, and elites who profit from British membership in the EU, unlike the poor people in the movie, they did not see coalition with the low-income Other as a way to advance their own economic interests. Rather, the Brexiteers retreated into nationalistic nostalgia. Older voters supported the leave vote. They perhaps remember Great Britain as the empire upon which the sun never set. They perhaps think of the UK in Shakespearean terms, that sceptered isle of Richard the II. In part the vote was a version of “Make Britain Great Again.” Some want their British passports back. They want the rules for their life made in the UK without having to acquiesce to EU regulations.
The Civil War was a war about maintaining national unity in the face of the moral scourge of slavery. Abraham Lincoln was right to say that the country could not survive half slave and half free. There is a limit to states’ rights. In order for a federal system to work, states have to give up some of their sovereignty. Further, history tells us that one reason the Confederacy lost was because of the inability of states to give up some of their rights for the sake of the larger project of winning the war and establishing a country.
The Brexit vote is in no way the same as the exit of the southern states that caused the Civil War, but it does remind us that very often people who are hurting economically, who are looking back at some fictional bi-gone era, who fail to see they have common cause with other poor and working class people no matter their color or country of origin, can fail to see the value of unity.
Sadly, the coalition of poor whites and runaway slaves that existed in the Free State of Jones was not perfect. It was no utopia. We see the ugly presence of racism. Moreover, it did not last. The ideology of white supremacy intruded, fueled the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and a violent insurgency against the presence of federal troops in the south during reconstruction, allowed for home-grown terrorism that disenfranchised African-Americans, established a kind of neo-slavery, and has left the south the poorest section of the country to this day.
There is always an economic price to pay for disunity.
Suppose poor and working class people across Europe, rather than retreating into nationalism, racism, and xenophobia, decided to work together for their own economic well-being. Suppose they voted for leaders who would use the logic of unity across national borders to not only enrich the elites of a nation but the poor and working class as well. Suppose every country had a decent national health system and a social safety net to catch those who are having hard economic times. Suppose every nation had affordable quality education on all levels, including vocational training. Suppose rather than seeing the national, racial, religious Others as a threat, we see them as human beings, as children of God who want the same things we want – sustenance and joy.
We could have an international Free State of Jones.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”