Calculating the Worth of Human Lives

Along the same lines as my earlier thoughts about Howard Zinn, I have this to say about a paragraph in the introduction to my textbook (the Norton Anthology of American Literature (shorter ninth edition)).

Page 3

“The Civil War transformed the lives of the four million African Americans who obtained their freedom from slavery, but its costs were staggering. The combined death toll from the Union and Confederate armies equaled more than 620,000 soldiers—or about 2 percent of the total U.S. population. Historians have offered a conservative estimate of an additional 50,000 civilian casualties, mostly in areas that declared secession from the Union. Of those who survived battle, hundreds of thousands sustained injuries, and the fighting obliterated fields, factories, and homes in the war’s path. In the face of so much destruction and suffering, the rebuilding of the United States required . . . ” [emphasis mine]

I find it interesting that the authors chose to use the word “staggering” in describing the cost of the Civil War, given the numbers they provide in the same sentence. Is 670,000 staggering compared to four million? Is 2 percent of the total U.S. population staggering compared to 13 percent of it?

(Those numbers don’t even count the millions who died in slavery before the war, or take into account the oppression under which successive millions would be actively kept by the survivors of the 670,000 for another century and a half after the war.)

And frankly, is it at all reasonable to be numerically comparing the lives of enslaved people with the lives of the people fighting to be able to own them? This is my philosophy: when you use your life to hurt other people, your life loses worth. Everyone is born with inherent worth, and that is exactly why you lose it when you use your power to destroy others’.

Norton’s evaluation of cost seems to require that the worth of white lives be calculated as higher than that of black ones. The injuries of soldiers are tallied while the injuries of the enslaved go unmentioned. The “fields, factories, and homes” obliterated by the war are noted without reference to the utter destruction of generations of black families and property which preceded the war. The tally includes “destruction and suffering” caused by the war, but not the destruction and suffering that necessitated the war. And the rebuilding it refers to, again, does not acknowledge white people’s continued, deliberate, and violent suppression of black people’s ability to build for the first time.

Not that this is Norton’s issue specifically; it’s part of the standard American narrative. But it’s really quite astonishing that even white America would have the absolute sheer fucking nerve to represent the Civil War in these terms.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Miri says:

    A few pages later the book does briefly mention “the force [and] complexity of the continued subjugation of black Americans during this period,” as well as acknowledge the ways that Native culture was devalued while the U.S. government was forcing Native American tribes off their land. So that’s something.

    Like

  2. Jan Hicks says:

    That notion that Black lives were transformed, as well. Set free to experience continued institutionalised prejudice for the past 160 years. When was this text written?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Miri says:

      2017, as far as I can tell. It’s remarkable how many things they were able to get wrong in such an innocuous-looking paragraph.

      Liked by 1 person

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