To spit in the wind is to attempt the impossible, a waste of one’s time and energy, even if for a good reason or cause. In Beaufort 1849, Spit Jim accuses Jasper of this when, after reading an enlightened letter to the editor in the Charleston Courier, Jasper perceives a faint chance that the South might voluntarily transition away from a slave economy. Jim, justifiably antsy to leave the South, doesn’t believe it for a second. “No one gives away wealth and power just because someone writes something sensible in a newspaper once in a while,” he tells Jasper caustically and urges him to leave both the South and this futile hope behind as soon as possible.
But Jasper sees the tragedy that lies ahead if the South doubles down to defend its way of life. At the dawn of what is now known as the Second Industrial Revolution, he’s aware that not only is public sentiment in the North and in Europe growing against slavery, but that the wealth and power of the world is beginning to swing heavily towards mechanization, industrialization, and energy supplied by coal. Try as it might, there will be no way for an agricultural South to maintain its economic and political parity with an industrialized North. Flush with immigrants and a growing middle class, the North is already vying for its economic system to prevail in the new territories and states as the nation expands. Further, as cries for secession mount in Beaufort, Jasper foresees the sheer impossibility of the North letting the South become a separate, hostile, militarily-powerful country stretching along its entire southern border, competing to annex land and resources. Because the South will be on the wrong side of economic (not to mention moral) history, Jasper realizes that in the coming fight for dominance the South is likely not only to lose the battle but to have its entire civilization crushed in the process.
Jim, born and raised a slave, is just fine with the prospect of the South’s destruction. Jasper, however, argues that given the suffering that will likely result, they should try to head off the brewing violence by advocating for reform. And so he begins his impossible task of convincing Southern planters to voluntarily give up a portion of their wealth and control, turn slaves into citizens and willing participants in the economy, begin mechanized farming, and industrialize by creating mills to manufacture cotton into cloth for local markets. (The South will eventually do some approximation of all of this, but not until enduring great suffering, death and hardship, and even then the collapse of the Southern economy and widespread poverty will endure several generations.)
I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that Jasper does not succeed in preventing the Civil War. Was he a fool even to try? Indeed, what are the odds that any one man could change the mind of an entire civilization? The reader of Beaufort 1849 knows Jasper is spitting in the wind from his very first attempt.
But if Jasper foresees disaster for the people he loves, isn’t he morally obliged to do what he can to avert it? How hard should he persevere, how much should he sacrifice?
Imagine if you were to visit a beloved cousin you hadn’t seen for a number of years. When you arrive, though he and his family appear quite prosperous, it soon becomes evident that the family is living beyond their means and that their prosperity is fueled by debt—credit cards, home equity withdrawls, no interest balloon payment loans, etc. As you hear about their recent Caribbean cruise, admire their remodeled kitchen, see the four new cars parked in the driveway, your feeling of impending doom for these people you love grows heavier and heavier. What do you do? Perhaps have a quiet talk with your cousin. And what will be the outcome? Most likely denial and perhaps a testy, “Mind your own business, everything’s under control.”
And what if your cousin lives in an entire town of people relying on ever-growing amounts of debt to maintain their lifestyle? What would your obligation be to change their behavior that is bound to make them poor, angry, unhappy and even desperate in the long run? If we like arguments, perhaps we might get into a few heated ones at a BBQ and make ourselves none too popular. For a subtler approach, we might offer hints that fall upon deaf ears. Perhaps we will be told that this way of life poses no problem, and how can we argue because, after all, it’s worked up until now? Perhaps we are indeed Cassandra’s, doomsters who want to frighten everyone into being miserable and giving up the good life because we can’t stand to see others enjoying themselves.
Upton Sinclair once wrote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
Now what if your cousin made his living strip mining coal or marketing cigarettes? What if your cousin lived in early Nazi Germany and didn’t seem troubled by the murders and disappearances because his mercantile trade was finally booming again? What if your cousin imported goods from Asia made by children and young teens for wages that barely kept them fed? Or what if your cousin lived in a slave economy, all his friends and neighbors owned slaves, and he used slaves to farm his fields?
I first saw the phrase, “Denial is not a river in Egypt,” on a button worn by a NA (Narcotics Anonymous) member out with a bunch of compatriots on a day trip to Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. The support and camaraderie that this group (who had likely been through hell) were giving each other was important, but so was the acknowledgement that change only occurs when one is willing and open to it. After one has identified and admitted the problem. People who don’t believe they have a problem are unlikely to change. And people whose wealth and ease depend on a particular way of life are likely to defend that way of life rather than perceive problems with it. In fact, they are most likely to perceive problems with the person criticizing it.
Now, what if the town living an unsustainable way of life (along whichever measure you wish—economic, moral, environmental, resource consumption, etc.) is not your cousin’s but your own? What if it is not your town that is on a dangerous path, but your entire country? Your planet? Jasper has the option of leaving the South, and due to his struggles with alcoholism and commitments he’s made to Jim, he knows he can’t linger in Beaufort for long. In contrast, though most of us could probably change towns, countries would be difficult, and the planet impossible. Is pressing for change then more imperative even if deaf ears and anger seem to be the only result? Or is it wiser to hunker down, accept that the worst may indeed come, and put our energies towards preparing our families and those we love as best we can? As Dmitry Orlov observes, “Big changes happen slowly at first, then all at once.” There may be less time to prepare than we think.
But what if “the worst” means the suffering and death of millions if not billions through drought and famine? What if “the worst” means our children will have available only a fraction of the energy and natural resources we currently enjoy? What if “the worst” means that half of all species currently on the planet will be driven to extinction? How bad does the future have to be to make inaction unbearable? Or is it all too clear that any attempt is simply spitting in the wind. A waste of time and energy. Pointless.
I don’t have an answer to this quandary. Anyone who understands compound interest, can interpret charts and graphs, and has a basic understanding of science will have to weigh their ethical obligations against the practical realities of their lives. I have no doubt that each of us will feel called to different actions depending on our temperaments and life situations.
All stories involve problems. In comedies, through courage, ingenuity, cooperation, dramatic epiphany or perhaps plain luck, people manage to overcome their predicaments. In tragedies, they fail. The antebellum South was a tragedy. Rather than adapt to the demands of the time, the white populace risked everything to preserve an unsustainable way of life. The result was economic ruin and the collapse of their civilization.
Which are we living right now, comedy or tragedy? Do we need pluck, gumption and courage to heroically prevail against impossible odds? Or should we cultivate our ability to accept and adapt to the inescapable forces that history is already winding up to throw at us, however dreadful and harrowing they may be? I just don’t know.
(A note on the first cartoon above: when occupying New Orleans in April of 1862, Major General Benjamin F. Butler issued a proclamation indicating that any woman who harassed a northern soldier by any show of contempt would be arrested as a prostitute. This didn’t make him very popular in New Orleans, but it did cut down on the spitting.)