Sunday, May 24, 2015

How It All Began: The Belgrade Embassy Bombing

When I was in Beijing during the protests in 1989, a middle-aged man came up to me and asked, “Couldn’t America send some B-52s here and…” and he made a swooping motion with his hand.

Ten years later, on May 7, 1999, the American bombers did show up.  

Instead of showering freedom ordnance on China’s dictators, however, they dropped five bombs on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

As to why this happened, the United States has always declared it was an accident.

A lot of people in China believe otherwise and there is a good amount of evidence to support their view.  

The bombing of the embassy was a wake-up call for the PRC leadership, which decided it urgently needed a doctrine and capabilities beyond its strategic nuclear deterrent to handle disagreements with the United States that might acquire a military dimension.

It was also a propaganda godsend for the regime.

Chinese demonstrators were back on the streets, but protesting against the United States instead of against the PRC regime’s deficiencies in Western democratic values.

Americans and the U.S. media had a hard time getting used to this unfavorable turn in some popular Chinese attitudes away from 1989 democracy-love, blaming the ill-feeling on the suppression of news of President Clinton’s apology.

In the July 2001 China Journal, Peter Hays Gries of Ohio State University analyzed letters and submissions to China’s Guangming Daily and characterized the protests as “genuine and understandable” and largely unrelated to unawareness of the presidential apology.

On the ten-year anniversary of the bombing, China Digital Times linked to an interview with a student who identified the bombing as the trigger for a sea-change in the worldview of at least some Chinese:

What do you believe has changed now in the attitude of young Chinese (like those who protested 10 years ago against the USA) towards America?

Over the past decade, I think the young Chinese have gradually dropped their illusion of the U.S. and begun to view it more objectively.

After reform and opening-up, to be more specific in the 1980s and 1990s, the Chinese people began to know more about the outside world. The prosperity of the west attracted the young people so much that all of a sudden everybody wanted to go abroad. At that time, we had a popular saying, “Moon of the west is even more beautiful than that of China.” Experiencing the sharp contrast between China and the west, many Chinese people became critical of China, perhaps in a cynical way.

However, when the Chinese embassy was bombed, many people began to think: is this the kind of democracy and human rights that we want to pursue?

Post Iraq-war, it is difficult to remember the years when the United States effortlessly claimed the moral high ground.  But in 1999, I remember that I also discounted Chinese whinging about the Belgrade embassy accident.

Writing in 2001, Gries provides a reminder:

The demonstrations shocked the US media, which quickly pointed blame at the Chinese government for inflaming the protests.  A brief review of major US newspaper editorials of 11 May reveals a consensus view: the Chinese people were not genuinely angry with (innocent) America; they were, rather, manipulated by Communist propaganda that the bombing was intentional…The Washington Post declared: “The Big Lie is alive and well in Beijing”…Such “state-supervised anger”, the Boston Globe declared, was neither genuine nor popular.  The “brutes in Beijing” were responsible for the Chinese people’s  mistaken belief that the bombing was intentional.

A contentious interview conducted by Jim Lehrer with the Chinese ambassador to the US, Li Zhaoxing, immediately subsequent to the attack, is enlightening for the cognitive dissonance provoked by Li’s refusal to share Lehrer's confidence that the US would publicly and honestly sort out what was obviously just a regrettable goof.  Looking back at the interview through the perspective provided by the shameless mendacity of the Bush administration over the Iraq War, it is Lehrer and not Li who looks delusional and out of touch.

LI ZHAOXING: I'm saying that the Chinese people and the Chinese government are requesting a thorough investigation of the NATO missile attack on our embassy in Yugoslavia.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, sir. But my question is: why would you think that it would not be an accident or a mistake? In other words, why would you think-- to repeat my question, why would you think that the United States would intentionally kill Chinese citizens in downtown Belgrade?

LI ZHAOXING: Ask your own people. Ask your own officials. Ask your own experts. If they ask themselves, seriously, honestly, do they really believe that this is simply a kind of mistake?
JIM LEHRER: Are you suggesting that that is not the intention of the United States, to do exactly what you-- in other words, to conduct a full investigation and hold the people responsible for this?

LI ZHAOXING: We attach more to facts, rather than words. No matter how eloquent one could be.

In addition to his encounter with  Jim Lehrer, Li Zhaoxing received further instruction on American attitudes from another, less courtly source.

 Gries passes on a report in the Washington Post in which Tom DeLay, the Republican whip in the House of Representatives, revealed to Li his own formula for managing US-PRC relations, one that did not depend on apologies:

I was on Meet the Press…right after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kosovo [he meant Belgrade], and the [Chinese] ambassador was on before me.  And if you remember, he’s kind of an obnoxious fellow and he’s screaming and yelling about how bad the Americans were, and I had had it up to about here.  So he’s coming off the stage and I’m going onto the stage and I intentionally walked up to him and blocked his way…I grabbed [his] hand and squeezed it as hard as I could and pulled him a kind of little jerk like this and I said: “Don’t take the weakness of this president as the weakness of the American people”.  And he looked at me kind of funny, so I pulled him real close, nose to nose, and I repeated it very slowly, and said, “Do-not-take-the-weakness-of  this president as the weakness of the American people”.

I expect Li Zhaoxing recalled Mr. DeLay’s solicitude as well as Jim Lehrer’s amazed disbelief when he returned to Beijing to become China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

A tentative answer to Jim Lehrer’s query as to why the United States might take the dastardly step of bombing the Chinese embassy can be found in my articles from early 2007 on the Belgrade incident: the persistent rumor that attack was conducted to destroy wreckage of a US stealth fighter shot down over Serbia, which the Milosevic government had delivered to the PRC in gratitude for services rendered (or perhaps traded to the PRC in return for presumably safe and secure radio retransmission facilities from inside the Belgrade embassy for the Serbian military, whose communications network was a focus of NATO strikes).

The story that China might have acquired key Stealth technology from the crash in Yugoslavia acquired a lot of legs after China test-flew its first stealth fighter, the J20, in January 2011, as I wrote in Asia Times. 

During the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) campaign against Serbia in 1999, an American F-117A stealth fighter was shot down. Some wreckage undoubtedly made it into Chinese hands. Slobodan Lekic and Dusan Stojanovic of the Associated Press (AP) reported on January 23:

"At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers," says Admiral Davor Domazet-Loso, Croatia's military chief of staff during the Kosovo war.

"We believe the Chinese used those materials to gain an insight into secret stealth technologies ... and to reverse-engineer them," Domazet-Loso said in a telephone interview.

A senior Serbian military official confirmed that pieces of the wreckage were removed by souvenir collectors, and that some ended up "in the hands of foreign military attaches". [2]

The idea that the United States had not taken adequate steps to secure the F-117A wreckage and useful technology may have thereby found its way into enemy hands is apparently rather irksome to the Pentagon.

Elizabeth Bumiller transmitted the US official pushback in the January 26 New York Times article titled "US Doubts '99 Jet Debris Gave China Stealth Edge":

[I]t's hard to imagine that a great deal of applicable and useful information could have been culled from the site," said an Air Force official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about military intelligence. [3]

Interestingly and perhaps not surprisingly, even as this narrative of PRC military espionage cum trashpicking was advanced, I didn’t see anybody pursue the logical corollary: that acknowledgment that China had possessed Stealth wreckage buttressed the allegation that the US government might have bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in order to destroy the sensitive technology.

In reading my dissection of the Belgrade bombing, its myths and legends, the reader can draw his own conclusions about the context it provides for subsequent US-PRC confrontations and strategies and the attendant media hoopla.  

A final prefatory note:

One element that contemporary readers might find hard to swallow is my assertion that the mission that destroyed the Chinese embassy was the only target selected by the CIA.

Well, that’s what George Tenet, Director of the CIA, said.  It is a mystery to me why he considered this revelation in any way exculpatory.

From the July 23, 1999 New York Times:

"It was the only target we nominated," the director, George Tenet, said at a rare public hearing of the House Intelligence Committee. 

After the strike on May 7, which killed three Chinese and wounded at least 20 others, the CIA decided it better go back to its usual business of spying, a U.S. official said Thursday. Reeling from its error, the agency almost immediately suspended other preparations it was making to forward additional targets to help NATO. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

US Rolls Out the Escalation Product in the South China Sea

I have a piece up at Asia Times, The Salami Slices Back!, on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.  Spoiler: the threat to FoN is the linchpin justification for US meddling in the SCS, but it's pretty much BS.

Rather timely, isn’t it?  Since the US started flying military patrol aircraft around PRC-held islands in the South China Sea yesterday to uphold “freedom of navigation”.  And the PRC responded by flying some bomber around international airspace, apparently inside Japan’s ADIZ, occasioning an intercept.

Something I’d like to point out to people who get mil-boners from the idea of the US armed forces finally coming into direct confrontation with the PRC and forcing the arrogant Chinese dragon to its scaly knees:  The PRC grits its teeth and lets the US military go where it wants; it retaliates asymmetrically, both in target (more vulnerable allies) and in measures (economic & diplomatic).

In my opinion things will get really interesting if/when Japan Self Defense Forces join the US military in these demonstration flights, and if/when US/Japanese forces protect a Philippine flotilla doing some hydrocarbon-related activity inside the Philippine EEZ, maybe after the UNCLOS arbitration declares the nine-dash-line invalid.

Meanwhile, unleash the journos and pundits!  The US government has assiduously prepped for this escalation so that the operation and the Chinese reaction can be suitably presented in the public sphere.  

An interesting element of the coverage is that it highlights the leading DoD role.  The PRC activity is pretty much Ash Carter’s op.  

Ash Carter, the US Secretary of Defense, has been remarkably mouthy in matters of foreign policy, not just on the PRC, in the area of policy pronouncements, threats, complaints, etc. (and actions like the recent assassination or was it failed capture? raid on that IS guy), so it was interesting to read an article by Greg Sheridan and Rowan Callick in The Australian marking the formal kickoff of the US SCS campaign.

It’s pretty frank and revealing and perhaps a sign that The Australian is either not completely housebroken or just doesn’t understand the house rules and rushed to print all the interesting tittle tattle it heard when it was read into the program, instead of sitting on it and just doling out the talking points (I suspect the “former senior US national security official” is Kurt Campbell and wonder if he’s berating the The Australian: “I p*ssed on Kerry to establish a false aura of intimacy and trust so you’d bank on me for your China spin.  You weren’t supposed to print it, ferchrissakes.”)

I've highlighted some of the more striking bits for rushed or inattentive readers.  In another plug for my AT article, notice how the Freedom of Navigation canard is central to the US framing of its South China Sea activities.


The new US policy assertiveness is being led by new Defence Secretary Ashton Carter and newly appointed Pacific Commander Harry Harris, who takes up his post shortly.

Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for Asia in the first four years of the Obama ­administration, told The Australian: “The combination of new ­Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, and Admiral Harry Harris has brought a much needed strategic focus to what the US needs to do in the South China Sea to underscore its commitment to firmly held international principles, such as freedom of navigation and the legal resolution of territorial disputes. If you’re looking for consistency and continuity of US policy over decades, between Democrats and Republicans, it is around the issue of preserving the sea lines of communication.

“It is clear the US wants a good relationship with China but these principles are not up for negotiation.”

A wide range of Washington sources said The Wall Street Journal story had been leaked by the US Pacific Command, which was extremely concerned about Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea.

Since the appearance of the story in the Journal, momentum in favour of the freedom of navigation action has increased.

The effect of the leak is that if the Obama administration now does not undertake a freedom of navigation action, it will be seen to have backed away from asserting America’s core traditional position.

Washington sources said Mr Carter was proving a strong and assertive defence secretary.
Mr Obama was unable to get his first choice — Michelle Flournoy — to take the post to succeed Chuck Hagel, who was widely regarded as a poor defence secretary somewhat overwhelmed by the job.
Washington sources suggested senior Democrats, who believed they might have a cabinet-level future under a Hillary Clinton presidency had no desire to serve in the last year of the Obama administration, which is widely seen as having been weak on defence, poor at foreign policy and ineffective in Asia. Mr Carter, these sources say, is now widely seen as the leading figure on Asia in the Obama administration.

The timing of any US operation in the South China Sea remains delicate. Mr Carter is scheduled to deliver an important address to the Shangri-La Defence Dialogue in Singapore at the end of the month. China’s President, Xi Jinping, is scheduled to visit Washington in September.

Sources suggest that a US operation would likely occur after Mr Carter’s Singapore visit but before Mr Xi’s Washington visit.
The White House has not yet made a final decision on such an operation. Any Pentagon plans supported by Mr Carter would need the President’s direct approval.
One former senior US national security official told The Australian that the recent visit to Beijing by Secretary of State John Kerry had not made any difference to the calculations involved.

“No one listens to anything he says and he says it interminably,” the official said.

So, according to this telling, assertive Ash Carter is not playing bad cop to Obama/Kerry’s good cop; he’s the whole show, which will delight fans of military control of foreign policy everywhere (note the speculation that the Pentagon leaked Carter's plans for the FoN challenge so the White House couldn't back down).

I kinda have the feeling that the muscular Asian strategy is a Campbell/Clinton play, & Carter is auditioning for reappointment as SecDef in an HRC presidency.  If, as I suspect, the PRC retaliates asymmetrically in ways that require coordinated response with the White House and State Department, two civilian outfits apparently derided in the Pentagon as the bluntest tools in the shed, things could get pretty messy.  But Obama and his team will take the heat & Hillary can come in and set things right, I guess.

The Australian piece, in my opinion, falls into the category of “facty” writing, a genre that looks to become increasingly unpopular as the demand swells for what I call “truthy” writing—writing that cuts through the irrelevant and distracting “facts” to focus on the essence of the PRC issue, namely the need above all to recognize and confront the PRC threat.

A fine example of the genre is Van Jackson’s discourse on anti-China discourse in The Diplomat.  Jackson expresses anxiety that (my gloss) China hawks are getting picked on by America-hating panda-lickers and concludes:

As Sebastian Junger emotionally extolled, “At some point, pacifism becomes part of the machinery of death.”  We need not seek conflict with China and we should cultivate empathy for its perspective, but the ironic consequence of focusing on a U.S. “anti-China” discourse and allowing Chinese assertiveness to escape from view may be a failure to balance a rising revisionist power before it’s too late. 

Why so serious?  Well, because the US decided it was time to make things serious.

An important Rubicon was crossed with the US campaign to complement Prime Minister Abe’s new interpretation of the “Peace” constitution with new US-Japan defense guidelines.  Now Japan can support US military operations outside the traditional scope of homeland defense, and the idea of joint patrols in the South China Sea is already being tossed around.

The upgraded Japan alliance was the first salvo in what is presented as a sustained campaign of confrontation with the PRC.  Second one is flying around the SCS.  More to come, obviously.  Much more, if the China hawks see things going their way.

Unambiguously, the US-PRC strategic relationship is officially in the sh*tter, thanks to the US decision to confront the PRC.  Processing this rather unpleasant state of affairs causes considerable brainhurt among the Asianist commentariat, apparently, so there is a lot of digital ink being spilt to explain this move is purely reactive and the PRC started it with its “assertive” behavior, particularly in the South China Sea.

Orville Schell weighed in with a piece wonderfully titled “Share and Be Nice”.

The title comes from a faux-naïve question challenging PRC unwillingness to jaw-jaw on the South China Sea from a gentleman at the US Naval War College, hereinafter the “US Naval Sharing College”.

Can’t make fun of Orville Schell, though.  He’s the dean of modern China scholars and has devoted his career to understanding and presenting the US-PRC relationship with objectivity and insight.

He writes:

Everywhere we found officials still committed to finding ways for the two countries to work together, but all evinced a beleaguered perplexity about why China was deporting itself so pugnaciously. Indeed, almost every official expressed deep concern over the way China’s new assertiveness—some described it as “truculence”— was thwarting a more cooperative relationship, even of achieving some version of the very goal Beijing purports to desire, namely, what Xi Jinping has called a “new type of great power relationship.”
 [W]e are not sure why Beijing feels compelled to act so forcefully in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea toward the Diaoyu/Sengaku Islands, against foreign media outlets operating in China, and toward critics in Hong Kong, to name only a few areas of concern. In the absence of a better explanation, most Americans interpret such Chinese actions as forms of Putin-like brinksmanship. The verité that not all the wealth and power in the world can substitute for a genuinely cooperative spirit is one that is evidently too easy to overlook. The result has been a dangerous reservoir of negative sentiment pooling up, leaving one to wonder whether Chinese officials have a realistic idea of just how disaffected their American counterparts, including non-governmental American China specialists, have actually become. Alas, China’s grave lack of straight talk and transparency makes even that question hard to answer.

Van Jackson should feel relief that the “anti-China discourse” discourse has apparently not extended into any of the fora that matter.  Indeed, the entire US foreign policy establishment is apparently an “anti-China discourse”-free safe zone where experts can “all” evince “beleaguered perplexity” and voice belief in the purity of American intentions and the reality of PRC truculence without fear of intimidation, confusion, or for that matter, embarrassment.

As to why things got to this parlous state, let me try to add some facty gloss to the conundrum.

Contra the frequent invocations of the PRC’s recent lurch toward feistiness, the friction between the US and PRC predates the intimidating alpha-panda reign of Xi Jinping.  The key tipping point was actually the election of Barack Obama.  Inconvenient fact, but also true.  Also quite understandable.

The Obama administration, and Hillary Clinton in particular, entered office with the idea of rolling back the easy geopolitical and economic gains that the PRC had stacked up in Asia, in Africa, even in the traditional Atlanticist bailiwicks of Europe and South America, since George W. Bush a) took his eye off the Asian ball with his catastrophic adventure in Iraq and b) cratered the world economy through mismanagement of the Great Derivatives Bubble of 2006 a.k.a. the Great Recession of 2007-8.

The PRC was already chesty back then, and was pushing for a bigger say in the international order.  Remember, this was not the Xi years, this was the tenure of milquetoastian pasty-patsy Hu Jintao.

There were brief, very brief, rumblings that the US & PRC would come to some sort of great power condominium and order the affairs, at least of Asia, between them.  It was called “G2”.

But that’s not the way it rolled.  The PRC didn’t want it, Hillary Clinton didn’t want it, and her views either reflected or drove Obama administration foreign policy.

For those who, like yours truly, try to keep a close eye on US-PRC relations, it was clear that rollback had already started at the  Copenhagen climate summit in 2009—when Obama and Clinton infuriated the PRC with a transparent effort to isolate the PRC diplomatically from the developing world bloc. 

In 2010, Secretary Clinton and the Japanese Foreign Minister, Seiji Maehara, tag-teamed to escalate the Senkaku and South China Sea frictions to issues of global importance.

And in 2010 Clinton published her famous position paper announcing the “pivot” to Asia (subsequently softened to “rebalancing”; hmm, why would we need to do that?) declaring this would be “America’s Pacific Century”.  Soundbite: 

[W]e are prepared to lead…Our military is by far the strongest and our economy is by far the largest in the world…So there should be no doubt that America has the capacity to secure and sustain our global leadership in  this century in this century as we did in the past.

So the position is that “US moves are merely reactive responses to PRC assertiveness” is not going to get a lot of shrift from me.  The US has plenty of “agency” as they say in the sociology biz, and the idea that the world’s only superpower and pre-eminent global meddler does not try to proactively shape the geostrategic battlefield in Asia…well…

Getting down to the facty nitty-gritty, I invite readers to sail over to my account, long and irritating as facty accounts tend to be, of how the US pitched in to sabotage a back-channel negotiation between Manila and Beijing over the Scarborough Shoal issue in 2010, apparently because bilateral deals between the PRC and its regional interlocutors didn‘t quite fit with the US leadership/pivot narrative.  

The Philippines can expect more of the same, especially since it appears quite possible that it will elect a new president with relatively conciliatory views toward the PRC in 2016.  That could put an unwelcome spoke in the wheel of the pivot, especially since I think the whole strategy is heading toward some sort of US/Japanese guardian flotilla backing unilateral Philippine development of Reed Bank hydrocarbon reserves as the first major real-world demonstration of the value of the pivot.  I’m looking for the US to try to box in the new pres politically, institutionally, and in the media, mainly through working the mil-mil connection with the hawkish Philippine military, and I think it’s already happening.

But allow me to offer a measure of reassurance to the truthy.

Yes, the PRC is assertive and a bad actor.  It feels it will be getting a bigger piece of the Asian pie by pushing people around than it will by sitting politely at the table and waiting for America to pass it a slice.  It is not only reacting; it is acting on the worst-case assumption concerning US intentions; and it acts that way because the PRC is a nasty Commie state that lacks the political, institutional, and diplomatic flexibility to engage constructively with its  neighbors, the United States, and for that matter the entire international order. 
OK, everybody feel better?  Good.

Unfortunately, In My Opinion the problem is that the US PRC strategy as implemented, despite the massive and well-compensated efforts of legions of experts, kinda stinks. 

The South China Sea was the easiest place to get into the PRC’s grill thanks to the maritime disputes, but it was probably the wrong place.  It’s a genuine core interest for the PRC; US injection in the issue heightens tensions without offering a pathway to resolution; and the benefits to regional partners from signing on to the US approach are balanced and perhaps overbalanced by the asymmetric economic, military, and diplomatic pressures the PRC can bring to bear.

As we progress from the optimism of the opening gambits to the reality of the mid-game, the actual costs/benefits…and the unintended consequences of rejiggering the security structure of East Asia and South Asia and Central Asia through serial escalation become more apparent.

And the PRC will do its best to increase the costs, minimize the benefits, and exacerbate the unfavorable consequences.

One of those undesirable consequences is, by the way, that Japan as Our Preferred Asian Partner, gets free rein to pursue its own political and diplomatic agenda which, in addition to grisly displays like Abe’s wife visiting Yasukuni (slipped that in yesterday in the midst of the SCS furor), involves pursuing its divisive zero-sum agenda vis a vis South Korea and starting to resemble Israel (loose cannon) more than the UK (woof) as an American security partner.  Enjoy!

I’ll throw in the mandatory pundit’s caveat.  It’s possible that the PRC will utterly misplay its hand and the US will prove to the world in no uncertain terms that China is not the master of the South China Sea.

But I think it’s equally likely that the SCS gambit will sputter along as the United States tries to herd its equivocal allies into a united front, and also try to conceal from itself and others its basic unwillingness to engage in a genuine military confrontation over a collection of atolls and sandbars thousands of miles from home.

No question of trying to conceal weakness from the PRC; they’ll be on alert to detect and exploit it.

The US rebalance toward Asia displays harbingers of a dangerous, expensive, and prolonged but unsatisfying boondoggle.  Yanking the PRC’s chain for the next ten years might unleash welcome funding for the military services and the growing legion of pundits and China-centric media-ites, but create a strategic and economic incubus for the US. 

Which is why I think we’re having these emotional discussions.  The US is not in a particularly happy place, and it’s preferable to think the US didn’t paint itself into a corner; it was pushed there by PRC assertiveness.

So maybe some of those nagging anxieties that pundits are feeling aren’t feeding off the anti-China discourse in the ether; maybe they’re coming from inside their own heads.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Runaway Slave’s Lament

[Correction: As a commentator at Unz pointed out, Old Kentucky Home is the lament of a slave sold down the river to the Deep South, not a runaway slave's lament.]

Perhaps one of the most remarkable elements of the United States’ two-hundred year participation in legalized slavery and its continual tango with racism is the minstrel show.

The minstrel show, a highly ritualized and formatted performance of songs, dance, acting, and doggerel delivered first by white actors in blackface, then black actors…in blackface…and white actors in blackface in separate troupes, was the most popular entertainment in urban America from the 1840s to the 1880s.

In other words, it bridged the antebellum period, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Gilded Age.  It only surrendered its leading role in the 1880s, when industrialization and European immigration pushed the minstrel show’s fantasies of southern rural life to the sidelines.

Even so, blackface persisted into the vaudeville, movie, and radio and TV eras.  The last US professional practitioner of blackface, a white performer, Cotton Watts, apparently packed in his act only in 1959.*

And, of course, blackface lives on at the amateur level, for racist frat parties, Halloween getups, & so on.

There’s still a lot of historical blackface/minstrelsy stuff on the Internet.  I’m not going to post or link to it here, but it’s worth Googling in order to realize, man, this was completely acceptable mainstream American entertainment for well over a century.  Does show that attitudes can change, thankfully.

I think there was more to blackface minstrelsy than a) making black people look foolish, subhuman, & not needing or missing basic human rights or dignity and b) thereby allowing white America to reconcile itself to its blithe disregard of the horrors of racism, birthed by slavery but perpetuated by de jure and de facto legal, economic, and social repression after the Civil War.

There was that.  Well, there still is that, but a closer look at the minstrel show reveals that the flip side of southern black inferiority was northern white superiority which, in turn, unexpectedly fed back into ideas of southern white superiority.

Abolitionism was only one, minority strain of northern anti-slavery sentiment.  The other, the “free labor” movement—which fueled the bitter struggles over the admission of territories to the Union as “slave” or “free”--embodied the belief that white laborers would face unfair competition in the new lands from the plantation system and its access to slave labor,  that is labor supported at the bare subsistence level.

The North did not buy the South’s assertion that the plantation system was an inspired exercise in paternalistic socialism that had found a better way to, shall we say, skin the labor cat by offering cradle-to-grave welfare.  But this did not translate into a mainstream abhorrence for the horrors of slavery.

Instead, slavery’s competition was considered to be unfair and, moreso, immoral because it encouraged a culture of dependency among the slaves who, assured of a lifetime of guaranteed food, clothing, and shelter thanks to their masters, had slipped into a state of childlike dependency…

…in complete contrast, of course, to the white laborer, who was captain of his soul, navigating the stormy waters of industrialization and the free market, forging his character in a neverending Darwinian struggle for economic survival and personal improvement (and, if he was extremely tough and lucky, able to secure his gains in wages and working conditions with union membership).

Sound familiar?  Except maybe for the union thing?

This aspect was brought home to me by Robert Toll’s superb history of the American theater, On With the Show (Oxford University Press, New York, 1976).  He has a full chapter on the minstrel craze and the somewhat inexplicable perennial demand of urban northern white audiences for depictions of contented slaves on southern plantations, which went to the extreme of creating a particular genre song, the repentant runaway’s lament:

To underscore the point that blacks were happy only on the plantation, minstrels created the repentant runaway, a character who had experienced both Southern and Northern life and invariably longed to return to the old folks at home…When Negroes did leave the plantation, they quickly regretted is.  “Dis being free,” one typical repentant runaway lamented, “is worser than being a slave.”  To avoid reformers’ charges that Negroes were severely discriminated against in the North…minstrels paid little attention to ex-slaves’ problems in the North.  Instead the focused on the runaways’ glowing recollections of the joys of plantation life…

The “runaways’ lament” lives on in some modern places that, I think, may surprise readers as they surprised me.

Sing the first lines of “Dixie”:

Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton
Old times there are not forgotten

Yes, it’s a runaway’s lament.  It entered the repertoire of the Virginia Minstrels in New York City in 1859 and was a smash hit in the North years before it was appropriated by the South, played at Jefferson Davis’ inauguration, and became the Rebs’ marching song.

Here’s one of Stephen Foster’s most beloved compositions:

Way down upon de Swanee Ribber,
Far, far away,
Dere's wha my heart is turning ebber,
Dere's wha de old folks stay.
All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation,
And for de old folks at home.

All de world am sad and dreary,
Eb-rywhere I roam;
Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home!

Yep, “Old Folks at Home”, another runaway’s lament.  It was a mainstay of the Christy Minstrels.  It’s now the official song of the state of Florida.

How about that song we associate with mint juleps and fast horses:

The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home
Tis summer, the darkies are gay
Weep no more my lady
Oh weep no more today
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home
For the old Kentucky home far away

Anthem of the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky State Song…runaway slave’s lament.

One last example: “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny”:

Carry me back to old Virginny.
There's where the cotton and corn and taters grow.
There's where the birds warble sweet in the spring-time.
There's where this old darkey's heart am long'd to go.

There's where I labored so hard for old Massa,
Day after day in the field of yellow corn;
No place on earth do I love more sincerely
Than old Virginny, the state where I was born.

Carry me back to old Virginny.
There's where the cotton and the corn and taters grow;
There's where the birds warble sweet in the spring-time.
There's where this old darkey's heart am long'd to go.

Carry me back to old Virginny,
There let me live till I wither and decay.
Long by the old Dismal Swamp have I wandered,
There's where this old darkey's life will pass away.

Massa and Missis have long since gone before me,
Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore.
There we'll be happy and free from all sorrow,
There's where we'll meet and we'll never part no more.

Official state song of Virginia 1940-1997,  Now, thankfully, demoted to “state song emeritus”.  

For bonus cringe points, Ole Virginny was written by an African-American, James Bland, the “black Stephen Foster” in 1875.  Bland apparently wished to reassure white America that, 12 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the ex-slaves’ hearts were still with “Old Massa and Missis”.

Somehow, all these beloved Southern anthems turn out to be defenses of the ante-bellum slave system.  How 'bout that.

When I grew up and sang these songs, well some of them, well maybe just “Swanee” & “Dixie” as part of US folklore exercises in music class (in New Jersey; no state song; shut up! we were not in the business of recognizing Kentucky or Virginia for their musical endowments), the “runaway’s lament” angle was never explained and, I’ll say, never occurred to me.  

So I guess it can be asserted that these old songs, stripped of their historical associations and cleaned up by switching out “darkies” in favor of “people” (as was done for “My Old Kentucky Home” by command of the state legislature) are harmless repositories for the sentiments of all Southerners missing their homeland: a Tallahassee trucker rumbling down a lonely Montana highway, a Richmond bond trader spending Christmas in Tokyo, a Lexington frat boy in Syracuse wishing he could be back home in Kentucky vomiting in a urinal at Churchill Downs on Derby Day…

…or a disgruntled son of the South airing out his states’ rights inclinations by flying the Stars & Bars & whistlin’ Dixie.

Well, maybe these songs aren’t really for “all” Southerners.

These songs are, as a matter of authentic Southern heritage, BS. 
Stephen Foster was born in Lawrenceville, PA and died in a Bowery flophouse.  James Bland was born in Flushing, Queens and died in Philadelphia.

The guy who wrote “Dixie”, Dan Emmett, was a founder of the Virginia Minstrels and the leading blackface empresario of his time.  He lived and died in Mount Vernon…Ohio, not Virginia.  

According to Wikipedia, Emmett, who subsequently composed the fife and drum manual for the Union Army, said of “Dixie”, "If I had known to what use they [Southerners] were going to put my song, I will be damned if I'd have written it."

It should also go without saying these catchy ditties did not represent the genuine aspirations of runaway slaves, whose descendants form sizable minorities in the Southern states that gave these songs official recognition.

The songs were explicitly racist compositions designed to feed the false plantation mythos demanded by the northern minstrel industry…and feed the fantasies of white audiences everywhere.

The only way that one can justify singing these songs, let alone making them state songs, is to say “I don’t know history…and history—at least your history-- doesn’t matter.  In fact, I prefer pleasing and polarizing myths to history…or to a song that truly represents my state and its history.”

Maybe somebody can write a song about that.

Call it "The Ex-Slaveholders' Lament".

*Minstrel shows were also a huge deal in England.  In the 19th century, various iterations of the Christy Minstrels performed in Great Britain for decades and the vogue for American blackface minstrelsy  persisted well into the 20th century.  The Christys’ signature song, Ten Little… , well, you know what, became engrained in English popular culture and served as the title of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous mysteries—until it was renamed And Then There Were None.  An embarrassments in the P.G.Wodehouse canon is Thank You, Jeeves, in which Bertie’s infatuation with a minstrel troupe leads to some blackface japes and ugly language.  And, somewhat astoundingly, the BBC broadcast a hugely popular blackface variety show, The Black and White Minstrel Showfrom 1960 through 1978.  I guess there’s room for an interesting essay on the resonance between US and British imperial racism.  More study needed!