Tuesday Reads: A New Civil War?Posted: August 15, 2017
This morning I’m feeling an overwhelming sadness at what is happening to our country. I’m not at all knowledgeable about Civil War history, and now I feel I should learn more about it. It feels to me as if that long ago conflict is still going on and may never end.
Trump is only a symptom of the festering evil of racism that has haunted the U.S. since before it existed. Our “republic” was built on a foundation of slavery and the slaughter of Native Americans. How can we ever cleanse that evil from the nbational bloodstream?
Josh Marshall has a fine piece on this tortured history and how it relates to the confederate statues that are just beginning to be taken down: Thoughts on Public Memory. He begins be discussing the mixed history of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and at the same time owned slaves, one of whom was forced to bear his children. But what about Robert E. Lee? What public acts could mitigate his role in trying to protect slavery?
Lee is known for one thing: being the key military leader in a violent rebellion against the United States and leading that rebellion to protect slavery. That’s it. Absent his decision to participate in the rebellion he’d be all but unknown to history. He outlived the war by only five years. There’s simply no positive side of the ledger to make it a tough call. The only logic to honoring Lee is to honor treason and treason in the worst possible cause.
Lincoln and his war cabinet had little question what Lee deserved. Look at Arlington National Cemetery. That’s Lee’s plantation. The federal government confiscated it and dedicated it as a final resting place for those who died defending the United States. It is a solemn, poetically rich, final and ultimately righteous verdict on his role in our national life. The entire project was very much by design: to punish Lee and shame him in public memory for betraying the United States. (During the Civil War, a Freedman’s Village was also established on the estate for ex-slaves making their transition to freedom.) The generals, particularly Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs who spearheaded the effort, wanted to be certain the Lees would never be able to reclaim their estate. Making it into a hallowed national cemetery was a good way to accomplish that.
I didn’t even know that.
What is little discussed today is that the North and the South made a tacit bargain in the years after the Civil War to valorize Southern generals as a way to salve the sting of Southern defeat and provide a cultural and political basis for uniting the country with more than military force. That meant the abandonment of free blacks in the South after the mid-1870s. It is important to see this not only as the abandonment of the ex-slaves of the South. It is difficult to pull away the subsequent history to realize that it was entirely possible in the aftermath of the Civil War that the US would be condemned to perpetual warfare, insurrection and foreign intervention. But if the opposite, the United States that went on to become a global superpower, is what was gained it was gained at a terrible price and a price paid more or less solely by black citizens.
However one judges that past, knowing its full history leaves no reason or rationale for continue the valorization of Lee. He was a traitor and a traitor in a terrible cause. That is his only mark on American history. Whether he was a personal gentle man, nice to his pets or a decent field general hardly matters.
Even this though leaves the full squalidness of Lee’s legacy not quite told. There is the Lee of the Civil War and then the mythic Lee of later decades. Today the battle over Lee’s legacy is mainly played out over the various statues of Lee which still stand across the South. The notional focus on this weekend’s tragic events in Charlottesville was a protest over plans to remove a Lee statue. But those statues don’t date to the Civil War, the years just after the Civil War. In most cases they date to decades later.
I can’t do Marshall’s article justice with excerpts. Please go read the whole thing at Talking Points Memo.
At the New Yorker, Robin Write asks: Is American Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?
A day after the brawling and racist brutality and deaths in Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe asked, “How did we get to this place?” The more relevant question after Charlottesville—and other deadly episodes in Ferguson, Charleston, Dallas, Saint Paul, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria—is where the United States is headed. How fragile is the union, our republic, and a country that has long been considered the world’s most stable democracy? The dangers are now bigger than the collective episodes of violence. “The radical right was more successful in entering the political mainstream last year than in half a century,” the Southern Poverty Law Center reported in February. The organization documents more than nine hundred active (and growing) hate groups in the United States.
America’s stability is increasingly an undercurrent in political discourse. Earlier this year, I began a conversation with Keith Mines about America’s turmoil. Mines has spent his career—in the U.S. Army Special Forces, the United Nations, and now the State Department—navigating civil wars in other countries, including Afghanistan, Colombia, El Salvador, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan. He returned to Washington after sixteen years to find conditions that he had seen nurture conflict abroad now visible at home. It haunts him. In March, Mines was one of several national-security experts whom Foreign Policyaskedto evaluate the risks of a second civil war—with percentages. Mines concluded that the United States faces a sixty-per-cent chance of civil war over the next ten to fifteen years. Other experts’ predictions ranged from five per cent to ninety-five per cent. The sobering consensus was thirty-five per cent. And that was five months before Charlottesville.
“We keep saying, ‘It can’t happen here,’ but then, holy smokes, it can,” Mines told me after we talked, on Sunday, about Charlottesville. The pattern of civil strife has evolved worldwide over the past sixty years. Today, few civil wars involve pitched battles from trenches along neat geographic front lines. Many are low-intensity conflicts with episodic violence in constantly moving locales. Mines’s definition of a civil war is large-scale violence that includes a rejection of traditional political authority and requires the National Guard to deal with it. On Saturday, McAuliffe put the National Guard on alert and declared a state of emergency.
Based on his experience in civil wars on three continents, Mines cited five conditions that support his prediction: entrenched national polarization, with no obvious meeting place for resolution; increasingly divisive press coverage and information flows; weakened institutions, notably Congress and the judiciary; a sellout or abandonment of responsibility by political leadership; and the legitimization of violence as the “in” way to either conduct discourse or solve disputes.
President Trump “modeled violence as a way to advance politically and validated bullying during and after the campaign,” Mines wrote in Foreign Policy. “Judging from recent events the left is now fully on board with this,” he continued, citing anarchists in anti-globalization riots as one of several flashpoints. “It is like 1859, everyone is mad about something and everyone has a gun.”
Again, I hope you’ll continue reading at the New Yorker link.
Can racism ever be defeated or can it only be suppressed?
Catherine Rampell at The Washington Post: Trump’s lasting legacy is to embolden an entirely new generation of racists.
If there was one silver lining to President Trump’s election, it was supposed to be this: Those who voted for Trump because of, rather than despite, his demonization of Muslims and Hispanics; who fear a “majority minority” America; and who wax nostalgic for the Jim Crow era were mostly old white people.
Which meant they and their abhorrent prejudices would soon pass on — and be replaced by generations of younger, more racially enlightened Americans.
The white nationalist rally this past weekend in Charlottesville clearly proves this to be a myth. Racist grandpas may be dying out, but their bigotry is regenerating in today’s youths.
Yes, there were swastika-tattooed, Ku Klux Klan-hooded 50-somethings on the streets of Charlottesville. The most chilling photos, however, show hordes of torch-bearing, fresh-faced, “fashy”-coiffed white men in their teens and 20s….
The public faces of the white supremacist “alt-right” movement are likewise skewing younger. David Duke is still around, but as a charismatic figurehead he has mostly been displaced by the likes of 39-year-old Richard Spencer, 26-year-old Matthew Heimbach and 29-year-old Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet.
These are not people whose backwardness we can write off as an unfortunate product of their time.
That is, we’re not talking about young white Americans whose happy formative years took place in a world with (de jure) school segregation, redlining, anti-miscegenation laws and phrenology.
If any had family who fought for the Confederacy, they’ve been dead for at least a century. No one is telling them about the good ol’ days on the plantation.
One more from the Washington Post before I have to rush off to a doctor’s appointment: Why are people still racist? What science says about America’s race problem.
Torch-bearing white supremacists shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. Protesters and counter protesters colliding with violence and chaos. A car driven by a known Nazi sympathizer mowing down a crowd of activists.
Many Americans responded to this weekend’s violence in Charlottesville with disbelieving horror. How could this happen in America, in 2017? “This is not who we are,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D).
And yet, this is who we are.
Amid our modern clashes, researchers in psychology, sociology and neurology have been studying the roots of racism. We draw on that research and asked two scientists to explain why people feel and act this way toward each other.
Read what science shows at the link.
The illustrations in this post are from the rallies in Charlottesville.
What else is happening? What stories are you following today?
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