I don’t know, maybe I’m being picky, but jeez, after reading Edward Ball’s opinion piece on the American Civil War in the New York Times, I wanted to go take a nap.
I get what he’s saying: that racial tensions and enmity exist today as they did in the time of slavery, and that they motivate behaviors and politics, especially among Southern whites. It’s an important point that needs to be made, and is most appropriately made on this anniversary of the first battle of the war.
I guess I’m just weary of the post-modern malaise that I detect in Bell’s writing, which I find to be emblematic of so much progressive thinking: thinking which scoffs at the idea of progress and sees the world as screwed up beyond redemption. For instance, he writes:
Now, you might regard the Civil War as the birth hour of modern liberty and equality … [that] The war redeemed a barbaric society in which the whole nation tolerated slavery into the salvation of widening rights and freedoms. Except, of course, that it did not.
Yes it did! Good god, man, in the 150 years since the Civil War, a fight between an agrarian South (amber altitude) and a modernist North (orange altitude), we have moved from a society where African American people were bought and sold in the town square to one where civil rights are officially extended to all races, and a black man has been elected President of the United States.
… the stream of blood that started at Fort Sumter passed through Jim Crow and into the civil rights era, right down to the present. Southern whites, having gone down in the fight, turned their recollections into rage and resentment at being displaced — fuel for politicians ever since.
Yes, overt and latent racism still exist and politicians exploit it in code such as the Obama birth nonsense, but can’t we acknowledge that birtherism and its ilk, however odious, is jaw-dropping progress over the actual horrors of slavery, which was a scourge of humanity for millennia and yet eradicated worldwide in less 100 years with the arising of modernity? Yes, human trafficking and sexual slavery are still at large in the world, but these are a far cry from the state-sanctioned keystone of the global trade economy that was slavery in the 19th century.
Likewise, for blacks emancipation was not a jubilee, but rather the beginning of a long season of bitter disappointment. Black national memory in some ways is still commensurate with despair. Redemption turns out to be a false idol.
Okay, yes, bitter disappointment in that redemption wasn’t immediate and isn’t complete. Again, an important point. But “redemption turns out to be a false idol”? Redemption is not a moment or an absolute, but a process. This is hard to get one’s head around, I grant you. But it is important: a “long season of bitter disappointment” is infinitely better than being whipped, killed and raped, which was the daily lot of the lives of many African American people in my great-great grandparent’s generation, not so long ago. I draw two lessons from this: one, that the karmas of slavery are alive and well, and must be rooted out (of our society as well as our own mind-bodies) with a passion. The second is that we must also be grateful for our amazing and continued progress. Can both these things be online at the same time?
It is said that the South lost the Civil War, but won the peace. That is, while slavery was ended, white supremacy grew into the law of the land. Here is the central scene in the national tragedy, the part we can’t face and can hardly speak about without censoring ourselves.
Where is white supremacy the law of the land? It may be the mindset of too many culturally lagging yahoos, but … the law of the land? In what state, county, city, or company? On the contrary, white supremacy is quite explicitly against the law everywhere.
Census figures show that whites comprise a shrinking part of the population. What is heroic about the racial anxiety this seems to cause?
What is heroic is that we are dealing with racial anxiety instead of an officially sanctioned economy based on the selling of human beings. We have a long way to go, but this big-time heroic progress. Yay moral evolution!
Meanwhile, black Southerners do not care to rehearse the sad fight, except perhaps through the ballot. In the 2008 election, Charleston County went to President Obama, largely on black votes.
And yet, given the enduring reach of the Civil War, if he is re-elected it would not redeem the tragedy at the core of American history.