The Soothing Horror of the American Civil War

2ee58f52a3212c966ab5c8703acb04b3But often conflict first.

About a year ago I developed a fascination with the First World War. Not so much the military aspect, which I had explored thoroughly, if naively, as a child, but its politics. I was struck by how it seemed to be at the root of so many conflicts facing the world today: it was the beginning of America’s reluctant engagement with the world as a global power and its conception of a liberal international order, the origin of the alienation of Russia from the West and the center of gravity of China’s Century of Humiliation, it saw the birth of the modern Middle East and The West’s dysfunctional connection with it, and was the beginning of the end of Europe’s central role in world affairs. In many ways we are today still reckoning with its aftermath.

But more recently I realized that on the contrary it was also arguably the beginning of a cover-up of one of the primary issues we now face: America’s internal struggles and divisions. External enemies in the form of first the Kaiser’s and then Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and more recently Islamic Terrorism have allowed, or more probably compelled, us to forget the conflicted nature of our soul which animated so much of our earlier history and which has never really gone away.

I remember a discussion with my grandmother on the eve of Trump’s election. She told me, to my surprise, that even though she’d lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War and the Cold War and the 1960’s and 9/11, she’d never been more afraid for the country than she is now.

“I wasn’t really worried then, because we were always united. Now we’re so divided, it’s never been like this.”

There was something prophetic about what she said, given what’s happened since our conversation. But of course in a larger sense, it’s not true. We’ve been divided, and it’s been far worse. Not just “Cowboys and Indians”, not just national and ethnic conflicts between America and Mexico, not just Whiskey Rebellions and deadly duels. The most destructive, and arguably the central, conflict of our history was totally internal: The American Civil War. Our modern struggle with ourselves may be less an aberration and more a return to form.

And so I’ve found myself reaching for another bygone era of war in order to reconcile myself with current events. In particular, the antics of the Trump administration these past few weeks seemed to push me to a boiling point, which I found I was only able to dissipate by binge watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary on Netflix. It’s been cathartic.

The documentary conveys the horrors of slavery, the conflict that ended it, and the fog of war, panic, anger and confusion that permeated the era, in a way that’s almost paradoxically soothing in the sense of contextualizing our current problems and making them seem trifling in comparison. In being reminded of this history, our current discord seems both less surprising and less insurmountable. The truth is that this is part of who we are, and so while inescapable it’s also something we’ve fought with before and have learned to work through, even if at great cost.

There were a number of smaller lessons.

One aspect of the documentary I find interesting is its focus on the confusion about the meaning of the war during its early years. All were horrified by the crisis that was occurring, and as Lincoln later said “All knew that [slavery] was, somehow,” on some level, “the cause of the war”. But there was no clear consensus on whether or not it was more or less also about states’ rights, or the overzealousness and violence of Northern abolitionists, or some other problem.

And so arguably it was not the military victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863, but the political victory of emancipation in 1862, which was the turning point of the war. With emancipation, Lincoln was able to set the terms of the war in a way that made it simultaneously just, grounded in reality, and (all importantly) winnable. He won the battle for a consensus on what the war was really about, and won it in such a way that the outcome of the conflict was practically assured and purposeful.

There is a parallel here with our own time, and a lesson.

The documentary quotes Herman Melville as calling the fanatic John Brown “the meteor of the war.” Our own crisis was sparked by the meteoric rise of Donald Trump. Just like in 1861, although we are quite sure we are experiencing an existential crisis as a nation of some sort, and we have some vague idea that it involves a reckoning with our history of racism and sexism, but also perhaps economic inequality, and rapid societal changes, and the smugness of liberal coastal elites, and neoliberalism, and various other things, we haven’t settled this. We’re still debating it and on some level we’re still confused. Certain in our horror, perplexed by how and why it’s happened, we’re stuck.

The lesson is that decisively answering the question must be the first step in resolving the crisis. The nature of our current problems must be understood, or perhaps simply decided upon. We have to ascertain, resolve, and build consensus around the meaning of our problems in a way that is truthful but also makes the conflict winnable and meaningful.

I have my own opinion on this, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Another aspect is the nature of Presidential leadership. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln, in an important sense, really was the “first rate second rate man” he was mocked as in his time. But this may also have been what made him great. Arguably a “first rate” man (or woman) cannot be a truly great leader of a democracy, especially in a time of genuine crisis, because a “first rate” man has too much moral certainty and can believe too much in his own abilities. Lincoln had to feel things out, to negotiate personalities that were bigger than his, had to make mistakes and learn from them, and it was precisely these qualities that ensured his eventual successes in leading a conflicted democracy through its greatest crisis. It’s ironic in light of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent deification of Lincoln (which is nevertheless excellent), and the impact it apparently had on both Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s conception of what might be called the “philosopher king” chief executive. I’m proud of the presidential tenure of the genuinely first rate first rate man Barack Obama, but going forward we may be wise to look for a humbler, more small d-democratic, leader, who can negotiate the complexities of our time with humility and flexibility more than raw talent and carefully honed technocratic skill.

There were other lessons from the documentary, which I’m still chewing on. The war itself may be, like our history, something too big to ever fully be reckoned with in a final way.

After all, to echo Ta-Nehisi Coates, it was this violent forge of Civil War where so much of modern America, and therefore of the whole modern world, was born.

The painful hopeful secret of American society is that the whole nation is and always has been a wild, sometimes violent, laboratory of democracy, one whose results and conclusions impact the whole world around it. America must, and can, solve its own domestic problems before it can play its role in guiding the world through the current era of international crisis. For better and for worse, this is who we are.

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