Tuesday, September 28, 2010

History lesson:
What "looking forward, not looking back" may do for you ...

On January 11, 2009, President(-elect) Barack Obama told ABC This Week:

...I have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.

That was in response to the Bush administration's policies of torturing prisoners and snooping on communications of citizens without court approval -- fundamental violations of both domestic and international law. Such a deep disdain for the moral and legal underpinnings of our democracy is not without precedent in U.S. history. (And yes, I'm still voting for Dems in November! The other idiots really are worse for too many people to sit out.)
***
First our forebears fought the Civil War (1861–1865); something like 620,000 soldiers died as well as some large number of uncounted civilians, out of a total population of about 31.5 million.

Then they fought, less violently, but just as vigorously, for nearly 100 years about what the war meant. Slavery was gone, but would white property owners be able to enforce other forms of involuntary servitude to retain the cheap labor of their former property? (Largely, yes.) Concurrently, would the bloody war be thought of, as Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg, as initiating a new phase of human freedom in which equality would coexist with government by all the people? Or would the whole thing be reduced to a mistake, a "War between the States," a mad family feud whose combatants on both sides should be revered for their suffering and heroism? And would African-Americans, some 10 percent of the population, have any say over what the war meant?

This is the subject of David W. Blight's Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001). As I read through it, I keep being overtaken by echoes of current controversies. Some of these undoubtedly reflect that election of a Black president blows oxygen at hidden embers from the country's ongoing struggles to achieve racial justice. Other echoes simply attend how most of us assimilate and try to forget the horror of war. And some seem to point out the evil consequences to a society and political system that prefers "looking forward, not backward."

After the Civil War, everyone on all sides wanted to claim to be a victim. Blight points out:

History carries no responsibilities when everyone can carry the mantle of a victim of false forces.

This would be very convenient to Confederates seeking re-integration into the political systems of their states. After the defeat and until they were restored to full citizenship, they were enemy "rebels." Radical Republicans (yes, at that time Republicans were the modernizing progressives while Democrats were the racist Southerners) wanted to keep it that way; moderates pushed for reconciliation with former enemies. The essential compromise of the Reconstruction and aftermath (1865-1945) was to give African-Americans the vote
(men only at first) , but do nothing to prevent white political leaders from disenfranchising and terrorizing the freed ten percent of the population.

It is interesting to read the terms in which the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis complained to a media figure of the day about his postwar imprisonment.

Mrs. Davis described her husband's "deprivations" in some detail. According to his wife, Davis had been "chained, starved, kept awake systematically, almost blinded by light and tortured by the ingenuity of a cruel jailor." ... in prolonged confinement, the prisoner had never "been tried."

I guess Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo and Co. didn't have to learn their torture methods from the Nazis or Chinese Communists.

The strongest voices speaking out for a new democratic beginning that repudiated the slavery past and looked to a more democratic future were, not surprisingly, Black Abolitionists.

[In 1870] Frederick Douglass tried build an ideological fire wall against the new magnanimity.

[Blight quotes Douglass:]
"We are sometimes asked in the name of patriotism to ... remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation's life, and those who struck to save it -- those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice. I am no minister of malice..., 1 would not repel the repentant, but ... may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I forget the difference between the parties to that ...bloody conflict.... I may say if this war is to be forgotten, I ask in the name of all things sacred what shall men remember?"


The war for a Lincoln's "new birth of freedom" that Douglass invokes was gradually expelled from national memory.

The year 1874 saw economic depression -- and any willingness to contest the growing (white) reconciliationist impulse was swept aside as Democrats (the party of racial exclusion in those days, remember) were swept into power.

Democrats pulled off one of the biggest political upsets in American history. "The Republican Party Struck by Lightning," shouted a headline in one of that party's own papers in Buffalo ...the Democrats not only captured the House of Representatives for the first time I since before the war, but they did so by turning overnight a Republican majority of 198-88 into Democratic control by 169-109. Democrats won nineteen of twenty-five governors' races, and in state after state overturned the Civil War era's political landscape. Even in Massachusetts, the governorship was lost to a Democrat for the first time since 1858.

If this sort of electoral turnabout is what fractious politics and economic collapse portends, we are in for hard times indeed.

After the erasure of the justice agenda implicit in the Civil War from our national memory, African Americans suffered nearly 100 years of intimidation and lynching before they regained any significant ability to participate in U.S. political democracy. For far too large a fraction of that community, an opportunity enjoy a fair share of the nation's wealth still is not even over the horizon.

If the multiple forces (abetted by too much of "our side") succeed in driving the abuses and follies of the 2000s from our memory, this time around we face a lawless, military-minded autocracy of the wealthy supplanting national dreams of freedom for most of us.

What to do? Keep practicing citizenship and screaming bloody murder!

1 comment:

Darlene said...

How quickly the lessons of history are forgotten.

Ironic that the party of Lincoln is now the radical right and the party of the bigoted south is considered the party of the little man.

Time does strange things.

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