Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Un-Civil War. The Anniversary, the Past, the Present

April 12 is the date of the attack on Fort Sumter, the official beginning of the Civil War, and thus, 150th-anniversary commemorations.

As chance would have it, several members of the faculty here at Hampshire College had the opportunity to meet today with  alumnus Ken Burns, creator of the now-classic "The Civil War" documentary. Our topic was not the Civil War (though we touche on that), but the fate of the humanities and the liberal-arts curriculum in an age of budget constraints and declining appreciation for humanistic culture and history. It was an animated and valuable discussion, an inspiring start to what we hope will be a longer converstation.

As chance would also have it, an editorial of Ken's had just appeared in the New York Times:, copies of which were distributed to us before the meeting.  To be frank, I was momentarily taken aback by the assertion that "In our less civil society of this moment we are reminded of the full consequences of our failure to compromise in that moment." Compromise? What compromise? Slavery was an absolute evil, and treasonous rebellion had to be crushed, by force of arms, if necessary. The"Missouri Compromise" was hardly a model for anything. Perhaps it was just an infelicitous phrase, for I of course knew that Ken must have intended something more thoughtful and historically informed than that, and indeed, he went on to say:
The result has been to blur the reality that slavery was at the heart of the matter, ignore the baser realities of the brutal fighting, romanticize our own home-grown terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, and distort the consequences of the Civil War that still intrude on our national life.

The centennial of the Civil War in 1961 was for many of us a wholly unsatisfying experience. It preferred, as the nation reluctantly embraced a new, long-deferred civil rights movement, to excavate only the dry dates and facts and events of that past; we were drawn back then, it seemed, more to regiments and battle flags, Minié balls and Gatling guns, sentimentality and nostalgia and mythology, than to anything that suggested the harsh realities of the real war.
Maybe we can do better this time around. Still, it may not be easy.

A new Pew Research Poll suggests that the population is as ignorant as it is divided. Some highlights: 56 percent of the population think that the Civil War is still relevant to American politics and political life (good), and 39 percent think it is "important historically, but has little relevance today" (not great, but I'll take what I can get). 36 percent think is it appropriate to praise Confederate leaders, and 9 percent of the people have a positive reaction to the Confederate flag; only 30 percent have a negative reaction, and fully 58 percent are neutral. 38 percent think the War was "mainly about slavery" (good), but 48 percent think it was "mainly about states' rights." Obviously, they drank the old reactionary agrarian-school Koolaid. (And just what do they think those "states' rights" involved—interstate commerce?! Try: duh, slavery.) What is particularly disturbing is that young people are more likely than older ones to adhere to this reactionary ideological mystification: 60 percent of respondents under 30. Those over 65 reject it (50% vs. 34%). Who said that age does not equal wisdom?

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