Last week, PBS rebroadcast Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” twenty-five years after its premier. Once again I was hooked by probably the greatest documentary ever made, a meditation on our history that every citizen ought to be exposed to.
When it first appeared, one of the obvious lessons was that, 125 years after the end of that seismic event, race was still our great, unfinished national business. Now, 150 years after the end of the war, that unfortunately is still true. But the state of our politics also suggests other alarming parallels to the Civil War era.
Shelby Foote, the Mississippi author of Civil War narrative histories whose comments are so much a part of the series, remarks early on that people tend to believe America is a story of rugged individualists but that the genius of America is compromise. In 1861 that faculty deserted us and the result was catastrophe.
Once again we live in a time when reason has been replaced by vitriol, moderation by extremism. And compromise is not viewed as a reasonable accommodation but as a pact with the devil. Lincoln was called an ape and a baboon and regarded as feeble-minded not by his Confederate enemies but by members of his own party and some of his generals. That’s not far from the sort of over-the–top abuse Barack Obama, our illegitimate, Kenyan, socialist, Islamic terrorist president has had to endure. So far, one lawmaker hasn’t beaten another insensible on the Senate floor, but it is no longer inconceivable.
Governors of states have actually said with a straight face that it might again be time to consider secession. Presidential candidates actually suggest that public employees need not obey the law if it goes against their personal beliefs. Religious fervor trumps the rule of law and Constitutional order.
Citizens in Texas and adjacent states believed that exercises by the armed forces of the United States were a dark plot by the federal government to confiscate guns and set up concentration camps. They called out local law enforcement to surveil the army. Private militias patrol the border. Ranchers refuse to pay to graze on federal land and meet government representatives with armed, paramilitary force. Apparently each man can now decide which tax he has to pay.
Are we really going to go down this road again? Hasn’t this country had enough of state’s rights and nullification and massive resistance and the refusal to accept those constitutional amendments or Supreme Court decisions that don’t comport with our prejudices?
The so-called Big Sort is leading to red state/blue state, urban/rural, liberal/conservative, economic, geographic and educational divides that threaten to create two Americas – separate, unequal and antagonistic to each other. “The Civil War” shows the madness into which that kind of polarization can descend and the everlasting sorrow and hatred such a descent can leave in its wake. The only hope is a shared national identity, the belief that what unites us is more important than what divides us.
It increasingly seems that belief is fraying. Americans now seem to live in two alternative realities, each serviced by media empires, pitchmen and think tanks cranking out propaganda 24/7. We even learn two different histories, often out of textbooks made to conform to the views of a partisan state government. In one, the Civil War was not about slavery or freedom, but about the oppressive federal government or state’s rights.
Similarly, some of us believe Supreme Court decisions, like them or not, are the law of the land until reversed. Others appear to believe obeying them is optional. In all such cases the issue is not whether we like the officeholders of the moment but whether we want to live under the form of government devised by our founding fathers and revised periodically to meet changing circumstances.
If the answer is no, it is incumbent on the dissenters to provide an alternative. Churchill’s witticism that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” is still true, as a quick scan of the planet suggests. And the form we have can be amended by an intentionally slow and deliberate process, if a majority to do so can be mustered.
If a dissident minority prefers the path of violent insurrection as happened in 1861, the results can be expected to be bloody and brutal. And, in an irony perhaps lost on the “that-government-is-best-that-governs-least” crowd, one reason the small government Confederacy lost its war was that it had too little government with too little power, and an electorate too unwilling to cooperate and pay taxes to prosecute such an immense conflict.
The lesson for today from “The Civil War” is to be careful what you wish for. Our present system is not utopia, but it is also not Afghanistan or North Korea. Compromise may be painful and unsatisfying, but the ruthless pursuit of your ideal at the expense of everyone else’s can only produce perpetual conflict. The Civil War left the South supine and impoverished for generations and killed or wounded over five percent of the population. Lincoln called for charity for all and malice toward none in the aftermath. We would be wise to follow those who seek to lead in such a spirit, not those who seek to inflame and divide.