Wednesday, July 25, 2012

End of the War?

Over the past couple of decades, I have the impression that the War Between the States is finally coming to an end. This is a terrible thing, because the end of that War means the end of the experiment begun by Washington and all the other Founding Fathers.

The Monitor and Merrimac

What I mean is this:  Until fairly recently, it was still possible for the supporters of either side to acknowledge the virtues of their opponents.  Thus Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles, the character played by John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, was a veteran from the Union side who was able to say when burying a veteran of the Confederate side, 
I also commend to your keeping, Sir, the soul of Rome Clay, late Brigadier General, Confederate States Army. Known to his comrades here, Sir, as Trooper John Smith, United States Cavalry... a gallant soldier and a Christian gentleman.
That couldn't happen today for several reasons.
  1. The term "Christian gentleman" would today be used only in a mocking, sneering way.
  2. People today, and certainly the media today, "think in crayon", as a friend of mine puts it.  If you are good, you had better be flawless.  If you are bad, you can have no virtues at all.  This leads to such stupidity as saying that the 9/11 terrorists were "cowards".  They were certainly lacking in the virtues of justice and charity, but it is not clear how they may have been lacking in courage. 
    (On the flip side, one hears politicians praise the "courage" of American sailors launching Tomahawk missiles at targets hundreds of miles away.  Those sailors may indeed be courageous, but they cannot demonstrate this by merely flipping a launch switch.)
  3. The American Civil War, like any war, was fought for an untold number of reasons. I think it is fair to generalize that the rich on both sides fought for the most base of reasons, their own economic and political advantage, whereas the poor on both sides fought for more noble reasons. On the Union side, this would include freedom for slaves; on the Confederate side, it would include defense of their homes and families.
    However, that picture is no longer permitted in "polite conversation".  Today the War is presented as being all about slavery and nothing but slavery, and slavery is indefensible.
So that's what I mean about the War drawing to a close:  we are left with a cartoonish view in which Confederate claims can be dismissed without being considered.

The problem with that is not merely one of historical accuracy.  The problem is that for the American system to work, there always has to be a tension between the forces tending towards greater centralization and the forces tending towards greater local independence.  There also has to be an unending discussion about the need for order and continuity vs. the rights of self-governance.   These were the great disputes between the Union and the Confederacy, as they had been earlier between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.  If we abandon these and go to one extreme, we become just another nation of European sheep, like Prussia without the cool helmets or Czarist Russia without the religion.   If we go to the other extreme, we become Somalia or Afghanistan.

Preussische Pickelhaube

(For the record, I would say that the Confederacy was punished for its sins by losing, and the Union was punished for its sins by winning. The Republicans wanted Federal Union, and now they've got it to the point where it comes out their noses and is loathsome to them, like the quail in Numbers 11.)

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