Friday, July 16, 2010

The American Civil War and current politics

I just finished listening to the last of David Blight's lectures on the build-up to, fighting of, and aftermath of the American Civil War. I think it would be fair to say that this series of lectures transformed my understanding of American history, race relations, and politics. So much of what seemed baffling to me about my country now seems explicable, indeed even inevitable, given what happened in this country from 1861 to 1865, and then from 1866 through the rest of the 19th century. I did not realize how absolutely devastating the war was, particularly to the South. And then, after all that, for the nation to come together again within a few short years is both miraculous and hideous. Such a cataclysmic schism and subsequent rapid reconciliation could not possibly happen without a thousand myths, delusions, distortions, projections, and obsessions taking hold. And certainly not without a massive backlash and a lot of people being thrown under the bus (or to the back of it). The echoes and legacy of this trauma are so with us today that one can't really understand them without knowing about this horrendous ordeal.

Coming away from these lectures, I find myself strongly disagreeing with the "reconciliationist" interpretation of the Civil War (i.e. both sides were just, and it was a tragedy that these two noble societies shed so much blood), but understanding from a political and psychological point of view how such an interpretation was almost necessary for American whites to endure and justify what they had done to each other.

I used to laugh at peoples and nations that seemed so imprisoned by history that it is as if they were hemmed in by ghosts. After this series of lectures, I will laugh a little less mockingly, and with a little more understanding.

The David Blight lectures are available for free online from Yale's Open University. I was inspired to do so by the ongoing discussion of the Civil War on Ta-Nahesi Coates' blog at The Atlantic. Blight does not go into too much wonky military history. His main focus is on politics and on questions of meaning and implication. I highly recommend them.


Anonymous bill in minneapolis said...

Interesting. The Civil War was incredibly devasting. As I recall, something like one in every 8 males in the U.S. either died or was permanently disabled in the fighting. No 'safety net' in those days either. Lots of widows and orphans.

8:56 PM, July 17, 2010  

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