Monday, April 18, 2011

150 years later and we're still fighting over the civil war

a lot of ink has been spilled the last week or so, marking the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the american civil war. you might think that the issues that brought the nation into open conflict had been decided decisively in 1865, but far from a resolution, it seems like many of us are ready to take up arms again over the same arguments.

this was brought to mind not only by the emergence of the "tea party" and the boomlet of racist hysteria that accompanied the election of barack obama as president in 2008, but by an analysis piece from today's christian science monitor that the country is still arguing about how to teach about the conflict that ripped the nation apart.

bringing it on home, the monitor's piece explains,

Recent polling suggests that Americans remain divided in their views of issues tied to the Civil War. The very idea of designating a Confederate History Month, for instance, which Gov. McDonnell’s two Democratic predecessors declined to do, split those surveyed. Just more than half of U.S. adults said they oppose such a remembrance, according to the poll by Harris Interactive.
Meanwhile, 54 percent of respondents said they believe the South was mainly fighting to preserve slavery, compared with 46 percent who believe the South was mainly fighting for states’ rights.
gov. mcdonnell is virginia's bob mcdonnell, of course, who proclaimed a "confederate history month" in a gesture of solidarity with white racists -- the gun-toting, bible-thumping right-wingers who bristle at the notion of black history month. it's the same chord that ronald reagan struck when he launched his presidential campaign in 1980, as paul krugman recalled:
When he went to Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1980, the town where the civil rights workers had been murdered, and declared that “I believe in states’ rights,” he didn’t mean to signal support for white racists. It was all just an innocent mistake.
in the mainstream press, like the monitor, since there is an unspoken assumption that the public discourse is confined to mainstream, non-toxic sentiments, we as readers are continually reassured that no one actually harbors deep-seated hatred and resentments, and that these same sentiments are what drives public policy in the areas it touches. so we'll never come face to face with the ugly truth: the reason we're undecided about how to teach about the civil war is because on many fronts it's still being fought.

academics who judge the popular mood by analyzing primary school textbooks, or studying the results of public opinion polls are not in especially fertile territory when it comes copping a feel of what's going on in the minds of poorly educated and culturally insulated reactionaries -- those too far down the financial ladder to soak in the moderating influences of consumer culture.

When asked whether current teaching on the war reveals regional biases, most history educators interviewed said that if there are differences, they are far more rare than in the past, and less pronounced.
“I have no doubt you’re going to find pockets [of the South] where ... this ‘Lost Cause’ view is present [in the classroom], but I’ll tell you, I think it’s much too easy to draw overly simplistic regional distinctions,” said Kevin M. Levin, the history department chairman at the private St. Anne’s-Belfield School, in Charlottesville, Va., who has led workshops to help teachers with the subject. “I don’t think you can draw the same regional distinctions that were drawn a few decades ago.”
if that's what this expert here in virginia, in mr. jefferson's old stomping grounds, no less, then he hasn't been paying attention. it was here in the old dominion where a textbook was yanked from the elementary school curriculum for positing historical fictions as the one where the coloreds fought on the confederate side to preserve slavery and good ol' dixie.

certainly it can't be that bad, can it?
“I definitely have sat in on a classroom or two that maybe shocked me with an old school, Old South version of the Civil War or the causes,” said Donald Stewart, the project director for a grant in South Carolina under the federal Teaching American History program.
But he said that, in his experience, this is the rare exception.
but is it so exceptional, in light of virginia's textbook debacle, or the even more egregious ideological falsification of history undertaking by the schoolbook commissars in texas? the monitor even singles out the lone star state as a particularly stubborn when it comes to an honest history about the civil war era -- they even put jeff davis' speeches on a par with abe lincoln's. come on. who remembers anything jeff davis had to say -- except maybe "oh, shit" when richmond was about to fall?

to say, well, that's only texas -- as the monitor seems to do -- is to miss a particularly salient point: the texas school system is so large that it has a profound effect on what publishers put out on the market. as with everything else in the fringe culture of the lunatic right, we have a well-organized, well-financed movement that seems to drive the discussion on its terms by default, since no one really takes their machinations seriously until an issue has been decided on their terms.

this wouldn't be a problem, of course, if it was only me who had a problem with the outsized influence of the tea party and its extended family of deranged and dangerous christian corporate foot soldiers. about two-thirds of us don't really have time for the nonsense that the fringe is ramming down our collective throats.

partly, it's the nonsense like what media like the monitor feed us, the reassuring-but-radioactive mother's milk of conventional wisdom -- to the effect that things are just about where they should be: not too far left, and not too far right. don't worry if the fanatics firebomb your child's school for teaching socialist ideology. they're all really nice people, once you get to know them...

more pernicious, however, is the impulse to keep one's head down and try to block out the negative. too much cognitive dissonance versus more prozac, as we struggle to make ends meet against ever more formidable odds. we tend to minimize the static constantly emitted by the blowhard transmitters like donald trump or sarah palin -- oh god, just make them stop! of course, we simply tune them out -- which doesn't mean they go away.

the only answer to the question of why we're still fighting over the civil war is that people like you and i won't simply say enough, and put a stop to it. as in, "you lost, get over it." we're the victims of our own fairness and decency. we've allowed people whose ideas are repulsive to have a hearing, but we never ask them to finish their stemwinding filibustering an opening statement. if we'd just hand 'em a sock and ask them to please stuff it, we'd all be in a better place.

if you care to find out how much of a better place, check this site out to see how far we've come since we kicked old jeff davis to the curb:

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