Thursday, November 21, 2013

November 21, 2013: Times Like These: 1860

[In such bitterly partisan and divided times, it can be easy to feel as if things have never been this bad before. Without downplaying the genuine challenges presented by our own moment, however, it’s well worth AmericanStudying other similarly polarized eras. So this week I’ll highlight five such moments, and think a bit about what we can learn from them. Your thoughts, on these moments, our own, or any others, are very welcome as always!]

On the moment that feels frighteningly close to our own, and what (if anything) we can learn from it.
Not to get all Gandalf on you, but we come to it at last—the great (and terrible) comparison of our time. I’m not sure any informed AmericanStudier can fail to see the ways in which our moment seems so clearly to echo the culminating build-up to the Civil War: from the Illinois-based president perceived (from his moment of election, and indeed well before) as illegitimate by a substantial portion of the population; to the sense that different American communities (and, in many ways, regions) are inhabiting different realities, united by almost no shared understandings; to, most overtly and disturbingly, the near-constant talk of secession and nullification and even insurrection. You don’t have to have seen overtly and proudly Neo-Confederate sentiments on a daily basis (as I did in a Facebook group ostenisbly dedicated to pleasant memories of my Virginia hometown) in order to see the writing on the wall.
Despite that kind of contemporary Neo-Confederate sentiment, and despite the overtly racist element to many of those “Obama is an illegitimate president” narratives, I should make clear that I’m not in any way equating the two eras on the issue of race. Indeed, the simple fact that we have a mixed-race president—which is of course far from a simple fact, but you know what I mean—exemplifies how different 2013 is from 1860 when it comes to race and identity, individual and communal, in America. But to be honest, it’s precisely the contrast between how far we seem to have come in so many ways and yet how much of 1860 I see in our present moment that most unnerves me. Part of me believed that writing the prior posts on other divided eras would help me recognize that this is simply another one of those, not a specific echo of the most tragically divided period in our history—but I can’t say that my concerns about those close parallels have been much allayed. AmericanStudying fail, I guess.
So if we can’t shake the comparisons to 1860, the question becomes instead: what can we learn from them? There’s a current school of thought that had the North been more willing to compromise in those final moments, the war might have been averted; but since I think that neither would the South have gone along nor that such a compromise should have been offered in any case, I can’t agree with any part of that analysis. There’s another analysis in which the Civil War wasn’t ultimately tragic, given that it led to abolition; while I’m more sympathetic to that take on 1860, I’d still like to avoid any violent (or even just divisive) conflicts in our own era if we can help it. So I’d advance, very briefly, a third analysis: that the Civil War happened, in part, because of the South’s extremely myopic perspective, a communal understanding (of past and present, of slavery and race, of America itself) that included no room for any divergence from its vision. Which is to say: if there’s one thing that might change our current moment, it’d be education, communication of and conversations about histories and stories, knowledge and ideas, that just might shift our divided perspectives.
Final divided era tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other divided moments you’d highlight?

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