Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Burden of American History

As a student of history, I frequently refer back to the past in the hopes that it might provide some degree of clarity that I might be able to apply to the current day. While I know better than to engage in the historical fallacy that deceptively promises that the past neatly and exactly dictates the future, I do find it interesting to observe the patterns and the events of a different age and how these intersect ours own times. What deeply troubles me, however, is that I have begun to hear rumblings and impulsive chantings of division and acrimony. I have begun to notice some alarming similarities between these times and other instances in our nation's history where we eschewed logic and reason for emotional excess and mutual paranoia. Such points in our past inevitably created terrible conflicts, the likes of which we are in many ways still dealing with into the current day. Irrationality, emotion in place of reason, illogical accusations, and a building animosity bordering on violent hatred between ideological poles was present then and seems to be swelling in intensity now.

In an essay entitled John Brown's Private War,the noted historian C. Vann Woodward wrote about the atmosphere of suspicion, fear, and paranoia that characterized both North and South shortly before the Civil War. I've chosen to focus primarily on the Southern response because it emphasizes my greater point.

The South had been living in a crisis atmosphere for a long time. It was a society in the grip of an insecurity complex, a tension resulting from both rational and irrational fears. The South, therefore, felt itself to be menaced through encirclement by a power containing elements unfriendly to its interests, elements that were growing strong enough to capture the government. [By the time of John Brown's raid] the Southern mind was in no state to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible sources of evidence.

...Southern newspapers of the time portray a society in the throes of panic. Convinced that the South was honeycombed with subversives, Southerns tended to see an abolitionist behind every bush and a slave insurrection brewing in the arrival of any stranger. Victims of vigilante and mob action ranged from aged eccentrics and itinerant piano-tuners to substantial citizens of long residence. The mob spirit was no respecter of person or class. A sixty-year-old minister in Texas, who was a believer in the Biblical sanction of slavery and a Democrat of Kentucky birth, made the mistake of criticizing the treatment of slaves in a sermon and was given seventy lashes on his back. A schoolteacher who had lived in Louisiana and Arkansas for ten years was given thirty-six hours to leave the latter state. The new arrived President of an Alabama college, who came from New York, was forced to give up his job and flee for his life.

The crisis psychology of 1859 persisted and deepened in the fateful year of 1860 into a pathological condition of mind in which delusions of persecution and impending disaster flourished. Out of Texas came wild rumors of incendiary fires, abolitionists plotting with slaves, and impending insurrection on a vast scale. Rumors of large stocks of strychnine in the possession of slaves and of plans for well-poisoning were widely believed, though unproved. One scholar has aptly compared the tension of the South in 1860 with the "Great Fear" that seized the rural provinces of France in the summer of 1789 when panic spread the word that the "brigands are coming". In the course of the crisis each of the antagonists, according to the immemorial patterns, had become convinced of the the depravity and diabolism of the other. Each believed itself persecuted, menaced.

Our recent controversy regarding President Obama's speech to schoolchildren finds an eerie antecedent.

In Brownsville, Tennessee, a subversive white schoolteacher urged that "we must send out more well qualified men to the South as schoolteachers, and work them in everywhere", that there was "no avocation in which a man can do so much good for our cause" since the people had so much confidence in a schoolteacher.

His report reveals the man as a wishful thinker and a naive enthusiast, but after [John Brown's raid]...the Southern mind was in no state to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible sources of evidence.

As we all know, by the end,

Paranoia continued to induce counter-paranoia, each antagonist infecting the other reciprocally, until the vicious spiral ended in war.

Last fall I made a point to walk up and down the streets of a certain section of Washington, DC, that borders the Convention Center. Our nation having recently elected an African-American President, I decided I'd note the occasion by observing for myself the hustle and bustle of what had been for decades a historically black part of town. The signs posted along either side of the road told a sobering story and answered my questions as to why so little life remained. It seems there was a reason for why it appeared so barren, so mournful, so cursed, almost. At one time, this neighborhood had been a thriving hub of black business and cultural life, but after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis back in 1968, a destructive riot broke out. The fires, looting, and chaos which lasted for five days had to be quelled by National Guardsmen and Federal Troops. These days, the broken glass has long been swept up, the charred buildings have long since been taken down, but in their place is an eerie silence. No one talks. No one dares disturb the silence.

I don't want to see this happen again, anywhere. I know it is such a temptation to fight back with both guns blazing against the Tea Parties, the Health Care Reform opponents and their foolish ideas, the Birthers, the Republican politicians who long ago ceased making any logical sense, and the childish opponents who shout down our President in the middle of a speech. Rest assured, I am just as angry as you are when I see this foolhardy spectacle and find it difficult to believe how any group of people could be so incapable of civility. Still, I am also quite wary of adding to an already hyper-charged atmosphere that can grow far worse before it ever improves. My desire is for volume control. Some peoples' minds will not change, but if we keep our tempers in check and if we keep a cool head about us, we can do our part to make sure that we don't end up with severe and lasting consequences of which all of us will have to live for the rest of our lives.

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