This Time –Unlike the Other Time Evil Wrought Havoc on America– There will be No Romanticizing the Story: A Re-Run Worth Re-Running
This piece originally ran in the fall of 2006. Its reception at that time, combined with the fact that many people visiting NSB now were not reading the site then, leads me to present it here once again.
And one more stimulus to my running it again, and doing so now: I have just read a collection of eleven essays, which appeared in the June issue of Harper’s, about the damage done by the Bushite regime on a variety of levels in a variety of realms, and about the enormous task that awaits the next president, and the nation, in setting about to repair that damage. Frightening all over again.
What an abomination! What an impact statement about a time when evil comes to power!
Only once before the present rise to power of these Bushites have forces from within America itself inflicted such damage on the American nation.
Then, too, like today, the catastrophic damage to America can be understood —at the deepest level—as the consequence of evil forces” taking possession of the nation. (See “The Concept of Evil: Why It’s Intellectually Valid and Politically and Spiritually Important” at www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?page_id=26.)
Those are two important parallels between the present Bushite era and the time in the middle of the 19th century when America fractured (along geographic lines) into two bitterly hostile halves and then plunged itself into a national bloodbath.
Among the differences between these two occasions of the catastrophic surrender of America’s destiny to evil forces, one difference (I would wager) will be this. Unlike with that earlier disaster —the American Civil War—with the catastrophe of this time of Bushite rule, Americans will not find any way to romanticize and celebrate the consequences of evil’s ascendancy.
The Romanticization of a Bloodbath
That the Civil War was a national nightmare should be beyond doubt. The conflict inflicted more casualties than any other American war even in absolute terms; in terms of a percentage of the population, it is an order of magnitude beyond the Second World War. And beyond those personal wounds, the war inflicted political and social wounds on the nation that are even now, almost a century and a half later, not entirely healed.
Yet —all that suffering and damage notwithstanding—the Civil War is and has long been celebrated by Americans as a time of glory; a great national tragedy, but a heroic one, with the pain transmuted into a beautiful poignancy.
Take Ken Burns’s elegiac series, “The Civil War,” with its wistful journey through the carnage, with its melancholic music. Take the film “Gettysburg,” with its soaring and inspiring music making heroes of the men who met in battle, ennobling the futile carnage of Pickett’s famous Charge. Take the re-enactments of the great battles of that war by thousands of Civil War buffs volunteering to make that history come alive again.
America has chosen to wrap its soul up in that conflict, whether through the idea of the Noble Cause the South went down fighting to defend, or in the idea, “From the Battle Hymn of the Republic,” that this was a struggle “to make men free.”
This romanticization has been accomplished, I believe, through the assumption that this was a war that had to happen. Assuming the inevitability of the war makes it possible for Americans to disregard the nature of the path that led to the outbreak of fighting.
It is that path that links the disaster of the Civil War with our own era: for the war itself was the manifest face of the evil spirits that had animated the decade before.
Daemonic Possession in the 1850s
The idea that the Civil War was, somehow, inevitable is not absurd.
Certainly the issues over which the war was fought had been festering in the American body politic since the establishment of the country. Each generation of American leaders had been compelled to struggle with the sectional differences and moral disputes concerning the Southern institution of slavery. One way or another, America was going to have to contend with a profound conflict.
And when a disaster is seen as fated, it can readily be seen through the heroic lens of tragedy.
But as I read the history of the lead up to the war (and I’m not certain how authoritatively my knowledge allows me to declare on this matter), I see a dimension beyond such fate. I see not so much an inevitability in the catastrophe as the hijacking of the trajectory of history by the ascendancy of a kind of evil spirit in the land.
One finds, strewn throughout the decade of the 1850s, signs of a kind of daemonic possession (using the term without making any assertion about the existence of beings unseen). This daemonic quality makes its appearance mostly in the beliefs, attitudes and actions of the South, though by the time the Civil War was near, the contagion of dark passions had also fully infected the people of the North.
Southerners were persuaded, in the 1850s, that their slave-based economy had to expand geographically or die. Why did they believe it? If there was any rational and empirical basis for that belief, I have not found it. I’ve read a bit about the thinking behind that assumption, but it appears so flimsy that I suspect it was the conclusion that gave rise to the thinking rather than, as rationality would have people proceed, vice versa.
Which has led me to wonder if the effect that belief had—of making war over the issue of the expansion of slavery into new territories much more likely—provides a clue to its unconscious purpose.
Sometimes people are driven toward the carnage of war. Only occasionally, it seems, are the reasons for war to be found in the rational domain.
What might have possessed the Southerners to gravitate toward war? Here’s one possibility.
The increasingly intense moral condemnation of slavery by abolitionists in the North was taken by southerners as an increasingly unacceptable affront. Not that the abolitionist movement necessarily posed any realistic political threat to the Southern institution, but rather that the moral outrage of the abolitionist critics of slavery was absorbed by the gentlemen of the South as an intolerable insult to their honor.
It has long been observed that the culture of the South, from its earliest English settlement, was one whose morality was honor-based. And for people enculturated into the code of honor, death is considered, by the man of honor, preferable to dishonor.
Believing both the survival and the honor of their society to be at stake, the leaders of the South pursued a course during the decade preceding the war that suggests a people driven by a destructive passion, a people possessed. The people of the South seem to have been, at that time, in thrall to some kind of evil spirit that had arisen out of their culture, their mentality, and their circumstances.
When, early in the decade of the 1850s, the South had the upper hand in terms of political power, it over-reached. Over-reaching is one sign of the possession by “evil spirits”– spirits that unleashed a dynamic that, as history shows over and over, leads people to bring about the very destruction of precisely what they believe, consciously, they are seeking to preserve.
(And here is one of those ways in which that time of evil is like our present time of evil, in which these Bushites, while consciously seeking to extend the power of the country they rule, have done more than any leadership in more than a century to diminish –even to squander– the American power that was handed to them by the many administrations that preceded them.)
So the South, filled simultaneously with feelings of power and of fear, acted in that decade before the outbreak of the terrible Civil War, as if determined to extract outright victory in the long-standing struggle over slavery. They broke apart the compromises that had managed to hold the country together for two generations and they pressed to eliminate those components in the previous arrangements that had maintained the Northern acceptance of the status quo.
In the Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott decision, judges from the slave states further undermined the old compromises. (It is an indication of the dominance of the South in America in the first half of the 19th century that seven of the nine Supreme Court Justices came from slave states.)
The South rammed down the throats of the North laws to prohibit the free dissemination of ideas hateful to the slaveholding class, and to mandate the return of those slaves who managed to escape to the North.
The play of evil forces is, perhaps, displayed most vividly in one dramatic episode– an occurrence that demonstrates the metastasizing of the code of honor into a vicious provocation of outright mutual hostility, and which served both to signal and to determine the bloodbath toward which the country was heading.
This was the famous beating of an elderly senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, on the Senate floor, by a young South Carolina congressman, Preston Brooks. Senator Sumner had delivered a speech, two days before, that dealt with the battle over the issue of slavery in Kansas and that spoke derisively of Senator Andrew Butler– uncle of Representative Brooks and, like Brooks, from South Carolina. Brooks came to the Senate floor to avenge the affront, and beat Sumner —defenseless at his desk—senseless, inflicting dozens of blows from a hard cane until it broke. The beating was so severe that it took Sumner years to recover.
But less important than the beating itself was its political aftermath. The South made Brooks a hero, sending him many new canes as tribute to his supposed defense of the honor of the South.
When the people of the North saw this –when the extent to which dark and hostile passions had come to rule the South was made manifest– the outrage and antipathy this evoked in the North were fierce.
The passions of war were spreading throughout the land.
One thinks of the famous line from Euripides: Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”
These are not the only events of the decade that could be adduced to show an apparently relentless march toward the cataclysmic conflict that generations of American legislators had worked so hard to avoid.
By the time that John Brown —his hands bloody from retaliatory killings in Kansas that, today, would be called terrorist—launched his failed raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and had been tried and sentenced to hang, the North was so aflame with the passions of strife that even such humane voices as Henry David Thoreau’s and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s were raised to celebrate Brown as a hero, even likening him to Christ.
In my knowledge of American history —and I admit that it is far from complete—the 1850s are the one time before the present when the destiny of the country was apparently being shaped overwhelmingly by evil forces.
But when Americans think about the Civil War —which we Americans have done quite a bit ever since—it is not the 1850s that we think of. The path to war –which, I am arguing, reveals the play of evil– is left to historians, and is ignored by the American people at large. Meanwhile, the mainstream of American culture focuses on tours of the glorious battlefield at Gettysburg, and thrills to Tara’s Theme” from Gone With the Wind.”
Clearly, nations –including America– are capable of distorting their histories in various ways to meet their own needs for meaning, for self-affirmation, for comfort.
Which leads to the question: is there any way that the dismal and disgraceful history of this Bushite period could ever be, like the Civil War, romanticized into something poignant and noble and beautiful?
Disastrous Evil in Bushite America
It’s time now to revisit those parallels, with which I began, between the current Bushite time and the middle of the nineteenth century.
First, as before, evil forces have gained the power to determine the nation’s course.
That commonality ought not to obscure, however, the difference in the form that evil has taken in these two historical episodes. In the lead-up to the Civil War, the evil forces manifested themselves in the form of a dark and destructive spirit that rose up in the hearts and minds of a substantial element of the general population.
In the Bushite era, the evil forces have worked more from the top down, with a coalescence of amoral and power-hungry and divisive components of the American body politic (corporate, imperialist, religious) succeeding in grabbing power at the highest level and then seducing the nation into a course for which the population as a whole –though it may have been vulnerable to it– had no need.
That this dark forces should have wrought such destruction on America is not nearly so deeply rooted in the karma of America as in the case of the Civil War.
That the spirit animating the Bushite forces themselves is an evil one–again, see “The Concept of Evil: Why It’s Intellectually Valid and Politically and Spiritually Important” at www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?page_id=26–is nonetheless unmistakable. The signs of it are everywhere: the persistent lying and hypocrisy, the insatiable greed and lust for power, the arrogance, the bullying, the greed, the unwillingness to bow down to any system of goodness (Constitution, law, tradition, even fidelity to facts) that might restrain its freedom of action in the service of its own ambition.
And the two forms of evil –in these two dark times–also show a distinct kinship: the creation of half-baked ideas that bolster the impulse to engage in war; the over-reaching; the consequent destruction (mentioned above) of the very things that the actors involved claim to love; the penchant for dishonest myth-making, etc.
Equally unmistakable is the damage that this reign of evil has inflicted on the American nation. We may not have a national conflagration of violence that consumes, as did the Civil War, some two percent of the American population. But blood IS being spilled, and the repercussions of this era are not yet fully known. But besides that, there are forms of damage other than bloodshed, and they are not necessarily lesser.
Consider how much of what is best about America has been dismantled in a mere half-dozen years.
Under this presidency, the Constitution has been taking a beating, as the conservative jurist Bruce Fein has said, “every five minutes.” The pervasive lying of the national leadership, abetted by the complicity of the corporate media, has seriously undermined the capacity of Americans to think clearly and constructively about any of the challenges we face. This Bushite leadership has fomented divisions and antagonisms among Americans –a polarization of the body politic– beyond anything seen since the Union broke apart into Civil War. And the list of grave injuries to our system, to our political culture, to our people, to our standing in the world, etc. could easily be multiplied.
There’s a reason why evil forces are regarded as evil: they tear apart what is good, what serves life.
How Will This Story Be Told?
Will there be yet another parallel? Will the Americans of the future find some way to create a wistful and elegaic and celebratory story out of this catastrophe? Will there be any equivalent of Ken Burns’s beautiful narrative or the soaring strains of the score of the movie “Gettysburg” when the tale of this time is told?
Two quick answers: It depends. But I think not.
It depends, because of the many possible futures that this era may bring us, one is the realization of our worst fears, the complete dismantling of our constitutional democracy and the creation of a fascist dictatorship. If that were to occur, our “history” could be anything our rulers wish for it to be. The same lying spirit that they bring to presenting everything that is happening even now –and that history shows that dictators have brought to the fabrication of their self-glorifying historical propaganda– could give us a version of our times as sanitized and falsely glorified as Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” was for the nature of the Nazi regime.
But if –in our future, as in our past– the telling of history is a free process emerging from the culture generally, I cannot see how the story of this Bush presidency will be told as anything other than a stain and a disgrace.
These two crises have an essential –absolutely key– difference. While it is questionable, as I indicated above, that the Civil War was inevitable, the war over the issue of slavery (and that, and not states’ rights, is what the fundamental issue was) was about a deeply entrenched, knotty problem that had been woven into the Union at the very outset and that had long been recognized as important and inescapable.
Not so, this Bushite catastrophe. As I wrote in an earlier essay, “The Worst President Ever? Why the Question Mark?”:
Unlike [the crises] of 1861 or 1929 or 1941, the crisis of today is not because of anything that’s happened to our country. (Even if the official story of 9/11 were accepted as true, there’s no reason why that trauma had to precipitate a lasting crisis in our national life.) No, the reason for our present crisis is that we’re being ruled by a regime of lawbreaking, usurpatious, lying, power-lusting and blundering thugs.
It’s not that we need better leadership in this crisis. The leadership is the crisis.
This is a crisis, in other words, that did not have to be. It did not just happen; it was created –at least much of it–as a deliberate policy choice. In view of this, it is difficult to even imagine any way that Americans will find any way to celebrate this Bushite disaster, or make the massive damage inflicted upon the nation seem in any way heroic.
There is, however, one important way in which this Bushite catastrophe has not been deliberate. While the assault on the Constitution, the polarization of the country, the degradation of our public discourse, the enriching of the already rich and the empowering of the already mighty, have all been deliberate, that’s not so of the diminution of America’s international standing and the shift of global power to America’s adversaries in the world.
We now face a world in which scenarios very adverse to the United States and to the American people are much more probable than they would have been had not these Bushite thugs –with their hubris and their ignorance and their recklessness– been in power.
It is impossible to know whether a less arrogant, less bullying, more competent American leadership would have been able to block North Korea’s further advance into the nuclear club, or Iran’s progress in that direction, but it is quite clear that the Bushite policies in both areas have exacerbated the challenges and have failed dismally. Future Americans may reap a bitter harvest from the seeds the Bushites have sown in this area. [I was evidently mistaken here about where things were heading with North Korea.]
So also with some possible economic disasters. There is discernable now an emerging inter-connection and proto-alliance of powers hostile to the United States and important in the world energy markets. Prompted in large measure by the bellicosity and bullying of the Bushite regime in America, such countries as Russia, China, Iran, and Venezuela have shown signs of developing cooperation, largely oriented toward countering U.S. dominance. From this development, too, not so terribly far into the future, Americans may in the future suffer pain and hardship.
And there are other ways in which the prospects for America –and also, in some cases, for the world generally– are darker than they likely would have been had different leadership –less in thrall to evil forces– been steering America’s course.
It is damage of this sort –damage that lies in the future, damage that reaps what the Bushites have sown but does so at sufficient remove that the connection between the seed and the fruit is not immediately self-evident– that might get this Bushite era its most favorable treatment as future Americans tell of their history.
This most favorable possible treatment (save the lies of a totalitarian state) is that given by Americans to the 1850s: to ignore the reign of evil that gave rise to the catastrophe, and dwell instead on the noble and self-sacrificing way that the Americans responded to the bitter harvest that evil sowed. In other words, the best treatment the Bushite era might expect in a free America of the future would be to ignored, like some unpleasant family secret.
That’s the most favorable treatment, but not the most desirable. To glean from this dark era what we should, America will need to sweep away the lies and the polarization with –as another nation has termed it– Truth and Reconciliation.
The story of this period ought to be told —publicly and prominently– and ought not to be told as anything but a time of stain and disgrace.