Friday, January 21, 2011

Doomed to repeat it

It's a common in liberal circles to cite how few Americans believe in evolution, let alone understand it, as evidence that there's no hope for the world. Evolution is important, but lately I've been thinking...probably under the heavy influence of Ta-Nehisi Coates...that the more significant gap in our national understanding is actually the Civil War. If Americans really understood the Civil War, I think that would change the way we look at Iraq, and Afghanistan and the kind of people who take up arms against us.

There are two main thrusts of my argument. The first is pretty simple: I think it could be pretty helpful if as Americans, we could channel some of the seemingly endless empathy we have for the young Confederate soldiers who fought for an immoral cause like preserving slavery towards their present day counterparts who are attracted to the ideologies of Islamism and jihad. And to the extent that we insist on believing that most Confederates (and certainly any that we are descended from) were not actually fighting for slavery, but to defend their homelands from hostile invaders, we could admit that the same logic could apply equally to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hell, a more nuanced understanding of the Civil War could even help us understand why for some groups, say the Sunni minority in Iraq, full democracy can be a terrifying prospect when you've spent the last several decades making enemies among the people you're now supposed to let vote. Basically, I think if we were willing to look more realistically at our past, instead of glorifying and whitewashing it, we'd be able to tap into our national memory of what it's like not to be the undisputed supreme power on the planet, what it's like to be invaded, and what it's like to live in uncertain times.

The second part is not completely separate from that. There's a debate going around the blogs I read about the destruction of Afghani villages, and specifically, how much we can believe the Afghan men & women who tell us how grateful they are that we're there, blowing up stuff. Again, this is a situation where a more complete understanding of the Civil War would be helpful, and instead we have our national mythology getting in the way. In this country, there is a long history of putting people in a position where it's in their best interest to tell you how wonderful they think you* are, whether or not they actually feel that way. The problem is, we can still be more interested in believing how wonderful we are, and always have been, than understanding the true complexity of history. I see a pretty strong connection between the mythology of the benevolent slave owner and the proud Confederate black soldier and the idea of being liberators in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think our determination to hold onto to these myths in our own history hurts our ability to look at the current situation with open eyes. Which is not to say that I'm sure that the Iraqi and Afghani civilians want us gone, just that we tend to ignore the part of our national memory that would help us understand best what it's like to be them.

 * I'm having a lot of trouble with pronouns here. I can't say the United States...because the North and the South, the slave owners and the slaves are all equally "the United States." We & you imply some group that includes me or my audience, while they implies some group that is not us, which isn't necessarily accurate either. So I'm doing the best I can to keep this coherent and get my point across, but I realize that I'm taking some liberties.


  1. Oh but didn't you hear? Michelle Bachmann says slavery was abolished while John Adams (or maybe it was John Q Adams) was President. There never was a Civil War.

    Did you happen to see Tweety's interview with that "hypnotized" Tea Party Express guy who tried defending Bachmann?

  2. I love Chris Matthews sometimes.