An overdue debate about the Civil War and truth in history

After Charleston, South Carolina, there is a new, vigorous debate about the Civil War, the Confederacy, race relations, slavery, and, about truth in history. It is all very healthy, and all long overdue.

In today’s Washington Post, professor James W. Loewen has some very interesting thoughts about this, about how the Confederacy lost the war but won the history. It is time, he writes, to “de-confederatize” the United States and set history right. The war was about slavery, nothing else.

“Removing slavery from its central role in prompting the Civil War marginalizes African Americans and makes us all stupid,” Loewen writes.

Here is what I wrote in my recent book, Land of Dreams: A Reporter’s Journey from Sweden to America:

“In his book Sidor av Amerika, Swedish journalist Thorsten Jonsson, who was once the daily Dagens Nyheter’s correspondent in New York, wrote during a trip through the South in 1946 how difficult it was to like it there, because “so much of the old and beautiful contains so much that is unhealthy and unproductive”  — there is a “smell of oppression that seeps out from the daily relationships between whites and coloreds” …” a piece of gangrene in the body politic that must be removed.”

Today, the South has changed, of course, and the gangrene has healed. But I remember that even in the 1960’s, the South was a strange and frightening part of America, and not just for blacks. If you were a young, white student and drove a car with license plates from a northern state — be careful! Anything could happen.

My picture of the South, the eleven Southern States that fought for slavery in the great Civil War from 1861 to 1865, has long been influenced by the 60’s, when so much injustice and violence and death was part of everyday life in that part of America.  Still, today, I cannot completely get away from this picture when I travel through the South, because I am constantly reminded of the past. The South lost the Civil War and as a result, the slaves were freed but what followed were one hundred years of institutionalized discrimination and oppression.  Everywhere, monuments remind the visitor of the past, and the scenes of the major battles are holy ground. But they are all monuments to a lost cause.

In Washington, DC, on the border between the North and the South, the Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s old home is visible on the hill above Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River in the State of Virginia. Here, one is constantly reminded of how far south Washington actually is, and how close one is to the bloody history of the Civil War. The trip from Frederick, Maryland through Leesburg and Culpepper in Virginia down to Monticello is called the “Journey through Hallowed Ground.” It is a journey through this country’s most historic part, where nine Presidents had their homes. History is often more alive in America than in Europe – perhaps because the history of the United States is so much briefer than Europe’s…

The American Civil War between 1861 and 1865 was a war with many names, depending on whether one was for the Union or sympathized with the eleven States in the South, known as the Confederacy. Names like the War Between the States, the War against Northern Aggression, the Second American Revolution, the Lost Cause, the War of the Rebellion, the Brothers’ War. But whatever the name, it was a war for the preservation of slavery in the South, and it was bloody. During nearly four years of fighting, from Fort Sumter in South Carolina to Appomattox, Virginia, over three million soldiers fought and 620,000 of them were killed. Not far from my home in Maryland, at Antietam, one of the bloodiest battles of them all took place — 23,000 soldiers on both sides died.

The free black population in the North consisted of only one percent of the total population, but in the final stages of the war 180,000 black soldiers fought for the Union, or ten percent of its forces. Their victory was the slaves’ victory, and America’s victory, even if the war cost President Abraham Lincoln his life and even if the Blacks in the South had to wait another 100 years for their true emancipation.

When the North’s commander Ulysses S. Grant met his counterpart from the South, General Robert E. Lee, at his surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, Grant wrote the following memorable words about the South’s cause:

“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

And so it was … one of the worst reasons, ever, to go to war.”

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Yes, it was a remarkable week for Obama — and now on to gun control!

It was a remarkable week for President Obama, as the New Yorker’s David Remnick writes so eloquently: “What a series of days in American life, full of savage mayhem, uncommon forgiveness, resistance to forgiveness, furious debate, mourning, and, finally, justice and grace.”

Indeed, it was a remarkable week for America, capped by Obama’s eulogy over the victims at the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s a must to see and to listen to, for all American. So go ahead!

Now, let’s now hope the Confederate flag really does come down from the South Carolina State House, and everywhere else where it might fly. And let’s hope the discussion about the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage is over. Because it is done. Finished. Let’s move on!

Sadly, however, most Republicans, including the “clown bus” of presidential candidates, seem reluctant to do so, holding on to something that has passed them by. That doesn’t seem to be a  winning strategy, and it is disappointing.

And let’s hope the Democrats, going against their own President on the Asian trade bill, will come to their senses. I come from a country ruled by Social Democracy for decades and where everyone belongs to a union. Still, it is a country that firmly believes in international trade, in an open world, in the globalization that we are all experiencing. There is no going back here either, so how could Nancy Pelosi and the great majority of the other Democrats go so wrong? It is not a winning strategy for America, and it is, also, disappointing.

Remnick’s article talks about Obama’s “resolve.” He is still the President for another year and half, so let’s hope he uses that remaining time to move forward on gun control. The curse of guns in this country must come to an end. Let’s hope.

It’s not only high time — it’s long overdue

It’s not only high time — it’s long overdue that the Confederate battle flag comes down outside the State House in South Carolina.

In 1993, when the battle flag came down from the top of the State House in Montgomery, Alabama, put there by the old segregationist governor, George Wallace, it seemed as if Alabama had, finally, joined the Union.

Let’s hope the members of the State Legislature also look to the future and vote to take it down. But, let’s hope even more than that, as Sally Jenkins writes in her column in today’s Washington Post, that a new debate commences in the United States, where America stops romanticizing and stops teaching fiction, and, instead, starts teaching American history and starts telling the truth that “the Confederacy was treason in defense of a still deeper crime against humanity — slavery.”

In 1865, at Appomattox, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, the Northern commander’s words are worth remembering:

“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

One of the worst reasons, ever…

We are reminded again: Torture is torture. Period.

The U.S. Senate’s torture report is out, and that was a good day for America. But it underlined  once again that America “lost its way”during those dark years after 9/11, as Eric Lichtau wrote in his book Bush’s Law – The Remaking of American Justice.

“This is not how Americans should behave. Ever,” says today’s main editorial in the Washington Post.

So, to talk about whether these “enhanced interrogation techniques” worked or not is completely irrelevant.

“Torture is wrong, whether or not it has ever ‘worked,'”  the Post adds. Exactly.

“Only fools” discuss whether illegal actions “work,” wrote Slate Magazine’s legal commentator Dahlia Lithwick some time ago. Exactly, again.

But, as Lithwick also wrote, they “got away with it:” Cheney, Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, CIA Director George Tenet and his staff member Jose Rodriguez, who destroyed video tapes of the torture sessions.

Now, what? Probably nothing, unfortunately.

Congress, controlled by the Republicans after the new year, will not touch this. And President Obama, who started out so well and in his first weeks as president in 2009 shut down CIA’s secret prisons, prohibited the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and he promised to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, also said no to all investigations, no prosecutions and no indictments, no truth and reconciliation commission like in South Africa after apartheid, no to a commission report like the one after 9/11. Nothing.

Was he wishing it would all go away? It hasn’t. The prison in Guantanamo Bay is still open and now the torture debate is back with a vengeance.

It was a “horrible decision” by Obama to close the books on this chapter of of our history, writes the New York Times today, describing the whole report as a “portrait of depravity that is hard to comprehend and even harder to stomach.” And, it “raises again, with renewed power, the question of why no one has ever been held accountable for these crimes.”

Exactly, yet again.

Pete Seeger was — “Forever Young”

Pete Seeger, dead at 94, sings Bob Dylan’s beautiful “Forever Young.”

His full life by Jon Pareles in New York Times, and, by the way, Pete Seeger, you won, as David Corn writes in Mother Jones.

A man to be admired and missed.

 

“Fruitvale Station” — don’t miss this film!

I saw the movie “Fruitvale Station” tonight, about the tragic fate of Oscar Grant, shot down by a policeman for nothing at a BART Station in Oakland, California on New Year January 1, 2009.

The new film, a debut by 27-year-old Ryan Coogler, has been lauded by the critics after having won the big prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in the year. It’s easy to draw a parallel between Grant, played by Michael B. Jordan — “Wallace” to every fan of “The Wire” — and Trayvon Martin, both young black men, almost boys, and both killed for no reason by white men.

It’s a superb and sad drama that happens to be a true story about America. Don’t miss it!

It’s high time to close Guantanamo Bay

The terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay is still open, in spite of what president Obama has declared and in spite of the many demands to close it.

As recently as last week, President Obama said that he continues to believe that Guantanamo should be closed.

“I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive.  It is inefficient.  It hurts us in terms of our international standing.  It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts.  It is a recruitment tool for extremists… And I’m going to reengage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interest of the American people.  And it’s not sustainable.”  

Karen Greenberg, head of the Center on National Security at Fordham University Law School, is an expert on the Guantanamo prison. In an interview with me for my book America — Land of Dreams she said that Obama might have succeeded in closing Guantanamo immediately after he won the election in 2008, but he didn’t act fast enough, and he failed. And because Guantanamo is still open, we still have a system of “indefinite detention” and that, for me, she said, is “unacceptable.”

An article by Greenberg in the Washington Post last Sunday, called “Five Myths about Guantanamo Bay,” lays out the situation at Guantanamo today for the remaining 166 prisoners, of whom 100 are hunger-striking. Four of them have been hospitalized and 23 are force-fed.  Read it!

It’s high time to close Guantanamo.