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…

“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!

Will President Obama finally take on the gun lobby?

”We’ll see what happens. Obama still has to do something other than speak”, writes Amy Davidsons today on her blog ”Close Read” in The New Yorker.  Exactly!

ObamainNewtownBut President Obama’s speech last night to the grieving citizens of Newtown, Connecticut, was not like his speeches in Tucson, Arizona; Aurora, Colorado; or Fort Hood, Texas — scenes of previous mass killings during his first term as president – it went further, maybe even a lot further. And it had a different tone, more impatient, sadder, but also more full of resolve, and — more political.

We can’t tolerate this any more. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change,”  he said and promised something he had not previously promised during his four years in the White House:

 ”In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

These sentences have resulted in the new hope that Obama, for the first time — finally, is ready to take on America’s culture of weapons and the country’s laws on weapons, or lack of laws. Can the tragedy in Newtown become the ”the tipping point?” We don’t know, but the pressures on the president to do something and fight for what he seems to believe in — to fight the “good fight” — even if that fight does not produce a victory against the gun lobby and its many supporters in Congress, have increased rapidly and markedly since Newtown.

What he can propose is well illustrated on the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog.” But the fight won’t be easy, regardless of strategy and proposals. There are no simple solutions, because the fight concerns a key issue for the American society. It’s about the “god Gun,”  as the historian Garry Wills writes on the New York Review of Books’ blog, which:

  • Has the power to destroy the reasoning process.
  • Has the power to turn all our politicians as a class into invertebrate and mute attendants at the shrine.
  • Has the power to distort our constitutional thinking. It says that the right to “bear arms,” a military term, gives anyone, anywhere in our country, the power to mow down civilians with military weapons. Even the Supreme Court has been cowed, reversing its own long history of recognizing that the Second Amendment applied to militias. Now the court feels bound to guarantee that any every madman can indulge his “religion” of slaughter.

Enough, Mr. President!

Yes, our hearts are broken, as President Obama said the other day about the senseless mass murder of 28 people in Newtown, Connecticut.

The sentiments of his emotional statement were surely shared by many, many, across the nation. But, for many, including me, his words were not enough. We wanted to hear something more  — indignation, anger, impatience, in addition to the sorrow, over what America’s gun culture is doing to this country, that too many people have died for no reason at all, and that something must be done about it – finally, now!

But we did not hear this from the President, who gave no indication that he is now prepared to break his four-year-long silence on guns and gun control — during his entire first term. His one sentence that “we are going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” was far too general and vague for many, like New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, maybe the nation’s leading gun control proponent:

“We have heard all the rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership. Not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end today.”

David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor:

“Obama told the nation that he reacted to the shootings in Newtown “as a parent,” and that is understandable, but what we need most is for him to act as a President, liberated at last from the constraints of elections and their dirty compromises—a President who dares to change the national debate and the legislative agenda on guns.“

In the days since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the voices of “enough” are heard more and more. Mass shootings and mass killings are now part of everyday life in America. The magazine Mother Jones reports that there have been 62 such mass murders in the last 30 years. We know them: Columbine, Oak Creek, Aurora, Tucson, Blacksburg, and now Newtown. This year, alone, almost one hundred people have died in this madness.

Still, little has happened. Not even the near death of Congress woman Gabby Giffords resulted in any political action. On the contrary, it easier than ever to buy a gun, including assault weapons, as the ban between 1994 and 2004 on those weapons was lifted in 2004. And you can now carry concealed weapons in schools and bars, on trains and in the National Parks.

Could the 28 deaths in Newtown, Connecticut be a tipping point? It remains to be seen, if Sandy Hook can “break the usual cycle of universal shock fading into political reality,” reported  the AP.

Sadly, more and more people see the battle for increased gun control as unwinnable. The gun lobby seems just too strong, and the American people do not seem support more gun control. According to Gallup, fewer Americans now favor stricter gun laws, from 78 percent in 1990, to 44 percent in 2010.

Still, the deaths at Sandy Hook of 20 school children between six and seven years old seem to have struck a chord among Americans. And how could it not? So if not now, when? Enough.