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.”

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.

Finally, simple majority democracy has come to the Senate

It’s been called the “nuclear option,” presumably because a decision to change the filibuster rules of the U.S. Senate would be so big, so historic and politically so consequential.

And today’s decision IS a huge deal, as Ezra Klein in his Wonkblog in the Washington Post explains. Most of all, the decision by the Democratic majority in the Senate is about democracy. Tired of the Republican minority’s obstructionist behavior through the filibuster, which has paralyzed the upper body of the U.S. Congress, the Democrats, with 52 votes to 48, said enough! Three Democrats, Carl Levin of Michigan, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas voted with the Republicans, while the two Independents, Angus King of Maine and Bernard Sanders of Vermont, supported the Democrats.

Finally, simple majority will rule in the US Senate, just like it should in a democracy and just like it does in other democracies, whether the political power lies with a majority of twenty votes or one.  A majority is a majority.

The filibuster rule, that it takes 60 votes for decisions in the Senate, is not a written rule. It is not in the Constitution, and it was for decades seldom used. However, from 1967 to 2012, according to the Congressional Research Service cited by the Washington Post, majority leaders had to file motions to try to break a filibuster of a judicial nominee 67 times — and 31 of those, more than 46 percent — occurred in the five years with Obama in the White House and a Democratic majority, although not a 60-vote super majority, in the Senate.

The filibuster rule change means that the President’s federal judge nominees and executive-office appointments now can be confirmed by a simple majority rather than by the super majority that has been required for more than two centuries. However, there are two important exception: it will still take 60 votes to confirm a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court and the filibuster can still be used on legislation.

Words of approval from the White House were heard after the vote.  Now, President Obama can get his three nominees approved to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, often called the second most powerful federal court in the country. From   the Republicans in the Senate only howls of protests were heard.

“It’s time to change. It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete,” said the Senate’s Democratic majority leader Harry Reid.

Yes, it was the right thing to do!

The Republicans: “The cowardice in the many”

“John Boehner holds the nation hostage because the Tea Party holds him hostage. The problem with modern Republicans is not fanaticism in the few but cowardice in the many, who let their fellows live in virtual secession from laws they disagree with.”

The words are from Garry Wills, emeritus professor of history at Northwestern University writing in The New York Review of Books under the title “Back Door Secession.”

Wills goes on to say what the people behind these efforts are doing resemble “the pre-Civil War virtual secessionism—the holding of a whole party hostage to its most extreme members”… and that “the presiding spirit of this neo-secessionism is a resistance to majority rule.”

Where are we? Where is America heading?

“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.

Outcome uncertain as battle over new gun laws continues

This weekend a group of art lovers and gun control activists gathered in the First Congregational United Church of Christ in the middle of Washington, DC for an exhibition called:

“The Newtown Project: ART TARGETS GUNS”.Art & Guns
The exhibition with 33 artists has been assembled by veteran journalist Charles Krause Reporting Fine Arts Gallery in memory of the murdered 26 students and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December last year.
Outside the church, the Canadian artist Viktor Mitic’s school bus stood, full of bullet holes. The bus, called the “Incident,” was created by Mitic before the tragedy in Newtown in memory of gang violence in his hometown Toronto, but the bus has become a sad symbol of what has happened and could happen again in America’s schools.
Congress returns this week to Washington to continue negotiations on new gun laws that President Obama has demanded and for which he has energetically pleaded in speeches  around the country. And he seems to have support among the American public: 90 per cent support background on people who want to buy guns; 59 percent want ban on military-style automatic weapons (assault weapons) and a majority support other laws on guns and ammunition.
Yet… a victory in Congress is far from certain. The lobby group the National Rifle Association (NRA) has, at least so far, succeeded in preventing any new gun laws.
A depressing article in this weekend’s Washington Post described NRA’s hitherto successful lobbying, both in Congress in Washington and in the state legislatures. It is now clear that there will be no nationwide ban on assault weapons — the votes are just not there. But also other, less controversial proposals, have so far been stopped by NRA and its supporters, who all argue that such laws would violate Americans’ individual freedoms and right to bear arms according to the Second Amendment in the Constitution.
But, the struggle after Newtown has not been entirely without success for Obama and those who urge stricter gun laws. The success has mainly come in states where the Democrats are in control, like in New York State, where Governor Andrew Cuomo, but, especially, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have pushed hard for stricter gun control. Also here in Maryland, where I live, Governor Martin O’Malley has been successful pushing through a number of new gun laws.
Said O’Malley:
          “There is a sickness in this country and that sickness is gun violence.”…”These tragedies must end, and to end them we must change.”
And in Connecticut, new gun laws passed last week, but the final victory did not come easily,  according to the New York Times, in spite of Newtown and in spite of a Democratic governor and Democratic majorities in the state Senate and House of Representatives. NRA’s resistance was fierce.
But perhaps NRA’s biggest defeat, and its opponents’ biggest victory, came recently in Colorado, where one in three households own guns but where also tragedies such as in Aurora and Columbine have taken place. In the end, Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper pushed through several new laws.
          “If you can do it here (in Colorado), you can do it any place,” was one of the comments afterwards.