The New York Times has been running a series titled DISUNION in their opinion pages since late last year. The series gives biographical information about a number of influential people from the Civil War era and often chronicles what was happening 150 years ago from the day each exerpt is published. It is fascinating reading.
Last week I watched the 9-part documentary on the Civil War by Ken Burns. It is a masterpiece. Perhaps the most poignant part of the whole series came near the end. Newsreel footage from 1938 was shown of Union and Confederate soldiers shaking hands at a 75 year reunion at Gettysburg, PA. An oral account was given of an earlier Gettysburg reunion where Pickett’s charge was re-enacted. The men who participated charged as they had years before. However, this time, when the two armies met, they fell upon each other to embrace one another.
Isn’t it interesting how time and perspective can change the most hardened opinions and tame the most bitter hatred.
There has been much written lately about that period in our nation’s history. November 6 of last year marked the 150th anniversary of the election of President Abraham Lincoln. The next 4 years will see a number of other significant anniversaries.
The Civil War has been on my mind a lot lately – and not just because we are nearing its sesquecentenial. There are more than a few apt comparisons that can be made between then and now.
Paul Krugman – A Tale of Two Moralites
The article above makes no mention of the Civil War. Rather, it was written in the immediate aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona earlier this month. That tragedy sparked a pretty fierce debate about the tone of our political discussion with accusations going back and forth of demagogery and political opportunism.
In the wake of that shooting, there has been a lot of talk about the need to restore civility to politics. That’s a praiseworthy sentiment. Nevertheless, politics has always been a pretty rough affair. In fact, one could easily argue that politics is far more civil, even now, than it was in the 1800’s. I can not think of any recent examples of politicians getting into physical altercations within the halls of Congress nor of any politicians dueling with pistols.
However, what we have been seeing more and more lately is a Congress that votes right down party lines on major issues. In that sense, we are more bitterly divided now that at any time in the last 150 years. During this past election cycle, I was alarmed to see Republicans, some of whom were considered pretty conservative, being tossed in favor of other Republican candidates who were even further to the political right. It was a conspicuous symptom of a growing ideological divide.
From Krugman’s article:
One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.
There’s no middle ground between these views. One side saw health reform, with its subsidized extension of coverage to the uninsured, as fulfilling a moral imperative: wealthy nations, it believed, have an obligation to provide all their citizens with essential care. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.
This deep divide in American political morality — for that’s what it amounts to — is a relatively recent development. Commentators who pine for the days of civility and bipartisanship are, whether they realize it or not, pining for the days when the Republican Party accepted the legitimacy of the welfare state, and was even willing to contemplate expanding it. As many analysts have noted, the Obama health reform — whose passage was met with vandalism and death threats against members of Congress — was modeled on Republican plans from the 1990s.
But that was then. Today’s G.O.P. sees much of what the modern federal government does as illegitimate; today’s Democratic Party does not. When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will. But what we’re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.
A couple of things made me think of Krugman’s article in the context of the Civil War. For one thing, the arguments going back and forth today bear an eery resemblance to many of the same arguments of 150 years ago. We hear a lot of talk these days about the supposed tyranny of the federal government. We even hear talk of seccession on occasion – by elected leaders, not just a few isolated wingnuts.
What really made me connect Krugman’s article to the Civil War was his description of an ideological division without middle ground. There really haven’t been that many issues in our history where the division was so intractable that some sort of compromise could not be reached. It made me think of the slavery debate. That was one such issue – and the opinions ran so strong on either side that it ultimately took a war to resolve it.
I agree with Krugman’s thesis – the issue here is less about civility and more about a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of the federal government. Perhaps the heart of this disagreement goes to the very definition of liberty itself. To a southerner in the mid-1800’s, the idea that the federal government might have the audacity to deny him his right to own another human being and do with him as he pleased was a moral outrage. It was the very epitome of tyranny. The South seceeded because it simply could not countenance the idea of living under a democratically elected government that would not let them have their way.
Of course it is almost universally recognized today that the argument that liberty somehow equates to the freedom to hold slaves is absurd. Nevertheless, there were several million people at that time that believed precisely that and were willing to undergo the privations of the bloodiest war in U.S. history in order to defend that idea.
Far too many people equate liberty with the absence of government dictates. That is not freedom. That is anarchy. Anarchy is not freedom.
It would be nearly impossible for me to overstate the contempt I have for all that the Confederacy represented. Had I been alive in the 1860’s, I would have been an ardent supporter of the Union. In the present day, I am an ardent supporter of the Union.
It is a paradox that so many who so emphatically extol their own patriotism are the very same people who are the quickest to rail against our government when they can’t have it their own way.
Those who advocated secession in 1860-61 were traitors, plain and simple. Anyone who advocates it today is as well.