Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Remembering the 4th of July

July 4th has come and gone again. So too have the requisite historical reenactments of all things related to the 4th. Though it's the signing of the Declaration of Independence that we supposedly celebrate, the Civil War, as always, was competing for its own spot at the 4th of July table. At Gettysburg National Battlefield, and various other old-timey locations around the country there were reenactments of that famous four-day battle that straddled the 4th of July. What is is about the Civil War that makes it so redolent in our national memory? Or at least in the memory of Civil War re-enactors? And why does the Civil War trump the revolution, even on the 4th of July?

It's not just gentlemen interested in old guns and ladies wanting to practice their flag sewing skills who use the 4th to contemplate historical memory. As popular history's most beloved conflict, everyone, it seems, wants to get in on the love-fest for the war between the states.

Maybe remembering the Civil War as a moment healed rather than a moment divided gives mainstream Americans -- engaged in their own ideological civil war between Red States and Blue States -- hope that we can get over fractious divides. Indeed, the Civil War can be used as a model for burying the hatchet and just getting over it, whatever it was, not by forgetting, but rather by remembering. Selectively, that is. That's what R.R. Reno, a professor of theology implies in an essay entitled "Memory Redeemed," where he used the 4th to quickly segue into a lesson on how Americans chose a "reparative memory" of the Civil War.

To Reno, reenactors, and the acolytes of Shelby Foote and Ken Burns, who stress the Civil War as brother against brother, the valiant deeds of both sides, and the horrible tragedy of the war, what we get is redemption in struggle, trial by fire. Regeneration through violence. Can you hear the plaintive fiddle music? Can you see the heartbreaking sunsets over now-silenced cannon? 

No? Go get your copy of Burns's The Civil War and que it to ... well, any point in the entire 12 hours, really. I'll wait. It won't take long.

That's better. Now with the sound of saccharine music and an actor voice-over explaining to his sweetheart that the war is trying but that heroes exist on both sides, we can begin to understand the logic of "reparative memory." In a brilliant bit of self-congratulatory providential eschatology, the Civil War provided America an obstacle that, once overcome, would wash away the sin of slavery and make the nation more democratic. We should thank those nice men in gray for providing us a way out of all those nasty uncomfortable historical moments that undermine a nation's sense of itself. Tragic pasts overcome are just that, they are finished! How do we deal with the trauma of the tragedy? Why, with narrative convention, of course. They're over! Woo-Hoo! 

In his essay, Reno begins -- outrageously -- with the famous Faulkner quote: "The past isn't dead; it's not even past." Turning around the original meaning of the Faulkner, this is forgetting masking as memory. Rather than understanding what it was that drove Americans to Civil War in the first place -- the question of slavery -- or thinking about the legacy of slavery, namely racism and Jim Crow, the "Civil War as noble tragedy" denies its own historical context and significance, it's own pre- and post-history. We'd prefer to wonder about the particular ribbons worn by the Louisiana Zouaves than the political consequences of the War. We need to be rooted in history, the reenactment claims, while at the same time eviscerating the history it claims to recover.

The question of whether or not Americans now are redeemed from the "tragedy" of the Civil War (not the tragedy of slavery of course ... and interesting choice of the term redemption) forces us to ask the question: which Americans? Who gets to benefit from this remembering?

The memory of the Civil War is only reparative if we draw our community around racial lines. As David Blight and others have shown, the emancipationist memory of the war -- that the war was fought in order to end slavery -- held by African-Americans and some white northerners, was liquidated by a white supremacist memory of the war in the South and the similarly inflected reconciliationist memory -- let's get back to the business of being (white) Americans -- of white northerners. This is the upshot of D.W. Griffith's racist epic, Birth of a Nation. The Civil War was tragic because the country almost let black people destroy the union. We were just lucky to have the Klan there afterwards to put us back together again. 

Lately, our reconciliation has been scrubbed free of this history as well -- the actual history of reconciliation directly following the demise of reconstruction -- but we would do well to remember that reconciliation was purchased for a price. It was a reconciliation built upon the backs of former slaves, a new racial politics that tried to remake not just the South, but the whole of the United States in the image of the old confederacy. Slavery was dead, but white supremacist social, cultural, and legal institutions were fortified.

And this is the real meaning of Faulkner's notion that the "past isn't dead; it's not even past" (or Marx's traditions of the dead weighing like a nightmare upon the brains of the living). The past lives on in traditions, in ideologies, and in social institutions like the law, like privilege, like wealth, like poverty.

It's also why the battlefield celebration of the Civil War, the reenactors Civil War, Reno's "reparative memory," is so dangerous. "We need to feel the weight of an accumulated, narrated, memorialized past. It gives us a legacy, a place in the world, a place to stand," Reno writes. Sounds good until we remember that the "memorialized past" of the Civil War has a different "weight" for blacks than it does for whites. The memorials to confederate generals that line southern streets, capitol buildings, and campuses, the confederate flag that flies over some southern statehouses or was incorporated into state flags (both of which are protests against integration in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education) and are a reminder that white southerners fought, valiantly even, against the largest and most successful slave revolution in the history of the world. And though militarily unsuccessful, white southerners would do all in their power to limit the consequences of their military defeat. 

Those monuments to that past are what Nietzsche and others tell us, is part of a "monumental history," which seeks to satisfy our previously existing sense of self and to justify the present in all its iniquities. But history should not make us feel comfortable. It is not there to show us how great we are; great because we "overcame" "obstacles" or "tragedies" like slavery. Or great because we were born in the greatness and sainthood of the founders, the constitution, and democracy. That is a history with a trajectory: a straight line of inescapable progress from them to us. But we are not a trajectory. The United States was not inevitable.

In fact, historical knowledge should undermine our sense of ourselves. It should shake our conception of the world. It should make us feel uncomfortable. Memory works against those things by papering over the ideological, emotional, or ethical inconsistencies and messiness of historical reality. For as white Americans decided on a memory of the Civil War that reconciled the battlefield traumas, African Americans paid the price as the United States allowed a moment of possibility for real racial change to pass into ... well, history. As Reconstruction gave way to Redemption, white American's "healed" the "wounds" of the Antebellum period. Black Americans were not afforded that luxury.


straydc said...

How does one who understands that the Civil War was not redemptive act? It would be rude to tell the re-enactors where to put their antique guns.

True or false we need a narrative history and it cannot be the history of the Serbs and Croats. America more or less gets along and we need a story to explain it. Do we focus instead on the Civil Rights Movement? The crime rate moves from slow growth to a 45 degree angle in 1964 and stays at that rate until the 90s. In other words, nothing got better until we destroyed and then rebuilt our institutions.

Jesse said...

I'm not sure I understand why anyone "needs" to shape history into easy to follow narratives. Besides children, I mean, but I'd certainly like to think adults do not need to create or cling to a "story" to explain how we "get along." I see this as the number one threat to historical analysis. If we reduce history to "stories" then professional historians might as well stop looking objectively at events and focus on the art of bullshitting. If history teaches us anything it is that there's no "story" at all; only events, outcomes, and motives.