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Your patriotic musical point counterpoint

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 26th October 2012


Jose Feliciano sings the national anthem
National League Championship Series, San Francisco, 10/14/12
(via Latino Rebels, who provide the back story)

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Meat Loaf performs major musical malfunction
Romney rally, Ohio, 10/25/12

We need a real recovery.

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Outgrowing Booker T. Obama

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd September 2012

In my previous post, I took up Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “Fear of a Black President,” writing that “Obama has at best settled for accommodation — for telling us what too many of us want to hear, and for not telling us what we don’t want to hear,” and concluding “As Coates suggests elsewhere in his essay, there are interesting parallels with Obama in America’s past.”  To wit:

“[Obama's] approach is not new. It is the approach of Booker T. Washington, who, amid a sea of white terrorists during the era of Jim Crow, endorsed segregation and proclaimed the South to be a land of black opportunity.”  

That sounds about right to me — extremely sad, at best, but about right: someone who (despite slogans of “Hope” and “Change”) routinely settled for a situation instead of setting out to fundamentally change it.

Sad at best, because Obama has considerably less justification for cautious, tactical, “temperamental” conservatism than Booker T. Washington had.  And unlike Booker T. Washington’s constituency, 21st century Democrats have considerably less justification for settling for it either.  Washington was an unofficial leader of a besieged, impoverished people facing not only the daily indignities of prejudice and racism, but brutal ethnic cleansings, unspeakable lynchings, widespread debt peonage and a vicious convict labor prison gulag.   It wasn’t that unreasonable to prefer cautiously building strength to the shorter, more dangerous choice of confrontation.*

Obama, by contrast, is the President of the United States of America; he took office after an electoral landslide that solidified his party’s control of both houses of Congress; he was inaugurated before an adoring, mobilized throng of millions.  The ongoing ‘racialization’ political handicap that Coates discusses is no figment of the imagination –  but it also can not have suddenly become a decisive handicap to President Obama’s political ambitions once he had reached the Oval Office.

Mr. Obama Goes to Washington
Instead, it’s fair to reflect (yet again) on what, precisely, those ambitions are or ever were — not for high office, but for what Obama would do and how he would do it when he got there.  David Sirota’s 2006 piece “Mr. Obama Goes To Washington” remains one of the most useful analyses of that question.  In Sirota’s judgment,

…[Obama] appears to be interested in fighting only for those changes that fit within the existing boundaries of what’s considered mainstream in Washington, instead of using his platform to redefine those boundaries. This posture comes even as polls consistently show that Washington’s definition of mainstream is divorced from the rest of the country’s (for example, politicians’ refusal to debate the war even as polls show that Americans want the troops home).

This being a time when he was still courting progressive voters, Obama valiantly… tried to have it both ways.  Sirota reports:

““You should always assume that when I cast a vote or make a statement it is because it is what I believe in,” he said. “The thing that bothers me is the assumption that if I make a judgment that’s different from yours, then it must mean I am less progressive or my goals are different, meaning I must be not really committed to helping people but rather I am trying to triangulate or drift toward the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council].”

My takeaway from Obama’s statement (and the ensuing 6 years) is therefore that when Obama adopts some neoliberal Beltway conventional wisdom, then that’s what he believes in — and meanwhile he’d like us to believe his goals are ours.

The trouble for Obama is that now that he’s president, the “shared goals” part is easier to disprove, starting with the extrajudicial drone assassinations and terror strikes Coates put front and center in his own essay.  The Obama administration has also given up on any prosecution of torturers; it’s allowing detainees to rot and die in indefinite detention –uncharged, unprosecuted, even approved for release.  It has engaged in unprecedented, punitive investigations, harrassment,  and prosecutions of national security journalists and whistleblowers.  It has pushed for renewals of the egregious PATRIOT and FISA Amendment Acts.   And Obama notoriously co-designed and then signed the NDAA and its indefinite detention provisions — with the signing conveniently timed for the evening of  New Year’s Eve, 2011.

And even if you’re bored with mere human rights, civil liberties,  or rule of law issues, there are plenty of bread and butter reasons to be skeptical of Obama’s leadership and policies, or even outraged by them: income inequality growth that was worse under Obama than Bush; a pitiful mortgage relief program intended to “foam the runway” for banks instead providing real relief to struggling homeowners — and intentionally leaving $300 million in potential mortgage relief unspent; a White House triumphantly touting a debt ceiling agreement that “Reduces Domestic Discretionary Spending to the Lowest Level Since Eisenhower” — at just the time when Keynesian domestic spending was urgently needed to revive a strangled economy; taking Bush era tax cuts off the table prior to the 2010 election; repeatedly putting Social Security and Medicare benefits ‘on the table.’

Indeed, where at least “economic progress in exchange for political impotence was the touchstone of Washington’s creed,” as W.E.B. Du Bois biographer David Lewis has put it*, Obama’s bargain may be the preservation, even exacerbation of a failing economic and political status quo in return for his own political stature — but ongoing progressive/liberal impotence.

I think the common denominators are more important, though: elite support for the political aspirations of a conveniently conservative, charismatic black leader.  In both cases, the rise to fame and power began with a nationally celebrated speech, one that served constituents less than the speaker’s own relentless climb up the ladder.

In Washington’s case, it was his 1895 Atlanta Cotton Exposition speech — an eloquent call for racial peace, an argument to focus on economic growth …but arguably also a surrender speech to white supremacy. Not surprisingly, Washington was suddenly white America’s — and (thanks in part to the “without strikes and labor wars” line) especially white business America’s — favorite black spokesman.  Washington was able to set up an increasingly powerful nationwide black political machine from his desk at Tuskegee Institute, fueled by the dollars of magnates like Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, John Wanamaker, and George Eastman, to name a few.  Benefactors and recipient shared a common outlook on what to do with those dollars: hire or support those who didn’t rock the racial boat, deny those, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who would not accept long term second class citizenship, social inequality, and racial terror.

Similarly, Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address launched Obama onto the national stage.  And in retrospect,  like Washington’s Atlanta speech, it succeeded less by telling hard truths than by flattering its listeners that the country was basically fine, they were basically what was right with it,  Obama was basically the proof, and all that was required was pretending we all agreed with each other.    The upshot was to “affirm the greatness of our Nation” in light of Obama’s own “unlikely” and “improbable” presence on the podium, and (just as Washington established in his 1901 autobiography ‘Up From Slavery’) in light of his compelling biography.

Validationism
There’s another parallel between Booker T. and Barack H. that’s closely connected to the elite support they received: their frequent validations of outsider critiques of and attacks on their constituencies.  Even Jesus just said “turn the other cheek” –  he didn’t say “agree with the one who slaps you.”

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How many more “Our Virginia” textbooks are there?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th October 2010

Last week, the Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff reported that William and Mary professor Carol Sheriff had discovered a blatant, “Lost Cause” Civil War lie in her daughter’s 4th grade history textbook written by one Joy Masoff:*

In its short lesson on the roles that whites, African Americans and Indians played in the Civil War, “Our Virginia” says, “Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” [...]

No they didn’t
The assertion is patently false, Sheriff told the Virginia Gazette:

There is no credible evidence that two battalions of African American soldiers fought under the command of Stonewall Jackson. After consulting with three of my William and Mary colleagues who also teach and research Civil War history, who also had never encountered any such evidence, I wrote to James I. Robertson, a Virginia Tech professor who is the foremost scholar of Stonewall Jackson, and asked him if he had ever seen any evidence to corroborate this point. He stated categorically that no such evidence existed. Prof. Robertson explained to me, “Had there been Confederate black units surely some officer in an official report would have mentioned it. Yet the 128 volumes of the mammoth Official Records [of the War of the Rebellion] are completely silent on the subject.” I also contacted Prof. Joseph Glatthaar, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor, who has written a highly claimed book called General Lee’s Army. He declared the claim “simply wrong.”

The “blacks fought for the South” claim has obvious attractions for Confederate apologists, eager to advance the claim that antebellum and wartime relations between slaves and masters were amicable and mutually loyal.  “Lost Cause” loyalists seem to have inflated the mere consideration of the idea of arming Southern slaves — and isolated incidents of slaves protecting themselves or their masters — as proof that a policy was actually implemented.

Not surprisingly, these will o’ the wisp notions were never implemented in any scope even resembling Masoff’s claim — drawn, it turned out, from a “Sons of Confederate Veterans” website — and never could have been. According to Bruce Levine‘s “Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War,” it ran afoul of reality — both among blacks, who preferred to flee to Union lines whenever possible, and among whites who were loathe to release slaves to service and contended (rightly) that the war was about keeping slaves, not freeing them or detailing them off to battle.  In his review of the book, Yale professor David Blight explains:

The most revealing feature of Levine’s argument is his analysis of motivation among the advocates of a black soldier policy. Davis and Lee, he contends, were never the enlightened advocates of emancipation their Lost Cause defenders, as well as some distinguished biographers, have fashioned. They were staunch Confederate nationalists, determined to do whatever it took to win a war of southern independence, and in so doing, preserve ultimate control over blacks in the post-war South. [...] …as Levine makes clear, those Confederates who supported black enlistment coupled with emancipation did so in the hope of controlling the lives, prospects, and especially the labor of the people they would free. Their best intentions were thwarted by both their own caution and by African Americans themselves, who chose by the hundreds of thousands to flee to and join the armies in blue rather than gray.

What “contributions” black Americans did make to the Confederate cause were, as one might expect, by dint of involuntary slave labor: digging trenchworks, laying rails, and continuing to tend the cotton fields of the South.

So how did this textbook make it into Virginia schools?
Masoff –  who also owns the Five Ponds Press publishing company that published the book — says “It’s just one sentence. I don’t want to ruffle any feathers. If the historians had contacted me and asked me to take it out, I would have.” For her part, Sheriff was at pains to note that “To my knowledge, there is no evidence that would suggest a coordinated effort by state educational officials to rewrite history for the purpose of instilling in children pro-Confederate sympathies, or to confuse them deliberately.”

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The white supremacist roots of Glenn Beck’s ideology

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th October 2010

Last weekend I went to the “One Nation” march — a rally designed at least in part as a rebuke to Glenn Beck’s 8/27 event at the Lincoln Memorial, hijacking the date and meaning of the March on Washington 47 years earlier.  At least one “Tea Party” advocate stood alone (and unmolested) among the swirling crowd near the Washington Monument on their way towards the event.  His sign had words to the effect “I’m with the Tea Party .  But I’m not racist, I don’t hate.”

Maybe not.  Few people like to think they’re racist.  Many people try not to be.  But we’re not usually the most objective judges of whether we’ve succeeded.

More to the point here, when their leaders — by intent, by ignorance, or by intentional ignorance — misrepresent the history of race in America that they claim to be explaining, the practical effect is racist.  Listen to the ‘MediaMatters’ tape excerpt of the October 1 Glenn Beck show, starting at 2:14:

…I would like to propose that the president is exactly right when he said “Slaves sitting around the campfire didn’t know when slavery was going to end, but they knew that it would.” And it took a long time to end slavery. Yes it did. But it also took a long time to start slavery. And it started small, and it started with seemingly innocent ideas. And then a little court order here and a court order there, and a little more regulation here and a little more regulation there, and before we knew it, America had slavery. It didn’t come over on a ship to begin with as an evil slave trade, the government began to regulate things because the people needed answers, they needed solutions. It started in a courtroom, and then it went to the legislatures. That’s how slavery began. And it took a long time to enslave an entire race of people and convince another race of people that they were somehow or another “less” than them. But it can be done. I would ask you to decide: are we freeing slaves, or are we creating slaves? That’s a question that must be answered.

Hokaaay.  There’s a whole discussion one might have about how all this is delivered — the weary would-be freedom rider’s ‘yes it did,’ the oddly mocking, skeptical ‘evil slave trade.’  But it’s the content that concerns me here: where in God’s name does Beck come up with this stuff?

W.C. Skousen and the Lost Cause
The answer appears to be that ‘in God’s name’ is about right: it may be largely from one Willard Cleon Skousen (1913-2006).  National Review Online’s Mark Hemingway described him as “by turns an FBI employee, the police chief of Salt Lake City, a Brigham Young University professor, consigliore to former secretary of agriculture and Mormon president Ezra Taft Benson and, well, all-around nutjob.” (emphasis added)

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The Great Betrayal, judicial activism, and a living Constitution

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd October 2010

September 17 was Constitution Day, always a good opportunity to reflect on that document and what it means to us.  Unfortunately, I missed that opportunity.  But of course every day is Constitution Day!  So I’ll go ahead and write down a few things I’ve been thinking and reading about lately on that subject and its intersection with another that has been occupying me lately: post Civil War American history.

In a note he published on Facebook, Patrick Bruckart wrote,

…the Bill of Rights was intended to restrain the federal government’s authority and provide citizens a means of redressing grievances against it. The BOR did not originally apply to the states. The Fourth Amendment, for example, was later applied to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment and subsequent court decisions. The next time we are inclined to complain about “judicial activism,” we should ask ourselves whether it would be acceptable for state or local law enforcement officials to search our homes (or property) without having first obtained a warrant based on probable cause. And that’s just one example.
(links added)

Even in colonial times, some states provided their own constitutional guarantees — that is, they acknowledged their own limitations — regulating searches and seizures.  But it was optional — especially with respect to the lower and disenfranchised members of society.


The Fourteenth Amendment
1. All persons born or naturalized
in the United States, and subject to
the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens
of the United States and of the State
wherein they reside. No State shall
make or enforce any law which shall
abridge the privileges or immunities
of citizens of the United States; nor
shall any State deprive any person
of life, liberty, or property, without
due process of law; nor deny to any
person within its jurisdiction the
equal protection of the laws. [...]
5. The Congress shall have power
to enforce, by appropriate
legislation, the provisions of this
article.

But the Fourteenth Amendment changed all that.  In particular, the Fourteenth Amendment — in both intent and language — clarified that rights guaranteed under the Constitution were a floor under state law, not merely interesting limitations on a far off federal government.  And both these rights and the promise of equal treatment under the law were guaranteed to everyone born in, naturalized to, or simply under the jurisdiction of the United States of America.

And Congress could see to it.  According to Akhil Reed Amar’s indispensable “America’s Constitution: A Biography,” the final enabling clause — “Congress shall have power to make all appropriate laws” furthering this aim — was selected to echo specific Supreme Court rulings deferring to “appropriate” Congressional legislation. Amar:

And — here is the key point –the American people ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, with evident understanding of its, and also the Thirteenth’s, language authorizing “appropriate” federal legislation.  Knowing full well that Congress believed that this language authorized transformative new federal statutes to uproot all vestiges of unfreedom and inequality — and having seen with their own eyes that Congress had already acted on a similar belief in connection with the Thirteenth Amendment — Americans said yes.  We do.

Or so they believed.

“A vain and idle enactment”
To return to Bruckart’s remarks, I think one point to remember about judicial activism is that sometimes it’s needed simply to undo prior such activism.

The main example, to me, is in how the Fourteenth Amendment was bled nearly dry shortly after its ratification by one regrettable Supreme Court ruling — In re Slaughter-House Cases (1873; text)  — and one manifestly unjust one, United States v. Cruikshank (1875; text), a ruling rivaled in infamy by Dred Scott, Korematsu and few others.

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Bye bye to all that: Roadrunner, ‘Just Drive,’ and 20th century America

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 31st August 2010

Late last week we ended a wonderful stay in Maine, one where a quiet lake, the company of family, the calls of loons, the cracks of lobster shells, and the splash of kayak paddles were the dominant experiences of lazy days.

We returned, however, by driving straight home — in a minor family legend of a road trip that took sixteen hours to complete. The traffic wasn’t bad, but it took a little longer than anticipated, and it’s just a long, long way.  As time wore on, dusk turned to night, we found ourselves in the seemingly endless urban plain of New Jersey with a blur of highway stops, gas stations, exits, and a slow flux of neighboring cars and trucks to keep us company.  We talked, planned, argued, listened to music, read, drove.  And drove.  And drove.

And while we certainly weren’t on a quiet lake in Maine any more, there was a certain familiar but usually overlooked beauty to this, too: streams of red tail lights ahead, oncoming streams of white headlights, the rush of buildings, bridges, signs and overpasses, a giant civilization all around.


“Just Drive 2: New Mexico – New York,” YouTube video uploaded by ‘heraldstreet’, whose
description is “driving across america in 1995 with a super-8 and the radio. music by
jonathan richman and the modern lovers. pretty well unedited.”

More than 30 years ago, Jonathan Richman captured some of that in the underground rock anthem “Roadrunner” — one of his first recordings.*  While the exact lyrics could vary from performance to performance, the gist was that there is a beauty in the experience of … driving through the suburban sprawl around Boston Richman called home, at high speed and with the radio on:

I’m in love with the modern world
I drive alone when it’s late at night
I wanna hear now, the modern sound
so I won’t feel alone at night
I mean I’m in love with the modern world [...]

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We live the future of our past

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 7th August 2010

This short, beautiful bit of music — one version of the theme for the PBS history series “American Experience” — has always sounded like a kind of poem to me, one in a language I didn’t know but wanted to understand.

Recently, I got to thinking more about it, and decided it was a hymn, and one I’d try to write some lyrics for. Here they are.

As a growing river flowing fast
as it rolls down to the sea
We live the future of our past
and pray that we grow more free

Over rock and fall
we together all
with our hearts
for our hopes
now
call

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Lost no more: the story of the first Memorial Day

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd June 2010

One might say that one of the most remarkable events of the Civil War happened a few weeks after it ended — and in Charleston, South Carolina.  This Memorial Day, that event — the first utterly original, deeply moving Memorial Day — was remembered, and I had the good luck and rare privilege to attend that commemoration.


Union prisoners burying ground
Charleston, S.C., 1865. (George Barnard)
Library of Congress

The story, briefly, is that a Union prisoner of war camp was established in 1864 on the “Washington Racecourse,” the horse race track of the city’s high society, to house prisoners moved there from the notorious Andersonville camp. Some 260 Union soldiers died there of exposure and disease in the following months, and were buried in a mass grave.

When Charleston fell, rejoicing black Charlestonians not only staged a parade with a coffin named “Slavery” with the slogan “Fort Sumter Dug Its Grave”, but also organized to properly rebury and honor those Union prisoners. Yale University history professor David Blight, who rediscovered the story some ten years ago, described it this way (in a piece for the Newark Ledger):

Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

At 9 am on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathering in the cemetery enclosure; a childrens’ choir sang “We’ll Rally around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. No record survives of which biblical passages rung out in the warm spring air, but the spirit of Leviticus 25 was surely present at those burial rites: “for it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you… in the year of this jubilee he shall return every man unto his own possession.”

It was the first Memorial Day, and — as Professor Blight put it in remarks on Monday — it amounted to a declaration by black Americans that the Civil War had been about slavery, and that the defeat of the Confederacy amounted to a second American Revolution and a birth of freedom for millions of former slaves.

And then the event was forgotten, at least by white Charleston.  The soldiers were reburied elsewhere, the grounds of the former race course converted to what is now Hampton Park.  Again, Blight:

[A] measure of how white Charlestonians suppressed from memory this founding in favor of their own creation of the practice later came fifty-one years afterward, when the president of the Ladies Memorial Association of Charleston received an inquiry about the May 1, 1865 parade. A United Daughters of the Confederacy official from New Orleans wanted to know if it was true that blacks had engaged in such a burial rite. Mrs. S. C. Beckwith responded tersely: “I regret that I was unable to gather any official information in answer to this.” In the struggle over memory and meaning in any society, some stories just get lost while others attain mainstream dominance. Read the rest of this entry »

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How the Lost Cause was won

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 8th May 2010

Race and Reunion, David Blight, 2001
Harvard University Press
=====

With the end of April came also the end, for this year at least, of “Confederate History Month,” unfortunately resuscitated by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell after a long dormancy under the previous two governors.  Amidst an outcry that apparently surprised the Regent University law graduate, McDonnell hastily reworded his proclamation with a grudging nod to the impropriety of slavery and the possible existence of other points of view on the matter of a rebellion leading to the country’s bloodiest war.

One might reasonably ask why there are no  “Union History Month” or “Victory over Treason and Slavery” celebrations — and that, more or less, is what David Blight did in his book “Race and Reunion,” published in 2001.  Covering the period from the Emancipation Proclamation to the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg — and the release of the notorious film “Birth of a Nation” — it’s a fascinating read.  It’s also  — still, going on ten years later — a useful, jolting reminder of just what was lost as remembering the Civil War became more about rehashing every last engagement, and about getting over it, past it, and around it, than about reflecting why it happened — let alone reflecting on the unfinished business of the human and civil rights of black Americans.


Click above to order this
book or others by Blight.

Reconciliation — on southern terms
Blight’s research led him to soldiers’ remembrances in periodicals of the time such as Century and Harper’s; to the annals and publications of the Southern Historical Society and the Confederate Veteran, and to the schedules and membership rolls of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  But he also paid attention to the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B DuBois, the short stories of Ambrose Bierce, and the novels of the unjustly forgotten Albert Tourgee (“only fools forget the causes of war”) or Nelson De Forest — as well as the celebration of Klan terror by authors like Thomas Dixon, Jr, or the perhaps more insidious romanticization of the antebellum South by authors like Thomas Nelson Page or Joel Chandler Harris (“Uncle Remus”).

The book tells stories you’ve still almost certainly never heard before: the first Memorial  Day (that is, “Decoration” Day) — held by black Charlestonians to honor and restore the graveyard of Union prisoners of war on the site of the city’s “Race Course,” now Hampton Park; the unveiling of Richmond memorials to Robert E. Lee in 1896, and to Stonewall Jackson in 1875; the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895, when Booker T. Washington gave his “Atlanta Compromise” speech — widely acclaimed at the time, but half wishful thinking, half sadly understandable surrender; the fiftieth anniversary of Gettysburg, but with blacks in attendance only as blanket distributors and latrine cleaners.*  The Washington Post — apparently already a runaway gusher of idiotic political commentary –  marked that occasion by noting that slavery and secession were “no longer discussed argumentatively,” but were “disposed of for all time“; moreover, slavery was something for which “no particular part of the people was responsible unless, indeed, the burden of responsibility should be shouldered by the North for its introduction” (emphasis added by Blight.)

What had happened by 1913 was a “Lost Cause” regional movement as potent, committed, and persistent as the abolition movement had been.  What’s more, it arguably had a greater reach (at least within the U.S.), in that ex-Confederates could and did safely peddle their redefinition — for that’s what it was — of the causes and legacy of the Civil War throughout the country, for good money and to plentiful applause.

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Love them while you can: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 31st August 2009

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

– from “Gilead,” by Marilynne Robinson

“Gilead” is that all too rare thing — a beautifully written, absorbing work of fiction written in the voice of a genuinely and believably good man.  The narrator is John Ames, a preacher in the town of Gilead, Iowa, in the late 1950s; though nearing seventy, he has married late and has one young child, to whom he dedicates a journal of what he suspects are his final months of life.

As the passage above suggests, Ames’s writings are also more than that: a vessel for reflection on what matters in life.  The “balm of Gilead” is a biblical reference that even I’m aware of, but it isn’t necessary to be immersed in Christian lore per se, or even to be a casual believer, to be moved to reflection and emotion by Robinson’s writing and Ames’s character.

I write “per se” above because this nation’s own particular “Troy Tale”, the Civil War, also looms throughout the memoir, (many of Ames’s recollections revolve around the John Brown-like figure of his grandfather, who fights in Kansas and later loses an eye in the war itself), and I join writers from Noll to Lincoln in locating an American theology derived from that.  The narrator explains and frames his father’s views here:

My father said when he walked into his father’s church after they came back from the army the first thing he saw was a piece of needlework hanging on the wall above the communion table.  It was very beautifully done, flowers and flames surrounding the words “The Lord Our God Is a Purifying Fire.”  I suppose that’s why I always think of my grandfather’s church as the one struck by lightning.  As in fact it was.

My father said it was that banner that had sent him off to sit with the Quakers.  He said the very last word he would have applied to war, once he had had a good look at it, was “purifying,” and the thought that those women could believe the world was in any way purer for the loss of their own sons and husbands was appalling to him.  He stood there looking at it, visibly displeased by it, apparently, because one of the women said to him, “It’s just a bit of Scripture.”

He said, “I beg your pardon, ma’am.  No that is not Scripture.”

“Well,” she said, “then it certainly ought to be.”

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