Monday, June 18, 2012

Gettysburg, Romney, and Other Thoughts

I'm back from my trip to DC. Since the requirements of my small work at the National Science Foundation -- aside from the prep, reading and analyses and all that -- took only two days, I added a few days and took in a few sights because I could.

So, realizing Gettysburg was only 90-some miles away, I headed up to see the site of the costliest battle ever fought on American soil. To say it was a moving experience is understatement. The glory, courage, doggedness, competence, timidity, insanity, and just plain imbecility that the battle -- and all war -- represents was evident, even if only in the distant echoes across the fields around the town. But because the fields and trees and old farms have been so well preserved, the experience really isn't only a matter of memory or echo but a visceral one: the battlefield is alive and tangible. And to walk it is brutal. Educational but deeply brutal.

Since my charge here at The American Human is to examine who we are -- from a humanist perspective, of course -- I couldn't help but weigh the meaning of the battle, as well as the War to which it was so central, in the context of today's politics and today's cultural and racial divisions.

Not only am I a northerner by birth -- Illinois -- but I'm also a federalist and a progressive one at that and therefore instinctively a supporter of the Union. I learned in the starkest terms that southerners didn't like us in the 50s when as a child I lived in rural Georgia for a couple of years, and they certainly don't like us today. Kids would ask us where we were born -- they knew from our accents we weren't like them -- and in one case would physically attack us, dismissing us contemptuously as "Yankees." We got over it, hell, we were kids. We just climbed trees and made beards out of moss and dug forts, all the while dodging the armies of killer ants.

I liked hunting cypress stumps (also called knees) in the swamp by our house.

And while I respect the culture of the South, at least the literature, the food, the music, the sheer complexity of it, and the marvelous mix of races, persuasions, and passions, I've always believed that the South is deeply flawed, even today. It's biblical in the extent of its failure, which is apt.

I don't want to let the North off the hook, with its cities rife with racial tensions and political corruption; we haven't solved many of the basic cultural conflicts there, either. But the South clings to a separatist, narrowly individualistic vision, all the while, yes, clinging to their guns and religion. And this vision is innately juxtaposed to what our forefathers were hoping to build. The South as a block of constituents and voters have managed an unusual moral hat trick, if you will: they've sought to defend the Constitution while simultaneously wanting to blow up the country and yet believing they are the Essential, the Real, the True Americans.

Sorry, but, my ass you are. And I'm sorry that my trip to Gettysburg -- where I did indeed sense and respect the bravery and determination of both sides -- didn't yield an appreciation for the Southern cause. It certainly didn't. The right cause prevailed in Gettysburg, as it did in the Civil War. The Union was preserved.

Sheridan French, author of "My Southern Life" in Southern Flourish magazine
Now my beef with the South (yes, it continues) is that it supports the conservatives, er, the Republicans, as if the beliefs of yesteryear exist in a never-ending, never-bending continuum. It was states' rights then, it's states' rights now. It was the preservation of the white prerogatives then, as it is today. Why that might accrue to the benefit of Mitt Romney -- a carpetbagger if there ever was one -- is astounding in its lack of coherence.

I remember listening to a southern woman in 2004 talking about how George W. Bush had made an obvious blunder in leading us into that unfortunate war in Iraq and admitting that he used something not akin to the truth in making his case. And yet she said that she was probably voting for George again. When asked why, she thought briefly and responded, "because he's a Christian."

There you have it. I can try to persuade you all day and night that I harbor no ill-will for the Southern Man of the Neil Young song, or that I believe that those in the Confederacy were no less brave -- and no less a tool of the prevailing ruling classes of the day -- than their Union brethren, but I do. The South that I talk of is not the whole South but a disturbing and obvious prevalence. By and large the South is a block and an albatross around our country's neck. They are red states, who predominantly suck wealth out of the blue ones, and rarely if ever give it back.

Click for a more readable view.

And you'll never get me to think that there's a New South. Well, maybe there is. There's a New South, same as the Old one. And though it's famous for its hospitality, it's not hospitable to the secular rationality it takes to behave as one nation. They proved that long ago. And they're still proving it today.

On a final cantankerous note, the U.S. would be the most boring place I can imagine if it weren't for the blacks, the southern ones at first and later the northern urbans. They have been for over a century the source of our American musical soul -- though as a member of the Scotch-Irish tribe, I'll grant us our own place in America's musical evolution. But our former slaves have trumped that whiter contribution, if only because the depth of their pain has made them so fiercely resonant. Man, they came ready to play.

As if anyone hadn't noticed.

Without the blacks, we'd be Switzerland. What have they ever given the world besides cheese with holes, watches, and tax havens? Nothing. Oh, maybe yodeling.

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