ALL IS NOT QUIET ON THE FRONT
Let’s think about a bit of our history and our political culture of today.
At one point in his march toward Richmond, General Grant visited the picket line of the Army of the Potomac. The Union troops were called to attention. The Confederate pickets just across a narrow river also came to attention and saluted the Union General-in-Chief. This was a river where both sides drew water and traded goods. Neither side fired on the other.
Grant approached a young man, on the Union side of the river, who was wearing light blue, and struck up a conversation. During the conversation, Grant discovered the man was wearing the light blue of Longstreet’s Corp. The two men chatted amiably for a few minutes. Grant then went back to his campaign of destroying Lee’s army and losing thousands of Union troops.
After one battle, Grant came upon two wounded soldiers lying amidst the dead. One was trying, relatively unsuccessfully, to offer the other a drink. One of the soldiers wore blue; the other wore gray. He had his medical corps treat both of them.
During the battles over Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg, both armies drew water from the same stream. Men from each army would fill the cluster of canteens they carried to the river without fear of being shot by their enemies. When all the air bubbles had ceased to dribble from the last canteen to be filled, they returned to their lines and prepared to kill each other.
Examples like this occur in many conflicts. ¥ But, the examples above come from the most profound conflict ever faced by this nation. It was a rebellion that took the lives of as many as 750,000 young men. Arguably, if one takes the more traditional estimate of 640,000 deaths, it is only after the Vietnam war that the number of Americans killed in all foreign wars barely exceeded the number of men lost as we spent five long years killing each other.
Why am I digging up these examples from over 150 years ago? I do so because they strike me as so wonderfully human. Amid the most dire and arduous conditions, men wearing blue and men wearing gray found moments in which they were neither Southrons nor Yankees; they were simply, for a few moments of grace, Americans.
But, I look at the political landscape today and among our new “political warriors,” these moments are all too rare. John McCain’s defense of Barack Obama’s Christianity in 2008 at one of his town halls is one of those moments. But, such moments are, unfortunately, “far and few between” in today’s political world. But, I can’t help but feel that a pervasively dismal and dark cloud hangs over our politics today.
To be sure, we have known vicious politics in this nation since its inception. Jefferson referred to John Adams as a “hermaphrodite.” His opponents delighted in portraying Lincoln as a monkey in a dark suit. Southern Republicans were rotund “balloon men” with vest buttons about to pop from the strain of consuming all the southern wealth, “black gold,” they had stolen from its rightful owners. Over the entire history of our nation, only three outgoing presidents have not accompanied the newly-elected president to his inauguration—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Johnson. Why? They hated the each other. No softball politics there.
We are, and have always been, a violent people. We kill and injure each other with startling regularity. Our politics have not escaped that violent streak. America has seen bombings by the Left, bombings by the Right, political assassinations, race riots where White Americans ran amok and indiscriminately killed Black Americans, and race riots where Black Americans razed entire sections of American cities and killed White citizens. White men with guns have attacked Planned Parenthood or Sikh temples; Black men with guns have ambushed police.
I remember as a graduate student hearing a presentation by an English political scientist whose basic theme was the need to re-introduce civility into public discourse. He was reacting to the demonstrations against the Vietnam War that were turning into violent clashes between police and young people. I thought he was an ass. Protesting an unjust war in which you or your friends might be called up to fight and to kill is not a situation that breeds quiet, measured discourse.
You expect arguments, rather than discussions, in the streets. You expect stereotyping and anger; you expect demonization of those you oppose. All this is standard fare for street protests. But, when did it become standard fare for political leaders?
Stephen Douglas looked, Lincoln’s opponent in 1860, at the landscape after the secession movement and said (I paraphrase here), “There are now only two political parties―patriots and traitors.” One might expect that amid a major rebellion.
We had some of that more recently when Joe McCarthy was riding his wave of fame before he drank himself to death. You were for him, or you were a commie and a traitor.
We would do well to think more broadly about Paul Krugman’s commentary in the NYT.
“…the term (Zombies) refers to policy ideas that should have been abandoned long ago in the face of evidence and experience, but just keep shambling along.”
He was referring to Zombie policies. There are, unfortunately, Zombie-like elements in our political culture ― overt racism, bigotry, a complete lack of concern for the powerless among us, and the naming of any opponent as someone disloyal to our nation or unwilling to pay proper respect to our traditions and values.
These Zombie part of our political culture “shamble along” on the edges of our political discourse, using the web to sustain themselves, spin their tales about the evil practices of their opponents, and occasionally adding others to their ranks by “biting or scratching” some of the disaffected souls of our society.
Unfortunately, we now have an administration that has brought those Zombie elements of our political culture to the forefront. They no longer shamble along on the edges of our political discourse, they are at its heart. We are back where Stephen Douglas put us at the beginning of the civil war — the current administration has defined us as patriots or traitors.
¥ One can easily find example of this in other wars. For example, during WWI, certain sections of the trenches would make their own armistices. Night patrols would ignore the enemy patrol passing nearby. As the different troops rotated between the front lines and the rear, conditions would change. Austrian units were happy “to live and let live” when they manned the front lines. Bavarian troops were more rigid and continually combative when they held those same positions. But, if an attack was ordered, those armistices dissolved, and the horrible god of trench warfare again raised its blood-drenched head.