We’re left to our imaginations to posit what it felt like for Americans, after four years of bloodshed on a scale unimaginable, at the surrender by Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant. Hideous destruction inflicted by Americans upon Americans. Brothers against brothers.
Primary source documents—letters, journals, first-hand reports—offer insight, but unless one was there, he/she cannot truly feel what those Americans felt.
More than the devastation reeked upon the people and the land, it’s the psychological impact on the nation’s psyche that’s of interest. A sigh of relief. Mental fatigue. Rapture and triumph. Revenge. In the defeated, lingering bitterness. Defiance. Denial.
Abraham Lincoln spoke benevolently in his Second Inaugural Speech four weeks before the South’s capitulation. “With malice towards none, with charity for all.” Six days after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln was assassinated. Fate piled on.
The realist writers of the post-Civil War period, such as Mark Twain, wrote about life in stark and honest terms. Social science fields—psychology, sociology, and so on—exploded looking for answers to why we do what we do.
It’s important to be careful when drawing parallels between historical events and eras. No two are the same. Yet, historical analogies serve as guides. George Santayana, echoing the great eighteenth-century conservative philosopher and parliamentarian Edmund Burke, wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
At the time of this writing, the outcome of the election isn’t known. Regardless, the social and political civil war will not be resolved, short of an unlikely crushing defeat by Hillary Clinton of Donald Trump. Even then, skirmishes like those that took place across the war-torn South will continue.
Our social fabric has been torn. The politics of resentment, once defined as envy of the poor for the wealthy, is now of “the other.” Political discourse, once civil, has devolved into battles. Elections have become take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth contests. We can blame the actors, but in a democracy everyone’s an actor. As Shakespeare’s Cassius honestly notes, “Our fate is not in the stars but in ourselves.”
The reason comes down to one, simple construct: It’s who we’ve become despite President Obama’s exhortations to the contrary. As a people, we love it. We’ve become cultural sadists.
Forget the pious hand-wringing about the depths of depravity to which campaigns have sunk. Please. Like rubber-necking at an accident to catch sight of blood and gore. Cheering on a brawl. Watching reality TV shows and football. Desensitizing. Mind numbing. Crass culture exalted, dressed in sheik clothing and living in a tinsel tower surrounded by court jesters and sycophants doing obeisance and ingratiating themselves to the Great One. Gatsby defiled.
By the 1980s, the dominance of the WASP—white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant—culture, which had, begrudgingly, admitted working class Catholics and eastern and southern European males to its fold, began to crumble. Hell-no-we-won’t-take-it-anymore marginalized groups began asserting themselves. The Equal Rights Amendment might’ve been done in, but strong women, aka feminists, refused to be relegated in the kitchen. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s ended Jim Crow, but it also gave minorities a sense of power and hope. For the GLBTQ community, the Stonewall Uprising did likewise.
The power elite began sensing, realizing, their days were numbered. A new cultural paradigm was beginning to take shape, one comprised of strong women and gender-bending and darker-skinned individuals. The pluribus of our motto e pluribus unum—one out of many—would now extend beyond European Christianity. Liberals and compassionate conservatives were fine with that realignment of American culture. Others were not.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, The Enemy was no longer out there, but within. The prophets of doom—Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Rush Limbaugh—said so. Soon, they told their disciples, they would follow their hero Ronald Reagan riding off into the sunset.
Those disinherited now find themselves in an uneasy alliance with the so-called “alt right,” an amalgam of white-supremacists and neo-Nazis hitherto lurking in America’s shadow. But with Trump’s ascendency, now a phalanx within the Republican Party.
Within the GOP, courageous leaders who put love of country ahead of party have been marginalized. In their stead, political careerists lacking a moral compass have ascended, the consequences of which does not bode well for either the party or country.
To be continued.