Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Memorial Day, 2013: Reconciling with Johnny Reb —or Not (27 May 2013)

            In a useful web page in four languages, the US Memorial Day Organization tells us that it is likely Memorial day "had many separate beginnings" where Americans after the Civil War gathered, by plan or spontaneously, "to honor the […] dead" in what remains to our day the worst war in America's history: worst in terms of the death and sufferings of Americans, the destruction of American cities, towns, and treasure, and worst in terms of long-lasting scars.

            In what seems to be uncontroversial history, the Memorial Day Organization tells us that Memorial Day — called "Decoration Day" at the time and long after — "was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by [Union] General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic […] and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery." Decoration Day became an official holiday in New York State in 1873, and by 1890, Decoration Day "was recognized by all of the northern states"; Americans of the old Confederacy, however, "refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war). It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May […], though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis' birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee."

            "Memorial Day," the Memorial Day Organization hopefully says, "is not about division. It is about reconciliation […]."

            Looking at American politics and society in 2013, however, it's clear that that reconciliation had problems to start with and remains troubled.

            If I were a Black American, descended of Africans kidnapped and then enslaved in the Americas, I might feel strongly that the North/South reconciliation after the Civil War was bought at the expense of my grandparents and great-grandparents and my ancestors generally. Post-Civil War "Radical Reconstruction" of the Confederacy was nowhere near radical enough and ended far too soon; "reconciliation" was purchased for White folks by allowing a Jim Crow regime and the triumph of the theory that States' Rights included the "right" to continue to oppress, rip off, and occasionally lynch and otherwise terrorize Black people long after the Civil War and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution.

         From my off-White point of view, the passion is less, but the historical conclusion is still there.

            In his Second Inaugural Address, nearing a Union victory, Abraham Lincoln moved toward reconciliation and talked about harboring "malice toward none" and called upon his fellow citizens "to bind up the nation's wounds." Fine, but in 2013 let us recall the full context of those appeals for charity even for those guilty of "Treason against the United States […] in levying war against them." 

         Lincoln points out the simple fact that in 1861 an eighth of the US population was enslaved and the peculiar fact that most Americans, North and South "read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other." He then goes on to speak differently from the definitely nonAbolitionist Lincoln of the First Inaugural, rather snarkily noting that "It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces" — though he adds the Christian-like qualification, "but let us judge not, that we be not judged. " Lincoln continues:

  The prayers of both [Union and Confederate] could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the  providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

         Then, and only then — after talking about Justice, and adding a reminder about the differences between right and wrong and the necessity to continue in the right — then we get the concluding lines: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

           We're approaching the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, a major "sesquicentennial," and I for one am willing to forgive and forget, get undivided and reconciled. That is difficult, however, when there are still a fair number of Americans in the Old Confederacy and some Reb-symp areas who talk of "The War of Northern Aggression" when most of us in the Old North are polite enough to decline to talk of the War of the Rebellion or "the War of Confederate Treason." It's difficult to think of final reconciliation when we still hear talk by supposedly serious politicians about what amounts to nullification, and interposition, and petitions circulate calling for secession. It's difficult when people who should know better think any rebellion basically a good thing and display Confederate flags, or remain silent when others do so.

            The war is over; the Union won, and more important the Union deserved to win. "The Lost Cause" lost and deserved to lose, and it's not just dumb-ass romanticism to hold onto The Lost Cause of the Confederacy but unpatriotic and wicked.

            And from there let us think our way through to contemporary issues and the dangers of Nixonian-style continuations of "The Southern Strategy" to get non-rich Whites to vote against their own interests and hysteria over "takings" and disarming the (White, Christian, "patriot") population. Yeah, we took away your slaves and U.S. Grant tried — with unfortunately little success — to use the power of the Federal government to disarm the Ku Klux Klan; get over it! Freeing slaves and, temporarily, disarming enemy combatants was the right thing to do, and threats from the US Federal government nowadays are different — and relatively minor.

            So, Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, I would like to reconcile. But, frankly, if you guys really don't want to forgive and mostly forget; if you still want to celebrate martyrs to the Grand Old Cause of slavery and (later) segregation; and then, if, say, Texas wants to secede from the Union — I'm willing to discuss terms.

            The folks at the US Memorial Day Organization seem to be nice people and will us well in wanting reconciliation — but Memorial Day 2013 saw America still seriously divided. 

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