“Early Was Late,” at Gettysburg & Elsewhere

July 3, 2013

"A Harvest of Death," Gettysburg, PA, July 5-6, 1863. (Timothy O'Sullivan). In public domain.

“A Harvest of Death,” Gettysburg, PA, July 5-6, 1863. (Timothy O’Sullivan). In public domain.

Google might be celebrating Franz Kafka’s 130th birthday today. But for us Americans, today’s a bit more significant than Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915).  No, today’s the 150th anniversary of the height of the Battle of Gettysburg, the three-day battle that involved nearly 165,000 Union and Confederate troops at the beginning of July, 1863. During the battle, almost 8,000 soldiers died, and more than 46,000 were wounded or maimed. Thousands of Confederates were wounded on the third day, the day of Pickett’s Charge, when Gen. Jubal Early’s troops never arrived to reinforce the charge to take the high ground away from the Union Army.

Of course, there are thousands of enthusiasts who are recreating the battle this week, along with the battles at Vicksburg, Petersburg, and other burghs throughout the South and Mason-Dixon borderlands. Let’s not forget why these battles were fought, though. They weren’t fought over high protective tariffs for Northern industrial interests, as David John Marotta ridiculously asserted in his Forbes article a couple of weeks ago. Nor was the Civil War fought simply over the grandiose ideal of states’ rights from a Confederate perspective or the mere preservation of the Union from a Northern perspective.

Ultimately, this was a civil war to settle the question of a democratic nation with slavery as its central economic and social underpinnings. Southerners were fighting for states’ rights, all right — the right of states to keep slavery legal, a “way of life” that had made White men fortunes. Northerners were fighting to preserve the Union, but one that would be free of slavery as an institution. Any other arguments are ones made by people who have no understanding of the centrality of slavery and freedom to the very identity on which the US had been founded in 1776.

Later that month, in part as a result of the Battle of Gettysburg, there were draft riots in New York, with Five Points Irish mobs beating up and lynching Blacks in the process of destroying their homes and businesses. So we know that there was at least one group unhappy about the real-life rationale behind fighting the Civil War.

Jubal Early depiction, circa 1911. (Wikipedia.com). In public domain.

Jubal Early depiction, circa 1911. (Wikipedia.com). In public domain.

What most Americans don’t understand was the incredible distance between believing that slavery was an evil, archaic and hypocritical institution and believing that African slaves were ones worthy of American democracy and equality. Most Whites fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg believed that Blacks had about as many rights to American equality as most of us would believe in a path to American citizenship for Al-Qaeda terrorists today.

Thank God Jubal Early “was late,” or really, had refused a direct order from Gen. Robert E. Lee to be part of some suicidal charge on July 3rd, 1863. Unfortunately, we still have many “Jubal Early” types who are really, really late in recognizing Blacks as equal human beings, American democracy as imperfect, and the South as a supporter of an evil and profit-maximizing institution.


American Un-Exceptionalism

July 4, 2012

Captain America and waving US flag, July 4, 2012. (http://http://www.vitaver.com).

One of the great myths of American history is that the US is an exceptional society with an exceptional history, earned as the shining light on the hill of democracy, the first modern republic in world history. Despite all the claims of such luminaries as Chris Matthews (of MSNBC lore) and presidential historian Doris Kerns Goodwin, America is hardly exceptional. What makes us exceptional is the frequency with which we claim to be so different and so unique from the rest of world. Beyond that, we’re about as exceptional as a C+ level college student.

Chris Matthews at 2011 Time 100 gala, April 27, 2011. (David Shankbone via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via cc-Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Speaking of students, my US history students have laid claim to American exceptionalism almost as often as Chris Matthews. If it’s US history prior to the Civil War, then the claim has been about breaking free from Great Britain’s empire, the Founding Fathers and the writing of the US Constitution, and building the first modern representative democracy. If it’s the twentieth century, then it’s about the good ol’ US saving the world from the tyranny of communism — or at least, anything that wasn’t supportive of US-style capitalism (which isn’t the same as democracy, by the way). Both are hogwash, as full of half-truths as George Washington’s honesty, Abraham Lincoln believing in Black equality and Henry Longfellow’s portrayal of Paul Revere’s ride.

I’m sorry, but I don’t find it exceptional that the US formed a representative democracy that represented the interests of rich, landowning White males, many of whom were plantation slave owners too chicken to deal with the issue in the summer of 1787. Even the comparison to ancient Greece and Rome is specious on a power-blue cloudless day in New York in September. Whether it was direct or representative democracy, both were limited democracies that relied heavily on slavery, warfare, and eventually became empires. America was born out of an empire, and to this day, has imperialist notions about itself and its relationship to the world.

As far as American the Superpower since 1945, I find it laughable that people see us as this shining beacon of truth, justice and the American democratic way on the world stage. There are folks who really think that we were too generous and altruistic in our Marshall Plan largesse, in our dealings with nations whom became aligned with us in the quarter-century after the end of World War II. Hogwash! With the US controlling fifty percent of economic production and activity in the world in 1945, it needed trading partners to ensure its future prosperity and dominance. The Marshall Plan was as much about the creation of stable trading partners and economies as was about checking Soviet influence in Central and Southeastern Europe.

Besides this, for every West Germany, South Korea and Japan, there were also our CIA-sponsored coups in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, military disruptions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and protections of American corporate interests throughout sub-Saharan Africa, South America and the Middle East. But I’m sure that this was only about spreading our exceptional democracy and economic prowess to the rest of the world. At least, that’s what American exceptionalists keep telling us.

“Dorian Gray” as played by Stuart Townshend, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), July 4, 2012. (http://empireonline.com).

There’s another perspective here, though. One that would describe America as an empire, or an empire in the making, at least. For American history is the stuff of imperialism, including the very justification we use for our actions on the world stage. Based on this point of view, America is unexceptional. As Dorian Gray of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) would say, “Empires rise and fall. There are no exceptions.” The choice we as Americans have is whether we prefer the soft landing that Great Britain recently experienced, or a crash-and-burn.


Maybe They’ve Won After All

September 10, 2010

There's a Hole in the Bucket (Still) at Ground Zero. Source: http://unambig.com

I wrote this four days after 9-11, after spending three days stuck in Atlanta and a day on a Greyhound bus from Atlanta to DC, after defending a Sikh man against a hostile White male and Black guy because he looked like one of “them.”

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With much of this week’s focus on the atrocities at the former World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon, and the airline crash south of Pittsburgh, there is a disturbing and growing backlash against Americans of Arab descent throughout the nation.  The nation should be outraged because of the wanton destruction of property and life at the hands of suicidal terrorists.  But this in no way should justify the fire bombings of mosques in Texas and marching against Arab communities in Chicago.  This, of course, is among other incidents of hatred and revenge directed at folks who in some cases have been in America for several generations.  And like many Americans, Americans of Arab descent migrated to our multicultural society to escape religious extremism, government persecution, and yes, terrorism.  The backlash against Arab Americans since the attacks on Tuesday sicken me as much as the frightening attacks themselves.

I am a African American male, and I have thought about what the nation’s response might have been if a suicidal group of African American terrorists had done this horrible thing.  Would we be in the midst of race riots in America’s major cities, in which groups of Whites armed with American flags and poles, rocks, guns and whatever else they could find to beat and possibly kill Blacks just because they’re Black?  Would law enforcement agencies search every allegedly suspicious-looking brown-skinned person with kinky hair because they might connect them to an African American terrorist group?

Or what if an Irish terrorist group had hijacked the planes flown into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon?  Would non-Irish Americans then be so quick to lash out at any “Mic” they could find? Would they intimidate Americans of Irish descent to the point where they would be scared out of going to school or attending a prayer vigil with their fellow Americans?  Would we be so willing to engage in the language of bloodlust toward a group of Irish Americans as we have done to our Arab American brothers and sisters?

We can say that the majority of Americans have not engaged in this bigoted and racist behavior.  But our silence is not good enough.  Mainstream journalism acts as if a few prominent Arab Americans denouncing both the terrorist attack and the expected backlash against Arabs by other Americans ends their responsibility.  It does not.  The press must do a better job of discussing this smouldering problem with all Americans, including representatives of the Arab American community.  It also must do better in explaining the differences between the tenets of Islam and the unspeakable acts of terrorists clinging to a warped version of Islam.  It’s not at all much different from the barbaric actions of the Ku Klux Klan, who claim that they act in defense of White Christians.

If we as Americans continue to commit and condone through our silence acts of hatred against Arab Americans, are we much better than the tortured souls who flew four Boeing jets as weapons of mass destruction, all in the name of Allah?  If we are to defeat terrorism as a nation and a world, we must also defeat its roots, fear and hatred.  If we are to be one undivided and multicultural nation united against terrorism, we can no longer tolerate incidents of terrorism against one another, no matter how much we hurt.

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Needless to say, The Washington Post was engaged in blind, raging patriotism for the next couple of years, so my two cents was ignored. Unfortunately, between the racism and religious hatred directed at the proposed Islamic Center near, but not on, Ground Zero in New York City, and the idiot Terry Jones wanting to burn Qur’ans in Florida, it looks like the nineteen suicidal morons from Saudi Arabia have won after all. We still have a big hole in the ground where the Twin Towers once stood. So much for standing together on the platform of America the brave and the free.


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