The American Civil War was not that long ago. The last surviving Civil War veteran died two years before my birth. A conflict of that size and scope and horror leaves marks — marks on the land and marks on the national psyche — not readily erased.
I have come to believe that certain habits of mind arising directly from the Civil War still dominate the American consciousness today. I say not specific beliefs but rather intellectual dispositions; and those dispositions account for the form that many of our conflicts take today. Three such habits are especially important.
- Among Southerners – and I am one – the primary habit is a reliance on consoling lies. In the aftermath of the Civil War Southerners told themselves that the Old South was a culture of nobility and dignity; that slaves were largely content with their lot and better off enslaved than free; that the war was not fought for slavery but in the cause of state’s rights; that Robert E. Lee was a noble and gentle man who disliked slavery; and so on. Such statements were repeated for generations by people who knew that they were evasive at best – the state’s right that the Confederacy was created to defend was the right to own human beings as chattel – and often simply false, and if the people making those statements didn’t consciously understand the falsehood, they kept such knowledge at bay through the ceaseless repetition of their mantras. (Ty Seidule’s book Robert E. Lee and Me is an illuminating account, from the inside, of how such deceptions and self-deceptions work.) And now we see precisely the same practice among the most vociferous supporters of Donald Trump: a determined repetition of assertions – especially that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen, but also concerning COVID–19 and many other matters – that wouldn’t stand up even to casual scrutiny, and therefore don’t receive that scrutiny. It’s easy to fall into a new set of lies when you have a history of embracing a previous set of lies.
- Among Northerners, the corresponding habit is a confidence in one’s own moral superiority. Because the North was right and the South wrong about the institution of slavery, it was easy for the North then to dismiss any evidence of its own complicity in racism. Our cause is righteous – that is all we know on earth, and all we need know. (But if our cause is righteous, doesn’t that suggest that we are too?) And then, later, whenever there were political conflicts in which the majority of Northerners were on one side and the majority of Southerners on the other – about taxation, or religious liberty, or anything – the temptation was irresistible to explain the disagreement always by the same cause: the moral rectitude of the one side, the moral corruption of the other. The result (visible on almost every page of the New York Times, for instance) is a pervasive smugness that enrages many observers while remaining completely invisible to those who have fallen into it.
- And among Black Americans, the relevant disposition is a settled suspicion of any declarations of achieved freedom. Emancipation, it turns out, is not achieved by proclamation; nor is it achieved by the purely legal elimination of slavery. Abolition did not end discrimination or violence; indeed, it ushered in a new era of danger for many (the era of lynching) and a new legal system (Jim Crow) that scarcely altered the economic conditions of the recently enslaved. After this happens two or three times you learn to be skeptical, and you teach your children to be skeptical. Brown v. Board of Education produces equal educational opportunity for blacks and whites? We have our doubts. The Civil Rights Act outlaws racial discrimination? We’ll see about that. I wonder how many times Black Americans have heard that racism is over. They don’t, as far as I can tell anyway, believe that things haven’t gotten better; but they believe that improvement has been slow and uneven, and that many injustices that Americans think have died are in fact alive and often enough thriving.
I think these three persistent habits of mind explain many of the conflicts that beset Americans today. And if I were to rank them in order of justifiability, I would say: the first is tragically unjustifiable — and the chief reason why, to my lasting grief, we Southerners have so often allowed our vices to displace our virtues —; the second is understandable but dangerously misleading; and the third … well, the third is pretty damn hard to disagree with.
As the man said: The past is not dead; it is not even past.