A Less Than Perfect Union

I have been reading Ron Chernow’s biography of General Ulysses S. Grant.  It is a slow read—I am just over half-way through with some 400 pages to go. 

It is 1865 and Lee has surrendered at Appomattox Court House.  In Washington that April, Grant is greeted as a hero, and President Lincoln invites the general and his wife Julia to accompany him and the president’s wife Mary to the theater.  Grant politely declines.  He and Julia are weary of the public attention and board a train bound for their home in Burlington, New Jersey.  That evening at Ford’s Theater, John Wilkes Booth, a racist Confederate-sympathizer and mediocre stage-actor, shoots Lincoln in the back of the head.  Grant learns of the shooting before his train reaches Burlington, and by the time Grant returns to Washington the next morning, Lincoln is dead.

But the war is not over when Andrew Johnson is sworn in as President.  Near Raleigh, Confederate General Joseph Johnston’s army surrenders to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, but Confederate resistance continues in Tennessee, Texas, Alabama and Arkansas.

With Congress in recess, President Johnson begins to implement “reconstruction” by presidential proclamation, but his goal is not reconstruction but instead restoration of rule by the white former slave-owning class.  The President believes in white supremacy: “This is a country for white men and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”

Before the end of 1865, segregation is born in the South.  The Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery, but slavery is replaced by violent oppression of the black population.  In May 1866, white vigilantes in Memphis burn black homes, schools and churches in the name of “white man’s government,” killing 48 blacks and injuring 70 more.  In July, a white mob backed up by local police attacks blacks in New Orleans, killing 34.  Grant becomes convinced that the presence of federal troops is necessary to ensure the security of blacks in the South.  That summer, Confederate veterans in Tennessee form the Ku Klux Klan.

The Radical Republicans in Congress pass the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship of former slaves by declaring “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside”—what we are now calling “birthright citizenship.”  Opposed by President Johnson and rejected by southern states, the Fourteenth Amendment is eventually ratified in 1868.

It is an exercise in creative dissonance to be reading this history of the nation’s divisions 150 years ago while living in a new era of division, a time when the occupant of the White House would not be fit to wipe Lincoln’s boots let alone lead the Union he loved and fought for.

Today, when too often a black life does not seem to matter, we have a president who sees “fine people” in a violent white mob in Charlottesville.  We have a president who defines the country by the size of its wall and not by the strength of its bedrock principles.  It is a president and a new Republican party who define the country by exclusion and by the notion that we are not a big enough country for immigrants.  They would find America’s greatness not in its ideas about freedom and refuge but in its power to arrest, separate, incarcerate and deport.

Today’s president is not as vocal—or as honest—as Andrew Johnson was in espousing white supremacy, but he seems to hold immigrants in the same regard as Johnson held former slaves.  The promise of the Fourteenth Amendment is “ridiculous” and “has to end.”  He is a (get-over-it) “Nationalist” (okay?) and proud of it.  It is a nationalism that needs an excludable other to exist.  If he could get away with it, I think he would exclude blacks (but he is satisfied with his party’s voter suppression strategy).  In this president’s mind, though, immigrants are excludable, and he has said (or Tweeted) as much.

In Senate races, the mid-term election results vindicate this president’s view of the country, while in the House a different view has prevailed.  Reconstruction may be possible.

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Beyond Belief

It may not help us cope with the bizarre political fuck-up in which we find ourselves, but Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History explains how we got here better than any other book I’ve read. Andersen follows the path to Fantasyland from the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century all the way down the rabbit hole to the election of “a pure Fantasyland being,” a “creature of the fantasy-industrial complex” who is (as are many of his followers) “driven by resentment of the Establishment” and who has no use for experts “because they interfere with his right as an American to believe or pretend that fictions are facts.”

The frontier of Fantasyland is found in the willingness of many Americans to believe things simply because they want to believe them, regardless of truth or reality. For example:

Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” At least half are absolutely certain Heaven exists, ruled over by a personal God—not some vague force or universal spirit but a guy. More than a third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of scientists, government, and journalists.

Fewer than half of us are “more or less reality-based,” but it is not merely a willingness to believe in the untrue that characterizes Fantasyland. Rather, it is the distinctly American glorification of individualism, the inalienable right to believe any falsehood: “If I think it’s true, no matter why or how I think it’s true, then it’s true, and nobody can tell me otherwise.”

The belief in the right to believe anything can have grave, even deadly, consequences. The danger lies not in harmless fantasy but in a more serious derangement and malfunction of our politics. Calling it “Fantasyland” is an appellation too benign for our dangerous haywiredness. We now reside in “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” a more sinister domain and closer to the mark (I learned of the place, I suspect, from my father, but we owe its coinage to Aristophanes).

Echoing in rhyme throughout our history is a tendency to define reality based not on truth but on what one chooses to believe. Underlying the Civil War were “pernicious and complicated fantasies” of white supremacy that remain alive today: “After our Civil War, the fever never entirely broke, because the losing side in its heart and mind never entirely surrendered. The North forgave, but the South didn’t, and neither side completely forgot.” In 1915, the epic film The Birth of a Nation revived fantasies of the “mythical Old South” and the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan and nostalgia for “unquestioned white supremacy,” and by the early 1920s “probably 5 percent of white American men were in the KKK.”

In our times, movies, television, video games and advertising have become “a powerful and unprecedented solvent of the mental barriers between real and unreal.” The 1960s and 70s, revered by many of my generation for countercultural notions of awareness and engagement, liberated the full ideological spectrum. The era of “anything goes” meant “anything went” and that included “extreme Christianity, full-blown conspiracism, libertarianism, unembarrassed greed and more.” Do your own thing, Andersen observes, has a lot in common with every man for himself.

The legacy of the Age of Aquarius is the perpetuation of the perceived right to believe whatever you want. It is “a notion of individualism…as old as America itself, liberty and the pursuit of happiness unbound: Believe the dream, mistrust authority, do your own thing, find your own truth.” And ironically, this “believe-anything-you-want ethos…has powered the political right more than the left.”

The Internet and especially so-called social media have fueled our national flight from reality. In the online world, “cockamamie ideas and outright falsehoods” spread fast and wild, so rampantly that it has become difficult for “reason and reasonableness” to compete, much less to prevail. Exciting falsehoods fare better than dull and often complicated true facts in a world where each click pushes any assertion—true or not—into self-validating prominence. Andersen laments:

…way too many Americans now bother with reason hardly at all, give themselves over too much to the deliria of crazy imaginations, believe too many untrue and impossible things, and are losing the ability and the will to distinguish between real and unreal.

It is now possible, Andersen writes, to “imagine, for the first time in my life, that America has permanently tipped into disarray and decline.” Or are we at an inflection point where those of us still capable of distinguishing truth and reality can find a way to alter the course? Although we have entered a “winter of foolishness,” our situation is not hopeless, and “we in reality-based America must try to keep our zone as large and robust and attractive as possible for ourselves and the next generations.”

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