This is the time of year when I feel compelled to shed the light of reality on the inevitable nationalistic zeal. After all, in an ideational society, what holiday could be more important than one that celebrates the idea of independence – although true independence, from the follies of other nations and the machinations of the internationalists, is something we haven't experienced in generations. What if, for example, we were to declare independence from the U.N.? Or NATO? Or Israel? Or all of our ill-conceived “mutual defense” treaties? Now that would be something worth celebrating. As it stands, other countries are more likely to want to declare independence from us – and many have tried, with varying degrees of success. And really, the notion that, save the Revolutionary War, we would still be a British colony at this late date is somewhat quaint, to say the least. Something would have set us free, just as something would have ended slavery even without the Civil War.
This year we are experiencing a double dose of the usual fervor – not only Independence Day as usual, but also the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, AKA the “high water mark of the rebellion” (meaning that the Confederacy penetrated the farthest into Union territory at that point). Now... the conventional wisdom, and what is taught in the public schools, is that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves. Well, no. That, at the very most, would be an example of what is now called “mission creep”. At the time, the stated mission was to “preserve the Union” -- although one could question what was so all-fired important about preserving the Union that it merited all that death and destruction. What would have been wrong, for example, with redefining the “Union” as consisting of the Northern states, and letting the Confederacy go on their merry way? And no, Southern slavery would not still exist in the year 2013. In fact, blacks might also be less politically enslaved than they are now, by the liberal establishment and by their own leadership. We'll never know.
But the conventional wisdom is at least turning slightly toward an idea that honest historians have been aware of all along – namely that one of the main motives for the Civil War was profit, pure and simple... on the part of Northern industrialists and merchants. What, you say? “Commercial interests” having had a major hand in our most hallowed and sacred war? Blasphemy! Well yes, children, I'm afraid so – even as they had major hands in all of our other wars, including the first. Now, would the Civil War have been fought only for economic reasons? Or only (as is sometimes alleged) to preserve the Union? Or only to end slavery? What's more likely is that it was another one of those perfect storms – the cards were stacked against the South and sooner or later something had to give. Whether it had to “give” in such a catastrophic manner could still be debated, of course. The main thing is to mature in our thinking – to grow up and admit that wars are seldom, if ever, “pure” -- meaning based solely on sound ideas and principles, or alternatively on genuine defense of home and hearth. The implication, of course, is that few if any wars are truly “just” in the sense of Catholic teaching – and I do not hesitate to assert this. One can argue the righteousness of a cause (anti-slavery, for example) without having to go along with total war as a cure. In fact, a recent example is instructive. Communism of the Soviet kind collapsed of its own weight, as did the Soviet Empire, without a shot having been fired from our side; thus, we see the merits of occasionally waiting for history to happen.
Another thought occurs to me. Even if the Civil War was not “just” in the strict sense, it certainly did accomplish a worthy (if discovered) goal – namely the end of slavery. Was the South punished too much for having had that “peculiar institution” for so many lifetimes? After all, it's not as if slavery was all that rare even in that era, to say nothing of historically. Down through the ages, one people has been subjugated by another, and slavery – or at least serfdom, or second-class citizenship – is often the result (except for outright genocide, which very seldom succeeds anyway). But this is where ideas clash. Slavery in China in 1861 would not have attracted much notice, nor slavery in “black Africa” -- even though Russia did, in fact, eliminate serfdom in that year (an intriguing coincidence, when you think about it). But we had to stand up, every day – or at least the South did – and hold up the founding documents with one hand, and slave ownership on the other, with a big “except” in the middle. And for an ideational people this contradiction was a bit too much to bear. Plus, slavery had, over the years, generated so much bad karma that the South was laboring under that karmic burden, whether they realized it or not (Lincoln did, and said as much more than once, even though no one ever accused him of being a Buddhist). So you have that crushing burden on the one hand, and economic factors on the other, plus this zeal to preserve the Union at all costs... and the fate of the South was sealed before the first shot was fired. So even though the war was not strictly “just”, it may have had cosmic significance that the participants were, by and large, only vaguely aware of. Which is another way of saying that sometimes injustice on the one hand, or on one level, can exact a kind of justice on the other. One could also say that in war, the participants seldom know what they're really fighting for – but neither do the leaders. Lincoln was enough of a thinker to understand the situation, even though he was clearly not above being influenced by baser motives as well. Perhaps he saw the war as a sort of purification exercise – to rid the Republic of its last besetting sin, or major character flaw. If so, he has to be credited with some success, since none of our sins and shortcomings since that time have quite risen to the level of outright enslavement of one race by another on our home soil. Our sins are great and many, to be sure – but at least that one malevolent growth was excised.
So what am I urging here? That we turn our backs on this double dose of patriotism – on these four days? Far from it. The idea is to dig a bit deeper than we typically do, and try to see historic events... well, number one, as people saw them at the time, rather than with the many-layered veneer we insist on applying in order to force them into a preferred ideational box. There are no historic events without ambivalence – without naysayers and outliers. We need to study their points of view as well, because – hey! -- look at what we're going through in our own time. If we could look at an establishment history book 100 years from now, would we agree with what it said about our time – i.e. with the approved narrative? Not likely; we'd probably roll on the floor with laughter. I'm old enough to witness a lot of revisionism about events that happened in my own time, and find it quite refreshing, frankly. The only thing is – it tends to reinforce yesterday's conspiracy theories, and that implies that today's conspiracy theories may, someday, turn into conventional wisdom. It's something to ponder.
So accepting that the Civil War was bigger than any of its participants, with the probable exception of Lincoln, imagined... and that it was corrupted by greed and commercial interests... and that it was not nearly as much about slavery as we would like it to have been... and being willing to debate the question, was preserving the Union really worth all of that sacrifice? -- it's almost a waste of time to ask whether it was a just war, or a necessary war. On some (most, actually) levels it was unjust, and unnecessary. But karmically, it may have been quite necessary, or at least inevitable – the way the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had more karmic than military significance. Just as “ideas have consequences”, bad ideas generate badness – karma or whatever term you want to use – and a price eventually has to be paid. The nearest our government comes to acknowledging this these days is when someone talks about “blowback” -- but they usually talk about it as if it's undeserved, and a surprise, when it may be richly deserved and not the least bit surprising.
Moving on to Independence Day – and I don't want to rain on anyone's parade here. Parades are fine things, after all – if only (1) those fire trucks and rescue vehicles would quit blowing their sirens once in a while; and (2) “marching” units would actually march, rather than walking; and (3) the Boy Scouts would wear complete uniforms, rather than jeans; and (4) we could, once and for all, get rid of all those wizened old Shriners in their stupid red fezzes and three-wheelers; and (5) bands would actually play music rather than stumble along like zombies. But I digress.
Again, whether the Revolutionary War was strictly “just” -- well, I'll leave that to historians and Pat Buchanan. But it did happen, and it was, in fact, fraught with all the usual ambivalences, dissents, doubts, and debates as any other conflict – but we forget all of that, since, as has been often said, the victors write the history books. And if we hadn't outgrown colony status at that point, we certainly would have eventually. Plus, we had our own fortune to seek and our own fate to encounter. We had the American Experiment, which was tried by fire in the Civil War and thus changed irretrievably (and many will say regrettably). But even here there are controversies. Some will say that Progressivism was the beginning of the end of the American Republic with its independent, rugged, self-sufficient citizenry... and others will say that that era was the beginning of the realization of this country's true destiny – to be a humanist Utopia, not just for the elite but for the many. This debate was re-ignited by the New Deal, and again by the Great Society, and now we have Obamacare. The controversy rages on a daily basis – what does it mean to be American, which (by implication) will tell us what constitutes being un-American, or anti-American. And so on. The question still hasn't been settled yet, in all this time – which ought to tell you something about the durability and usefulness of pure ideas.
And then on the foreign policy side, did Manifest Destiny always refer to the American Empire, as opposed to westward settlement? The neocons certainly seem to think so. Were our ideas always meant to be spread world-wide – by military force if need be? But doesn't coercing other countries and peoples to conform (or pretend to) to our ideas and our ways violate our own founding principles? Aren't we chronically caught in a maze of contradictions? Ideas are fine, but when you add “missionary zeal” you start to get into morally questionable territory – not to mention “blowback”.
So the Experiment has run up against sharp rocks of late, and I wish I knew what to make of it in terms of the long view. Does it mean that it was a bad idea, and that it would never have worked? Is democracy a fanciful notion, vague in principle and impossible in practice? Have we, in fact, been held together all these years not by humanistic ideas (as is contended) but by sheer cultural and moral inertia from centuries of Christendom? (In which case, by suppressing religion, as we are now doing, are we not cutting off the branch we are clinging to?) Or – are we victims of some inevitable historical cycle, whereby any idea, no matter how good it was to begin with, is bound to deteriorate and decay and become more of a burden than an asset? In which case, can we at least claim that the American Experiment was good while it lasted, and that it produced more good for a greater number than would otherwise have been the case? Compared to idealism, that's pretty thin gruel, but it may turn out to be all we have. But on the plus side, if we once decide that the American Experiment has run its course, we are perfectly free to jettison it, with all of its accumulated discontents, and start anew. Yes, I really mean it – start over. When what you have has run out of steam, and is no longer an exemplar but is part of the problem, the truly radical, “progressive” thing to do is not to tweeze and tweak away at the margins, but start from scratch. (And here I was starting to worry that I'm not radical enough.)
So in the face of all this ambivalence, and “on-the-other-hand”-ing, and levels of motivation and idealism vs. crass materialism, and a wide array of “truths” (as Bill Clinton might say), is there any possibility of a true patriotism? Or do we just stand on the sidewalk and wave our flags with an air of quiet desperation? I think part of the answer is that our natural patriotic impulses have been, over the years, hijacked and misdirected by people with an agenda – by cynics, power-crazed politicians, and, yes, “commercial interests”. There is a natural kind of patriotism, or pride, which is pretty much universal among the human race (except for intellectuals, internationalists, bankers, industrialists, etc.), and it is based on the ancient verities of blood and soil -- “blood” meaning family, tribe, race, ethnicity, and, by extension, religion... and “soil” meaning, simply, land – the place of one's birth. You will notice that every liberal/socialist/humanist agenda to come down the pike has this in common – that it attempts to separate people from those things that anchor them as individuals and as groups. The “rootless cosmopolites” who run our media and “entertainment” industry, and dominate domestic politics, despise tradition and people of tradition – they demean those who live on, and receive their nourishment from, the land... they talk of “clinging to guns and religion”... and they consider valuing one's own tribe, race, or ethic group to be provincialism, racism, or downright “hate”. They avoid the countryside, AKA “flyover country”, like the plague, preferring cities which are their natural (so to speak) areas of operation. Draw the peasantry off the land and into the cities, with economic incentives (of both the carrot and stick kind) – deracinate them – demoralize them – get them into the matrix (including credit and debt) – get them hooked on “games and circuses” if not actual drugs – demoralize them – make them into unthinking, fear-ridden dependents – and you've got them. You've won! And we see how successful this program has been here – and how assiduously it's being practiced today in China. The common theme is – cut off all roots. Make everyone as rootless as their masters, except without the sustaining program of domination.
So I guess what I'm saying is that if there is any possibility of patriotism in our time, it has to be in the direction of tradition, and back to the land (in spirit if not always in fact). And it has to be unabashed in its regard for heritage – racial, ethnic, tribal, and religious. We have to stop apologizing, in other words – for being real people, as opposed to “metrosexuals” or the political equivalent thereof. And of course, the media will be against us, as will the academy, and the entertainment industry, and commercial interests in general – as well as all liberals, Democrats, humanists, “progressives”.... just about everyone, in other words. So it's not for the faint of heart. And yet if you want to stand up proud on Independence Day, or any other day, and not slumped over like a beaten serf, it's the only option.