A clean, well-lighted past

You must read this fabulous essay by Gabriel Winant at Salon:

The true, central catalyst of the war, which lent it its moral meaning — that is, slavery — was pushed out of mind. Even Northerners came to believe in the myth of the South’s noble, doomed “Lost Cause.” Human bondage, wrote former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was “in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” Northerners proved willing enough to go along, and to transmute their past into an ennobling myth; there’s a reason that people in both regions, even now, try to deny what the war was about, or to say that slavery was going out on its own anyway, or that the Confederacy had black soldiers. “Gone With the Wind” and “Birth of a Nation,” which in one way or another dramatize this argument, were enormous national hits for just this reason as well. Reconciling white people meant writing out black people. White Americans looked at their black countrymen and said, in effect, “This is our story now, not yours.”

This is what’s just happened at the Mall. Nobody was in the wrong during the civil rights years; King was a happy saint in the American tradition, not a dangerous radical.

Winant goes on to connect this kind of historical revisionism to 9/11 and the manufactured controversy over the Park51 project. It’s a really interesting perspective — not something that would have immediately occurred to me independently. And I’m not entirely sure that he’s right (I am not informed enough about the history of the reconstruction and the social dynamics involved to be able to speak authoritatively on the subject). But in its broad strokes, his argument feels right, if only observationally: We don’t like to talk about the very real history of everyday discrimination and oppression that was a fact of life in that era — and we certainly don’t like to talk about the complicity of ordinary individuals in this whole sorry tale. What we will talk about are the most visible: those who had acts, and names, and deeds — like Bull Connor and James Earl Ray — that inexorably mark them as villains in the civil rights struggle, but we ignore the people who never got their names in the newspapers. They’re the approved bad guys. Everyone else just sort of fades away, and we can pretend — as Winant says — that the past was a time when everyone got along, and what we think of as the civil rights movement was simply an inevitability.

There’s a very interesting discussion about the way that 9/11 is being stripped of its significance, too: “The real meaning of the disaster on September 11 — the way violence begets violence and fanaticism begets fanaticism, the way geopolitical maneuvering makes victims of ordinary people — is all gone. In its place is the vacuous sanctimony that it the place is “hallowed,” but all that seems to mean is that it is not open to Muslims.” You would think that to properly venerate the victims of 9/11 (disclaimer: I am not one of them, nor do I have any real connection to the event beyond being shit-scared for a couple of weeks that year, which I don’t consider victimization at all, though apparently I’m coming to understand this may be a minority view), you might want to talk about these things — understand how geopolitics is played, how decisions made 20, 30, 40 years ago come back to haunt you, how the cycle of violence continues, unbroken to this day, and how this is a really shitty problem that isn’t going to get better anytime soon, unless we start making different choices for ourselves. The moral you’d think you’d want is that the people who were killed that day died so that we’d all have a better understanding of what this world is like, and so that we’d think hard about what we were doing, and thus choose to do something different.

But the morals we are actually taking away from 9/11 seem to be: that it’s important to blow up as many places in the Middle East as possible, that nothing bad ever happens from doing this sort of thing, that considering potential consequences when pondering an action is a sign of weakness, and that under no circumstances should anyone ever think that possibly there might have been a point to the whole thing. In short, we’re using 9/11 to reinforce ideas and beliefs that we held before the damned thing happened in the first place. It’s the whole epistemic closure thing all over again, just writ large. Based on this sort of logic, maybe what we need at Ground Zero is not a mosque, or a church, or anything else of the sort. We need a military base, preferably one with serious offensive power projection capabilities. Is Montana looking to get out of the missile silo business?

To be fair, everybody does this. It’s rare to encounter anyone who is willing to change their minds based on events or data, and thank goodness for those who are. If you thought that US foreign policy was too aggressive before 9/11, you probably saw the attacks as vindication for your views. If you thought the problem was that the Middle East hadn’t been turned into radioactive slag, well, the conclusions there are obvious too. But we aren’t even having this debate anymore — 9/11 Just Happened, and about the only thing that’s worth talking about anymore were the goddamned Muslims that carried it off. (Note, too, that we’re not even talking about the specific Muslims that did it! Everyone’s complicit!) And even that point got the volume turned down until a few months ago. So maybe it’s not surprising that we’re suddenly having this huge argument about the “mosque” “at” “Ground Zero”: we never finished having the argument we should have been having in the first place, and it feels kind of silly to pick it up now that there’s no point anymore. (The “blow shit up” side won the argument, we blew shit up, and uh, well, how’s that working out this week?)

We’ve just decided to not talk about it anymore. There’s an accepted narrative about what happened, and we’ve airbrushed out the gory details. Unfortunately, in doing so, we stripped the event of its power. This is understandable — nobody really wants to have to relive the emotions of that day — but it does mean we’ve lost something important about what went on back in September of 2001.

Hiroshima represents a great example of this in action. The museum there will work very hard to convince you that the nuclear bombing of the city was something that Just Happened, and I suppose to the victims it did. Although you’ll find some interesting discussion about how Hiroshima and Nagasaki were basically excuses to scare the Russians, you will not find any discussion at all about the savagery the Empire inflicted on its neighbors, the brutality of the War in the Pacific, and the very cold, very calculating decisions Truman and his advisers made in dropping the bomb. But any examination of the use of nuclear weapons needs to include that component; you simply can’t view their use in isolation. The point, however, is not to judge, to place blame, or to justify or defend the decision. Fred Clark, writing earlier this month, noted: “The least evil is still evil. The least monstrous is still monstrous. When, as will happen, you are yourself forced to choose between two bad things, then choose the lesser of the evils and choose it boldly. That will be the right choice and, if circumstances are truly as circumscribed as you believe them to be, that will be the right thing to do in that situation. But it still won’t be a good thing. It isn’t a good thing and cannot be made good.” You can’t score points off it, and shouldn’t try to. You just need to understand — so that maybe, just maybe, you can work towards a future where people don’t have to make the choice in the first place.

(I want to note two things, one relevant and one not: First, I’ve been reading a lot of Slacktivist and think everyone else should, too, because Mr. Clark has a brilliant writing style and a shockingly sharp mind. Second, Hiroshima might be an instructive example for 9/11, but for an entirely different reason — the idea of normality in the face of unspeakable horror and tragedy. Put another way, if — 50-some years later — teenagers can make out across from the Industrial Promotion Hall, in the face of something so symbolic, shouldn’t we be able to get past this other thing, too?)

Of course, the applicability of Hiroshima’s example to 9/11 isn’t perfect: there is actually an evil here, perpetrated by very specific people who had other options. The existence of that evil, however, should not blind us to the need to have the discussion about its origins in the first place. This wasn’t an ancient evil that some unsuspecting scientist let loose by accident — this was a man-made evil, and if we’re going to deal with it we need to understand it. I get this is not a popular sentiment, and I realize that The Talk is not going to happen anytime soon, if at all, and by mutual consent.

Here, too, Winant is perceptive. He ends his essay with a point that I suspect will be controversial, but isn’t really: “In the temples of Americana being built, the parts of our national past that don’t belong to the white, conservative population are being sacrificed.” He’s almost right; I’d say the correct construction is more along the lines of “in the temples of Americana being built today, the parts of the national past that don’t belong to the comfortable majority are being sacrificed.” It’s not exactly about race (except when it is); it’s more generalizable to the need of the comfortable to stay comfortable, and to never be challenged in their beliefs or confronted with unpleasant truths. You believe what you believe, and you’re never invited to consider the alternatives.

But then, as he says, this is nothing new.