Reading David Blight’s American Oracle this weekend, I’ve noticed a subtle, cautionary note that keeps playing itself as an occasional undertone. It reminds me again why the study of history has something to tell us about current events—and also that no one ever seems to listen to those warnings.
Blight’s book examines the Civil War writings of four major American writers of the Civil Rights Era: Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin (Ralph Ellison gets some treatment in there, too). I’m only halfway through the book, so I’ve only read about Warren and Catton, but both have sounded the same note: fewer things are more dangerous to America than our own political fanaticism.
Catton believed in and wrote about “America’s tradition of moderation being ruined by fanaticism.” Warren worried about it too. “[D]o not let the logic of fanatics prevail, or the political culture could be torn asunder,” he warned in The Legacy of the Civil War.
The Civil War represents the most obvious example of American ruination. There are other startling and depressing examples of American fanaticism, but in the Civil War, America came to blows with itself because the political system failed us so completely.
Lost Cause tradition, in particular, has always pinned the blame for that failure on Northern abolitionists, vilified as radical and fanatic, although a quick survey of Southern propaganda shows there was no shortage of fire-eater propaganda. In fact, I would argue that a more fair interpretation of events would be that the Southern states got radicalized—enough so that they tried to secede—and it was their fanaticism, not the abolitionists’, that led to war (although there were certainly fanatical abolitionists, and they were noisy).
The cautionary note against fanaticism that Warren and Catton struck had particular resonance in the shadow of the Civil War’s centennial, when both men were writing their most important Civil War-related work. The unifying spirit of the Cold War kept radicalism muted within the political system The Soviets clearly represented any Them the American Us needed to focus against, just as 9/11 provided a bipartisan rallying point in modern America. The Cold War made it easy to be lulled into a sense of national political unity (a willful naivety the Civil Rights movement would soon bitch-slap out of us).
In one of the few instances where Blight inserts himself into his book, he suggests that Warren’s admonitions became a lesson unlearned by today’s society. “It is one conclusion in Legacy that cannot be sustained in our own deeply polarized, partisan political culture of the early twenty-first century,” Blight says.
He speculates that “Warren would be surprised by the political demagoguery of our time,” particularly by the right-wing extremism that has led to the popularity of figures like Sarah Palin and Glen Beck:
In our twenty-four-hour media culture, political extremists on the right, in particular, have managed to cultivate an often ill-formed fervor that no pragmatic vision can thwart… Instead of searching for modes of consensus or a social contract still vaguely tied to the tragedies of 1860 or 1929 or 1968, we are political tribes yelling and blogging right past each other in technological anarchy.
“And,” he says, “we have far more guns today than Americans did in 1861.”
This is clearly Blight talking, using his speculations about Warren as a springboard. If he gets heavy-handed for a couple paragraphs (in an otherwise smooth and unobtrusive book), maybe it’s out of frustration: Look, you short attention-spanned dolts, history has some lessons we could benefit from.
As a historian during the time of the war’s sesquicentennial writing about writers of the war’s centennial era, Blight can try to reteach us the lessons and failures his predecessors first tried to explore. The times have changed, but their admonitions proved depressingly prescient.
Maybe we should listen more often.