American Culture

American Oracle and the dangers of American fanaticism

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.


4 replies »

  1. There is so much wrong here, I don’t even know where to begin. So much purely, not just bad thought, but bad thought with a political purpose. Pravda was more honest, Chris. We live in a hyper-partisan time, but only because the “reasonable compromises” of the past, went in the direction of bigger government and more spending. I love that only Republicans can be “extremists” in this narrow mindset! And you are not wrong, you are following the culture of the mass media, outside of Fox News and a few other outlets. We can have “radical” and “extreme conservative” applied to Republican politicians, but somehow not to Democrats. No, even hyper-liberal Barney Frank is even a “moderate!”

    This article tells us far more about the left wing belief structures of Chris Mackowski and David Blight than it does anything about either the Civil War or today’s society.

  2. I think we live in less reasonable times because much of the conversation is dominated by right-wing media. Sure, the NY Times has a leftist lean as does NPR and, I would argue, CNN. So do others. But those outlets don’t seem to promote the kind of culture of shouting and smugness I see from right-leaning media. I’m not absolving anyone here, Tom. I think the media, all the way around, does a pretty outstanding job of failing all of us as a tool for reasonable dialogue.

    Blight uses that specifically to condemn today’s right-wing political movement, but fanaticism in American politics transcends party and goes way back. We could go back to the Salem Witch Trials and start plucking examples from there if we want to. It was at the heart of the Adams-Jefferson split (and the Adams-Hamilton split, for that matter)…Calhoun and the SC secession crisis…and so forth….

    As far as any left-wing belief structure I might have, I think you know I am in favor of smaller government that does less (and spends less). My issue with Conservatives is what I consider to be the very, very bad policy of mixing their social views with their fiscal views. They say they want smaller government, yet they want to crawl into everyone’s bedrooms to tell them how to live. No hypocrisy in that? If calling that out is a left-wing belief structure, then I’m guilty.

  3. Tom, the ONLY way that Barney Frank would ever be described as a “moderate” is because the political goal-posts have been moved so far to the right that the only REAL “hyper-liberals” are completely marginalized.

    For crying out loud, all you (and I mean the “personal” you) have to do is look at the state of today’s GOP. Ronald Reagan–a man who RAISED taxes more than a dozen times and increased government spending (especially for “defense”) more than any of his immediate predecessors–would NEVER get elected as a GOPer. Even though he continues to be lionized by the current GOP, they completely ignore what the REAL man did just as Barack Obama does and has done in the past. To think that ANY REAL Democrat would speak fondly of the Reagan Presidency should show you just how far to the right the Dems have moved in the past 30 years. And since the Dems were, by and large, the “left” party in this country, for them to have moved rightwards at all is a scandal.

    And I have to take issue with Chris in his response to you suggesting that CNN or (gods forbid) the New York Times have a “leftist lean” to either of them. They’re only “leftist” when compared to the liars at FoxNoise and the rest of Murdoch’s little empire. (Anyone who remembers how the Times cheerleaded for Dubya’s little adventurism in Iraq and still considers the paper to have a “leftist lean” is sorely misremembering history. The paper has a few center-left columnists but the paper itself is essentially center-right to right-wing.)