We also spoke about myths in history, and how they relate to current events, such as the recent massacre in South Carolina. A wealth of writers have approached this issue far better than I ever could, one excellent editorial concluding, “A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren’t quite sure why.” I’m afraid this does seem true to me; I remember teaching a high school class some years ago, and somehow a conversation led to the Civil War, and somehow I learned the students not only had no idea in what century it was fought, but didn’t even know the combatants, much less the underlying causes. For a nation that was supposedly forged by this war to do such a poor job of educating its children about it in a few generations means something is rotten in the state(s).
Another editorial puts it best: we are confused about the Civil War and meaning of the Confederate Flag “not because the history is unclear, but because neo-Confederates still wielded considerable influence in our culture and our Congress…” The history is indeed very clear: Lincoln’s platform to stop the expansion of slavery and intimations that slavery must someday end altogether (think “a house divided”) was all it took for South Carolina to succeed. The war was about slavery. And indeed, inheritors of Confederate power structures remain in power today, and we have since engaged in 150 years of apologist history that has obfuscated the causes for which so many died. And that only serves to undermine our own culture and its future.
But the myths don’t stop there. Even when we do get the history right–and say that slavery was the root of the Civil War–we simplify it to extents that make it impossible for us to empathize, and thereby, impossible to see ignorance in ourselves. The narrative I grew up with, as a Westerner, portrayed Northers as somehow enlightened, compassionate beings wiling to sacrifice their lives for the good of fellow humans; and Southerners as horrible monsters. In some cases these reputations are certainly deserved. But the truth is most white Americans in the 19th century were very racist, and there comparatively few actual slave-holders. Even fewer believed in the equality of races, or of genders–and most were willing to fight because they felt their homes, families, property, and other interests were somehow threatened. Yes, many fought and died because they could not longer stand for a system so brutal, and they should be lauded for this. But they were also, oftentimes, in it for themselves; not so much for actual equality under the eyes of the law.
I do not intend that as a criticism, necessarily. Selfishness is human. Humans are selfish. I believe it is in this that history, and historical fiction, can help make the world a better place–in helping us empathize with previous generations and historical figures so we may attain greater understanding of our own motivations. To say to ourselves, “it wasn’t about slavery, it was about state’s rights,” blinds us to the fact that slavery was a huge part of American society and it still has enormous impacts on us. But it is also blind to say to ourselves, “the South were slave-holding racists, the North were enlightened liberators.” It localizes the blame. It fails to recognize that all white Americans bear the inheritance of that horrible past. Maybe not in equal measure, but certainly, it is something of an original sin for which must all seek absolution.
If we can get this part of history right, then, I believe, we can take that next step and empathize. How did American slavery come into being in the first place? How and why did it exist for so long after much of the rest of the world had long since decided it was detestable? Why was it only abolished through war, and, could there have been more peaceful ways of eliminating it? What political structures, economic incentives, or enlightened leaders, would have been needed for a diplomatic solution? When we ask ourselves those questions, and see 19th century Americans as human beings, we are able to uncover greater realities about them, and about us. We see how their views on race, gender, religion, honor, power, and justice–how their base feeling of fear and love and sacrifice–all worked intricately together to create a strong rationalization of something terrible.
And then we can ask ourselves: are we too rationalizing any injustices? Are we telling ourselves any myths so we can justify something we shouldn’t? Do our notions of ourselves, and one another; of God and Justice and Truth, Good and Evil; of wealth and patriotism, globalization and the environment; inhibit our ability to find love and compassion?
Myths and symbols can be strong conveyors of universal truths. But they can also delude and blind us not only from historical fact, but present-day fact, and hamper our ability to build a just future.
Because the real horror lies in the fact that evil people do not do these things. People do these things. Just…people.