I’m in Virginia for a few days, since Friday evening, spending time with family. I grew up in Maryland, a short way north, but I am a Virginian by birth, and as my parents’ families come from (and have tended to remain in) the state, generations back, southward travel ‘home’ is a fact of my life from earliest memory. For a couple of years now (as the regular reader knows), I’ve been living in New York; and the increased distance is something more than physical. But then too, my parents have at last made the long-planned move back to Virginia, where my siblings already were (apart from a brother in North Carolina); with no family to go back to in Maryland, Virginia is more ‘home’ now, in a way, than it was even when it was I who was resident here for a while some years back.
This post isn’t about being a native in some terms, though, so much as it is about having a certain American sense about place and time. Being a Virginian (to the extent that I am) gives that a particular color, and it comes into what’s to follow here, but I don’t mean to pretend that I have anything very special to say about Virginia, or about Americanness for that matter. What I do have to say is something in development, something undergoing re-orientation, as previous posts will suggest. It’s the evolution I want to note, not something uncommon in my views.
Nothing uncommon, anyway, in observing that all of American national history to date comes within a short period of intense change on a human-history timeline. It’s an observation that could stand to be made in Americans’ hearing more frequently, even so. It’s hard to gauge how much a distorted idea of the American story’s expansiveness contributes to our society’s difficulties, today, in the matter of taking stock of the country’s economic and political potentials and finding a steady path amid accelerating global intercomplication and demographic shifts. They’re hardly uniquely American difficulties, after all, on one hand, and ordinary Americans’ grasp of the basic features of any fairly accurate account of the last few centuries’ developments is notoriously doubtful, on the other. But my sense is that a kind of norm emerged in American life in the twentieth century, by which the nation’s still recent founding became invested with the venerability of more ancient age than objectively entails, and by which major national events in the years since acquired, correspondingly, the character of a great unfolding of world-historical meaning.
Nothing so firmly cements that norm in position as do effects of American participation in the second world war, probably. The war its emergence originally depends on, however, is almost certainly the American civil war. This war is being invoked a good deal lately, of course, especially in discussion of last year’s presidential election and its aftermath, in attempts to explain persistent societal divisions. I said in a post a few weeks ago that I wanted to resist the trend to make much of supposedly unresolved division stemming from the period of the split North and South, and this post is partly a return to that thought, in that I want to say here that the war’s unifying value for America today is really more interesting than the divide that was its ostensible occasion and its loud theme. As theme, one of a number of themes of threat to the great object of American peace and security, the divide has itself become an important national unifier, I can’t help thinking.
Reminders of our 19th-century civil conflict are pretty thickly distributed in Virginia. The war had its beginning (as to armies meeting in the field) and end here. The National Park Service’s Battlefield Protection Program lists many more sites from here than any other state. It’s not, mind you, the Confederacy that’s prominently remembered (though it is; its capital was the state’s capital, Richmond, after all) so much as the conflict. That’s my own impression, at any rate, and I doubt there’s anything controversial in saying so. There are southerners who honor the memory of the Confederacy; remembering the War with emotion is a national project (and Virginia, home of Washington and Jefferson, is also a birthplace of the nation). But I can only begin to suggest the close linkage between understanding myself to be from the place and inheriting the idea of great battles and great sacrifice.
How the war becomes sacred to the whole nation is likewise a bigger question than it makes sense to take up in this post. It’s not a simple thing, it seems to me. Powerful forces were certainly at work to convert the experience and communicated memory of loss and trauma to the idea of something overwhelmingly constructive and purposeful (in which, among other peculiarities, in defeat the losers were reunited with the victors). That the resulting idea is a shared one, in any case, is very clear to me. The Civil War sites and museums I was taken to as a kid weren’t and aren’t places to have recalled for us the righteousness of one force’s or the other’s cause, they’re places for learning to dwell on some greatness of American spirit and destiny, intensified in national tragedy and the testing of men in combat.
Well, this brings me again to some recent Facebook conversation. The record I’m keeping particularly in this post is of a final rejoinder in a multi-part tangle over the legacy of Dorothy Day. In rather more quarrelsome tone than I’m taking here, I say there,
The problem of militarism is baked in, from American origin in the struggle of great eighteenth-century landowners over disposition of colonial wealth to the mythology of American martyrdom for liberty in Europe and Asia in the last century and ongoing mind-bendingly massive defense expenditure in this one (for which the Angels and ’Birds are one element of the continual domestic ad campaign, an impressively expensive piece of the apparatus in its own right).
Adventurism isn’t the issue. Hawkishness isn’t the issue. Justice in arms isn’t the issue. Day wasn’t a pacifist in the middle of the last century because she believed there was some honor in letting a Hitler or Stalin or Mao murder his way across continents. She saw Hitler and Stalin for what they were, and she could name Churchill and Roosevelt in the same breath — the lot of them in their common moment ‘men so dominated by ideas,’ in her curious expression, ‘that they sacrificed to them countless millions of human beings.’ She saw the whole story in which we figure with eyes very unlike ours, in short.
Elias is right, of course, to say that what she stood for appears to us to make contact with American politics only as a species of leftism, and Julia is right to suggest that we really can’t stand with someone like her and hope to make sense of our place in the American political picture at all. How anybody imagines her name belongs on a political group that can countenance some perpetuation of what has ever been known as American peace, I don’t see. Day’s life, simply, is an affront to American order as it’s yet existed. That’s the uncomfortable truth — uncomfortable for all of us reconciled to working with that order on its own terms, somehow, as Christians.
That is, as I say, the end of an exchange in several parts. The posture I assume in it emphasizes contrast; finding common ground isn’t much to the point. So there’s a certain sharpening of the edge, there, on what I speak of in this and recent posts as my changing view of history. I could be interpreted in it, probably, as holding no hope for a maturation toward justice of what I refer to as ‘American order’ — though I think I avoid pretty well giving any positive warrant for such a reading. Giving expression to my own developing skepticism about the republic in its origins and in the conditions by which it’s continued serves what I want to say about Day, there, mainly — which is just that people who want to attach her to an American political project should be more thoughtful about it than the group a few of whose members I was clashing with seems to have been. I admit, it’s a sketchy way of arguing. But hey, this is Facebook.
My intemperate remarks and the scrap they spark in that group’s Facebook forum are publicly accessible as of this posting, if the reader cares to review them. I don’t necessarily encourage doing so, but they are context for what I’ve said here. I strongly discourage adding further harsh comments. Pretty sure there’s been enough of that. My first reactive outburst is to a post purporting to introduce the Appalachian southerner and show how he exists at a spiritual remove from the nation’s elite. (My dad’s ancestors were among the early European settlers of those mountains. Grandparents both have German surnames, but their mothers’ are Ulster Scots. This year, my brother moved his family into the house my grandfather grew up in, built by my great-grandfather in that corner of the state a hundred years ago. I have a connection. But never mind: ‘culture,’ I insist there, is pretext.) The second is to a video hurrah for the ‘Angels’ I refer to in the closing jab (thrown where I knew I was unlikely to take much of a hit in return, it should be said) reproduced here above.