Civil Cold War
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Civil War.
I’m not a historian. My understanding of the events of the Civil War comes from a fairly decent public education through High School, a BFA in Theatre (during which we… didn’t study the Civil War), and whatever else I’ve picked up on my own in the decades since. I’ve never set out to specifically study wars in general,
but I’ve been thinking a lot,
about the Civil War.
I started thinking about it in June, after a long-overdue dinner with my friends Dave and Don. We were talking about the current state of our country (like ya do), and Don, who is very smart guy, said, “We are in a Civil Cold War.” He went on to explain… it seems the country is as divided today as it was in the years leading to the Civil War, the two sides see each other as enemies, the history of these two sides today can be traced directly back to the two sides of the Civil War, but the actions and tactics of these two opposing sides bear more resemblance to those of the US and the Soviets through the Cold War.
That assessment really hit home for me, and the idea of a Civil Cold War has been weighing on my mind since that dinner. I’ve been thinking it’s a great description of America today.
Just a week after that dinner, I was in New York, touring colleges with my son, and we found ourselves in Morningside Heights on the Upper West Side, where we visited the beautiful Riverside Church - whose ongoing legacy as an advocate for social justice and civil rights should never be forgotten - but that’s not what I’m writing about. We continued to wander and accidentally discovered Grant’s Tomb. I mean, not in some kind of Indiana Jones way. It’s not a secret. I have to confess, I didn’t really know the significance of it. We walked closer to the monument, which is a stately, neo-classical looking thing, not unlike the monuments one sees in Washington, D.C. As we walked up to the building, we realized it was OK to enter. Inside there was a park ranger energetically talking to a small handful of visitors, enthusiastically imparting his clearly impressive knowledge of the Civil War to them. We didn’t want to interrupt, so we looked around a bit. Our eyes were first drawn upward, to a rotunda with the afternoon light streaming in, surrounded on all sides by mosaics depicting prominent Civil War events: Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Appomattox.... We found our way into two small side rooms, each containing a number of historic flags, with maps on the walls pointing out the locations of so many battles - oh wait, this room is just half of it, the Northern half of the war is in the other room. It was clearly designed to impress upon a person the vast scale of the war, and just how much of America the violence permeated. Heavy. Hey, what’s that huge circular hole in the center of the floor? We looked down and there they were: the sarcophogi of Ulysses and Julia Grant. Oh, wait. You mean Grant’s Tomb is… Grant’s… TOMB? It’s silly now to think that never had occurred to me, but the huge dark stone receptacles silently communicated their obvious truth. At the north end of the main chamber, stairs led down to where the caskets were displayed. We felt we had to ask if we were allowed to go down there. The ranger said, “Of course,” and we made our way down into the crypt.
The busts of stern-looking men surrounded the Grants, a study of shadow and light, nobility and stoicism. Sheridan, Thomas, McPherson, Ord, Sherman — Union generals who saw death, who were responsible for death, horrific death for a just cause. The message to me was loud and clear: the War was horrible, but it was necessary, and we won. The North won. The United States of America won. Slavery is no more. The Confederate traitors were defeated in a bloody conflict which engulfed America, but which brought about justice by freeing millions of enslaved people. Not perfect justice, by any measure, but huge, historic justice. Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.
And today, more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, we are fighting along the same idealogical battle lines. There are those who are fighting to hold on to the dominance of white men over all others, contemporary descendants of the Southern slave owners, fighting to honor the Confederate generals, the traitors who tried to rip apart our country for the sake of preserving a system which kept millions of people in bondage, saying we risk “forgetting history” by taking down the statues of our enemies. To that I say, Lee and his army are appropriately remembered in the mosaics at Grant’s Tomb, where they are remembered for the horrors of war they released upon our country, and where their just defeat is memorialized.
Hopefully our current Civil Cold War will not erupt into more violence than it already has. In theory, our democratic process is designed to prevent it. But our system has brought us a President who clearly sympathizes with the racist agenda of white supremacists, and our system of checks and balances, corrupted in so many ways, seems unable (or unwilling) to do anything about this travesty. I do not advocate violence, but we would all be fools to not learn to protect ourselves. We need to be ready for anything as we keep working for Justice.
Truth is marching on.
August 16-23, 2017 - New York & Los Angeles