Monday, November 8, 2010

The New Civil War

This feels incredibly timely.


One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, Americans went to war with themselves. Disunion revisits and reconsiders America's most perilous period -- using contemporary accounts, diaries, images and historical assessments to follow the Civil War as it unfolded.

DISUNION is something I stumbled across today at The New York Times on its Opinionator blog.  It started this past October 31 and will continue to follow (until?) the events of 150 years ago as if in real time.

Certainly a sesquicentennial is reason enough for such a project -- and perhaps it is the only reason -- but the timing seems downright pre-ordained.  Ever since those first graphic designers on cable news conveniently divided our country into red and blue, we have come to understand that the ideological divide in our nation hasn't changed geographically in the last 150 years. The picture gets muddier when you look at the 435 individual House districts, where red vs. blue largely comes down to interior vs. coasts and rural vs. urban.  But, when you blur and round up for states as a whole -- as in Senate races and the Electoral College -- red has replaced grey for the Rebels, Yankees are still blue [was that on purpose I wonder...?], and the West is a hodgepodge.

Looks familiar, doesn't it?

What's old is new again, with certain high-ranking politicians throwing words like "succession" and "states' rights" around, calling into question fundamental constitutional foundations and issuing thinly-veiled threats of armed revolt.  Outright ownership of another person is no longer an issue (though the banks continue to try), but equal opportunity, access and protection still are.  And now, as then, an Illinois politician occupies the White House trying to hold things together.  This time, however, the President is black (or at least self-identifies and is generally recognized as such) -- a fact not unnoticed by certain standard bearers in Dixie and yet another interesting twist of how "here and now" are linked to "there and then".

All of which begs the question:  to what extent -- either by design or fascinating coincidence -- are we to ascribe any prescience to this re-chronicling, day by day, of that period in our history that lead to a violent and deadly civil war?  If the past truly is prologue, what can we learn from today's vantage point and the benefit of clear hindsight to avoid past mistakes?  And is it even possible?

[Image via NYT.]