There are many parallels between the 1860’s and our own troubled times if one wishes to do so, examining the parallels, many of them quite unpleasant. Likewise, we can also look at the past and bemoan the fact that we do not have the (often imagined) virtue and sagacity of our fathers. That said, one of the parallels between the time of the American Civil War and our own times is a remarkable tendency that has not tended to draw a lot of positive attention, and that is the tendency of every man (and woman) to be his (or her) own historian. That this fact should be so little noted and commented on requires some explanation, and that this should be (or could be) considered a good thing might come as a shock to many.
The American Civil War is famous for having an impossibly large amount of often deeply contradictory source material to draw from. As the Americans of that time were a highly literate and expressive people, just about every young man who went to war or everyone who stayed home wrote about themselves in diaries, letters back home or to the editor, in memoirs and articles, and in published pamphlets and speeches of which that generation was so fond. Many (probably most) of these accounts suffer various problems–faulty memories, biased perspectives, incomplete and inaccurate information, subtle shading of the truth to please certain audiences, the use of harmonizing an account with hearsay or information learned after the fact–but these problems are inescapable at all times and all places given the fact that we are all fallible recorders. We are certainly no better now or no less inconsistent in our own reportage, as can be witnessed by the fact that this past week on my own online news feeds I simultaneously saw multiple cases of doctored up photos claiming “false flags” and conspiracy theories and other narratives that were confused by trying to paint a clear picture of an uncertain and unstable situation. We too suffer from the same sort of inconsistent narratives that plague historians of the American Civil War trying to make sense of various controversial matters (and in the American Civil War, like in our own times, everything is controversial and indispute).
Why is it a good thing that the American Civil War is so full of self-serving and slightly puffed-up accounts? For one, it is difficult for our own accounts to be accurate and humble. For another, the presence of a wide variety of contradictory accounts provides the opportunity for us to grow and mature in weighing and sifting between good and evil, or between varying mixtures of the two as is more commonly the case. How we react to the controversies and struggles of our times (or other times) allows our own character to emerge and grow, to the point where who and what we are will be glaringly obvious. We may not like conflict or war or argument or controversy, but we do not choose our times, and our times appear to have marked us for conflict despite our own desires. The same was true of the people of the 1860’s. From the surprising lack of bitterness and atrocity in the way that they fought among the most horrible of wars, respecting the honor of the womenfolk and obeying what we consider to be outmoded and antiquated standards of behavior in treating “non-combatants” with restraint, and even respecting the right of people to oppose and protest the government’s conduct of war to levels of severe criticism, we can gather that the people of the 1860’s were people of honor but flawed like the rest of us in their own ways.
Having a wide variety of accounts is what allows the wheat to be separated from the chaff. So long as there is a commitment to openness and expression, and that openness and expression are focused on a broad range of people with their own perspectives, then our practice at expressing ourselves will lead to greater skill and precision in expressing ourselves while respecting others. It is in silence that we have to make assumptions and guess based on what people do and do not do what they truly feel or think. It is in silence that our speech comes out sideways and in explosions. The trends of our times show a great deal of tension between ideals of speech and silence. We long to be free to speak our own mind and our own thoughts, but show decreasing ability to listen to others who may think and feel differently. We express ourselves openly and widely, like our forefathers, only in blogs and other internet writings, but our information sources tend to be increasingly partisan with little friendly and respectful communication made across boundaries and factions. As a result we disagree about the facts (to say nothing about the interpretation of those facts) in just about every matter of our lives and existence.
This constitutes a state of war. The fact that we live in combative times faced with the tension between awkward speech and awkward silence does not mean that our warfare will include widespread physical conflict, though we have to prepare ourselves for that possibility. Physical violence is merely the outgrowth of what is already inside of us, the fears and disrespect that we cultivate over time that prevent us from correcting our faulty assumptions before we act on them. If we want to stop the violence, we have to work on mindsets. Our ability to change others is rather limited, based on what sort of influence we have with them. What we can do is recognize ourselves and our times and take appropriate measures so that we encourage where necessary and that we are able to work against the darker currents of our times rather than mindlessly cheer them on or be carried along helplessly by them. The fact that, like our forefathers, have chosen to be our own historians (as well as our own journalists, our own preachers, and our own philosophers), we have taken a great deal of responsibility on ourselves. Let us work to make sure that we use that power wisely and carefully.