American Oracle and the dangers of political fanaticism

Reading David Blight’s American Oracle this weekend, I’ve noticed a subtle, cautionary note that keeps playing itself as an occasional undertone. It reminds me again why the study of history has something to tell us about current events—and also that no one ever seems to listen to those warnings.

Blight’s book examines the Civil War writings of four major American writers of the Civil Rights Era: Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin (Ralph Ellison gets some treatment in there, too). I’m only halfway through the book, so I’ve only read about Warren and Catton, but both have sounded the same note: fewer things are more dangerous to America than our own political fanaticism.

Catton believed in and wrote about “America’s tradition of moderation being ruined by fanaticism.” Warren worried about it too. “[D]o not let the logic of fanatics prevail, or the political culture could be torn asunder,” he warned in The Legacy of the Civil War.

The Civil War represents the most obvious example of American ruination. There are other startling and depressing examples of American fanaticism, but in the Civil War, America came to blows with itself because the political system failed us so completely.

Lost Cause tradition, in particular, has always pinned the blame for that failure on Northern abolitionists, vilified as radical and fanatic, although a quick survey of Southern propaganda shows there was no shortage of fire-eater propaganda. In fact, I would argue that a more fair interpretation of events would be that the Southern states got radicalized—enough so that they tried to secede—and it was their fanaticism, not the abolitionists’, that led to war (although therewere certainly fanatical abolitionists, and they were noisy).

The cautionary note against fanaticism that Warren and Catton struck had particular resonance in the shadow of the Civil War’s centennial, when both men were writing their most important Civil War-related work. The unifying spirit of the Cold War kept radicalism muted within the political system The Soviets clearly represented any Them the American Us needed to focus against, just as 9/11 provided a bipartisan rallying point in modern America. The Cold War made it easy to be lulled into a sense of national political unity (a willful naivety the Civil Rights movement would soon bitch-slap out of us).

In one of the few instances where Blight inserts himself into his book, he suggests that Warren’s admonitions became a lesson unlearned by today’s society. “It is one conclusion in Legacy that cannot be sustained in our own deeply polarized, partisan political culture of the early twenty-first century,” Blight says.

He speculates that “Warren would be surprised by the political demagoguery of our time,” particularly by the right-wing extremism that has led to the popularity of figures like Sarah Palin and Glen Beck:

In our twenty-four-hour media culture, political extremists on the right, in particular, have managed to cultivate an often ill-formed fervor that no pragmatic vision can thwart… Instead of searching for modes of consensus or a social contract still vaguely tied to the tragedies of 1860 or 1929 or 1968, we are political tribes yelling and blogging right past each other in technological anarchy.

“And,” he says, “we have far more guns today than Americans did in 1861.”

This is clearly Blight talking, using his speculations about Warren as a springboard. If he gets heavy-handed for a couple paragraphs (in an otherwise smooth and unobtrusive book), maybe it’s out of frustration: Look, you short attention-spanned dolts, history has some lessons we could benefit from.

As a historian during the time of the war’s sesquicentennial writing about writers of the war’s centennial era, Blight can try to reteach us the lessons and failures his predecessors first tried to explore. The times have changed, but their admonitions proved depressingly prescient.

Maybe we should listen more often.


Cross-posted to Scholars & Rogues.

4 Responses to American Oracle and the dangers of political fanaticism

  1. I agree that we should listen, but we don’t. Being a rather pessimistic person myself, I do not know if we have enough time to build enough mutual respect on the two sides of our own political divide–which would be necessary–to avoid disaster. The problem is not just that our leaders on both sides of the camps in our own cultural divide are either milquetoast moderates trying to find compromise and temporary peace at any cost or violent extremists. I don’t know how that can be fixed. If we had the will to do it, I suppose we could, but the hostility seems to exist strongest within the ordinary people on both sides, pushing their leaders to extremes. This is an extreme danger, for it makes genuine statesmanship nearly (if not entirely) possible. And how to step back from cliffs that we are racing toward us is a skill I do not possess, not with all of my own interest and knowledge in history. It seems that we live in a deeply tragic time, in that awful silence before the storm breaks on our heads.

  2. I have often thought how the years before the Civil War are very simlar to current times.The country seems polarized now as then ,led by radicals both left and right.Yes there are alot of guns in this country!

  3. Good read, Chris. I had a similar reading through the book’s first half, as Catton was a pluralistic nationalist and a political moderate and Warren valued pragmatism above all else. I’m not sure it holds as well through the second half though. Wilson was a skeptic, a near-pacifist, and a socialist. Deeply influenced by the futility of WWI, he spurned nationalism. Baldwin was a gay black man in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement who supported CORE, SNCC, and spoke admiringly of both MLK and Malcolm X. And recall that Blight’s great hero of the Civil War-era was a radical–Frederick Douglass.

    It’s also important to note that political unity breeds radicalism perhaps more easily that political division, which fosters centrifugalism. Radical tyranny tends to actually control the reigns of government (Palmer Raids, McCarthyism, the Patriot Act, NDAA) in times of unity behind a single cause or perceived enemy.

    On a personal note, for all the professions of the Revisionists that radicalism was bad and the claims of the neoabolitionists that radicalism could be useful, one thing is clear to me: radicalism doesn’t preclude appropriateness. We as historians can certainly debate their tactics, but as human beings we can hardly deny that, time and again throughout history, the so-called radicals (abolitionists, women’s suffragists, civil rights leaders) were clearly on the right side of the issue. And, of course, winning radical causes (unionization, the 8-hour work day, federal civil rights legislation, and, increasingly, gay civil rights in our own time) have a way of becoming mainstream.

  4. Chris,

    Great article! I tend to agree with Matt Stanley above, radicals can be healthy in politics. What is scary is the polarity that exists in our Congress. It has come down to an “Us” and “Them.” That, too, rings of the political stance just prior to the Civil War.

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