WICHITA, Kan. - If Kansans want to understand their own local politics a bit better they might want to read Joan Waugh's biography: U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth. Waugh sets out to try and explain why so many Americans today believe Grant was a corrupt politician who drank his way to victory during the Civil War with callous disregard for his troops by sending them to their slaughter. She adeptly explains that this version of Grant was constructed by southern historians who did not think too highly of the common farmer who bested the elegant and aristocratic Virginian, Robert E. Lee.
Surprisingly we learn that Grant was a very gentle man, whose father made him attend West Point and whose skills in horsemanship had few equals but many admirers. Grant understood precisely why war was being waged. The South tied itself to an evil institution. To hold onto slavery meant maintaining power in Washington, D.C.
As the nation grew and population surged in the northern cities, the South found its representation diminished in the House of Representatives. The Senate was the one body remaining as the center of power for the South. Keeping the Senate balanced between free and slave states was becoming untenable. If more states were to enter free, the delicate balance of power the south held in the senate would come to an end. More menacing, the South was losing its public relations war as more and more citizens found slavery to be an odious custom clashing against the democratic principles of American liberty.
Southerners tried to convince themselves that the real issue was the preservation of their culture against northern aggression. When the South could no longer sell their lie to the nation, they opted to become traitors and secede from the Union. Grant made it clear he knew exactly why the North was fighting; to preserve the Union, and punish those who rebelled against the United States. This was not a noble cause. It was treason pure and simple all because the south had lost its political majority in congress.
The South may have been defeated on the battlefield but it knew the U.S. government could not possibly occupy their land forever, nor magically wipe clean a culture intrinsically wedded to the idea that whites were superior to blacks. After the war, Congress passed various acts and measures to protect the newly freed slaves but, once Reconstruction was over and federal troops withdrew, the South would be able to revert back to life as it was before the war. The formal institution of slavery might be vanquished, but not the prejudices that bred unusual ideas about humanity and politics.
The South argued the war was fought over state's rights against an aggressive federal government. Instead of acknowledging their culpability for the war, Southerners concocted the romantic "lost cause" narrative that was cemented into mythical lore thanks to Margaret Mitchell's, Gone with the Wind. The defeated south has in essence defined the political landscape of America since before the war and we are crippled by their myths and dead ideas that are resurrected in every political cycle. These odd and disconcerting political views from a tragic past continue to seep into our own modern day political discourse. Do you think I exaggerate?
Recently members of congress were debating the bill to continue the Bush tax cuts and extend unemployment benefits to people still out of work. It was at this juncture that our illustrious leaders showed their fangs. One Senator noted that if money were given to the unemployed, that they would just buy drugs instead of looking for work. It's rare to hear this kind of prejudice stated so clearly on the evening news. The idea that the poor are poor because they are morally deficient didn't begin with southern culture but, it certainly was an idea embraced by southern politicians; slaves were inherently deficient on so many levels that no amount of money or help could change their condition.
And the idea that the poor deserve to be poor is still rampant within the Republican/conservative mantra of self-sufficiency and rugged individualism lore. This charming fable with the idea that any American can make it if they work really hard is just bull. Yes, there are great opportunities in America for people to succeed. However, we must not let a story that may be true for some to become the basis for politicians to craft defective public policy around the myth that ALL Americans have the same opportunities and chance to succeed. The notion that if a person loses their job and has no healthcare means they are morally bankrupt or didn't try hard enough is just cruel. Myths can be inspiring, but dangerous if fueled by prejudices and then turned into law.
The beauty of a myth is that future generations can lay claim to the story and build upon the myth. The southern myth set into motion future political misfits. Politicians troll the landscape from Kansas to every corner of America burdening our democracy with a set of disturbing political conclusions born of southern defeat: the federal government is evil, the poor are lazy and deserve to be poor; minorities need to shut up and respect their betters; and the only citizens who count in America are God fearing Christians.
The myth is no longer just the Southerner's myth. It belongs to Republicans, conservatives, and the Religious Right because it fits their agenda of power for the "right sorts of people". Southern Democrats have realigned since the war and today the South and states on the Great Plains are solidly Republican, but their mantra is still the old myths from yore. In Kansas, the Republican and conservative politicians have built their careers on trash talking D.C., harassing women who seek legal abortions since this conflicts with their narrow beliefs, and insisting government must help business but not lift a finger for the people if it can be helped. And the myths just roll along. My personal favorites are: conservatives are the noble people upholding the founders intent, and the great protectors of the Constitution. What about upholding that same Constitution back in 1865?
The real tragedy of the American Civil War is how its dangerous and pigheaded ideas live on in public discourse. How long are we going to allow the lies from over a hundred years ago to dictate our politics?
While history is often complicated and open to different interpretations, Grant deserves to be defined by the facts and not Southern prejudices. The same could be said for our political future as well. We need serious discussions about what we as a country want to embrace as a people, and what beliefs are dishonest political myths that must be exposed and rejected in order to define our American Republic for a modern age.