My study of American history has changed my outlook on life and politics profoundly. In reading a good history book, the pages just sort of leap out at you, and the stories from a time long ago seem so surreal, as if fictions. But they are about real people like you and me.
Books about the social history of the Great Depression, especially during the Great Recession raised up many different types of emotions, from an eerie warning about the possibilities of a personal nature that were possibly right around the corner, to providing a glimpse of the order to society at the time which is often difficult to grasp when reading the more dry kind of books about politics that say almost nothing about the public zeitgeist.
It is objectively easier to read about the civil war, with the social settings being so far removed from the present that it is difficult to personalize as I flip through the pages. Even books that include gruesome photos of fresh civil war battle fields find me somewhat numb, being well beyond my imagination. But I still wonder what it was like to be in the South as society simply fell apart. I actually hope to never find out, but I have wondered what it is to have a battle between two awe-invoking armies in the neighborhood, or in the back yard. What it takes to present the societal wiliness to create that kind of a hell on earth has fascinated me. Did they view death and hardship differently?
I have found some of the possible answers to that question in the biographies of James Buchanan, the little discussed 15th President of the United States. The sum of most of the different versions I have read describe him as something of a monster, embroiled in pay for play, accounting scandals, etc.…, with the most socking of details being that he used the army to harass and murder settlers in the free state of Kansas. This is something that is quite unthinkable, yet this man was not impeached, tried and hanged. Why was it ay-okay to kill northerners, abolitionists, and people simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time? What kind of political system produces such a horrific result? Of course these findings reinforce the idea that perhaps the entire civil war saga was about much more than slavery. I mean, how many wasp nests can one stir up with a sharp stick before producing several swarms of angry waps with but one goal?
It provides some comparison of what severe political dysfunction looks like, and Buchanan provides a glimpse of what a real selfish and arrogant leader looks like. For many, the development of the civil war was the end of the world as they knew it. And I feel like the people who are pretending that any of the current events that are in the political news these days are the end of world have simply no clue what the end of world is and what it takes to get there, or the terrible things that are simply tolerated before they become intolerable.
This does not mean that I intend for people to put up with injustice. I simply believe they are making mountains out of molehills, and complete fools of themselves. So what if Trump likes himself. So what if he is wrong about immigration? What, exactly, are they going to do about it? Obviously, Madonna threatening to blow up the White House and mobs destroying the property of others aren’t going to be factors that convince the rest of the country toward sympathy. Madonna is actually hard to feel sympathy toward; ditto for rioters, 20-something protesters and snarky professors.