What’s wrong with how we view the Civil War?

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2019

As I continue to read and think about the American Civil War, I am continually impressed with how little questioning of the legitimacy of warfare as the default way to resolve conflicts I have encountered. I have seen even less skepticism about the Civil War as a tool for the good than I found in relation to World War II. I tend to think that so long as people accept those wars, they will continue to accept our present-day warring and preparation for warring.

A representative view of the Civil War

I encountered a representative view of the Civil War that illustrates my concern when I listened to an April 16, 2019, interview with Andrew Delbanco, history professor at Columbia University and author of The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War, on a program called “Letters and Politics.”

I was impressed with Delbanco. He is knowledgeable and insightful about the Civil War era. He has good values and seems to be a reliable analyst. He makes helpful connections with the present. It is because he seems perceptive and humane that his comments about the “validity” of the Civil War seem especially useful (and troubling) for me. If someone with his general sensibility has these views, I think it is safe to imagine most other historians of the US do, too (and probably most people in the wider society). The comments that especially struck me came at the end of the interview as he was drawing some conclusions. Delbanco said:

In retrospect, I think most of us would say the price was worth paying. A million dead for the emancipation of four million human beings whose ancestors had been enslaved and whose descendants would have been enslaved if the war had not taken the course it took. But again I would suggest, how many of us today would willingly send our sons and brothers and friends to their deaths for any moral cause? How many of us on the progressive side of the political spectrum would be willing to contemplate war of that scale and savagery as a method to achieve a better society? I’m not sure I would. So, supporting the Civil War in retrospect is easy. Committing oneself to a war like that in prospect may not be so easy. Continue reading “What’s wrong with how we view the Civil War?”

Trump and US Democracy (Looking West #2)

Ted Grimsrud—February 16, 2019

For some months I have been reading about the American Civil War. It’s been fascinating for many reasons, and I expect to be writing about what I am learning and thinking for a long time. One thread will be how sobering it is for me to read about the US past in relation to our current national political stormy waters. One of the premises of the Trumpian proclamation is that America used to be “great.” Well, it certainly wasn’t great in the middle part of the 19thcentury. And, painful as it is to realize this, many of the ways it wasn’t great back then are still with us—white supremacy, economic inequality, warism. And, of course, Trump’s agenda to “make America great again” seems only to exacerbate those problems from long ago.

Surreal, but not necessarily utterly exceptional?

It is surreal to have a president like Donald Trump, likely the most repellant person ever to hold that office. I don’t know of any president whose policies and philosophies I disagree with as much as Trump’s. I know of no other president who was as dishonest, as self-centered, as oblivious to other people’s feelings, as closely linked with the most corrupt elements of the broader American society. But at the same time, I realize that just about every other American president has also had disagreeable policies and philosophies, has been dishonest, self-centered, oblivious, and linked with corruption.

I think it is a mistake to view Trump as utterly exceptional. I get the sense, among people I talk with and read, that Trump is this foreign element in our political system and all we need to do is get rid of him or, at worst, wait him out for two more years, and then things will be ever so much better. I’m not so sanguine about our political system and about the state of democracy here. I wonder if the Trump presidency might be most useful not as a contrast to how things normally are but as a vulgar, veneer-stripped-away exposure of how broken the system has become (and maybe always has been). Continue reading “Trump and US Democracy (Looking West #2)”

Wondering about the American Civil War

Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2018

I grew up in western Oregon. Until I was 17, the farthest east I had ever been was Wallowa Lake in the northeastern corner of the state. Then, the summer after my junior year in high school, my family took a road trip out to Virginia to meet my new niece. My dad, who was a history teacher with deep interest in the Civil War, was thrilled to get to visit battlefields, museums, and other key Civil War sites. It was pretty interesting, but we had to leave to return home way too soon and only scratched the surface.

Ever since Kathleen, Johan, and I moved to Harrisonburg, VA, in 1996, I have felt guilty that I have not given much thought to the Civil War. My dad (who died in 1984) would be furious if he knew how I had wasted my time here by not paying more attention to Civil War places and materials. My apathy might finally be ending.

Did slavery actually end?

In the past few years I have learned about the impressive work of Bryan Stevenson. In his book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014), Stevenson details his work as an attorney who has devoted his energy to saving the lives of people treated unjustly by our criminal justice system. He established the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, as the headquarters for his work.

Living in Montgomery has exposed Stevenson to the long and deep history of American violence toward people of color. He led an effort to establish a museum that would recognize the terrible toll of lynching in our country. This museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and its accompanying Legacy Museum opened their doors in late April this year. With this opening, Stevenson has been asked to talk in various settings about the legacy of such terroristic violence. He is extraordinarily clear and straightforward in the story he tells. A few weeks ago, I listened to an extended interview he gave the Washington Post.

Stevenson made a comment that got my attention. He stated that slavery never actually ended in the United States. It only evolved. This statement came simply as an observation, not as a strong thesis that he laid out a detailed rationale for. But his discussion of the tradition of Jim Crow segregation and lynchings by the thousand in the generations following the legal ending of slavery following the Civil War and his allusions to the ongoing plague of mass incarceration that has especially targeted black Americans offer anecdotal support for his statement about slavery’s evolution (and correlate with Michelle Alexander’s arguments about the dynamics of mass incarceration, especially in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness). Continue reading “Wondering about the American Civil War”

The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?

Ted Grimsrud—November 29, 2016

To “break bad” can mean to “go wild,” to “defy authority” and break the law, to be verbally “combative, belligerent, or threatening” or, followed by the preposition “on,” to “completely dominate or humiliate.” [from Wikipedia]

It is difficult to write about the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. It seems certain that the US is entering uncharted waters. It also seems certain, to me at least, that what is coming will be worse than what most of us can imagine. The American Empire is entering a new phase, likely with little pretense of self-restraint or of serving the general human welfare or the wellbeing of the natural world. We are about openly to become the rogue nation—”breaking bad” indeed.

The impending storm

A memory comes to mind. Many years ago, Kathleen and I were on a road trip. As evening neared, we approached Clovis, New Mexico from the west. To the east we saw a huge dark, dark purple horizon. As we got closer, the darkness grew. We clearly were heading into a storm. It turned out to be a big one. Hail, heavy rain. We inched into town and the streets were awash with several inches of water. We had a similar experience more recently, driving home from the northeast. Here the dark, dark purple horizon was near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia come together along the Potomac River.

In both cases, there was this strong uneasy, fearful, feeling as we approached the storm. We felt some wind but basically things were calm. But we knew we were heading into trouble and there was no place to go to avoid it. And, in both cases, the storm turned out to be worse than we even imagined.

This is how I feel right now. We’ve got these few weeks before the fury of the new Republican unified power on the federal level will hit us. I see no reason not to expect that the impact of that power won’t be even worse than the most fearful imaginings we might have right now.

Still, this is a time to try to think seriously and deeply—and I believe it is also a time to think theologically for those so inclined. The United States, the world’s one superpower, is in deep trouble. It is nearly impossible to imagine that the next four years won’t be a disaster in almost every sense of the word. And even should the nightmare end at that point, something that right now seems less than likely, the damage that will be done will be difficult to repair.

The importance of core convictions

I believe that one of things we should  be doing now—and this will remain important for as long as I can foresee—is think deeply about core convictions, about the meaning and purpose of life, about our orientation toward life. We are going to face severe stresses, and conflicts, and fears, and deep discouragement. What will guide us as we struggle to move ahead? Continue reading “The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?”

A pragmatic case for voting Green

Ted Grimsrud—November 7, 2016

My post on Friday, “Why, in the end, I can’t vote for Hillary Clinton,” elicited quite a bit of discussion both here on the blog, on Facebook, and on the Mennonite World Review site where it was reblogged, as well as the MWR Facebook page.  I found most of the conversation to be discouraging. The Clinton supporters who responded, mostly personal friends, mostly Mennonites, mostly political progressives, mostly inclined toward pacifism, rarely if ever addressed the heart of my argument.

Problems with Clinton

My argument was not about Trump vs. Clinton but it was about the concerns posed by a potential Clinton presidency, most importantly (I suggest) in the areas of militarism and imperialism. I didn’t imply anything less than a deeply negative view of Trump. I stated that the question about voting for Clinton or not was for me a question that depended on being in a state where Clinton is almost certain to win (or, even more, in a state where Trump is certain to win)—not a truly contested state. Given that dynamic, I suggested that for me a vote for Jill Stein has the virtue of affirming a vision that actually affirms peace as a core commitment.

However, almost all of the negative comments turned it back to Clinton vs. Trump. There was hardly a hint that anyone is deeply troubled by Clinton’s warism—and interestingly, no one felt the need to challenge my assumptions about this warism. So, the basic sense is that yes, indeed, Clinton is committed to greater militarism and imperialism, but this is nothing to be worried about.

Now, my argument did rest on the premise that Clinton almost certainly would win Virginia. One of the ways I supported this premise was to point out that neither Trump nor Clinton was campaigning here, with the implication that both campaigns were accepting that Clinton would win Virginia. Well, since I wrote that, it turns out that Trump is coming here. As I said I would under those circumstance, I am reconsidering my vote. Continue reading “A pragmatic case for voting Green”

Why, in the end, I can’t vote for Hillary Clinton

Ted Grimsrud—November 4, 2016

Few of the people I know, even those who strongly supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries, are agonizing about their presidential vote next week. It is clear to just about everyone in my circles, it seems, that Donald Trump’s unacceptability as president could not be more clear. Hence, a vote for Clinton is a no-brainer.

Thinking in the context of the electoral college

I have been unsure, however. Not that I would imagine voting for Trump. Not that I don’t believe that Trump would be a complete disaster as president, a horror beyond imagining. But it seems important to me to recognize that our presidential election, given the undemocratic reality of the electoral college, is actually 50 different elections. As we learned in 2000, the winner of the national popular vote will not necessarily win the election.

So, the particular election I am voting in is the election that will determine the votes of Virginia’s members of the electoral college. This fact is important to keep in mind as I reflect on my struggle to discern how to cast my ballot. It is altogether possible that if we did go by the popular vote, I might decide to vote for Clinton—not so much as a vote for her as for a vote that would prevent Trump’s election (I made this kind of argument for voting for Obama in 2012—whereas in 2008 I happily [and naively] voted for Obama, believing at least a little in the hopey, changey stuff).

It is also altogether possible that if I lived in a state such as Ohio or Florida, where the outcome seems very much in doubt and whose electoral votes will be crucial to the outcome, I would vote for Clinton.

But those are irrelevant considerations for me as a resident of Virginia. In a stark contrast to 2000, when I voted for Ralph Nader because Virginia was in the bag for George Bush (meaning a vote for Albert Gore seemed like a wasted vote), now it seems as if Virginia is in the bag for Clinton. I am glad for this for two reasons—one is that I do want Trump to lose, the second is that I feel freer to think of my vote as one I can cast based on my ideals than simply a vote to prevent a worse evil happening. Continue reading “Why, in the end, I can’t vote for Hillary Clinton”

A simple way to world peace? Recognize America as “Beast”

Ted Grimsrud—September 19, 2016

I offer what follows as a thought experiment, an attempt to flesh out a recent late night rumination. I finished reading a fine book, Douglas Fry, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace. Fry, who is an anthropologist, seeks to refute the notion of “man as warrior” that assumes that human beings are innately hardwired to fight wars. Fry focuses on hunter-gatherer societies; he argues that some of these societies, presumably more revelatory of human nature, are not warriors.

I like Fry’s argument, though since I don’t know much about hunter-gatherer societies, I mostly have to take his word for it on the evidence he cites. But what he suggests fits well with other things I have read over the years. At the very end of the book he tries briefly to draw broader implications. Here he speaks of the need for a stronger, UN-type organization to help nations avoid warfare.

That suggestion made me think. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with that kind of approach—I’d like to see the peacemaking work of the UN be strengthened and more effective, as well as a stronger and more effective international law regime. But then I thought, surely the most powerful force that resists that kind of movement is the United States. If the US were committed to UN peacemaking work and international law, then we’d have a much more peaceable world. Continue reading “A simple way to world peace? Recognize America as “Beast””

Misconstruing the Trump Crisis

Ted Grimsrud—September 5, 2016

We are in the middle of what seems certain to be one of the worst presidential campaigns in United States’ history. We have the two candidates with the highest negativity ratings in the history of measuring that indicator.

Trump as disaster

And the thing is, the negative ratings for Donald Trump are not nearly as high as they should be. In this blog post, I take it for granted that Trump is a terrible person, remarkably unsuited to be president of the USA. He’s dishonest, narcissistic, mean-spirited, bigoted, ignorant, irreverent, thin-skinned, controlling, sexist, racist, and surrounded by yay-sayers. A disaster in every way; a world-class con-man in the words of Matt Taibbi.

Something else I take for granted in this post is that Hillary Clinton’s negative ratings are too high. She’s not nearly as bad as her public image would imply—at least in the sense that she has been for years and continues to be unfairly vilified, disrespected, slandered, and the like in large part due to her being a woman. At the least, she is vilified often for the wrong reasons.

So, Trump is a disaster who shouldn’t be the candidate of a major political party and as his party’s candidate should not be nearly as close to leading the race as he is. And Clinton is unfairly discriminated against because she is a woman.

And yet, the way the campaign seems to be unfolding is quite troubling for other reasons. As awful as Trump is, he is not the reincarnation of Hitler. There is debate among “experts” whether the invocation of Hitler in relation to Trump violates Godwin’s Law (the idea that internet debates, if they go on long enough, tend to end with references to one’s opponent being like Hitler—a move that in some settings leads to a declaration that in invoking Hitler, one loses the debate).

Regardless, one could argue that the Trump-is-like-Hitler references exaggerate both Trump’s power and his darkness. Trump actually differs from Hitler in crucial ways—maybe most significantly in having nothing even remotely like Hitler’s Nazi Party to implement his inhumane ideology, not to mention also having nothing even remotely like Hitler’s coherent, long-standing, and well-articulated ideology.

Continue reading “Misconstruing the Trump Crisis”

The missing peace in the Democratic Party convention

Ted Grimsrud—August 1, 2016

It seems that the recently concluded Democratic Party convention (DNC) was a success. Clearly, the convention was orchestrated to show a direct contrast with the Republican Party convention the previous week—highlighting diversity, care for the poor, positive hope for the nation, and the like. And unity. The threat of major disruption from supporters of Bernie Sanders proved to be minimal—beyond some random “no more war” chants that were ignored by the people in charge. Sanders helped with his explicit support for Clinton.

Sanders’s speech was a model in how he affirmed Clinton’s candidacy going forward while he also reemphasized the core themes of his campaign. He received a kind of affirming echo from Clinton in her speech, as she lifted up many Sandersian points. Surely, the success of his insurgency campaign pulled her in his direction—and one can fantasize that Sanders and many others will help keep her to her word on many of the issues: vs. harmful free trade agreements, for economic justice, for greater access to higher education, for an increased minimum wage, for criminal justice reform, challenging the big banks, et al.

However, there was something crucial missing from Sanders’s speech—and he perhaps lost the one opportunity possible at the convention to challenge the worst of Clinton’s politics. Sanders said nothing about opposition to war and militarism. And, so, the empire continues to hurtle toward brokenness—and to take all of us with it. There are many angles one could take in decrying this lack of opposition—I write as a Christian theologian. Though it was indeed remarkable how visible explicit Christian faith was at the DNC, I take little comfort in a phenomenon I normally might have welcomed. This Christian presence runs the danger of being just another baptism of empire, even if “kinder and gentler” (ironic allusion to George H.W. Bush intended) than previous baptisms, if it won’t lead to an explicit commitment to “no more war.” Continue reading “The missing peace in the Democratic Party convention”

The case for Bernie Sanders

Ted Grimsrud—May 27, 2016

Yesterday on Facebook, a friend of mine, Jessica Penner, raised a question to me in a conversation about our current presidential campaign:

Okay, let’s say Bernie gets the nomination and wins the election. HOW will he get done half (or even a quarter) of what he plans with a congress that won’t vet a Supreme Court justice for the sitting president, with a congress that stripped Obamacare to a shadow of what the sitting president envisioned, with a congress that works to get rid of what good Obamacare does (and hurt people like me–a person working full-time but without benefits who also has pesky pre-existing conditions) that our sitting president created. HOW WILL HE DO IT? NO ONE HAS ANSWERED THIS QUESTION. I told your grandson several months ago that Bernie has my heart, but Hillary has my head. Tell me how he will do it, and maybe Bernie might creep into my head.

I don’t have a quick and decisive answer to this challenge, but I think it is worth taking a little time to respond. For me, both my heart and my head tell me that Sanders is the best serious presidential candidate that we have had since Jesse Jackson and that if he were elected at the least his presidency would be way less destructive than a Clinton presidency. I’m not sure Sanders would be all that effective in terms of his agenda, but I am sure Clinton would be devastatingly worse.

I think our current system is failing at an ever faster speed. I don’t have much hope that a Sanders presidency would prevent a catastrophe. However, I do see a glimmer of hope; on the other hand, to me the main difference between a Clinton presidency and a Trump presidency would be about levels of despair. So, really, the case for Sanders has mostly to do with the case against Clinton. However, Sanders is long committed to a positive agenda that truly would bring about major changes and might turn the direction of the system around. Even if he has little chance of implementing much his agenda, if he were president there would be some chance. A Clinton presidency would at best push us just a bit more slowly down the slide into catastrophe than a Trump presidency.

Some specific themes:

(1) I don’t think it’s fair to imply that Sanders couldn’t get his agenda approved by a Republican Congress while Clinton could. We can completely agree that the current Congress is set up to foil any legislative initiative any Democratic president would pursue. This is not, in any sense that I can see, a point in Clinton’s favor. She would go into office with a much deeper and longer-established level of antipathy from Republicans than Sanders would, so it seems at least as likely that she would not be able to get her goals passed.

The difference I see would be more on the level of the things the president can accomplish in spite of Congress. It seems like Obama finally at the end of his time in office has decided to push his agenda more forcefully and to some positive effect (e.g., stronger environmental oversight, the opening to Cuba). I’m more confident of Sanders being assertive in this way than Clinton. Plus, even more, I’m more confident of Sanders appointing a Cabinet that would pursue more progressive policies—most obviously with his commitment to resisting the domination of Wall Street we have seen among many of Obama’s appointees (and likely Clinton appointees). Continue reading “The case for Bernie Sanders”