Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Bull Run Redux: Washington Wars and The End Of Innocence

In July 1861, newly minted Confederate forces clustered around Manassas Junction, 25 miles southwest of Washington, near a snaky little river known as Bull Run. Under public pressure, untested Union troops took them on. At the end of the momentous, two-day clash of amateurs in the First Battle of Bull Run, the Federals fled in defeat; the Confederates puffed up with victory; and the nation realized that Civil War would not be brief, brilliant or bloodless. It was an end of innocence.

And so it was, all over again in the steamy July of 2011, after the unbearable political bloodletting over raising the debt ceiling. The U.S. Congress, held hostage by a rebellious minority under the guise of virtue and principle, took the entire country to the precipice of disaster. If we had any illusion that politicians would work out differences on the economy without leading America close to debt default, more joblessness and market chaos, the July battle marked our end of innocence. 
Woodcut of First Battle
of Bull Run, also called
the First Battle of Manassas.
Library of Congress.

At the heart of it?  South Carolina, of course. Again. Seems the anointed leaders of the state can’t help but cling to their historic role of fomenting rebellion, as it was 150 years ago when the Palmetto State became the first state to secede from the Union, ensuring a protracted war that would claim more than 620,000 lives and bring the South to its knees for decades.     

All five South Carolina Republicans in the U.S. House defended their belief that the federal budget must be eviscerated while they refused to raise taxes to support growing needs of an expanding, aging population. The S.C. Five continued their fight for tax breaks for the super-rich, apparently in line with the way of life they protect for themselves and envision as The American Dream for others.

In this summer's War In Washington, South Carolina made its mark as the state with the only solid front of GOP representatives refusing to compromise, even at the eleventh hour, despite mounting fears around the country. 

A television station in Columbia, South Carolina's capital, reported: “The five Republicans in South Carolina's congressional delegation collectively are taking credit for pushing House Speaker John Boehner to take a more conservative approach to finding a debt deal.”

And so, we regular folks, so fed up with Congress that only 14 percent of us approved of the representative body by the end of July, faced a figurative First Battle of Bull Run. I do not mean to trivialize the suffering and sacrifice that occurred on the battlefield near Manassas, where casualties approached 9,000, but as I research the American Civil War for a book I am writing, I can’t ignore comparisons between how America stumbled into a largely unexpected, long, and devastating war against itself 150 years ago and what’s happening today. 

Congress, in its desperation to reach agreement, has set the scene for a second, possibly more destructive, battle over the budget deficit and a dangerous conflict among the haves and the have-nots, the old and the young, and opposing ideas of what America and democracy mean.      
Republican Leadership in the U.S.
House of Representatives in July
2011. AP Photo.

As anti-government "South Carolinization" seeps across America, we must realize that many of our elected leaders could again march us into disaster if we fall under their Pied Piper spell. In the war of words  roiling Washington — similar to the antebellum brinkmanship between supporters of a slave-labor, plantation economy and supporters of a free-labor, capitalist economy —a minority of recalcitrant leaders again are framing The American Dream as an undemocratic, trickle-down-happiness economic model.  

From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You (Copyright B.J. Welborn; all rights reserved.):

            In the pre-Civil War era, New England’s religious, literary and social leaders spearheaded America’s passionate anti-slavery movement.  In the Deep South, a planter elite piloted an aggressive defense of slavery.  The South’s social, economic and political leaders asserted that the region’s agrarian, semi-feudal economic and social systems depended on slavery.  Fire-eating extremes pitched region against region.
            In a letter dated August 24, 1855, Lincoln wrote to a Southern acquaintance:  “The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class among you; and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you, and are as completely your masters as you are the master of your own negroes."

The let-them-eat-cake attitude toward everybody but the rich that South Carolina's representatives and their tea party ilk uphold, shouldn't dupe the middle class into abandoning our own self interests (read Medicare and myriad other programs). In 2011, it's not region against region as it was in the Civil  War, but ideology against ideology.  Most Americans stand to lose in this war.

Now that the dust has cleared on the Washington battlefield in the summer of 2011, shouldn't we tell our elected officials that enough is enough? Or are we ready for a Second Battle of Bull Run — same war, same location, same outcome?

SOURCE: The AMERICAN HERITAGE New History of The Civil War, edited by James M. McPherson. 1996