I’m a big fan of The Daily Show, and Jon Stewart’s monologue following the Charleston shooting has cemented my opinion more than anything else. He said he would make no jokes, and kept his word, expressing instead the deep sadness he felt, not only for the tragedy, but because of the ‘gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist.’ He said he’s confident that even after acknowledging it, Americans still won’t do jack shit.
I am not an American, but for some reason – and I like to think the monologue was part of it – yesterday I felt compelled to watch the Ken Burns documentary series on the American Civil War. I finished it today (it is very well done and I highly recommend it to anyone, including Americans, even if they’re familiar with the history), and what moved me most at the end was the response of the Union army commander, Ulysses S. Grant, and his officers when they received news of Robert E. Lee’s surrender. There were a few feeble cheers, ‘then all broke down in tears.’ Both armies were exhausted, but when the Confederates surrendered their battle flags, the unspoken memory of four years of brutal battles and unsurpassed hell was evident on all faces when the victors met the vanquished. ‘The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.’ Major General Chamberlain called his men into a line and gave the Confederates a soldierly salute, ‘A token of respect from Americans to Americans.’
This was in 1865, and almost exactly 150 years later, in the very town where the first Civil War battle was fought, the same prejudices and hate persist. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Humans can hold grudges for centuries. But I wondered how the men in those armies might have felt, if they knew that a century and a half later, everything they fought for, and over 600,000 died for, still had yet to be resolved. I thought about how impossible it would’ve seemed for both sides if they knew that today America would have a Black president. I thought about Abraham Lincoln and how much I – and undoubtedly many others – would have liked to meet him. (Maybe they’ll make a Doctor Who episode where he meets Abe Lincoln.) I’m not trying to moralize anything, or offer some trivial explanation or comparison that makes all this ‘make sense,’ because it doesn’t.
At the beginning of the documentary, one of the commentators said that if you want an understanding of the United States, it must be rooted in an understanding of the Civil War. This is true, but I still don’t know if this would shed light on the current crisis. I doubt if anything will.