Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On Tragedy And Regret

I was planning on catching up on some TV stuff -- primarily the rebirth of Sunday night greatness -- but something caught my attention and has me wanting to write a little. This evening, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote two posts on the Civil War, stating his case that it is not a tragedy and then clarifying a little about its inevitability and saying he's glad it happened. Good reading, both the posts and the comments as is the case with all of his stuff, but I have to very respectfully disagree. I am certainly glad that it happened because it led to the abolition of slavery, but I do think it is a tragedy. Six hundred thousand Americans died -- 2% of the total population. No matter the ends, that type of bloodshed is always a tragedy. It just so happens that the ends justify the means and so the Civil War, in my eyes, ends up as a necessary tragedy.

There have been lots of necessary tragedies throughout history. I'm glad the Civil War happened. I'm glad that Pearl Harbor happened because it got the US into the war. I'm glad for Normandy and the slaughter that happened there because it got the Allies that much closer to stopping Hitler. I'm glad for the American Revolution (which nobody really sees as a tragedy, but it's not like nobody died). I'm glad for the French Revolution. I'm glad, at least in a literary sense because I don't believe it actually happened, for the Ten Plagues. All tragedies, all necessary for something positive to come from them. I don't think this is so difficult a position to defend.

A little more difficult to defend is something I believe for my life and something, therefore, I believe for world history. I regret nothing in my life because it's made me the person I am today and I like that person. Expanding that, it means that if I generally like the world -- and it's hard not to like the world compared to how it was at any point in history -- I can't regret anything that has happened. I can mourn, but I accept that it's made us what we are today. I'll just point to Jewish history, which I feel the most comfortable talking about. If it's not for the four hundred years of slavery, we do not become a nation given laws that have lasted us for 3,500 year. If it weren't for the destruction of the Second Temple and the Diaspora, we do not become a rabbinic religion (granted, for good and bad). If it weren't for the Holocaust, maybe Israel doesn't exist as a nation. Yes, that means accepting the Holocaust. I don't think you'll find many rational people that are happy the Holocaust happened, but would the world be what it is today without it?

Look, we don't know. Maybe Israel exists without the Holocaust and the population of Germany and Poland are still going strong (though I doubt it, since the Final Solution was the culmination of an awful lot of other stuff). Maybe slavery ends peacefully without the Civil War (again, I doubt it). History is what it is and we just can't really play guessing games because people are rarely rational actors and can't be gamed out that way. During our visit to Chancellorsville yesterday, I claimed that the South would not have made the massive tactical error they made at Gettysburg in July, 1863, if Jackson had been around. My wife asked if that would have changed the outcome of the war. Realistically, at that point? Doubtful, as I thought about it. Grant was already laying siege to Vicksburg and that was the real turning point. As of January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect and the war had become holy in some ways, so it was doubtful that Lincoln just gives in to a house divided itself. You can make statements of how things would turn out, but you just can't know because they didn't actually happen and any revisionism -- be it the Lost Cause or a book like Fatherland -- is just fantasy.

Where we are in this world is built on the backs of successes and failures, triumphs and tragedies. I can want to change the present, but I can't hope that a different history had led to a different present because I don't really know if that difference would be positive. It's no shame to like who you are, even if you made bad decisions or something bad happened to you, and it's no shame to like who we are even if we made bad decisions or something bad happened to us. Our positive self-esteem -- as a person and as a people -- can come from the positive outcome of a tragedy.

No comments: