Civil War & Emphasis

I’ve gotten around to reading TNC’s article for The Atlantic about the Civil War and how we perceive it. Interesting stuff. I’d recommend it.

One segment turned my thoughts elsewhere, though, to a point tangential to the overall gist of the article. Coates writes:

With a firm foothold in the public memory and in the academic history, the comfortable narrative found its most influential expression in the popular media. Films like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind revealed an establishment more interested in the alleged sins perpetrated upon Confederates than in the all-too-real sins perpetrated upon the enslaved people in their midst. That predilection continues. In 2010’s The Conspirator, the director Robert Redford’s Mary Surratt is the preferred victim of political persecution—never mind those whose very lives were persecution. The new AMC show Hell on Wheels deploys the trope of the blameless Confederate wife ravished and killed by Union marauders, as though Fort Pillow never happened.

The comfortable narrative haunts even the best mainstream presentations of the Civil War. Ken Burns’s eponymous and epic documentary on the war falsely claims that the slaveholder Robert E. Lee was personally against slavery. True, Lee once asserted in a letter that slavery was a “moral & political evil.” But in that same letter, he argued that there was no sense protesting the peculiar institution and that its demise should be left to “a wise Merciful Providence.” In the meantime, Lee was happy to continue, in Lincoln’s words, wringing his “bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.”

Focus especially on the end to the first paragraph and the beginning to the second. Coates’ objection to Hell on Wheels has nothing to do with historical accuracy (at least, not in the traditional technical way) or storytelling; his problem is with emphasis. This gripe is one of my primary complaints about news and narratives, one that I touched on in this post.

You don’t need to lie to be dishonest. But beyond that, even with respect to a work of fiction that describes a particular time during our history, misplaced emphasis galls many people as much as dishonesty. TNC critiques Hell on Wheels and other stories because they showcase one aspect of a story (a hard-done Confederate wife) at the expense of another (millions and millions of black people who endured slavery). Naturally, the extent to which this misplaced emphasis is a point of mild irritation, genuine annoyance or provocation for an article-length introspection varies from person to person. As Bob Somerby (and probably many others) have said, news outlets are best defined by which events (and narratives) they ignore. So too with people, interest groups and entire societies.

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