Polarized Lens: Strategic Memory of the Civil War

The American polity is polarized – more so than at any time since the run-up to the Civil War. Its memory is invoked from a particular angle – one might say a slant. Contemporary counter-revisionist accounts of the war – the attempt to lay Lost Cause states’ rights arguments in their grave – have devised their own distortive reduction: an abolitionist war of liberation against slavery.

This essay will explore the ways in which contemporary invocation of the Civil War as polarized politics informs, or misinforms, our present political moment. Those ways may be limited, or perhaps ought to be: an actual civil war is a dubious guide to even the most fraught peacetime process, and the peculiar, sectional nature of the divisions then suggests a very different kind of fracturing from that which America presently confronts – a project of secession, whose moral stakes we are, precisely because we misremember our own last war of secession, surprisingly ill-equipped to consider.