It is a measure of the inherent good-heartedness of Americans that they evince a low threshold of horror. Three hundred thousand Confederate dead and millions of ruined African-American lives are too awful to contemplate. Some part of Senator Barack Obama’s appeal derives from America’s revulsion over the destruction of a generation of young black men; electing an African-American president would assuage part of the guilt.
From this great suffering arise two genres of American popular culture, the Gone With the Wind ilk of Civil War epic, and the “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” brand of gangsta tale. Both try to take the edge off the revulsion and placate the dishonored dead by turning them into folk-heroes. That is understandable, but also unfortunate, for America still has a great deal of killing left to do around the world, and might as well get used to it.
“Get Rich or Die Tryin’” would have been a good epitaph for the Confederate dead, who fought for land and slaves, not for “states’ rights” or the sanctity of their soil. Slave-owners along with want-to-be slave-owners had it coming. The Union general William Tecumseh Sherman who said after he burned Atlanta, “I fear the world will jump to the wrong conclusion that because I am in Atlanta the work is done. Far from it. We must kill three hundred thousand, I have told you of so often, and the further they run the harder for us to get them.”
Given the sad history of racial oppression in the South for a century after the Civil War, the only thing to regret is that Sherman didn’t finish the job. I stopped watching the film version of Gone With the Wind after Scarlett O’Hara saved her plantation from the tax-collector. I wanted her to pick cotton until her back broke.