26 Aug

A Country We Fought Over, the One Worth Fighting For

Photograph by Tim Sloan/AFP via Getty Images

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — There’s a lot of America to see here, even at night,  as we roll south toward two political conventions, both of which will be held in  the states of the old Confederacy, and one of which will meet for the purpose of  renominating a black man, which probably will shake the shadows.

A red, hot sliver of a moon had slipped behind the ridges, and night  completely enfolded the landscape. Standing on the old battlefield here at  midnight, in the dark with the fog starting to roll in around the rail fences  and the monuments scattered in the field that loomed shadowy all around, this is  an interesting activity for anyone with an active imagination. I stood for a  long time under the statue of General John Buford, the old horse cavalryman who  got here first on that weekend in July almost a 150 years ago, the man who  surveyed the hills and the long, sloping ridges of this place and thought to  himself, This is a place to put an army; this is a place to fight a battle. So  he and his men stood right here, stacking up the Confederates for long hours on  that first day, hanging on until infantry support arrived. (The infantry was led  by General John Reynolds, the Pennsylvanian who would be killed during the  initial engagement. His statue is behind Buford’s, black and looming in the  night.) By the end of it, even having had to abandon the town, the Union line  had formed its “fish hook” on the high ground south of where I was standing  until, eventually, out of high hubris or molten ambition, Robert E. Lee threw  his army at it on the third day and watched it smash itself into a bloody spray  like waves against rocks. All of that happened here, somewhere out there in the  dark and the mist, the gray marble statues now moving like ghosts whenever the  lights of a car come pouring down Route 30.

The trip through Pennsylvania and Virginia along Route 81 is a sojourn down a  long strip of heavily memorialized scar tissue. You pass not far from Antietam  and Harper’s Ferry. You go directly through Winchester, which changed hands more  than practically any other town in the war, the place that Phil Sheridan finally  used it as a base from which he could burn the Shenandoah Valley down. You get  to see all of this because a guy who retired to live just down Route 30 from  Buford’s statue, a former general from another war named Dwight Eisenhower,  decided that America needed to buy itself an interstate highway system, and  that’s what he had the country do, because it was one country and that’s what it  needed.

But at midnight, with everything in shadows and fog, on a night suddenly gone  moonless, this is a good place to count the cost of the argument that comes from  the other direction. In this campaign, for the very first time in my lifetime,  in a dozen different ways, we are re-litigating in an election the issues that  were decided in these shrouded hills. It began with Rick Perry, talking about  secession and not laughing at all about it. It continued with Michele Bachmann  and Rick Santorum and Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, the latter of which has gotten  rich writing meretricious potboilers about the events that took place in these  fields, talking quite proudly about their devotion to state sovereignty and the  10th Amendment. (And you fans of his make no mistake about it. Crazy Uncle  Liberty Ron Paul — ! — would have been rooting the other way here 150 years  ago.) This impassioned rhetoric, and the deeply held belief in a philosophy so  steeped in blood and disunion, has its present manifestation in the fact that  the Republican ticket is committed to the notion that there simply is no such  thing as a political commonwealth. We are a universe of individual  entrepreneurs, revolving in our own orbits, our every success a small bit of  revolution against the dead hand of The Government, a fundamental disavowal of  the basic fact that The Government is, in fact, us. Of all the obtuse denialism  that is marbled through Republican politics these days — denial of science,  denial of the empirical, denial of simple economics — this is the denialism that  has the longest and most poisonous history.

American conservatism has been playing footsie with polite sedition for going  on four decades now. In the south, prominent politicians enjoyed the company of  the white nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens until Trent Lott got  caught enjoying it too much one night and (very briefly) had to leave the U.S.  Senate. Republican congresscritters regularly showed up at meeting of the  various militia movements out west. The Republican Party is shot through now  with an impulse to disunion that is almost an autonomic reflex at this point.  Every solution they can offer has behind it the iron certainty that we are  better off as individuals, that the nation best operates as a simple, loose  framework within which those individuals can operate, and not as something we  create together so that our individual achievements can be rooted in something  greater than ourselves. Somewhere out there in the dark, far beyond Buford’s  statue, Abraham Lincoln came to this town, the blood still staining the rocks of  the Devil’s Den and the long fields over which Pickett charged, and he tried to  make that point to a country engaged in the solemn act of disemboweling itself  with musket balls and grapeshot. This is what he said:

It is for us  the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who  fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here  dedicated to the great task remaining before us-that from these honored dead we  take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure  of devotion-that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in  vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom- and that  government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from  the earth.

Over three days next week, the Republican party, because it can do nothing  else anymore, will rise as one in rebuttal. Tuesday night is going to be We  Built This night, as though poor old Ike and his highways had nothing to do with  your ability to get your widgets to market. They will talk about “freedom” a  lot, but not in the sense that Lincoln spoke about it here — as something  protected by the willed act of a people to govern themselves. As I said, the old  battlefield is an interesting place to be at midnight, with the moon gone down  behind the hills and the fog rolling in and the imagination active and roaming  through the dark and echoing fields. This, you think, is a place to put an army.  This, you think, is a ground to fight on.

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