Should We Celebrate The Civil War With Hot Dogs and Fireworks?

One of my favorite blog posts from the exceptional Ta-Nehisi Coates is one from last spring where he made the case for chucking the common wisdom, according to which the Civil War should be thought of as “tragic” and instead argued we should celebrate it the way we do the Revolutionary War. The whole provocative post is must read:

 Six hundred thousand people died in the Civil War, a shocking figure which doesn’t really capture the toll that this sort of violence took on the country at large. And yet when I think about the Civil War I don’t feel sad at all. To be honest, I feel positively fucking giddy.
And I don’t think I’m abnormal because of this. Twenty-two thousand people died in the Revolutionary War, and we celebrate that with hot dogs and hamburgers every year. I’m sure that while Jews feel fairly horrible that the Holocaust happened, very few of them consider the fighting it took in order to liberate the death camps, “tragic.” The Holocaust is tragic. Ending the Holocaust is not.
In that fashion, from my perspective, the most trenchant facts of the Civil War are not that it turned “brother against brother,” or that it produced a plethora of great military minds, or even that it produced arguably our greatest leaders.
It’s really simple for me. One group of Americans attempted to raise a country on property in Negroes. Another group of Americans, many of them Negroes themselves, stopped them. As surely as we lack the ability to see tragedy in violently throwing off the yoke of the English, I lack the ability to see tragedy in violently throwing off the yoke of slaveholders.
For most Americans, the Civil War is a sudden outbreak of a existential violence. But for 250 years, African-Americans lived in slavery–which is to say perpetual existential violence. I don’t know what else to call a system that involves the constant threat of your children, your parents, your grandparents, being sold off, never for you to see them again. That is death.
He continued the discussion in follow up posts in dialogue with critics throughout last year. They were posts on April 26April 28, August 16August 17, August 23, September 2September 12, December 6December 9.
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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • TJR

    Isn’t he arguing against himself? If you think the ACW was good as it helped to finally end slavery in N America, then surely you should also think that the AWI was bad as it allowed that slavery to last a lot longer than it would otherwise have done?

  • BenSix

    If you think the Civil War was a just and valuable one – I’m neutral on the question, knowing so little about it – you might think it was a necessary tragedy but it was tragic nonetheless. As, indeed, was the Second World War (not fought to “liberate the death camps”, by the way, as fine a by-product of invading Germany that was!). Such wars might have been more desireable than the alternatives but it’s tragic that their combatants, and all the poor souls who were in their crossfire, were left with such a miserable choice of options.

  • James Sweet

    We don’t celebrate the Revolutionary War per se with hot dogs and fireworks, we celebrate the Declaration of Independence. I don’t think I’m entirely splitting hairs here, either. It’s not merely historical coincidence that we celebrate Independence Day on July 4th rather than on April 19th.

    I was going to suggest that what Coates really wants is Emancipation Day, but of course then I looked it up and realized that would be New Year’s Day. D’oh.

    Still, I think it’s a great and provocative point.

  • Aaron

    James, they do celebrate the Revolutionary War with baseball, hot dogs and a marathon in Massachusetts every April 19, Patriots’ Day. And Rhode Island celebrates the end of World War II with Victory Day, which, according to a resolution, “is not a day to express satisfaction in the destruction and death caused by nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” So, I don’t know if it’s supposed to be relief for the war ending or joy over winning it, but people are usually pretty happy that day.

  • Aaron

    Personally, I think the real importance of the war has been lost on people, especially Republicans and youngsters (for different reasons).

    It’s truly pathetic that the so-called Party of Lincoln is trying to be neo-Confederate. If that party, or at least that wing of it, were to be permanently turned into a tiny minority again, I’d be all for celebrating victory with a Civil War holiday. Right now, it feels like we’ve lost.

    Oh, and technically, you could say Thanksgiving is a Civil War holiday. The first national one was declared by Lincoln. And it’s a day for football and turkey.

  • Aaron

    I think that, until W. became president, the reason I was so fascinated by the Civil War is that it was a classic example of our better angels winning out over irrational fear and hatred. It was something solemn and horrible, because of the destruction, yet worth celebrating and being excited about, because of what it did for the country and the world.