Sunday, November 9, 2014

Narrowing Public Debate: Political Narrative as Fact

For ordering his men at Gettysburg to keep firing at over 10,000 Virginian infantrymen in what is now known as Pickett’s Charge, Alonzo Cushing—who died in the battle—was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama on November 6, 2014. As a result of that charge, Pickett lost his entire division. In the 1984 film, Gettysburg, General Lee tells Pickett after the battle to look after his division. “General Lee,” Pickett declares, “I have no division.” Suddenly Lee is confronted with the true magnitude of his military blunders at Gettysburg. 

From this point of view, Cushing’s military honor looks rather different than from Obama’s point of view. As conveyed by the media, that vantage point enjoyed a virtual monopoly, and thus the interpretation could easily be taken as true rather than relative. I submit that much from the political discourse as sourced or conveyed by the media is projected as truth when it is highly subjective and thus subject to question and debate.

At the ceremony, President Obama said, “I’m mindful that I might not be standing here today as president, had it not been for the ultimate sacrifices of those courageous Americans.”[1] Hardly a partisan comment, the statement is nonetheless partial even if it seems indisputably true. Firstly, whereas Lincoln referred to all of the fallen when he spoke at Gettysburg to commemorate the national cemetery, Obama was likely referring only to the Union troops. What of the courageous men under Pickett who walked more than a mile over open field as canon-fire came from the hills on the sides and from directly ahead where the Union’s artillery fired shots from behind a stone wall? Considering that the entire division was slaughtered during that “charge,” is it even ethical to honor a man who ordered his troops to keep shooting? My point is that what we take as a given may be anything but.

Even the Union’s battle cry during the CSA-USA war that the USA would cease to exist should it lose the war is faulty. The CSA never put a claim on the states that remained with the Union, or the Union itself; rather, the Confederate states formed their own federal system. So it is erroneous to claim that the U.S. would not exist in the twenty-first century had the Union army not beaten the CSA in 1865. So it is odd that Barack Obama thought he would not be president. If he was referring to his multi-racial makeup, the U.S. without the “Southern” states would hardly be more racist in the twenty-first century.

I realize that the winner of a war gets to write the history, but that account should at least be coherent. Even such an account would be partial, but it would be conveyed as tantamount to fact by the source as well as the media. I submit that both elected officials and journalists have an ethical responsibility to represent partial or ideological statements as such. For example, the media could add alternative takes in the reportage, hence widening the window of interpretations held to be viable. In short, I contend that the American political discourse tends to be very narrow, especially when possible policy prescriptions are being debated. Having a duopoly of two major parties contributes to this tunnel vision, but so too does the confounding of partial and full accounts by candidates, elected officials, and the media.

[1] Gregory Korte, “Union Soldier Honored for Gallantry at Gettysburg,” USA Today, November 7-9, 2014.