them’s fightin’ words

I grew up in a small city in south-central Virginia called Petersurg. Whenever I mention this to folks, if they know right off where Petersburg is, I can almost rightly assume that they’re Civil War buffs. Petersburg was the site of a fairly famous battle during that conflict. If you’ve seen the movie “Cold Mountain”, you’ve seen it reenacted.

Growing up in Virginia, I learned all about the Civil War in school. The Civil War, the War Between the States, the North against the South. It went by several monikers, perhaps one of the more interesting being “The War of Northern Aggression”. I like this one the best, mostly because I think it gives a different perspective on this ugly chapter in our country’s history.

I am a southerner (in New England) with branches on my family tree that reach all the way back to those times, but make no mistake, I’m not one still flying the Confederate flag and waiting for the South to rise up again. We’re often taught that the major reason for the War was slavery and surely this is an institution I’d never condone. I could be persuaded to take up the fight for secession for other reasons, but this isn’t one of them. [As an aside, slaves were of course owned by many living north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but the ideas (and ideals) we fight for need not nor do not necessarily match our own behavior (see the current conflict in Iraq).]

I bring up my hometown today because it was on this day, April 2, 1865, that the Union finally took Petersburg. General Grant rode into town, President Jefferson Davis fled the capital city of Richmond just up the road, and it was only a matter of time before they all met upriver at the Appomattox Courthouse and called the whole thing off.

I read this bit of historical trivia the other day and it got me to thinking about what happens to people, places and things when other people, places and things encroach upon them. The War of Northern Aggression was one in which – for better or worse – one group of people and/or one set of ideas invaded and imposed themselves upon another group of people and/or set of ideas. Putting aside for the moment who the people were and/or what the ideas were, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch for anyone to appreciate the feelings that come with having something or someone move in, push aside, and take over a world that is familiar, a world that is comfortable, a world that is home. Granted, if you’re being held in prison and someone barges in to liberate you, you might well be grateful for such behavior. But that’s not exactly what I’m describing.

More and more lately I recognize forces (and subsequently experience certain associated feelings) moving in on a world that I firmly believe has merit. Yet despite the good it possesses, it’s being trampled. Taking into account my professional life (academic libraries), I laughed to myself this morning when I awoke with the thought of “The War of Administrative Aggression” in my head. Libraries are losing ground it seems, pushed aside and trampled over, literally and figuratively, by greater powers. Technology encroaches upon every aspect of our lives, privacy has been overtaken by the public, self-interest has won out over common good, and selfish greed, disguised in a thousand different costumes, has utterly trumped every other value we once held important.

Maybe this is more cynical and pessimistic than I truly am or care to be, but it does seem at times that those of us who still believe in the better side of humanity – or perhaps simply in humanity itself – are fighting a losing battle. It took (is still taking?) many long years to heal the schism of our country’s war within itself, physically and emotionally. It is difficult to be overtaken and harder still to let go. But sometimes – I believe – there truly are things worth fighting for, even if and when everything and everyone around us is telling us it’s a lost cause.

And for those things, I’ll rise up again.

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