Look, the truth is that this is an argument in search of someone to be argued at; it's the kind of stance you take when you're most interested in sorting actors rather than defining correct action. There's no answer to whether the Civil War was tragic because the question is embedded in shifting definitions. It is a semantic argument that pays too little attention to semantics. I'm consistently disappointed that he doesn't spend more time considering the classic definition of tragedy, that the tragic is the downfall that springs from character, that tragedy occurs because there is some failing within the tragic character (here the United States) which makes that tragedy inevitable. In this sense I would say that the Civil War is precisely tragic: given the character of the early United States, it was both inevitable and necessary. That equality was codified in so many of our foundational texts while simultaneously denied to many millions of the country's people isn't merely an ugly contradiction but one which made violent correction inevitable. And it is the same elementary truth that constantly plays out in our conduct today: the United States pays lip service to a set of righteous values while acting in a way totally contrary to those values, and expects the world to judge it by the values and not the action. Killing innocent children with drones while we claim to hold values that renders that conduct unspeakable is how we operate. The Civil War killed 600,000 people because of the hypocrisy that is the living definition of the American heart; that same hypocrisy kills today. You could call that tragic. I don't know if I'd go along with you but I'm damn sure I wouldn't peer down from the mountain and declare monstrosity.
As I said, given the United States's character, the Civil War was inevitable, and given the alternatives, the war was preferable to the continuation of the violent apartheid state that existed. But the United States didn't have to have that character; that history unfolded in the way it did could itself be regarded as tragic.This is the problem with the way the blogosphere conditions Internet liberals to seek favor from one another: they're constantly looking for crosses to die on, boundaries of the acceptable that they can define and place themselves on the correct side of. In doing so, they dramatically shrink the bounds of the possible. So when Adam Serwer insists the moral equivalence of pacifism and barbarism, he does so by denying that there is an actual path of peace within the possible. But most of the evil in the world isn't done by people who know that they're committing evil. Most is done by people who think that they are the ones protecting the innocent from barbarism. It's practically tautological the way critics of pacifism insist violence is inevitable and thus must be opposed with same. Keep looking for it and you will always find it.
Perhaps whether the slaves could have been freed without bloodshed is just fodder for the dorm room. That the slavery state must have been ended is obvious, and given the past we've got, I much prefer the war to the continuation of slavery. But once you ask the question you invite the counterfactual, and any action undertaken by humans could have been replaced by better action.
I mean, Coates drops this.
"Slavery was an actual thing. All else is garnish."
If your primary interest in writing is to come up with zingers, this is satisfying. If not, less. If all of that is garnish, why are we here? Didn't I just read some of that garnish? What's the buzz? If this is all garnish, what's the point? Why is he writing it and not out enjoying life? Or has it only been rendered garnish by his declaration that the conflict is solved and the issue decided? I can't find a coherent reading of that other than "I, Ta-Nehisi Coates, have taken the tasty and filling lettuce that was this argument and rendered it shameful parsley through the benevolent powers of my mind." If you're just in the garage working out truth, without letting the rest of us see the moving parts, keep it to yourself. There's no value in it. Garnish is garnish on anyone's plate. Take it from a bullshitter: that line is bullshit. It mocks those who take the argument of which it is a part seriously. It congratulates its author for his position while it mocks those who are following along.
Coates has always struck me as a man who accesses nuance out of a desire to be given credit for it. But the trick isn't to wade through nuance like it's a swamp but to reside there, to rest in the discomfort of negative capability and accept a certain indeterminacy as the sad reality of the life of the mind. But you've got to be cool with wading alongside everybody else, and if there's one thing that Coates's corpus suggests to me, it's that he's unwilling to accept standing on the same morally queasy level as anybody else. He's self-critical, and to his credit, but he's not willing to be covered in the same grime of dirty argument that the people he's criticizing are.
It is a privilege to view the Civil War merely as four violent years, as opposed to the final liberating act in a two and half century-long saga of horrific violence, a privilege that black people have never enjoyed, and truthfully that no one in this country should indulge.It's also a privilege to be able to reduce those for four violent years to the phrase "four violent years" rather than to lie dead in the mud during them. If one person dies in the commission of good, that is evil. That it happened to end another evil, that we often have to chose one evil over another, that calling two seemingly opposing actions both evil is so unsatisfying-- this is what we call the human dilemma. If you want to define terms so that the Civil War isn't tragic, go right ahead; it's your dime.
I just see no service, public or private, in regarding a question as vexing and vexed but insisting on arriving at an untroubled answer, and worse, for casting the cheap currency of privilege onto those who aren't similarly self-assured. I'm sure it's fun to abide above the fray like a Buddha but frankly I always found the idea unpalatable. The process of edifying oneself is important. To set it against edifying those who are reading you is a cynical, cynical thing to do. Maybe I just expect too much in thinking that putting something in a public forum means that you're willing to give a little of yourself and to accept the equal humanity of equivalent questions. The thing about real, profound, intractable problems is that there is no percentage in merely being right about them. But if your preference is to occupy wisdom rather than merely working with others to spread it, cool. Just don't expect everyone to watch you play by yourself. There's a lot of living to do out here.