This Civil War Been Cold and This Normal Ain’t New
Cops were already shooting black people in the streets before the election of President Trump. Confederate flags were already waving in the South, over statehouses, and on countless bumper stickers; the Confederate generals of Monument Avenue still stood silent vigil over their old capital; Black wealth has eroded even as we celebrate the accomplishments of the first Black president — it’s all been happening and, sadly enough, it’s all quite ordinary.
But with the election of the first openly bigoted President in decades, old wounds have reopened, wounds going back to the days of the Freedman’s Bureau when the victorious North used the lives of black people to justify their pillage of Southern resources. When the Northern armies finally went back home, they left black bodies to absorb the brunt of the South’s furious vengeance.
We’ve been playing out some version of this since the days of Lincoln and DuBois. You can find eloquent summaries of the lofty intentions and lowly outcomes of post-War Reconstruction in the “Souls of Black Folk.” Time, if not a flat circle, is at least a predictable spiral where the consequences of actions play out over generations. Though from our limited perspective, it can seem as if great, unprecedented changes are constantly underway.
If you’re paying attention to the news (and I forgive you if you’re not), you’re seeing what appears to be a rise in hate crimes against, in particular, Muslims, and those who “resemble” them. You’re seeing black men and women shot by the police for minor offenses or no offense whatsoever. You see crowds of angry white people holding signs saying “Make America Great Again” and the message couldn’t be any clearer: make it white, they say, make it white again.
But its the nature of the media to do this: to offer up images that will compel us to watch, tapping into our instinct to pay attention to danger and upheaval. Is there an uptick in violence? What constitutes it? How do we define these nebulous shifts in behavior? Perhaps my simply asking these questions maddens a few readers because they seem to want to dodge what they perceive as obvious truth. But, personally, I do not think more Black people are being killed or Muslims harassed. I may feel that way, but thinking depends on evidence, not anecdote. I think the media is telling these stories more often but the truth is — this is how it’s been since 911 in many parts of the country. Moreover, historically, Black people, Muslims, minorities, women, and immigrants have all been catching unrelenting hell since the beginning of this country. Likewise, racist white people, poor often-racist white people to be exact, have bought the lie for generations that somehow their poverty and disenfranchisement is ameliorated by their complexion.
Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both came to this late in their careers — before being silenced violently. Both had awakened to the common suffering of humanity across demographics and the part excessive capitalism played. It’s the realization that our enmity is based on commonly held lies. We view our conflict through the lens of binaries — black/white, native/immigrant, men/women — instead of examining the real people behind the rhetoric of their so-called representatives.
What do we hear on the left when we hear “Make America great again?” Do we not hear the genuine pain and terror at the crumbling prospect for life in the middle of America? The panic that makes people susceptible to irrational thinking? A tough-talking rich guy shows up and tells you he’s going to look out for you? Emotionally, it’s an undeniable appeal. Meanwhile on the left we’re telling them you better get educated, find a job in computers; your factory jobs are never coming back. We might be telling the truth, but it’s not a truth these folks are lining up to swallow. No, the left instead hears only, only, “make America white again.” I’m not saying there aren’t a lot of folks on the right who feel that way, but it’s not a tangible reality that can ever be attained. So why are we twisting ourselves into knots on the left over nightmare scenarios that, mathematically, are total fantasy.
We’re guilty on the left of seeking easy answers, just as often as on the right (no not saying our all our arguments are equivalent, but our laziness, sure). I’m already exhausted with Monday morning quarterbacks and their analysis of why Hillary lost, why Bernie could have one (despite earning less popular votes than Clinton, whatever), and how three quarters of the country could either give entirely no fucks (49%) or vote for Trump (25%).
The pundits didn’t know, the pollsters didn’t know, and we armchair intellectuals have nary a fucking clue as well. We’re not even genuinely interested in finding out why we were wrong from what I can see. It’s more interesting and cathartic to protest, deny the legitimacy of the election, and comfort ourselves that if only those red-state Luddites would just get in formation, we’d be living in single-payer utopia.
I don’t think that’s how democracy works folks and I don’t think it ever will. We’re going to have to learn to accept alternate worldview in order to have a conversation. You think the Muslim world is foreign to the West, try moving from NY to KY — American culture is not as uniform as we would like to believe. Our states are the size of some countries.
We have to accept that hearing someone out doesn’t mean validating them. I can hear out someone who believes the Civil War was fought over state’s rights and nothing more (absurd, but ok), and I can disagree. But moreover, we can and should go beyond the mythologies and get down to the matter — what do you want now? Is it all rooted in the oppression of people who don’t look like you, fuck like you, pray like you, or are there some valid points? We have to have these conversations individually because Congress follows our lead, never the reverse, and there’s no such thing as a collective conversation (that’s called babble).
It’s not enough to protest, we have to debate. Real debates. Not soundbite against soundbite, but argument against argument. We have to remove our personalities and focus on the ideas that animate them. It’s difficult and not as sexy as revolution, but it’s the necessary mechanics of democratic governance. But we don’t debate anymore, do we? We shout at each other. We passive aggressively vote in candidates we know our counterparts will not stand and then gloat. It’s all very childish when aggregated.
One side is going to have to decide to grow up. One side is going to have to be the big brother (go ahead and take it that way, whatever) and say to the wayward child, “Tell me what’s really wrong with you and let’s figure out how you can have what you want and I can have what I want.” Oppression is off the table. Nobody is standing for it, but can the left accept that those on the right can feel oppression as well? Can we acknowledge the humanity of our counterparts instead of calcifying our worldview into one of allies who must always be agreeable and enemies who must always be destroyed?