Diamonds and Civil Wars are Forever
Is the Trump Regime the Latest Installment in the American Civil War?
I have this crazy theory the civil wars never end. Wars between nation states, like the Second World War, or even prolonged and messy affairs like the Hundred Years War or the Vietnam War, clearly eventually end. The combatants eventually move on and begin speaking to each other again, doing business, and respecting the right of the other side to exist. Sometimes the first war doesn’t really fix the problem (say, the First World War), but there comes a time when the former combatants realize that they really have no beef with each other any more.
My theory is that with Civil Wars this doesn’t happen. Bear with me, I only thought of this a couple of hours ago.
For instance, the divisions of the English Civil War, over since 1651, are (if you are in the business of massive generalizations, which I am), still visible in English society today. The UK Conservative Party retain a strong element of the aristocratic, royalist, cavalier spirit. An English ‘High Tory’ is still something of a Dandy, especially compared with the dull puritanism of an American far-right Republican. With a Saville Row suit and swept back hair, the more aristocratic the Tory, the more they have licence to portray a windswept eccentricity. They are the party of the ruling class, the party that believes an elite that by and large is educated, lives and works entirely separately from the rest of the population, has the right to govern. The Labour Party, with apparently brief interludes of trying to turn themselves into a center-right social democratic party with all the worst characteristics of the Tories, tend towards a dour, puritanical form of socialism. It’s very difficult to envisage anybody on the current Labour front bench being much fun to sit next to at a dinner party. Both sides are unable to tolerate the existence of the other. They don’t seek compromise, they seek the removal of the entire ideology represented by the opposition from existence. It’s civil war without bullets, and has been for generations.
The divisions are so great that politics informs everything about most British citizens. A supporter of a left wing party will find it hard to be friends with a Tory, but then again you may not even meet that often, your world’s overlap so little. Your clothes, your shoes, your car, the music you listen to, above all your accent, all give a clear indication of social and geographic origin and therefore likely political opinion. In a world where everything is a shibboleth, it’s very easy to avoid meeting your enemies face to face.
With the American Civil War, the one thing that is hardly in doubt is that the war didn’t settle very much, other than that there is no realistic legal mechanism by which a US state can ever stop being a US state. If it’s perceived as a war to end black oppression, the perception falls down on the fact that oppression (obviously) and slavery (under the guise of the state prison services) long survived the civil war, and are still going strong today. The slave prison labor of the vast federal and state US prison services, overwhelmingly black, produces entire industries-worth of product. For instance, if you paint your walls in North America, you are probably decorating with paint made by black American slaves. It has been shown by Douglas Blackmon in his book Slavery by Another Name, that the judicial system post Reconstruction was highly aware of this fact … the number of arrests and convictions of African Americans in the south directly correlated with the needs of industry for slave labor.
But even taking prison labor out of the equation, the degree to which African American citizens were free after the Civil War was a matter of degree. With rigidly enforced laws to prevent black voting and carefully controlled indentured servitude and restrictions on free movement between employers, a southern African American was only a little more free between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement than she was before the Civil War.
Today, everything about current American politics is still informed by the history of the USA since the Civil War. It is still the progressive urban north against rural conservative south, even if a coastal city versus rural inland characterization might be an even better. It’s still the ideology of white, male, protestant, Christians against other races, genders and religions. It’s still about the refusal to compromise hereditary privileges based on skin color for the sake of others access to a modicum of power, wealth or influence.
And it’s still much closer to civil war than democratic debate. There is no common ground in American politics. The underlying aspects that were perhaps at least partly hidden between the era of Civil Rights and George W. Bush are now on full display. There is no acceptance of one’s opponent to appear on the political stage. Your enemy deserves no respect, no countenance, no understanding, no toleration. Any behavior that furthers the destruction of your enemy is acceptable — lies, personal attacks, slander, fear-mongering. A victory in American politics would not be a new consensus, but the removal of the opposition from existence and the total success of the core party ideology.
What is most surprising about the current developments is how superficial a dedication to the democratic process there appears to be in the worsening conflict between right and left. How eagerly many Republicans were to dispense with lifelong enmities (“Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”) when given the word, and adopt admiration of Vladimir Putin almost without comment (“The USA’s friend is Russia: the USA’s friend has always been Russia”).
So what does this all mean for the present and future of the USA? Perhaps it would just be helpful to recognise the depth of the divides in US society, rather than pretend that even an election that swept Trump from power would resolve the underlying divides. The US is undergoing a kind of civil war, and we just have to hope that neither side decides to break out the storehouses of guns held in private hands. In other nations there might be a movement to secede. After all, why do the United States need to be united? But dislike of any suggestion of independence and secession are perhaps the one thing that most Americans can agree about. Furthermore, as already mentioned, the one thing the ‘first’ civil war established beyond doubt was that there is no mechanism for states to secede legally and peacefully from the union. It therefore seems vanishingly unlikely that American citizens who have almost nothing in common but the flag they live under will decide to go their separate ways.
Nevertheless, according to the usual criteria for what makes a nation state, what holds the USA together? A resident of Portland, Oregon, and a (white) resident of rural Alabama see their ideal American nationhood as characterised by fundamentally different qualities. The divides are at least as great as those of the populations of many independent nations. Meanwhile, generations of religious intolerance, racism and homophobia have meant that children that don’t conform to the norms of Southern Baptist orthodoxy have simply moved en-masse to the progressive secular cities where they can live freely and openly. This has created an ever-increasing concentration of straight, white, religious intolerance in rural, central and southern states, and multiracial, pan-sexual, secular tolerance in the coastal and northern cities. What remains to keep these places tied together as a nation with a shared vision of the future?
The American divide is located today, both geographically and intellectually, where it was in 1861. The division between rural, urban, fundamentalist Christian and secular American states are older still, clearly present in the discussions of the founding fathers and even land envisioned by the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. Today’s polarized politics are just the latest extension to a divide that is as old as the nation.
At what point to you give up on a broken national identity? When do you say, if extreme religious zealots want to live in a theocratic state — why not let them, as long as they leave the rest of us the hell alone? As long at that means a non-religious, racially diverse, sexually liberated, progressive welfare state can also exist for those that have clearly chosen it, would that be so bad? If rural Christians insist on a restrictive, theocratic, isolationist and ‘small’ government, and show that preference over generations, does democracy serve them well if they periodically find that form of government denied them? When does a nation stop being a nation, and start thinking — ‘maybe we’d be better off going it alone’?
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