A house divided against itself cannot stand. It’s a biblical precept most famously quoted by Abraham Lincoln on the eve of one of the darkest chapters in American history. Lincoln invoked the phrase two years before the war as something of a prophecy of things to come. He predicted, accurately, that cultural differences as stark as those that existed between the free states and slave states could not continue indefinitely in a single nation. I wonder if Lincoln imagined even then the amount of blood and treasure it would take to beat one side into submission, because regardless of how one feels about the cause of the southern states, that is what happened, and the cost was high. More Americans died in the first civil war than in both World Wars and Vietnam COMBINED. War is ugly, and civil war is doubly so. Whether the good obtained, an end to slavery, was worth the cost is a question for priests and philosophers and one I will not answer here. What I will say is that if I were in Lincoln’s position, I would probably have allowed the nation to peacefully dissolve then and there, not because of subsequent history. Indeed, given the USA’s importance in the subsequent century, it’s continued existence almost certainly benefitted the greater world. No, I would let the union dissolve then because of what I consider to be greater truths, human nature is immutable, actions have consequences, and a man with a gun to his head may do what he’s told, but that doesn’t mean he likes you.
Historically speaking, war doesn’t solve most problems. There are a few occasions where it does work. When the problem is a single man or a small group of people who, through some combination of charisma, guile, cunning, and luck manage to acquire great power, war is an excellent solution. One has only to expend enough power to remove said group. In a less enlightened technological age, this happened quite regularly. Most lands had some equivalent of a king and if his personality was strong enough, he governed by his own wit, or if rather he lacked in intelligence or will, some adviser or group behind the throne wielded real power. In either case, getting rid of the problem is as easy as getting rid of the man, and the two most common methods were assassination and war, and those familiar with history will know that both were far commoner than they are now. In the modern world, this is less common, but it can and has happened, in Nazi Germany for example, where a relatively small group of fringe politicians took advantage of a weak government and unique historical conditions to hijack an entire nation, turn it into a war machine, then unleashed it on the world. Imperial Japan was similarly controlled by a small group of military officials who held sway over the emperor who was regarded as a demigod. War wrapped up those problems quite nicely. The architects of Nazi Germany were killed, jailed, or driven into exile while the Emperor of Japan changed his mind when confronted with certain defeat and possible complete destruction, surrendering on the sole condition of his retaining his title, a condition necessary for his people to accept defeat. These are the exceptions and not the rule.
On the other hand, wars over religion, or culture, or race, or anything else more complicated than the whims of a few individuals never fix anything. A number of crusades were fought, nominally to free the holy land but more accurately as a counteroffensive to the advance of Islamic empires in the previous several centuries. Historians can and do argue ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, but neither side eliminated the other completely. Both Islam and Christianity remain to this day, and thanks to the vagaries of history and the short human lifespan, the once warred over holy land is now occupied by neither faction, but by the nation of Israel, which claims descent from a group that occupied that same area earlier still. Later on, many, many more wars were fought between Catholics and Protestants within Christianity, yet neither faction ever eliminated the heretics. Both factions remain, having decided, reasonably, that whatever differences may have existed, violence would not resolve them. One can look all over the world where these differences exist or have existed, Sunni and Shia, Hindu and Muslim, Hutu and Tutsi, etc. Has anybody ever successfully eliminated a culture, religion, or even a political difference, permanently, through war, ever? Our own civil war probably qualifies as the nearest thing to a victory. The slaves were freed and slavery was permanently ended in America. That was the goal, but we shouldn’t forget it wasn’t the ONLY goal. The north also wanted to permanently change southern culture away from its agrarian, plantation roots. They wanted to ensure that the newly freed slaves were educated and treated equally. The tool to achieve this goal was Reconstruction, an expensive and ultimately futile project which was almost universally opposed by the defeated white southerners through any and all methods short of violence, and which was ultimately abandoned twelve years later as part of a political compromise to resolve a disputed election, an afterthought for an exhausted north tired of spending money and political energy on it. The lesson to be learned here should be familiar to my generation. Nation building doesn’t work anywhere. Whether white, black, brown, or otherwise, people are still people. The Arab Spring failed because democracy doesn’t magically change people. Populations with large majorities of religious fundamentalists elected predictably fundamentalist leaders which was much worse for us than the military strongmen who were overthrown. You can’t make radical jihadists of the 2000’s into moderates any more than the reconstructionists could make southerners of the 1860’s be less racist. It doesn’t work that way. It never has. When, if ever, will humanity learn the lesson.
Why, you ask, write about this now? Because I see commercials advertising “end racism”. That’s nice and all, but why stop there? Why not “end greed”, “end violence”, “end crime”? It’s absurd on its face that any thinking, rational adult should entertain such a vapid statement of vague good intentions as useful or meaningful. It’s the public advocacy equivalent of a Disney fairy tale, a feel good story for innocent children who must be sheltered and protected from the harsher truths of the world. We shelter our children because they are young, still developing, and not yet ready physically or mentally for the sometimes cruelty and evil of the world. We should not, however, delude ourselves. There will never be an end to racism, any more than there’s an end to violence, or greed, or envy, or any of a number of other ugly human traits. Such is the nature of humanity, and it is immutable. Now, one could, of course, argue that I’m simply not considering all the alternatives. After all, if there were no racist people, that would end racism. Perhaps, if you believe, as some do, that tribalism and discrimination are not hard coded into our biology at a genetic level, then the task would simply be a matter of eliminating every racist person. Well, eliminating an entire group of people, even millions of them, has, in fact, been attempted before, but genocide, like war, has yet to prove successful. Now purging people because of their views is not the same as purging based on race, and one need not actually *gasp* kill people, just silence them to be sure their evil ideas don’t spread. Alas, this too has proven futile on every occasion. The various gulags and re-education camps of the last century did not eliminate the capitalist plague. Yet, some forlorn few are still attempting such solutions, like a certain nation which finds the Islamic values of a small portion of a distant province to be inconvenient to its totalitarian value system. One might have hoped after the defeats of the twentieth century, totalitarians everywhere might have learned the lesson and adapted more practical tactics, but alas, that elusive utopia where everybody agrees and nobody rocks the boat is too sweet a candy for too many to resist, and the harsh truth a pill too jagged and bitter to swallow. The truth is that there is no such thing as utopia, communist, capitalist, or otherwise. There never has been and never will be. It’s as much a fiction as pink unicorns, though unlike pink unicorns and fire breathing dragons, the lure of utopia is no innocent escape. It can, has, and will continue to inflict great suffering on a great many people simply because some people will go to great, great lengths to preserve their own delusions.
I write this now because, a month after the election, I see a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth from both sides. There’s a lot of division in this country. To put it another way, America is, as it always has been, a very diverse and multicultural nation. In most places, nations exist where cultures exist. Germany is a country. German is also a language, a culture, a people. The same could be said of France, Japan, or Russia. Most nations share a common history, nationality, and language. They share a set of values. They retain their identities as a member of those peoples even if they don’t happen to live within the current borders of the actual country. Not so for America. There is no unifying nationality, ethnicity, or religion. Our language, English, was borrowed from an older nation. America was a colony of England that declared itself a nation by fiat, and fought a war to gain independence, (which, actually, is probably one of the few things wars can accomplish). Never before had any such thing been attempted. Oh, there had been rebellions before, of conquered nations and peoples who rose up against their conquerors, of one religious faction against another, or one cadre of nobles against another, but the attempt to create a nation where none had ever existed was something new. The thirteen colonies that became the United States were already very different from one another in culture and values. Americans were largely, but not exclusively, English. There were large numbers of Germans, Dutch, French, Scotch, etc. as well. Those distinctions used to matter more. There was no black vs. white as most races agreed on the superiority of their own race back then. Still, even within the world of ‘whites only’, the founding fathers anticipated the fact that the country they were making would forever be one of widespread disagreement. That’s why our government was, and remains, so much more byzantine and opaque than most of the democracies of Europe or elsewhere. The Germans have a shared heritage, language, and culture that goes back further than the history of Germany itself to fall back on. America does not and this was known and planned for from the very start. It was anticipated by the founding fathers from the very beginning that the people of New York and North Carolina would disagree on almost everything at a fundamental level. The complicated government of powers they created, carefully divided and balanced among the three branches of the federal government and the state governments, was designed specifically for a divided nation of diverse parts that don’t agree on much at all.
Everything else came later. The idea of the USA as a unified whole arguably didn’t event exist before the civil war. The union has never been particularly stable, or unified. That’s the aberration, actually. The United States was only ever ‘United’ when they had an enemy to fight. Two World Wars and the Cold War gave everyone a common enemy, and it wasn’t just the US, either. We had allies then, and it’s no coincidence that the divisions within our own nation have occurred as our relations with cold war allies have also decayed. When there is no enemy at the gate to fight, there is little incentive to put aside the differences between us that crop up. We have common threats, this is true, but history would argue plagues only increase things like racism, xenophobia, witch hunts, etc. Plagues, to borrow a political phrase, are dividers, not uniters. Further the ‘existential’ threat of climate change is so complicated most people can barely understand it, let alone unite against it. The problem with nebulous, intangible threats like plagues and weather disasters is that reasonable minds can and do disagree on the level of the threat and what, if anything, can or should be done to mitigate the threat and whether the prescribed remedy is better or worse than simply doing nothing at all. On the other hand, when a foreign leader declares “We will bury you”, it doesn’t take a climate scientist or epidemiologist for the average person to understand the danger. We have Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Stalinist Russia to thank for America’s century of unity. With our enemies defeated, we are now free to turn our considerable wrath upon one another. We’re back to what should be thought of as historical normal for a nation as large and diverse as America. We’re divided because we’re different. There’s nothing wrong with that. America is a huge nation, both geographically and demographically, the fourth largest by area and third by population. We’re a diverse nation. Even the common designation ‘white’ includes descendants of English, Scotch, Irish, German, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Italian, etc. We have been and continue to be a nation of immigrants from one place or another with very little in the way of common heritage. Why should so large and diverse a people agree on anything? Why should politicians expect them to? I would suggest
The recent election reflects this harsh reality. There was no Trump landslide, nor was there any blue wave for Democrats. Neither party is a monolith, either. Each party represents a coalition of different groups and interests and most individuals don’t agree with a single party down the line on every issue. The divisions that exist between Americans are deep, and neither side is anywhere close to a victory. Yet both sides seem to share a similar strategy. Gain control of both Congress and the White House, then ram their agenda down the other side’s throat while they can. This can work in the short term. It’s largely how Obamacare got passed ten years ago. It’s largely how Trump got his tax cut two years ago. But actions have consequences, and every hostile political act demands recrimination. For every one sided bill or executive order that one side passes, the other feels slighted and when they get power, they retaliate. Nobody is even trying to compromise. Nobody is listening to the others side, and every election starts to feel like an existential contest for both sides, which come to think of it, sounds a lot like a civil war, and as long as we’re well balanced, nothing will happen, but if one side ever got a permanent advantage, like say, some extreme Democrats hope to achieve by granting statehood, and two senators, to D.C. and Puerto Rico, well, that changes the calculus, and threatening to submit a large minority to the whims of a hostile enemy permanently. Well, actions have consequences, and when people are threatened with the destruction of their culture and way of life, when their values are assaulted, then no matter how wrongheaded they may be, they will fight. Similar concerns led to the first civil war, but we forget our history, we grow impatient with our countrymen who disagree, and we walk down the same roads again and again. The thing nobody seems to understand is that who’s right and who’s wrong is quite irrelevant. Enforcing conformity to any set of beliefs, cultural, religious, political, or even scientific has a cost, and it’s a very high cost, and I never hear much about that cost in the diatribes of the far right or far left. Oh, they talk about how much the other side’s sins will cost, but never their own, and too many blithely assume the cost will be paid in money. It will cost not only money, but homes, businesses, towns, suffering, and blood.
So what would a civil war look like today? Would it be like the first one, with rival states seceding and staring at each other across an easily identifiable front? I doubt it. A civil war in modern America would be a lot like other civil wars around the world, like Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, etc. There would be fluctuating zones of control, constant low level violence, checkpoints outside major cities, sieges, atrocities, starvation, IED’s, terrorist attacks, crude or not so crude chemical attacks, all the fun things that modern warfare has invented would be happening next door instead of on the news. Some states would remain relatively stable, and others would be split violently. Borders would change with every border skirmish. There would be blue cities under siege in a red countryside toward the middle of the nation, and there would be armies of police sent to secure food for the masses of the urban belts in the northeast. It’s unlikely that our military would take one side or the other in its entirety. Even if it did, it wouldn’t make much difference. Our military could barely handle Iraq’s civil war, and Iraq is a relatively small nation. Our failure there has made us, quite properly, more cautious about intervening in Syria, Yemen, etc. Not to mention that Americans have more guns per capita than any other nation on earth. Think it’s hard rooting out a group of insurgents in a desert in Iraq? Try it in a dense forest in Kentucky, against an enemy with better guns than the Iraqis, better technology, better explosives, and with inside knowledge of military tactics, or if you prefer, fighting in the streets of the inner city against gangs that grew up there amongst a hostile population, again with better guns, tech, and explosives than most foreign insurgents. Clearly, if the decision to go to war was questionable in 1860, when the most advanced weapons were repeating rifles and artillery shells, it is completely insane to even contemplate in our modern age of guerilla warfare, terrorism, homemade explosives, and weapons of mass destruction. The cost of a modern civil war in the USA is so high it would be impossible to calculate, and that’s assuming it stayed confined to the US. How long would it take for Mexico and Canada to be dragged into the conflict? How many other foreign powers would interfere? The first world war started with the assassination of an Austrian Prince by a Serbian separatist. Might a modern civil war in America set off another? Given our position economically and militarily, I think it’s nearly certain. Surely neither banning abortions nor completely eliminating fossil fuels is worth the hundreds of thousands or millions of lives lost. If people really think these causes are worth fighting World War III, then all of us have already lost.
The thing is, it doesn’t have to be like this. Conveniently, we already have the solution to much of our division built into our government. It’s that same complex division of powers that makes our government so slow and inefficient. It’s called federalism, the division of powers between the state and federal level. It’s the electoral college, which is working exactly as intended. It’s the division of Congress into a House of Representatives based on population and a Senate purposefully not. The small population states like Delaware and Georgia feared that they would have no voice in a new government and they refused to sign any constitution with all representation based on population. Lo and behold, over two hundred years later, the exact situation the founders planned for is occurring. If we held a new constitutional convention today, does anyone believe Iowa, Vermont, or Montana would sign onto a document that only allocated representatives by population. The problem is the federal government has too much power, more than it was ever meant to have, more than the founding fathers planned for, because, in their wisdom, they understood that human nature is immutable. Without checks and balances, a small but dense population could dominate a wide area, something common in Europe of that era, or conversely, a small minority with control of crucial strategic locations or resources could overrule the will of the people. They designed a system where neither could easily occur. That’s why our government seems slow, inefficient, and clumsy. It’s also why it still functions at all. It’s nigh impossible to get complete control of the government without broad public support both demographically and geographically, and that’s not a defect, it’s a feature.
For the record, I didn’t vote in this year’s election. I won’t do the math for you, but voting in national elections is akin to spitting in the ocean. Had I voted I would have voted for Biden for President and McConnell for Senate, for approximately the same reason. They both seem old enough and wise enough to still have some respect for the institutions that have held our disparate parts together for two centuries. They both seem to understand that the constitution is a model we should follow, not an obstacle that prevents ‘our side’ from ‘wining’ or ‘getting our way’. The whole idea that we should regard the other party, the other states, the rednecks or city slickers, as enemies is dangerous and we should all be afraid of where that road ends. The election showed how evenly matched the two sides are. Who’s willing to kill or silence approximately half of all Americans to advance their politics? Show of hands? Anybody?
It comes down to leadership. Our leaders, both parties, should understand that there is no such thing as complete victory for either side. Thinking ‘total victory’ is even possible paves the way to more intense politics, worse divisions, and ultimately, the likely violent destruction of the United States. Some argue we’ve already passed that point. For all our sakes, I hope and pray they are wrong. I believe there is still hope, but I also know we cannot venture much further down this road of trading bitter recriminations and paybacks with every change of which party is in the White House or Senate. We can argue about who started it, but somebody has to break the cycle of retribution or it WILL eventually spiral out of control beyond anyone’s ability to stop it. It will take both sides. I hope President Elect Biden and Senator McConnell can restore some semblance of cooperation and competence to our government. I hope they will work together to show that our leaders can still compromise and get things done. They have the tools to do so. They can focus on progress first where there is broad agreement, and then compromise on other issues. The thing about compromise is it won’t make anybody happy, but it will allow us to move forward. It’s no fun, but that’s the responsibility of leadership. There is broad popular support for spending on infrastructure projects like roads, electric grids, and broadband. We have, for the first time in decades, a real enemy on the world stage. The totalitarian government of China is incompatible with the notions of freedom and individual rights that are written into our constitution. We need to invest in technology to win a technology race that is every bit as important of the space race in the 1960’s. We need to bring back at least enough of our manufacturing base so we are no longer dependent on foreign nations which are unfriendly even if not outright hostile. Above all, we need to find the issues we can agree on, act on them, and try our best to allow each other to disagree on the rest. It may be difficult to stomach that California lets in so many immigrants and gives them all kinds of services. It may be equally difficult to accept that Kentuckians care more about having cheap electricity than the temperature in Guatemala. We may not like what other people believe. It may seem morally wrong. It may actually be wrong, but we have to set that aside, because at the end of the day, none of us is perfect, nobody is right about everything, and we can all be collectively or individually wrong. None of us are gods, none of us are anything less or more than human beings, frail, fallible, trying to do the best we can, and that goes for everyone, even ‘experts’, even politicians, even Donald Trump. Maybe the people we don’t agree with make us angry, but angry enough to kill? That’s a question each of us should ask ourselves. We have to learn to accept these harsh truths about each other or, sooner or later, we’ll start silencing one another, arresting one another, and at the end of it all, killing one another.
It’s time for America to grow up and behave like adults. Nobody gets everything they want. Nobody gets their way all the time. We have to discuss issues, debate, and ultimately compromise without hatred or demonizing the opposition. We have to learn to accept our disagreements rather than trying to erase them. These things will be difficult, for our leaders and for us. We must learn how to accept losses gracefully, or we’ll all lose much more than we can fathom. Above all, we must all think about how far we’re willing to go, what price we’re willing to pay, to gain ‘victory’ for ‘our side’, because in this writer’s opinion, the cost is so high it should be unthinkable, and in this kind of conflict, nobody wins and everyone loses.