I always thought there was only the one Civil War. The one grown men like to dress up and re-enact, the one about slavery.
Not to end slavery, but to decide something larger. Depending on how you hold it up to the light, the Civil War was a struggle between rival factions over what would become of the land still being taken from Native Americans, including the question of one nation or two. The expansion of slavery may have been the presenting issue—the one we’re taught about in school—and yet not be the point.
Which is to say, if it hadn’t been slavery, it would have been something else.
It wasn’t slavery, after all, that prompted our first civil war, our founding civil war, the war within the war known as the American Revolution, the struggle for liberty and independence that we celebrate on the 4th of July. The civil war that was fought between the rebels and the one-out-of-five colonists who were happy with the way things were and wanted no part of revolution.
The two sides made war on each other, eight long years of it, full of violence and destruction, by the end of which tens of thousands of British loyalists whose home this had been for generations, had lost everything and were forced to flee to Canada and beyond.
If you ask most people how many civil wars there have been, I’ll be surprised to hear them answer with more than one, which makes it important to note that this country was founded in no small part on the outcome of a war of neighbor against neighbor.
The second civil war was a continuation of the first even though the immediate cause was not the same. Because we were still fighting over what this land would be, and whose, and on what terms, and we have been fighting about that, in one way or another, ever since.
It is a struggle that comes of being a nation founded on conquered land where the victors and their descendants and beneficiaries neither originate nor belong. Not being indigenous, no one has an unimpeachable claim, and so the conquerors, having conquered, turn on one another in a perpetual struggle over primacy, turf, identity, and spoils. Not to mention latecomers hearing of a land of opportunity where they might get something for themselves.
It really doesn’t really matter to the essence of the thing how the sides are drawn—whether it’s unions and bosses or farmers and railroads or emancipated blacks and the KKK; or Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Muslims, immigrants and native born; reds and blues, real Americans and not; small town and big city, western rancher and suburban professional, more educated and less, the one percent or ten percent and everyone else.
It doesn’t matter because this nation’s defining struggle has been to get what you can get and then hold onto it. If you doubt this, go ahead and take all of that out of our history, and then consider what is left. No one would have come here in the first place, including the New England Puritans who practiced slavery on Native Americans and Africans almost from the beginning.
That struggle has been both enshrined and encoded as ‘freedom’ and ‘opportunity,’ which, of course, is not untrue. But there is also the underside that is something closer to pitched battles on union picket lines or the frantic headlong greed of the Oklahoma land rush of 1889. And greed and fear are never far apart. Just zoom in on their faces to see what I mean.
Because once you establish the idea that there is no such thing as enough, not to mention too much; that it’s okay to take what isn’t yours, or to convince yourself that it is when it’s not; or to profit from another’s misfortune; or that there is no higher virtue than looking out for yourself—then you create a world in which it is hard if not impossible to know whom to trust, or how far, for how long, or with what.
And so, the urge to civil strife is never far from erupting around one thing or another. Now it is the Trump Phenomenon and all the fault lines and conflict that it reveals. And an explosion of fear and anger that can make you wonder where it came from so suddenly, and out of nowhere, when, in fact, nowhere has always been right here, and it was only sudden for our not seeing how close it is all the time. It was waiting in the wings to go on, out back in the alley having a smoke, taking a break before the next act.
I believe that if you look closely, you will find that Americans have never liked or trusted one another very much, not if you ask them to look across the whole of who we are, coast to coast, north and south. You don’t have to go very far to feel as though you’re in another country, surrounded by a culture and a people you don’t recognize as your own.
Maybe it’s only me, but I doubt it. That we are only now, for example, coming to terms with the place of the Confederate flag in ‘American’ life, or whether this is a ‘white’ country or not, should tell you something about how deep the divisions lie, not to mention their longevity. And you can bet that when we think they are resolved, we won’t have seen the last of them.
Colin Woodard’s book, American Nations, describes not two nations in North America, but eleven, going all the way back to the first European invasions of one region or another. There is Yankeedom up north and the Left Coast and the Far West and El Norte in the southwest; Greater Appalachia, the Tidewater and the Deep South; the Midlands, New Netherlands, New France, the First Nations. Different stories, different ethnicities, different cultures, different methods and histories of conquest, subjugation, and exploitation, all with a bent to eyeing one another with suspicion from the start. Their boundaries rarely match state lines—Chicago, say, in Yankeedom, but the rest of Illinois divided between the Midlands and Greater Appalachia. And if you compare that map with red and blue counties in this last election, it explains a lot. It can give you chills.
We have never been one nation, under God or otherwise, so it’s no surprise that the idea of civil war may come so easily to mind.
In the runup to the last election, it was not uncommon to hear Trump supporters say that if Clinton were elected, there would be civil war. Not all hell breaking lose, or protest, lawsuits, and strikes. No, civil war. They could use the words knowing they would resonate, and confident they would not be greeted with ridicule or disbelief. Because this has happened here before. It is something we know how to do. There are monuments and testimonials. It is in the make-up of this place and who we are as a result. And if we imagine that we are beyond all that, we are wrong.
Clinton, of course, did not win, but that is beside the point. The election was the deep rumble of one tectonic plate straining against another. And of all the warning signs, the one that stands out the most, the precursor and necessary condition of every civil war, is not the level of anger and fear, or the most heavily armed citizenry in the world. It is a profound ignorance of one another and ourselves, matched by an equally profound and sometimes boastful lack of curiosity.
It is all the times I have heard someone express amazement that anyone could vote for____, and then the exasperated, I just don’t understand those people! And I want to say that if you cannot understand how the world might appear in a way that would make such a choice seem reasonable, compelling, and obvious, or how your own choice could appear to be just as inexplicable to someone else, then you’re being too easy on yourself. Try harder.
But instead of listening for an answer, instead of imagining how the world could be seen, and how we are seen as others, we pathologize and demonize ‘those people’ by explaining their behavior as a simple matter of who they are.
We transform them in our minds into our own imagined inability to understand. They become the inexplicable, beyond thought and feeling and empathy, the stranger, the strange, the estranged, the not me, the not us, the monster.
Take your pick of any civil war, foreign or domestic, past or present, and see if it doesn’t sound a lot like that. All you need is someone to fire the first shot.
Listening is a skill, a discipline. It must be cultivated and practiced. It does not come naturally or easily, especially in a culture saturated with social media that encourage the voicing of opinion without having to know much at all, not to mention listen to or even be aware of other human beings. That tells us that one opinion is as good as any other, and so what do I need with you and yours?
If I tell you what I am for or against, what I believe is true about this or that, in the end you will have a mountain of information that is no different from what you can hear in one place or another. And you will have no real idea of who I am.
Because opinions are too easy, and too readily confused with thought.
When I teach about difficult subjects such as gender and race, I often begin the term by telling the class that I am not interested in their opinions (gasp). We all have them. It’s like showing me what’s in your pockets or your bag, what you brought for lunch. That’s nice, but I don’t really care.
What does interest me is how you think, how you got to that opinion, that point of view, how it’s connected to what else you think about, or have known, how one thing informs or reinforces or contradicts another, how you put together this reality you live inside.
For that to happen, I have to listen. I have to turn myself over to understanding you more than affirming or justifying myself. I must be willing to temporarily lose myself, as if what you have to say is all that matters in this moment, because, in fact, it is, because you are the one who knows what I do not, which is you.
I ask them questions—Why? being my favorite—to clarify or connect one thing to another. But, otherwise, it is not about me. Or, for that matter, about them, but a way for all of us to deepen our understanding of what it is to be a human being in this strange place called America.
But we cannot do this if we are too afraid, as fear destroys curiosity, or if we care only about being right. But I repeat myself.
Maybe this is where we are. And maybe it is too late to pull back from the brink. Maybe it always was. I don’t know, of course. But this seems to be a crossroads we’re standing at, as we have so many times before, a decision we are called upon to make.
And one more opportunity to find out who we are, and what we are prepared to do, and for what.
For a recent history of the American Revolution, see Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804. W. W. Norton, 2016.
Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. Penguin, 2012.
For a history of slavery in the colonies, see Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America. Liveright, 2016.