UNRAVELING THE KNOT

ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG

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America’s Next Civil War

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.

Landscape

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 related posts, see:
“Idiots, Morons, Lunatics, and Fools: When Worldviews Collide”
“History Does Not Repeat Itself”
“What Are We Afraid of?”

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.

Bringing Trump Nation Down to Size

I’m writing this for all those feeling alarm and dismay at the prospect of a ‘Trump Nation’ propelled by the support of nearly half the country. But it’s also for those in a mood to celebrate.

A reality check, before anyone gets too carried away.

A time out for some numbers on what really happened—and did not—in the election of Donald Trump.

There are 235 million citizens eligible to vote.

Of those, 137 million went to the polls, and 98 million did not.

Of those who voted, 63 million voted for Donald Trump.

Which comes out to 26.8% of the total citizenry (that’s 63 million divided by 235 million).

Not half, not almost, not even close.

And that’s not all.

Exit polls show that 25 percent of Trump voters expressed the view that their candidate was not fit to be president, which lowers Trump’s unqualified support to 20 percent of the electorate. Which is on the high side, when you consider those who think he’s disgusting or dishonest or both but voted for him anyway. Or were more afraid of Clinton than of him.

It’s important to keep in mind, then, in these troubled times, that 73 percent of adult American citizens did not vote for Donald Trump. And a still higher percentage can reasonably be said to lack confidence in, not to mention enthusiasm for, his presidency.

It is true, of course, that a president Trump and Congressional Republicans will soon control the levers of federal power, and can do lasting harm.

But it is also true that controlling the government is not the same as controlling the country.

Which is what we have been trained to forget. That a nation and its future are to be found not in election results, but in workplaces and families and neighborhoods and schools and places of worship and everywhere else that people come together, through which a country reveals itself, as it happens, one day to the next.

It is found in who shows up and speaks out and for what and how long.

It is found in all the ways there are to organize the withdrawal of consent, to speak truth to power or block the door or fill the streets or just stand your ground and say no.

It is found in what brings out the best in a nation, in response to what brings out the worst.

Whether the United States is about to become Trump Nation is not up to him or Congress. It will depend on what citizens do, on whether we sit back and watch as if what happens has nothing to do with us, or we do what democracy requires, which begins in asking ourselves, every day, not only what are we called to do as workers or students or parents or members of this or that, but as citizens.

Every day.

And if we do not know what that means, that we make it our business to find out.

(P.S. If you were surprised by these numbers, perhaps you know others who’ll be surprised by them too. Pass it on.)
____________________

For related posts, see:
National Disobedience Day
The Myth of Peaceful Protest
What Can We Do? Becoming the Question

You can find election numbers at the United States Elections Project website.

For exit poll results, go to CBS News.

At Winter Solstice: Collecting Silence

[This evening, on this longest night of the year, we will be joined in the barn at the edge of the woods for a celebration of darkness and the return of light. As part of that, we will sit in silence. What follows is my Solstice offering.]

It was in college classrooms that I began to see the power and variety of silence. I would pose a question and for a while no one would speak. I would wait it out, which is how I thought of it at first, giving them a chance to respond without my stepping in. But then one day I realized it was something more, that I was making room for a particular kind of silence, the sound of thought, with a texture you can feel if you close your eyes, which I sometimes did, or look out the window, sensing the charge in the air, almost electric, I can hear you thinking from way over here.

Gordon Hempton, an acoustical ecologist, describes silence as something other than the absence of sound. Otherwise, there would be no silence except in the farthest reaches of outer space, beyond the reach of solar wind. Even there, I imagine, there would be the sound of my brain running at idle.

Silence, he says, is an absence of any sound that would intrude, that might draw our attention. For me, then, there can be silence with the sound of wind, but not a cell phone going off. Hempton believes the silence of large spaces, as measured in square miles, is not only becoming harder to find, but is endangered, like animals driven to extinction.

Very different from the silence of thought is the silence of someone sleeping, with its unmistakable weight, like a stone dropped in water and sinking to the bottom to rest until lifted up again.

Or the silence beneath a wind moving through the trees, the leaves drifting to the ground.

In meditation, there is sound to be noted above the silence—bird calls outside the window, a plane passing by high overhead, the ticking of the heat coming in, breath moving in and out, Nora shifting on her bench, Roxie standing up on the cushion we put down for her, lying down again with a sigh, the silence in a quality of stillness in which sound does not intrude.

Sometimes the silence of meditation can take on a weight like sleep, especially in the company of others, which I have experienced in a Buddhist meditation retreat and in Quaker Meetings where silence can go on for an hour or more. It is a remarkable experience and rare. I cannot think of another place where it is possible to be in the company of forty or fifty people who are both awake and in silence for so long a time.

Such silence can feel like a presence, which is why I would sometimes open my eyes just to see what is there, so strong was the feeling. I looked at people’s faces reflecting the inner stillness they brought into the room, now added to my own, a palpable sense of ease and calm that can wrap around and hold you, an embrace.

Silence can bear a different weight in the absence of someone who was there and now is gone, carving a hole in a room at the moment when they die. I was in the doorway of my mother’s room when I knew without looking that she was gone. Her body was there, wasted by the cancer, her face, her hands, but she was clearly not, as if her evacuation had been so hurried and complete that it left a kind of vacuum in its wake, an absence of air to carry the all but inaudible pulsation of a living being.

In the time after a death, there is the silence of stepping into an empty house and closing the door behind as you pause to listen for what is missing, expecting to hear the familiar sounds that do not come, your mind and body sinking down over weeks and months into the quiet knowing that some things are both forever and never again. It is the silence of waking in the middle of the night to a room that feels empty even though you are there, the furniture where it always was but now an absence, empty and still, beside you in the bed.

There is the silence of death and there is the silence that comes in the instant before the dying, a moment always there and yet strangely not until it comes. When my father died I was sitting beside his hospital bed after spending the night on a cot in his room. It was just before 6:00a.m. on a Friday morning in December, and I was watching him breathe slowly in and out. He had congestive heart failure and had been unconscious since before I arrived the night before.

For 93 years—almost 34,000 days, more than 800,000 hours—he had taken a breath and let it out at least every four or five seconds in an unbroken string of almost 600 million consecutive respirations. Until this moment as I watched and listened to him breath out one more time, a breath like any other, and then there was the beat of silence that always comes before the next one drawing in, except this was to be the first and last time in his long life that another breath would not come, as death entered in so softly, not unexpected and yet unannounced, for no particular reason, why not now? and I sat back and looked at his face as the silence grew long and deep, gathering up my father to carry him away.

The silence between breaths, like the silence between notes, on which the music rests.

Which is similar to the silence between people who know each other so well that words may only detract from what passes between them as they look in each other’s eyes or gaze out the window, together.

Of course not all silence is peaceful.

There is the awkward silence of not knowing what to say, the lull in the conversation when you cannot escape that it really is just the two of you sitting there, as you are, the insecurities, the doubts, the nervous smile, the glance away, the clearing of the throat. Why are we not enough just as we are?

There is the silence of bad news undelivered, hanging in the air with nowhere to go; or the awful secret shared by all but one; or what both of you know but neither will say.

The suffocating silence of fear and dread and worry in the middle of the night.

The silence of mendacity, the slippery beat following the practiced lie and the sad little pause just before it’s taken in as true.

The silence of tiptoeing around the truth, of denial and complicity and consent, of injustice and suffering unnamed and unremarked. What goes unasked and unreported on the news, what is not covered in the history class. The silence of saying nothing while the woman is raped down the hall or beaten next door.

No matter what kind of silence it is, it contains an opening for something unknown or unknowable to enter in, which may be why some work so hard to avoid it while others go out of their way in its pursuit.

When Nora and I were first together more than thirty years ago, we lived on a busy corner in the West End neighborhood of Hartford, just a block from an exit off the interstate. I once sat on the front porch and counted the cars going by, estimating an average of ten thousand a day. Across the street was a fire station, whose bone jarring horns might go off in the middle of the night.

After a few years we moved to the next town over. Across the street was an elementary school which was quiet by comparison, but within a few years we were yearning for real silence, the kind where you can hear yourself think most of the time or have moments where thought stops altogether.

This last move took us to the house we built in the middle of the woods, far from city lights and sounds, where silence can be so palpable and deep that I am sometimes compelled to stop and listen, realizing where I am,

1234567890 sitting in the middle of perfect
1234567890possibility

silence knitting everything together, seamless and whole, into the stillness beneath our lives, from which we come, to which we all return, softly, to be known at last, oh, yes, this is who you are.

________________________

Gordon Hempton interview, On Being, National Public Radio, July 4, 2013 available at http://www.onbeing.org/program/last-quiet-places/4557

The lines, “sitting in the middle of perfect/possibility” are from Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Afternoon in the House” in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 1996).

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