ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
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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.
Hearing the news of the Trump election makes me think of the afternoon when I heard George W. Bush announce on the car radio that he was launching the country into a state of perpetual war. I was beside myself with rage, screaming at the windshield, calling him names, going on a rant about the suffering and destruction that would result.
Later on, realizing that my country was doing what it has done many times before, the anger gave way to despair.
What I did not know then was that despair was a way to manage fear, which was evident from the numbing and compacting of my heart, as if my entire self was being reduced to fit a dark space small enough to crowd out the fear.
I was frightened by what the president had done, just as many are afraid today of what may be coming. This time, however, I feel neither rage nor despair, and I think it’s worth asking why the difference between then and now.
One clue comes from many years ago when I was visiting my mother in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and one day we decided to go to the swimming pool outside of town. We walked to the bus stop. The time printed on the schedule came and went, but not the bus. We talked. The sun rose in the sky, a beautiful day. We stepped into the shade. She sensed my impatience, looked at me and smiled, a little shrug, “It’s all right,” she said, “there’s always another bus.”
Maybe. And maybe not. Either way, there is something in the act of waiting that reminds me of despair, waiting for a bus that may never come. There is something in despair that is a holding out, a refusing to let go, to accept that things are what they are, a refusal that Buddhists tell us is where suffering begins.
We wait for leaders who will save us from our history and ourselves, only to be disappointed, our hope turning first to anger and then despair (which may help explain why almost half of the electorate did not vote).
The bus was nowhere to be seen, but my mother was right there beside me, who would one day be dead and gone, and there was the street and the people passing by, the sight of a donkey laden with firewood, walking slowly up the hill, a small boy close behind. Birds and their songs. The crisp dryness of high desert air.
But the bus was not here.
There is no bus.
A second clue comes from my experience speaking on race and gender, when someone asks, “But what can I do?” There is something in the ‘but,’ and the tone, that gives me pause, because I think the question is less about doing than it is about fending off fear and despair. As the philosopher, George Yancy, puts it, the rush to find a solution can be a way to remove ourselves from the present—where we are involved in the world that produces injustice, suffering, and fear—and into a future where we are not. It is an escape from having to sit with the reality of how things are and what that has to do with us.
I once thought hope was the antidote to despair, but I’ve come to believe it’s not. The two are so closely coupled that we cannot have one without the other. ‘I hope the bus will come soon’ not only gives myself over to waiting for something that exists only in my mind, but does so with a particular dedication, chin up, eyes scanning the street corner around which I hope it will come. Any minute now. All the while I am oblivious to the world going on around me, there being nothing else for me but a bus that isn’t here.
To not indulge in despair, or in hope, is to not indulge in being anywhere but here, what Pema Chodron calls ‘nailing ourselves to the present,’ to things as they really are. There is no quick fix for sadness and pain, no easy deliverance from fear, but in the present our choices are made clear, including standing with my mother until a bus may come or we decide to do something else. Either way, not waiting in this moment, I leave hope behind, it only producing still more hope that is all too close to despair.
I write books. I give speeches and workshops and facilitate conversations. How does hope figure into that? What is it that I hope to achieve?
The truth is that I hope for nothing at all. There isn’t time. I write and speak to help break the silence around privilege and oppression. I write novels about the human condition. I think out loud about what trouble we are in and who we are in relation to it and what it’s like for me and how we might respond.
But I have no way of knowing what difference any of it makes. One day to the next, it does not matter what I hope will happen. It only matters what I do.
To give up hope is not to accept things as they are. I am appalled by the president-elect and the renewed license for intimidation and violence that has shown itself since the election. But I also must accept that things are as they are. As I drove down the road years ago, screaming at the president, I was having a moment of non-acceptance, propelled by fear that turned quickly to despair. I was insisting that George Bush be different from the man he had always shown himself to be, and I was furious to be living in a country that would make him president. And I responded as if personally betrayed, as if it wasn’t fair, an outrageous violation of some law by which such things are not supposed to happen.
Just as many have reacted to the election of Donald Trump.
We had hoped for something better.
But it is one thing to be angry at how things are and another to indulge in a despair that is more about how I feel about the world than what I am prepared to do. Despair keeps me from asking what is needed here and now, the only place where anything is possible, knowing that things will not be as they might have been, except in looking back through a kind of longing anchored by hope on one end and despair on the other.
When I spoke at Penn State about men’s violence some years ago, an elderly man came up to thank me afterward. He relied on a pair of canes and spoke with difficulty, as if he’d had a stroke. He was about to leave when he leaned in and looked at me and said, his voice low and earnest, “You keep going.” And as he turned to walk away, I said, “You keep going, too,” and then he paused, his face full of thought, gathering intent, a nod. “I think I will.”
I remember the stillness in his face as he made up his mind, as he must have so many times before, every day, a look of clarity and calm, of acceptance not only without hope and despair, but without fear, a condition that a Quaker friend of mine once offered as a definition of faith.
Faith, she said, is not a belief in something—if I do this then that will happen—or that something beyond my control will come to pass, that things will somehow turn out okay. Faith is the freedom from fear, a condition in which we may feel afraid but without allowing ourselves to become the fear, to be afraid.
There is much to fear these days, beginning with the president-elect’s legislative plans, his denial of climate change, his childish macho bravado, his contempt for women, his blatant racism, his staggering arrogance and lack of experience and knowledge, his inability to focus his mind or tell the truth.
It makes sense to feel overwhelmed in the face of this. We are only human, after all, and we have not been prepared. Instead, we have, for generations, been encouraged to see ourselves as passive consumers rather than active citizens, our minds distracted and pacified and colonized to accept the status quo or to pin ourselves to the hope for something better.
We have been trained to be easily overwhelmed and immobilized, dis-couraged with little awareness of our responsibility or power.
We have been desensitized to the pain of others, and hypersensitized to our own, taught to see pain not as a message, a wake-up call, but as something noxious to be escaped, silenced, anaesthetized.
But we cannot afford to be overwhelmed or swallowed by despair. Like the parent of a desperately ill child, we don’t get to disappear into not knowing what to do. For a day or two, perhaps, but then we have to step in and give it up and reacquaint ourselves with the courage of faith.
I once heard Mary Daley describe courage not as something that we have, a quality of character that we bring to the moment. Instead, courage is what happens in the moment when we act even though we are afraid. And perhaps that is what my Quaker friend was telling me about faith, as a way of being, brought on by what we do.
The point is not to never be afraid, which is impossible, but to know where fear leaves off and faith begins in that moment when we choose to act whether we are afraid or not. “When I dare to be powerful,” wrote Audre Lorde, “to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
The challenge of these times is to inhabit the space between accepting that the world is as it is and refusing to accept that it should remain so.
But we do not come to the challenge equally.
I’m recalling a group where talk about race turned to the subject of hope, and I said something about not believing in that, it being too close to despair, that I believe the key is faith, in not becoming the fear.
I remember the silence that followed and the very different reaction of whites and blacks in the room, with black people nodding in agreement as they looked about, and white people staring down at the table and shaking their heads.
When I consider the difference, it occurs to me that being able to choose between hope and despair comes of the freedom to sit on the sidelines and watch from the relative safety of being white. And when things go badly and we sink into despair, hope comes riding to the rescue, promising to lift our hearts, that things will work out, somehow, someday, against the odds. Whether we do anything or not.
Hope is better suited to feeling than action, for it does not so much galvanize as soothe, a refuge from despair, that does not hold us to account.
Faith, on the other hand, comes of having to wrestle the angel of fear, whose power faith would harness into action. Faith is what turns a crowd of individuals into a march and then a movement. Where hope is passive and content, faith has an agenda and makes demands.
I suspect that most people of color cannot afford to spend themselves on hope, because oppression is too immediate, every day, generation after generation, forcing them to pull together, to find strength in solidarity. And to know that in the moment of confronting power, the kind that hurts and even kills, the choice is not between despair and hope, but fear and faith.
Which is the choice confronting us all.
For related posts, see:
I trace the origin of this post to the feminist activist and writer, Starhawk, who wrote in the aftermath of the U.S. response to 9/11 that “we must not indulge in despair.”
George Yancy, Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness. Temple University Press, 2013.
Pema Chodron has authored several books, including When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Shambhala, 2000.
I heard Mary Daly speak on courage at the 2001 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Audre Lorde quote is from The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books, 1997.