We are waiting for Fort Sumter.
[NB: Written in 2006] The originating premise of this novel did not come from me. Donald Mustard and his partners in Chair Enterainment had the idea for an entertainment franchise called Empire about a near-future American civil war. When I joined the project to create a work of fiction based on that premise, my first order of business was to come up with a plausible way that such an event might come about.
It was, sadly enough, all too easy.
Because we haven’t had a civil war in the past fourteen decades, people think we can’t have one now. Where is the geographic clarity of the Mason-Dixon line? When you look at the red-state blue-state division in the past few elections, you get a false impression. The real division is urban, academic, and high-tech counties versus suburban, rural, and conservative Christian counties. How could such widely scattered “blue” centers and such centerless “red” populations ever act in concert?
Geography aside, however, we have never been so evenly divided with such hateful rhetoric since the years leading up to the Civil War of the 1860s. Because the national media elite are so uniformly progressive, we keep hearing (in the elite media) about the rhetorical excesses of the “extreme right.” To hear the same media, there is no “extreme left,” just the occasional progressive who says things he or she shouldn’t.
But any rational observer has to see that the Left and Right in America are screaming the most vile accusations at each other all the time. We are fully polarized — if you accept one idea that sounds like it belongs to either the blue or the red, you are assumed — nay, required — to espouse the entire rest of the package, even though there is no reason why supporting the war against terrorism should imply you’re in favor of banning all abortions and against restricting the availability of firearms; no reason why being in favor of keeping government-imposed limits on the free market should imply you also are in favor of giving legal status to homosexual couples and against building nuclear reactors. These issues are not remotely related, and yet if you hold any of one group’s views, you are hated by the other group as if you believed them all; and if you hold most of one group’s views, but not all, you are treated as if you were a traitor for deviating even slightly from the party line.
We are today a nation where almost everyone in the public eye displays fanaticism with every utterance.
It goes deeper than this, however. A good working definition of fanaticism is that you are so convinced of your views and policies that you are sure anyone who opposes them must either be stupid and deceived or have some ulterior motive. We are today a nation where almost everyone in the public eye displays fanaticism with every utterance.
It is part of human nature to regard as sane those people who share the worldview of the majority of society. Somehow, though, we have managed to divide ourselves into two different, mutually exclusive sanities. The people in each society reinforce each other in madness, believing unsubstantiated ideas that are often contradicted not only by each other but also by whatever objective evidence exists on the subject. Instead of having an ever-adapting civilization-wide consensus reality, we have became a nation of insane people able to see the madness only in the other side.
Does this lead, inevitably, to civil war? Of course not — though it’s hardly conducive to stable government or the long-term continuation of democracy. What inevitably arises from such division is the attempt by one group, utterly convinced of its rectitude, to use all coercive forces available to stamp out the opposing views.
The people who are most relentless in eliminating competing ideas congratulate themselves on their tolerance and diversity.
Such an effort is, of course, a confession of madness. Suppression of other people’s beliefs by force only comes about when you are deeply afraid that your own beliefs are wrong and you are desperate to keep anyone from challenging them. Oh, you may come up with rhetoric about how you are suppressing them for their own good or for the good of others, but people who are confident of their beliefs are content merely to offer and teach, not compel.
The impulse toward coercion takes whatever forms are available. In academia, it consists of the denial of degrees, jobs, or tenure to people with nonconformist opinions. Ironically, the people who are most relentless in eliminating competing ideas congratulate themselves on their tolerance and diversity. In most situations, it is less formal, consisting of shunning — but the shunning usually has teeth in it. Did Mel Gibson, when in his cups, say something that reflects his upbringing in an antisemitic household? Then he is to be shunned — which in Hollywood will mean he can never be considered for an Oscar and will have a much harder time getting prestige, as opposed to money, roles.
It has happened to me, repeatedly, from both the Left and the Right. It is never enough to disagree with me — I must be banned from speaking at a particular convention or campus; my writings should be boycotted; anything that will punish me for my noncompliance and, if possible, impoverish me and my family.
It is puritanism, not in its separatist form, desiring to live by themselves by their own rules, but in its Cromwellian form.
So virulent are these responses — again, from both the Left and the Right — that I believe it is only a short step to the attempt to use the power of the state to enforce one’s views. On the right we have attempts to use the government to punish flag burners and to enforce state-sponsored praying. On the left, we have a ban on free speech and peaceable public assembly in front of abortion clinics and the attempt to use the power of the state to force the acceptance of homosexual relationships as equal to marriages. Each side feels absolutely justified in compelling others to accept their views.
It is puritanism, not in its separatist form, desiring to live by themselves by their own rules, but in its Cromwellian form, using the power of the state to enforce the dicta of one group throughout the wider society, by force rather than persuasion.
This despite the historical fact that the civilization that has created more prosperity and freedom for more people than ever before is one based on tolerance and pluralism, and that attempts to force one religion (theistic or atheistic) on the rest of a nation or the world inevitably lead to misery, poverty, and, usually, conflict.
Yet we seem only able to see the negative effects of coercion caused by the other team. Progressives see the danger of allowing fanatical religions (which, by some definitions, means “all of them”) to have control of government — they need only point to Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Taliban, or, in a more general and milder sense, the entire Muslim world, which is oppressed precisely to the degree that Islam is enforced as the state religion.
Conservatives, on the other hand, see the danger of allowing fanatical atheistic religions to have control of government, pointing to Nazi Germany and all Communist nations as obvious examples of political utopianism run amok.
Rarely do people set out to start a civil war.
Yet neither side can see any connection between their own fanaticism and the historical examples that might apply to them. People insisting on a Christian America simply cannot comprehend that others view them as the Taliban-in-waiting; those who insist on progressive exclusivism in America are outraged at any comparison between them and Communist totalitarianism. Even as they shun or fire or deny tenure to those who disagree with them, everybody thinks it’s the other guy who would be the oppressor, while our side would simply “set things to rights.”
Rarely do people set out to start a civil war. Invariably, when such wars break out both sides consider themselves to be the aggrieved ones. Right now in America, even though the Left has control of all the institutions of cultural power and prestige — universities, movies, literary publishing, mainstream journalism– as well as the federal courts, they feel themselves oppressed and threatened by traditional religion and conservatism. And even though the Right controls both houses of Congress and the presidency, as well as having ample outlets for their views in nontraditional media and an ever-increasing dominance over American religious and economic life, they feel themselves oppressed and threatened by the cultural dominance of the Left.
And they are threatened, just as they are also threatening, because nobody is willing to accept the simple idea that someone can disagree with their group and still be a decent human being worthy of respect.
Can it lead to war?
Very simply, yes. The moment one group feels itself so aggrieved that it uses either its own weapons or the weapons of the state to “prevent” the other side from bringing about its supposed “evil” designs, then that other side will have no choice but to take up arms against them. Both sides will believe the other to be the instigator.
The vast majority of people will be horrified — but they will also be mobilized whether they like it or not.
It’s the lesson of Yugoslavia and Rwanda. If you were a Tutsi just before the Rwandan holocaust who did not hate Hutus, who married a Hutu, who hired Hutus or taught school to Hutu students, it would not have stopped Hutus from taking machetes to you and your family. You would have had only two choices: to die or to take up arms against Hutus, whether you had previously hated them or not.
America is not an ethnic nation, where ancient ties of blood can bind people together despite differences.
But it went further. Knowing they were doing a great evil, the Hutus who conducted the programs also killed any Hutus who were “disloyal” enough to try to oppose taking up arms.
Likewise in Yugoslavia. For political gain, Serbian leaders in the post-Tito government maintained a drumbeat of Serbian manifest-destiny propaganda, which openly demonized Croatian and Muslim people as a threat to good Serbs. When Serbs in Bosnia took up arms to “protect themselves” from being ruled by a Muslim majority — and were sponsored and backed by the Serbian government — what choice did a Bosnian Muslim have but to take up arms in self-defense? Thus both sides claimed to be acting in self-defense, and in short order, they were.
And as both Rwanda and Bosnia proved, clear geographical divisions are not required in order to have brutal, bloody civil wars. All that is required is that both sides come to believe that if they do not take up arms, the other side will destroy them.
In America today, we are complacent in our belief that it can’t happen here. We forget that America is not an ethnic nation, where ancient ties of blood can bind people together despite differences. We are created by ideology; ideas are our only connection. And because today we have discarded the free marketplace of ideas and have polarized ourselves into two equally insane ideologies, so that each side can, with perfect accuracy, brand the other side as madmen, we are ripe for that next step, to take preventive action to keep the other side from seizing power and oppressing our side.
The examples are — or should be — obvious. That we are generally oblivious to the excesses of our own side merely demonstrates how close we already are to a paroxysm of self-destruction.
We are waiting for Fort Sumter.
I hope it doesn’t come.
Meanwhile, however, there is this novel, in which I try to show characters who struggle to keep from falling into the insanity — yet who also try to prevent other people’s insanity from destroying America. This book is fiction. It is entertainment. I do not believe a new American civil war is inevitable; and if it did happen, I do not believe it would necessarily take the form I show in this book, politically or militarily. Since the war depicted in these pages has not happened, I am certainly not declaring either side in our polarized public life guilty of causing it. I only say that for the purposes of this story, we have this set of causes; in the real world, if we should ever be so stupid as to allow a civil war to happen again, we would obviously have a different set of specific causes.
We live in a time when lies are preferred to the truth and truths are called lies…
We live in a time when people like me, who do not wish to choose either camp’s ridiculous, inconsistent, unrelated ideology, are being forced to choose — and to take one whole absurd package or the other.
We live in a time when moderates are treated worse than extremists, being punished as if they were more fanatical than the actual fanatics.
We live in a time when lies are preferred to the truth and truths are called lies, when opponents are assumed to have the worst conceivable motives and treated accordingly, and when we reach immediately for coercion without even bothering to find out what those who disagree with us are actually saying.
In short, we are creating for ourselves a new dark age — the darkness of blinders we voluntarily wear, and which, if we do not take them off and see each other as human beings with legitimate, virtuous concerns, will lead us to tragedies whose cost we will bear for generations.
Or, maybe, we can just calm down and stop thinking that our own ideas are so precious that we must never give an inch to accommodate the heartfelt beliefs of others.
How can we accomplish that? It begins by scorning the voices of extremism from the camp we are aligned with. Democrats and Republicans must renounce the screamers and haters from their own side instead of continuing to embrace them and denouncing only the screamers from the opposing camp. We must moderate ourselves instead of insisting on moderating the other guy while keeping our own fanaticism alive.
In the long run, the great mass of people who simply want to get on with their lives can shape a peaceful future. But it requires that they actively pursue moderation and reject extremism on every side, and not just on one. Because it is precisely those ordinary people, who don’t even care all that much about the issues, who will end up suffering the most from any conflict that might arise.