Was one side more responsible than the other for driving the process, from say 1848 to 1861, when the United States polarized, broke apart, and plunged into a bloody Civil War?
Let me acknowledge the great complexity of the history on which any such judgment must rest. Even a correct judgment would best be presented at book length. All I will do here is say briefly how it looks to me after considerable study of the era.
The process by which the United States came to Civil War might usefully be divided into two periods. The first would be the conflict -- mostly, but not only, political -- over slavery from, say, 1848 through 1860. The second would start with the decision by the Southern states to secede from the Union and to up the ante by firing on Fort Sumter.
And if a predilection for war over peace, for conflict over cooperation, isn't one of the strongest indicators of the workings of evil, I don't know what is.
Our religious and moral traditions tell us: Peace is better than war. Jesus is announced as representing "Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men." Blessed are the peacemakers, said he. Jews and Muslims greet each other with "Shalom" or "Salam," indicating the holy nature of harmony. Swords may be necessary sometimes, but the vision of the world as it should be has them beaten into plowshares.
In this and the two subsequent postings, we'll look at the question: "Who chose war over peace (or conflict over cooperation)?" First, here, with respect to the conflict-filled dynamics of America's current politics. And in the next two postings, with respect to the process that drove the nation into a terrible Civil War.
Our politics in these times are more about conflict than at any time in living memory. (Perhaps more so than any time since the era of the Civil War.)
With respect to this political pathology, no clear-eyed observer can doubt that it is the Republican Party that has chosen to make our politics almost all-out conflict. Politics in a democracy is always a combination of inter-party competition, in which the actors seek advantage in the quest for power, and inter-party cooperation to serve the national good. Clearly, the Republicans have chosen to discard the usual balance and to make a fight over virtually everything.
"Two years ago, the Republicans in Congress took this nation to the brink of disaster, threatening to make the nation fail to pay its bills, damaging the faith and credit of the United States. They used the threat of making the nation default as a means to extort concessions, saying, in effect, 'Meet our demands or we'll hurt America.'
"We reached a deal, one from which we're still suffering today. But the mere fact that the Republicans --one of our two major parties-- had made such an irresponsible threat, and brought the nation to the brink, was enough to set back our economic recovery, to cost the American taxpayers billions, and to damage America's reputation in the world.
"That's not going to happen again. There will be no crisis over the debt ceiling this time
"I am convinced that it is in my presidential powers to make sure that we pay our bills. The 14th amendment declares that, "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, ... shall not be questioned." I believe that part of the U.S. Constitution invalidates the legislation that creates some artificial debt ceiling, thereby calling into question whether bills already incurred will be paid.
"Congress already spent the money. I'll see to it that our debts get paid.
"If the Republicans want to challenge my right to protect the full faith and credit of the United States, I'll be glad to defend my position in Court.
"In the meanwhile, I will defend the American people, and the health of the American economy, and our international standing against injury inflicted by political blackmailers.
No empathy whatever for the distress that black people feel about a young black man getting shot and killed because of a train of events triggered by his doing nothing more than walking through a white neighborhood and then being followed by a "Neighborhood Watch" man who thought he didn't belong there.
At my otherwise mostly extremely good high school reunion (I just returned from my 50th!), one classmate channeled the right-wing line that President Obama's talk about "Trayvon could have been me" speech did more damage to race relations in America than anything in recent memory.
Amazing. Besides the complete lack of empathy, and probably connected with it, we see here an insistence on denial of the realities of what the historical experience has been, and the wounds that this experience has left.
Here's how I see the meaning of the Trayvon killing for black people in America, growing out of many generations of experience.
The present event can be described in these terms: a black man is accosted, and shot to death by a man acting (as he saw it) as an agent of the dominant white world (one valid way of characterizing Zimmerman's neighborhood watch role).
This represents a pattern associated,from the experience of many generations of black Americans, with deep trauma.
This piece will be appearing --probably next weekend-- in some newspapers in Virginia.
For Republican to follow the "Hastert rule" in today's House of Representatives is a betrayal of the public trust.
The "Hastert rule" (named after a former Republican Speaker of the House) says that no bill will be brought up for a vote unless it has the support of a "majority of the majority" party. A bill that would get a majority of the entire House by combining its supporters among Republicans with its supporters among Democrats never gets a chance, by this rule, unless a majority of the Republican caucus favors the bill.
Under some circumstances, that could be OK. The majority party is entitled to address our national problems with the solutions it prefers rather than make unnecessary compromises with their political opposition.
But today, that's not the choice. Following the Hastert rule does not give us Republican solutions to our problems. It means there will be no solutions.
That's because what the House can pass, requiring the Hastert rule, is unlikely to become law. Any measure that cannot command a large measure of Democratic votes in the House has much chance to pass the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority, or to be signed into law by the Democratic president.
So with the Hastert rule, under the present circumstances, what we get is government paralysis, and record lows in the esteem in which the public holds the Congress. But it's not Congress as a whole that's the problem, it's the Republicans in the House that are taking a "my way or a highway" approach to government, despite controlling less than half the government the people elected.
Patterns tend to persist in cultures over long periods.
Sometimes, when a spirit has seized hold of a society and then driven it into disaster or disgrace, that spirit can be eradicated, or at least exiled into the recesses of the culture. Think of the way that Nazism has been systematically driven out of the German nation and the German psyche.
Nothing remotely like this happened with the spirit that took possession of the South and led it into catastrophic defeat in the Civil War.
If it was an evil spirit that inflamed a region to fight to preserve slavery, neither the South nor the nation as a whole ever decided to drive that spirit out.
The South has continued to honor that spirit, and its fateful consequences. My wife went to Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. Forrest was a main founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The other high school nearby was named for Jefferson Davis, who attempted to prolong the war after Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses Grant. The South continues to form its identity around the spirit that animated it during that era of destruction.
This destructive force is damaging our nation now just as it did then.
The persistence through time of a recognizable pattern in a culture points to an important part of how the human world works. Just as Great-grandpa's red hair reappears in a new baby, so also can the patterns of social and political dynamics (in this case, destructive dynamics) move through the generations within a society. Such a pattern, or spirit, can perpetuate itself by socializing individuals in ways that lead them, in turn, to reinforce in the world around them the patterns that had been impressed upon them.
The parallels between the political crisis in America in our times, and the crisis that drove America into a terrible Civil War a century and a half ago, reveal how a spirit of this sort has re-emerged to hold major parts of the American cultural system in its grip and animate the actions, beliefs, and attitudes of millions.
I begin here a series of articles to delineate these telling parallels. Perceiving the same pattern in these two important eras -- our present crisis, and the crisis that led to the Civil War -- can be revelatory just like the images in the Magic Eye books: out of the stereoscopic image, a startling figure emerges with depth out of a new dimension.
I responded to this with my way of understanding how decent people, like my neighbors in the Shenandoah Valley, come to deny what science says about climate change.
"I am not sure how much 'self-centered' relates to the problem," I wrote. "Judging at least from what I think I know about my neighbors in the Shenandoah Valley, they'd likely be quick to sign up to go and put their lives on the line for their country in the event of a war. Not self-centered in that context.
"Some other qualities make them vulnerable to this kind of manipulation by lies that are as improbable as unicorns.
In medicine there's a saying, "When you hear hoof beats, think of horses not zebras." Whatever's going on is far more likely to be the usual than the extraordinary.
But when it comes to climate change, the Republicans are telling Americans not to think horses, or even zebras. They're saying, think unicorns. Republicans want Americans to believe that the alarm about climate change is based on a scientific hoax.
Republicans used to claim that the science was inconclusive. Fifteen years ago I was on television in Virginia debating the issue against a local Republican official who took that party-line position. But with so powerful a consensus among the experts - 97% - the Republicans have taken the fall-back position that climate science is a hoax.
This hoax would have to be beyond extraordinary. Over the course of history, there have been hoaxes in science - a scientist or two creating false evidence. But if any scientific hoax has involved more than two or three people, I have been unable to discover it.
The scientific studies that show the disruption of the earth's climate due to human activities have been the work of thousands of scientists, from nations all over the world, conducted over decades.
A scientific hoax of that magnitude is beyond improbable.
If we ought not to believe in this unicorn, is there a horse around to explain the hoof beats?
In fact, there is. We have an industry doing what other industries have done in similar situations. And we have a political party doing what it has done again and again.