Avoiding A Civil War

All this talk lately about a new Civil War in the US has got me thinking.

First, we should all recognize that the election of Donald Trump voided all attempts at predicting the future. Such prognostications are a staple of TV “news”; they creep constantly into our discussions on social media. What will happen in the midterms? Will Trump leave if he’s voted out? What’s Bernie going to do next? Given our inability to determine the weather in four days, we’ve got to start ignoring these feeble efforts at speculation. (If they mattered at all, there would be consequences for those who are wrong. There are none, so they do not.)

Second, as desperate and violent and hateful as the proto-fascist elements of the US right wing are (and I don’t mean to diminish their capacity for violence), I’m skeptical of the idea that we’re headed for a war, because they remain a tiny minority. Trump has corralled them for his narcissistic purposes, and the Republican “leadership” has allowed itself to be driven into a cavern of psychopathy for the sake of a greasy tax cut and a couple of Supreme Court picks. But the actual fascists and proto-fascists are a noisy, hideous gaggle of disgraceful children. (Armed children, but children nevertheless.) They have the means and the motive to kill people and cause suffering on a massive scale. But starting a war is different. It takes numbers.

Ergo, third, what about the outer circle of conservatives and independents and libertarians who have been seduced by the proto-fascist propaganda coming from this gaggle of scumbags (Bannon, Gorka, Miller, Trump, et al)? They’re the second-most important — and the most complex — piece of the puzzle. Many of them are obviously swayed by racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Many of them are closed-minded, surrounding themselves with cocoons of reassurance. Many of them are armed and hostile toward all the undesirables who are, they are assured, coming for their stuff.

The Outer Circle makes me sad and angry, but they don’t scare me. Maybe that’s my white privilege talking (along with my male and straight and middle-class privilege), but I keep hearing about how many people voted for Obama in 2012 and then switched to Trump in 2016. Which makes me think: Anybody that quick to abandon their allegiance to slightly-left-of-center principles can surely be herded into aligning with them again.

Who Do You Trust?

Getting more folks on our side, in my humble and profoundly non-expert opinion, is a project of consciousness raising. If people support dismantling the tiny regulatory changes of Dodd-Frank, it’s because they don’t understand how important stronger regulation is to preventing another crash like the one in 2008.  If people support brutal tactics to punish undocumented immigrants, it’s because they don’t understand the immense suffering and hardship so many people have experienced before arriving in the US; and what those tactics do to our fellow humans in need. If people continue to support the regime of mass black and latinx incarceration, it’s because they don’t understand the terror and misery that regime has been creating for 40 years.

The problem of enlightened consciousness, of course, is not one of information — we’ve all got easy access to a universe of information. The problem today is one of trust. Hardcore MAGAts trust President Trump absolutely, and they refuse to question his outlandish statements. They will not entertain independent reactions or fact-checking; they are convinced that all such attempts to ground us in a universal reality are part of a “fake news” conspiracy to discredit their hero.

But the rest of us operate from a place of trust, too. I trust Democracy Now! and The Intercept, because they have years of journalistic credibility. Of course I don’t trust them uncritically; they occasionally offer perspectives and guests that deserve scrutiny. But for the most part, I believe they are providing me with an accurate picture of the world as it is.

And it’s not just news. We trust the Union of Concerned Scientists on climate change. We trust Amnesty International on torture. We trust the American Cancer Society on risk factors. We trust airline mechanics. We trust other drivers to obey traffic lights. We trust restaurant workers to avoid  spitting in our food.

Many educated people reject this notion, insisting that they are fiercely independent and always do their own research, but this is nonsense. Who among us has the time and expertise to independently check the science behind climate change? (I remember one angry Republican student handing me a 50-page sheaf of papers explaining a study from a prominent anti-climate-change professor. He insisted I read the whole thing and accept it or refute it.) There’s no way for us to verify everything we believe, so we must rely on trust in various forms.

This makes consciousness-raising more tricky, because (A) most people don’t discuss, or accept, the significance of trust in the first place; and (B) how do you get people to trust you? Fortunately (A) is an academic point. If I can win someone’s trust, then I don’t care what they call it. My life would be easier if we could talk about who we trust and why, but then my life as a teacher would also be easier if my students were honest about why their work is late. As for (B), it’s a tricky business. Ironically for our purposes here, the Outer Circle isn’t going to trust moderate or leftist sources if they use the same rule book as Trump and the proto-fascists. We won’t be using fear and hatred of Mexicans and Muslims, so we can’t just tap into that seething hostility.

I also reject the notion that “civility” will win the day. Those of us who spend time organizing street action and movement politics understand that we fight with dignity that is not always civil. Respectability politics has long been weaponized to silence and marginalize those fighting oppression and injustice. Also ironically, if “civility” had any impact on MAGAts and the Outer Circle, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. (Hillary Clinton has been a model of civil political discourse her entire life. Look where it got her.)

Main Point #1: What War Is

Okay, that was a heck of a tangent. Let me move to my main points. First, we need to recognize what it means to actually go to war. It’s a terrible, wretched business that always always always spirals out of control. The Syrian Civil War was supposed to be a quick crackdown on children spray-painting anti-government graffiti. And now 500,000 people have died.

We tend to jump right into World War II as an example of a Good War that did Exactly What It Was Supposed To Do. But World War I was, we would hopefully all agree, a terrible war that did nothing it was supposed to do. Before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, we anti-war activists tried to sound the alarm of death and misery and suffering that were on the horizon. We were ignored. In the 1980s, the people of El Salvador and Nicaragua and East Timor tried to tell the world about what the wars in their countries were doing to them. They were ignored. Too many people are ignoring the horrible realities of the war waging right now in Syria.

And this leads me to Main Point #1: Those of us behind the “Peace & Justice” barricades understand that war is usually the worst option. Besides the other side having most of the weapons, we understand that — even if it is sometimes inevitable or necessary — war is an atrocity. We read history to learn about other options, and study those heroic individuals and organizations who have prevented terrible situations from becoming even worse through actual warfare.

Most leaders are not Hitler. Most government actions are not Stalinist pogroms. Most swarms of violent morons clutching tiki torches are not actual Nazi stormtroopers. Again, I don’t want to minimize the violence or terror the proto-fascists are capable of. But this is not a small matter: If 1% of the most dire situations we face require war to avoid obliteration or absolute subjugation, then 99% of them do not. And if you prepare for war when there are other options available, then you make a better course of action difficult (or impossible). Everybody always says war should be a last resort; even Reagan said it while arming the butchers of El Mozote, and Bush Jr. said it right before plunging Iraq into its atrocious nightmare.

The real question is: How do we live and act in a way that actually sees war as a dire 1% extremity?

Main Point #2: How Wars Start (and How They Can Be Prevented)

As an English teacher and armchair historian, I am not qualified to provide a comprehensive overview of how wars start. But it seems to me, after studying some gang wars, and the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the fight against Apartheid, and the liberation of East Timor, that we can see a few strains coming together.

Everybody involved in the start of a war believes there is some horrible overreach that requires The Good Guys to fight back. In the US Civil War, it was the “tyranny” of Lincoln and the abolitionists trying to force their opposition to slavery on the south. In a gang war, it’s usually a cycle of revenge, getting justice for a loved one murdered by the other side. “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny”, as Shakespeare said in Romeo & Juliet. (A play which is, after all, about a gang war.) Israel took land from Palestinians to protect themselves after the Holocaust, and Palestinians attack Israeli cities to resist the occupation and impose retribution for these injustices.

Main Point #2: To avoid a war, one side usually must give up something to which they are morally entitled. When the people of South Africa dismantled Apartheid with a nonviolent strategy, no one in the world believed they did not have the right to resist the violence of that regime with weapons. But they wanted the bloodshed to stop. And that’s the core question: Do you want revenge, or do you want an end to the bloodshed? Because you cannot have both.

In the movie Slam, Mike is morally entitled to seek some kind of punishment against the guys who shot him. But Raymond shows him another path, one less likely to continue the cycles of death and misery. The same is true of Debbie Morris, and every family member who finds the strength to show mercy despite unbelievable suffering.

Avoiding war is not sexy. No one wants to watch a movie called We Never Had to Save Private Ryan Because He Was Never Deployed in the First Place. Avoiding war happens with meetings and protests and reading and conversation and reporting and love and empathy. You look much cooler if you display your battle scars and declare your willingness to Give Your Life for What is Right. We often think of the people brandishing weapons as the most important warriors who keep us safe. But very often, the people who actually keep us safe are unarmed. They use words and typewriters and computers and hugs and information.

In 2015 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, who found a way to keep their country from descending into the chaos and warfare that so many nations in the Middle East experienced in the wake of the Arab Spring. Organizations who had been opponents for decades came together in order to find a less-terrible path among the 99% of options before them.

I hope — I believe — that we can do the same in our 21st century American crisis. The trickiest thing for me is advocating against war without minimizing the harm being done. If I use metaphors and premonitions of war, no one can doubt the urgency of our moment. And yet (once again) I demand a third option. I will declare unyielding hostility against oppressive policies, hateful rhetoric, misogynist violence, and the poisons of racism; while urging my fellow Americans to resist the bloodlust and thirst for vengeance that leads to war.

This is a trying time, no doubt, and my blood boils for the pain and suffering the MAGAts and proto-fascists are causing (ignored or applauded by the Outer Circle). I believe we have to fight, but I also believe we can (and should) avoid an actual war. So let’s work to make that happen, please and thank you.

A luta continua.