December’s newly designed cover ofThe Atlanticfeatures a handprint in red and blue paint, smeared and bloodlike. Underneath it reads: “How to Stop Civil War.” It’s a cover that both haunts and sells like a paperback thriller. Might America be in store for another civil war? Such is the idea of the image, nerving current civic fears by the suggestion that something might be coming, something bad.
Inside, the editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, manages this advertised fear. “We do not believe that conditions in the United States today resemble those of 1850s America,” he writes. “But we worry that the ties that bind us are fraying at alarming speed — we are becoming contemptuous of each other in ways that are both dire and possibly irreversible.” Such is what the issue is really about: not prophecies of doom but diagnoses of what’s tearing us apart, the aggregate effect of all those politicized and Facebooked fights wearing us thin.
The rhetoric of civil war is but a reflex of history, traumatic like a flashback. Given the endlessness and irreconcilability of our contemporary conflicts, such understandably comes to mind; the bloody, uniquely American ghost of Gettysburg, Antietam and a half-million dead. What is the end of our differences if not violence, especially when compromise is lost to the imagination? Americans here naturally think civil war.
However, what if civil war isn’t what we should be worried about but instead some different historical ghost? Something French, perhaps?
What if instead of civil war, we should fear another reign of terror? What if that’s what this strange mix of social stress and broken politics portend? What if, unlike in France, our reign of terror is but delayed?
I’m thinking of Hannah Arendt’sOn Revolution, of her controversial comparison of the revolutions in France and America, of why she thought France descended into a reign of terror and the guillotine while America enjoyed relative imperfect stability. Whereas in America, she said, relatively strong political structures created public spaces “where freedom could appear,” in France the ruling elite instead pandered to the impoverished masses. Instead of freedom, vague “happiness” was made the goal of the revolution in France; instead of the good of the Republic, now the revolution served the shifting good of the “people.” It was a sort of populism built upon promises of the political class, which in time, unsurprisingly, gave rise to little more than mob chaos, a reign of terror, the unfortunate masses having become enraged that happiness never came. Because they were merely the pandered empty words of the elite.
When I catch glimpses of Donald Trump rallies, the hateful rhetoric of the president and the glee and hard, volatile edge of his adoring crowds, I ask myself if these aren’t our modern-daysansculotteswho in their angst would rather eliminate elements of our citizenry than understand them. But then I think close to the same when I hear progressive politicians push their plainly false tolerance, their thinly veiled hatred of traditional moralities and politics unlike their own, unlike whatever is the current creed of the zeitgeist. The left has their mobs too, and they would unleash terror as well. Both are curated by factions within the political class, dangerously psyched up by false promises. And it’s because our loudest politicians promise easy false happiness instead of the hard work of freedom.
But the question is, can this outcome be avoided? I don’t know. Arendt thought that if there was any hope it lay in the revival of smaller, more local politics and the protection of privacy. Maybe then we all should get off social media, subscribe to the local paper and worry more about city councils than Congress? Forget regulating social media, let’s eliminate it. Maybe also we should reestablish the society of neighborhoods, focusing less on divisive social issues and more on education, infrastructure, and potholes? Perhaps this is the sort of work that’ll keep us from violence, that’ll keep us so busy and bound together that we just won’t have time to squabble. I expect I’d think better of my neighbors if only I saw them and interacted with them really as neighbors, in the flesh.
Maybe that’s what can be done to save our country, so simple, so untechnological, something we don’t even have to vote on. If only we’ll imagine it, put our phones down, and look up.