Saturday, April 9, 2011
The Civil War Around Us
But is all this focus on the Civil War also a wake up call to our present dilemmas. The country almost stopped last night until minutes before a government shutdown, an agreement was struck by reluctant Democrats and Republicans to keep the government going. Underlying this near collapse of our government, were deep seated and building conflicts within the body politic of our nation which threaten even wider rifts and more severe consequences. Are we on the brink of a new Civil War?
I don't want to be cute or provocative. I believe a case can be made that our country is entering a great divide. The divisions are over: yes, race, class, regions, cultural beliefs, ignorance, immigration, globalization, economics and foreign policy goals.
Although we were mostly all proud that we had elected the first African American President (actually he is biracial and he did not come from slaves but the marriage of an African foreign student with an American woman), in truth, from the very beginning of his Presidency, he was under attack for being a secret Muslim, not born in the United States (incredibly even Donald Trump has now gotten on this issue) and for being a "community organizer," all of which could be considered code words for his race, as is the term "Obamacare."
We have an unusual class divide buiding, not between the rich and the poor, but between the very rich who run corporate America (not all of them, certainly but enough of them, and certainly characterized by the Koch brothers) who are stoking the fires of attack on the President and his policies, and sectors of the white working and lower middle classes that are joined in opposing big government and in some cases any government at all. The solid middle and upper middle classes, organized workers, minorities and the intellectual, cultural and enlightened business elites are arrayed against them.
Unfortunately, we remain divided along lines similar to that of the original Civil War: South against North, Coastal America against the hinterland; we now call it Red and Blue States. Demographic shifts have made these boundaries less precise and in some cases we now have swing states, that shift back and forth at least in electoral contests. One of these is my own state of Virginia. I only had to go down the street to the corner where we have a few village stores to find Johnny Reb tee shirts (actually that store was destroyed last year in a tornado.)
We are deeply divided culturally. Our constitution provides for a clear separation of church and state, yet there are those who wish to impose their own religious beliefs on others. This applies primarily to women's reproductive rights and gay rights, but also to what is taught in the classroom about things like sex education, history and evolution. Increasingly, the religious right is imposing its beliefs on the rest of the country. They have become increasingly powerful, organized and media-savvy. There is still a legacy of the 60s, which is reflected in many of the beliefs of the Baby Boomers, who lived through that period of cultural awakening and sexual and freedom.
The ignorance gap is something not often explored and I am not simply saying that there are people who are intelligent or stupid. I am speaking more about people who rely on science versus those who depend solely in belief. This applies particularly to the debates about evolution and stem cell research. This is something that goes back to the days of the Scopes Trial and persists today. Our capacity to survive on this planet is most linked to our ability to apply science to the problems that confront humanity, but efforts to hold back scientific discovery, knowledge and implementation will continue to make this effort difficult.
We are an immigrant society, par excellence, yet we are divided over immigration. We occupied a good part of Mexico. We filled our cities with immigrants from Europe and more recently from the rest of the world. We continue to depend on immigrants to do work that most American-born citizens would not care to do. Yet there is a whole group of Americans who fear immigration. Because of this, we have more, not less illegal immigration because our politicians cannot agree on a orderly immigration policy. No matter what we try, we cannot stop immigration, only slow it down at a great cost. People will lie on their visa applications, sneak in through, around and under our land borders. But the false dichotomy of being for or against immigration or seeing it strictly as a law enforcement and not also an economic and social problem drives us to failure and conflict. Most importantly, anti-immigrant sentiment is focused on flows from Latin America, mostly Mexico and Central America. Of course, this concern is increased by the amount of crime taking place across the border as well as some spillover due to the nature of illegal trafficking both of narcotics and humans. However, a lot of this anti-immigrant sentiment, in my opinion, is purely racism and nativism. A fear of foreigners, their cultures their beliefs,their way of life and their poverty. Of course, these attitudes are given justifications such as "they are taking jobs away from Americans," and "they are a burden to our social welfare policies." But few immigrants take jobs on farms, on construction sites, in restaurants or in hotels that Americans really want, despite the depressed jobs market. And in general, the immigrants who come here are hard working and conscientious, seeking a living for themselves and their families, many of whom are still back in their home towns down south.
Globalization and economics divides us. There are those who are better and worse prepared to confront the challenges of globalization, which are inevitable. Those whose jobs are being displaced because employers, mostly industrial but also services, can no longer afford to pay people in this country 10-20 times the wages paid abroad. There are many other challenges of globalization, such as the use of the social media tot divide us between those who use and those who do not use them or understand technology, which is the root cause of globalization. Our counry has increasingly been creating a gap in income levels that has left a large number of people poor and undereducated, leading further to their economic marginalization. The cost of education, the greatest tool for overcoming barriers to increasing income, has become prohibitive.
Finally, we are divided over the role of our country in the world. This is not an easy issue on which to see a clear divide, because more than anything you find elites on both sides of the political party barrier finding a common position, versus the opinions of many ordinary Americans. Both parties support our current policies in both Iraq and Afghanistan, while most Americans are going along with Iraq because we are leaving but have problems with Afghanistan because we cannot leave fast enough for them. In truth, our current policies are to stay as long as we have to, but no President can say this so starkly and neither can Republicans who are hard liners when it comes to fighting terrorism. The delicate nature of the problem is our current polices with regard to Libya. Everyone hates Qaddafi, but few Americans really want to see our country get deeply involved in a third war with "boots on the ground," or with hemorrhaging expenses. This is an issue where Republicans are also divided so it is not a partisan issue at this time, but could become one. At root here also, besides those issues of "blood and treasure" that always emerge with foreign involvements, are deep seated sentiments of isolationism vs. internationalism. These are more deeply rooted in class than in differences among elites. For the present, however, anti-war sentiment has not been a major issue in our political campaigns, although Iraq was the root of BarrackObama's 2008 campaign.
These differences are often referred to as "cleavages" by political scientists. If enough of these overlap, they are the basis for a large conflict within a society. Are we moving in this direction? Have we already arrived? I am not sure, but I am fearful. We entered 2009 on a note of hope and unity. We are far from that today. Let us hope for leadership that can move us back in this direction. I have not specifically mentioned the issue of debt or the Tea Party, but these are obviously large factors of division in the country. The Democrats have largely thrown in the towel on the debt issue, acknowledging the need for drastic debt reduction. But the Tea Pary wants more than Democrats are willing to give and they are also salting their demands increasingly with cultural issues that make coming together even more difficult that purely over fiscal matters.