Politics & Policy

From Americans to Americans

Confederate General John Brown Gordon (left) and Union General Joshua Chamberlain (Photos: National Archives, Library of Congress)
Cocooned by peace, some dream of a civil war.

After the attempted assassination of House Republican whip Steve Scalise by a Democratic activist and Bernie Sanders supporter, a peculiar turn of phrase began to be repeated: “The cold civil war is heating up.”

There are those who dream of a new civil war, or at least of an approximation of the political events prior to it. Some left-wing Californians and right-wing Texans dream of secession, while others fantasize about an open armed conflict, a pitched battle and a cleansing fire out of which a new America could be born, its impurities burnt away.

But you cannot make a new America out of old Americans, for the same reason that you cannot build a new car out of old parts. Likewise, “no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved. No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better.”

“The old is better” may be a convenient caricature of conservative thinking, but it is not one without some basis. “To be conservative,” Michael Oakeshott wrote, “is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

You can keep your New America. I’m happy enough with the one we’ve got, and think we ought to do a little bit more to take care of it.

This is a dangerous moment in our history, about which we ought to be honest. President Donald Trump is an irresponsible demagogue who ought never have been elected to the office he holds — but he was, legitimately, fair and square, your favorite Muscovite conspiracy theory notwithstanding. That being said, the actual immediate problem of political violence in the United States is overwhelmingly and particularly a problem belonging to the Left. This is not a “both sides do it” issue: Paul Krugman can speak on any college campus in this country without enduring mob violence and organized terrorism — Charles Murray cannot. There is not anything on the right like the mass terrorism behind the Seattle riots of 1999 or the black-bloc riots of the day before yesterday. The Democratic party, progressive organizations, and college administrations have some serious political and intellectual housekeeping to do here — but, instead, they are in the main refusing to acknowledge that they have a problem. The line between “Punch a Nazi!” and “Assassinate a Republican congressman!” is morally perforated.

If we follow the course we are on, we will see more unhappiness, more violence, more repressive national-security policies, less prosperity, less freedom, and less of anything that looks like the quite-good-enough America we already have.

Some elements of the Right are nearly as hysterical. (Some are more hysterical, though my impression is that those are mainly insincere radio and television entertainers.) On Thursday afternoon, a caller to an AM radio station in Dallas made what is by now a familiar, illiterate, and terrifying argument: that those who oppose President Trump are working to undermine the president, and, therefore, to undermine the country, and that they ought to be arrested as “subversives” or “traitors.” The identification of the president with the nation itself is a particularly poisonous and idiotic form of power-worship, one that was a fairly common feature of progressive discourse when it was Barack Obama being “undermined.” But the president is not the country, and opposing the president — irrespective of his party or his agenda — is not treason. It is politics.

Oddly, Americans often comported themselves with greater honor — with greater grace — during an episode of actual treason: “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort,” as the Constitution puts it, and General John Brown Gordon, as a Confederate officer, levied war against the United States with some enthusiasm. (“John Brown” must have been an awkward name for a Confederate general to bear.) To General Gordon fell the duty of leading the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. The victorious Union general, Joshua Chamberlain, made a famous gesture at that most delicate of moments, having his troops salute Gordon and his defeated men. As Gordon told the story: “One of the knightliest soldiers of the federal army, General Joshua L. Chamberlain of Maine, called his troops into line, and as my men marched in front of them, the veterans in blue gave a soldierly salute to those vanquished heroes — a token of respect from Americans to Americans.” Chamberlain, who had been a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin, told the story with some literary flair: “Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual — honor answering honor.”

At that moment, with battles still being fought and blood being shed around the divided nation — in a war in which 620,000 Americans would die — we began to honor Abraham Lincoln’s imperative: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”

So, the election didn’t go your way. That means America is finished? Grow up.

So, the election didn’t go your way. That means America is finished, defeated, corrupted beyond redemption? Grow up. Nobody said being free would be easy. We, all of us, have work to do — childish fantasies and childish temper tantrums aren’t getting it done. The next time you feel yourself tempted to call one of your fellow Americans a “traitor,” you should give some serious consideration to the infinitely preferable option of keeping your damned-fool mouth shut.

When she was married to Prince Andrew, Sarah Ferguson once complained to Prince Philip that she missed her husband, whose military career obliged him to be away from home for extended periods of times. The royal consort was unsympathetic: “The Mountbattens managed,” he scoffed. “And so can you.”

General Chamberlain managed. General Gordon, too. And so can you.


We’re Not in a Civil War, but We Are Drifting Toward Divorce

Can a Divided America Survive?

America’s Second Civl War: A Fight over Basic Values

– Kevin Williamson is NR’s roving correspondent.


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