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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



civil war by any other means

Scale: for me it feels like it’s all about scale in America. Trying to somehow scale up the human condition to cover huge, inhuman scales: scales of power, scales of income difference, scales of vast distance, scales of intention, scales of cultural variation. Wiccans and dominionists; black separatists and klanners; Folsom St Fair and Little Green Footballs. How could they all possibly live together?

People forget, when they’re painting the beginning of the United States as basically a bunch of rich white guys in cahoots, is that they were white guys who were two generations down from, as my friend Anno says, the English equivalent of the Taliban, stuck next to Catholics, pacifists, and other miscellany.

The triumph of the American political culture is that raises to religious a creed that declares that “We are all OBVIOUSLY created equal, by — well, a um, thingy — and we have INALIENABLE RIGHTS (the exact list of which we’ll get back to you on), and among the many inalienable rights we have, are um, LIVING, LIVING THE WAY WE WANT, and the PURSUIT of … WHATEVER IT IS THAT MAKES US HAPPY PURSUING.”

It’s deliciously vague, and somehow the country has managed to maintain a stable political infrastructure over vast ideological distances. I’ve read the pamphlets put out by Jefferson supporters against Washington and Adams in the run-up to the 1800 election. They’re incredibly vicious, and I’m sure the reverse was true. Seventy years later, it’s amazing that America managed to have only the one civil war, and then, like some sort of mortally wounded Terminator, manage to stitch itself together again well enough to lumber spritely through the rest of the industrial revolution, despite unparalleled casualties.

When my European friends talk to me about the horrific right-wing nature of America, I can only point to the fact that it’s also houses some of the most left-wing viewpoints in the world (is that true? It’s sort of true: I’ve certainly heard stronger left-wing opinions in San Francisco than I did in London).

How do you even manage to comprehend such divisiveness? Sometimes, I think it’s some core political genius. Sometimes, I think it’s just luck. Sometimes, in more pessimistic moments, I think it only works because there’s enough space between people that the genocide reflex just doesn’t kick in.

Watching Palin, and flicking between commentators across the political map, I had that sense of vertigo, of physical illness again, when I’m trying see her from all these disparate angles. Half the audience just felt it was a sophomoric, nasty, poorly presented rant. The other thought it was the best political speech they’d seen in their lives.

I realise I sound (like I often do here) as though I’m a believer in American exceptionalism. That’s not what I want to say here. I guess what I’m saying here is that I have absolutely no idea how this will play out in America, and I think I knew that the moment she appeared. The left seemed to have one idea of who she was, and the right another: but I think how this plays out may well be much scarier and weirder than either side thinks. And as someone who is planning to live here (where “here” is both the United States and the world that is currently so influenced by it), I find that profoundly disturbing.

I remember talking to Desiree about what it was like in Yugoslavia, before it exploded, and I remember the profound disconnect between neighbours in Britain when Margaret Thatcher stormed the complacent political scene there. I think of the Main Sequence of democracies: a few years of stability, and then some juddering coup or outrage bringing it crashing to the ground. Is that what happens now? Or is it always like this, in America: is it always like that, when you declare that anyone can say anything?

4 Responses to “civil war by any other means”

  1. nick s Says:

    It’s schizoid. It’s pathological. Which makes me think of the US constitution as lithium. (‘The pure products of America / go crazy’ — WCW.)

    The wider point: where there’s no filter, there’s every filter. Except there are always filters: they’re just hidden in the superstructure.

  2. LeeH Says:

    What it is, is refreshing to hear the voice of an outsider who has decided to make his home here. I wonder what de Tocqueville would say about us now, if he had the time to explore a wider, larger American than he did in the 1830s.

    Though I sometimes think Americans may be more polarized than they were when I was growing up, I wonder if that’s true. The political parties have always been in opposition, often not as non-violent as it is today. I, too, am amazed we survived a civil war as well as we did. I often wonder how long we have before another revolution or civil war comes along; I think we’re overdue.

    But I think that this is the way it is in America. This is what we get when we have free speech, and anyone can say (almost) anything. Things are unpredictable, and always have been. Sarah Palin excites me, not because of her political ideology (I oppose almost everything she stands for) but because, even more than Obama, she’s a wildcard, and her very existence in the race changes the game. It’s almost like playing Calvinball; whatever the rules are, they can and do frequently change.

  3. Grimmtooth Says:

    It’s always been this way as far as I can tell.

    You are right when you note that many of the Saints of American politics were involved in some of the sleaziest mudslinging of the nation’s short history; I’ve pointed this out to friends and relatives when they despair at the sight of such things.

    But now I do despair because it is becoming less and less likely that “anyone can say anything” both because certain people have been in power as well as the overt influence of businesses with deep pockets getting their policies implemented as federal law. There may soon come a time when an American can NOT speak his or her mind about $PUBLIC_FIGURE or $GREEDY_CORPORATION due to a modern implementation of the Alien and Sedition Act. This is one reason that the EFF’s work is so important, because the EFF is on the case for at least one of the channels that we can use to express our opinions on such matters. So, best of luck with that.

  4. zero Says:

    An important note about the Constitution. The document does go to great detail about what the rights of the Government are limited to but doesn’t grant people rights. You might then think that the Bill of Rights defines what rights the people have but you would be wrong. The Bill of Rights only enumerates some of the rights of the people further defining what the government can’t do. In the 9th amendment it specifically says that rights not listed are “retained by the people.”

    It was a revolutionary idea at the time. That government only has limited rights and the people have all the rest.


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