Tag Archives: civil war

Scary Stuff…

During Reconstruction, it was the KKK.

This time, it’s organizations like Oath Keepers and Proud Boys–but the context is uncomfortably similar. If the U.S. is currently waging a different kind of civil war, as many pundits argue, these assorted groups of violent extremists–some 1600 of them, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center–are today’s domestic terrorists.

Today’s Klan.

A raft of academic studies has confirmed that most episodes of domestic terror in the U.S. are carried out by these right-wing groups–far in excess of Islamic or left-wing groups. And–just as during Reconstruction–the destructive actions of these groups are rooted in racism. Theirs isn’t the embarrassing but less violent racism we see in the posts to social media decrying Disney’s decision to cast a Black mermaid. This is a malignant and horrifying desire to wreak physical harm and even death on the feared and hated “other.”

Even more terrifying than the proliferation of these groups is the discovery that their membership includes a large number of police and military officers.

The names of hundreds of U.S. law enforcement officers, elected officials and military members appear on the leaked membership rolls of a far-right extremist group that’s accused of playing a key role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, according to a report released Wednesday.

The Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism pored over more than 38,000 names on leaked Oath Keepers membership lists and identified more than 370 people it believes currently work in law enforcement agencies — including as police chiefs and sheriffs — and more than 100 people who are currently members of the military.

It also identified more than 80 people who were running for or served in public office as of early August. The membership information was compiled into a database published by the transparency collective Distributed Denial of Secrets.

The data raises fresh concerns about the presence of extremists in law enforcement and the military who are tasked with enforcing laws and protecting the U.S. It’s especially problematic for public servants to be associated with extremists at a time when lies about the 2020 election are fueling threats of violence against lawmakers and institutions.

As their affiliations have emerged, a number of those identified have taken pains to minimize their connections–saying they left the organization long before, or only paid dues once and left when they realized the organization was violent/hateful/extreme. As the linked report notes, that excuse simply doesn’t hold up–the Oath Keepers have been very explicit about their “mission’ from the day they were founded.

About that founding:  Oath Keepers was formed in 2009 by someone named Stewart Rhodes. It is described as a “loosely organized conspiracy theory-fueled group,” and it very deliberately recruits current and former military personnel, police and other first responders. It requires  members to defend its twisted version of the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and includes the federal government among those enemies, arguing that the federal government is tyrannical and intent upon depriving citizens of their civil liberties.

The article notes that more than two dozen members of the Oath Keepers — including Rhodes — have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack and with the plot to keep then-President Donald Trump in power.

The Oath Keepers has grown quickly along with the wider anti-government movement and used the tools of the internet to spread their message during Barack Obama’s presidency, said Rachel Carroll Rivas, interim deputy director of research with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project….

ADL said it found the names of at least 10 people who now work as police chiefs and 11 sheriffs. All of the police chiefs and sheriffs who responded to the AP said they no longer have any ties to the group.

When asked about their connection to the group, the men identified by the ADL all twisted themselves into knots distancing themselves. “Who, me? I just wondered what they were about, but never joined/left quickly/don’t recall…”

Right. And I have some not-underwater land in Florida to sell you.

Police departments have long struggled to weed out the inevitable thugs who find the ability to carry a weapon and assert authority very attractive. The larger departments have instituted psychological testing and other mechanisms in an effort to identify and avoid employing those applicants, but they aren’t always successful–and numerous rural and smaller departments lack either the desire or the resources to exclude such individuals.

In the South during Reconstruction, the KKK could often depend upon the local Sheriff–a fellow member– to look the other way when they lynched or brutalized someone. The willingness of today’s law enforcement personnel to become members of the Klan’s “modern version” is disheartening, to put it mildly.

It’s terrifying, to put it accurately.

 

Two Possibilities….

A few days ago, a clearly exasperated reader of this blog asked “the” question–the question I ask myself daily and am unable to answer. He agreed with my “diagnoses” of the myriad  problems we face, but wanted to know what we can do about them. We know what the problems are–what can individuals do to solve them?

If only I had an answer! We’d both feel better.

Not only do I not have a solution to “the question,” I vacillate between two competing analyses of the problems we face. As I have previously noted, I’ve been reading a lot more history lately, in an effort to determine whether we’ve been here before, or whether the severity of America’s divisions is something unprecedented. (That’s another question to which I have no answer…).

As I used to tell my students, it depends–and it’s complicated.

Like many of the people who read this blog, I take the daily letter from historian Heather Cox Richardson, who provides helpful historic context to the issues of the day. Recently, she addressed the question of Trump’s stolen documents, and Senator Lindsey Graham’s threat that holding Trump accountable would be met with violence in the streets.

Richardson pointed out that arguments about the theft of those documents  are arguments about the rule of law–not about contending political opinions. Graham’s threats about gangs taking to the streets is an authoritarian’s argument for the use of violence to overturn the rule of law. Richardson then provided valuable context, noting that resort to violence is not new to this country, citing to  the Reconstruction South–a period during which “white gangs terrorized their Black neighbors and the white men who voted as they did, suppressed labor organization at the turn of the last century, and fed rising fascism in the 1930s”.

Right-wing activists have been an ever-growing threat since the 1990s. Under Trump, rightwing gangs became his troops. But as Richardson reminded us,  even the incidents of domestic terrorism aren’t new.

Such gangs have always operated in the U.S., and they gain power and momentum when they engage in violence and are unchecked. After several years in which they have seemed invulnerable, we are now in a period when, as we learned on Saturday, an armed man in a truck chased Independent Utah senatorial candidate Evan McMullin with a gun after an event in April and forced the vehicle carrying McMullin and his wife into oncoming traffic. That incident echoes one from October 2020, when a bus carrying Biden staffers and volunteers through Texas was harassed by Trump supporters, some of whom appeared to be trying to force it off the road. When the terrified Biden workers called the police, officers allegedly refused to help.

What I take from Richardson and other historians–as well as the upheavals most of us personally experienced in the 1960s and 70s– is the lesson that the times we are living through are not unique. We can take some comfort in the fact that we got through those ugly episodes, and reassure ourselves that we can make it through these times as well.

Or–as a part of my brain whispers–maybe this time really is different.

Previous periods of unrest didn’t occur in the face of the existential threats posed by climate change, and new technologies that facilitate mass murder and Orwellian surveillance. Obsolescent rules weren’t bringing federal governance to a grinding halt…

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which of these analyses is accurate. Whether we’ve been here before or we really haven’t–we need to find a way out. But the solutions available to us will ultimately depend upon understanding what is happening now, and how unprecedented (or not) our challenges are.

Choose your preferred diagnosis–but neither sparks an epiphany pointing to a cure.

The single thing that each of us can do is to vote, and work to ensure that other rational Americans do likewise. Gerrymandering and vote suppression tactics may win the day– but a truly overwhelming Blue turnout would keep the GOP from furthering its march to fascism, and would begin the long and difficult job of mending American government.

Voting Blue in November won’t be an endorsement of whatever Democrats stand for. The party certainly isn’t above criticism. It is, however, largely sane and pro-democracy.

Conservative Republican Adam Kitzinger recently made the same point.

A Blue vote is a vote for women’s reproductive autonomy, for the civil rights of LGBTQ citizens,   for sensible restrictions on firearms, and for prioritizing the interests of working and middle class Americans. We can–and will– argue about the details of those basic commitments, but only if we defeat the unAmerican cult that stands firmly against them all.

This November, we must vote Blue for America.

 

 

 

About That Civil War

I’ve been brooding a lot over the fragmentations and hostilities of American life, and the gloomy predictions of a “civil war”. Since America’s divisions tend to fall along lines of urban and rural, a traditional “war” featuring some sort of widespread armed conflict is unlikely and impractical, but the “sides” are pretty clearly arrayed, and we seem incapable of talking to or understanding each other.

I especially thought about the growing differences of Americans’ realities a couple of weeks ago. We were driving home from South Carolina, where for the past forty-plus years our family has enjoyed a summer week at the beach. We used to take the  state’s (relatively) major roads from our place at Litchfield Beach to Columbia, where we accessed the interstate, but since the advent of GPS, we’ve been able to save time by following directions along the lines of “take a right through farmer Brown’s sorghum field, then go 500 feet and turn onto narrow, scary unpaved county line road…(Okay, that may be a bit exaggerated, but it is amazing how desolate some parts of our country remain, and how long you can drive without encountering human habitation…)

What isn’t exaggerated is the isolation through which the GPS took us. We would go miles and miles without passing a gas station or seeing anything remotely resembling a town. We would, however, occasionally pass a trailer that had seen better days, often with an equally-dilapidated truck or van sitting in an un-mowed yard. Other times, we would pass a more substantial small home sitting forlornly in a field, alone and–so far as we could tell– far from neighbors or shops.

I cannot help wondering about the people who live in these homes. Do they have internet access? Television? Where is the nearest school, and do they have children who attend that school? Is there a library anywhere close? Where’s the nearest grocery? (Given the number of churches we pass on these trips–far, far more numerous than gas stations– I do know there’s a church near by, although I have no idea whether it is the “right” church…)

So here’s the thing.

Living in the heart of a mid-sized city, my experience of American life is radically different from the experience of the folks who inhabit these precincts. It isn’t a matter of “better” or “worse” (although we all have our prejudices)–it’s a matter of really dramatic distance. The skill sets of people who must fix their own cars, grow much of their own food, and rely on their immediate families and fellow religious congregants  for the bulk of their human interaction is obviously different from that of city dwellers who live near multiple other people–most of whom don’t go to their church or share their backgrounds or experiences.

Although I’d be the first to admit that I have no way of knowing, I’m pretty sure that the things I fear are not the things these folks fear. It’s also likely that the things I know and am familiar with are very different from the things they know and are familiar with, just as our respective skill-sets are likely to be very different. 

How do we talk to each other as Americans? What does being an American mean to each of us? Are there areas of agreement, of commonality? 

Research confirms that MAGA true believers come disproportionately from these very rural environments, and that many of these inhabitants deeply resent the “elitists” and “woke folks” they think occupy urban America. Urban dwellers can be equally dismissive of rural folks.  

As a 2018 Pew study reported,

Against this backdrop, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that many urban and rural residents feel misunderstood and looked down on by Americans living in other types of communities. About two-thirds or more in urban and rural areas say people in other types of communities don’t understand the problems people face in their communities. And majorities of urban and rural residents say people who don’t live in their type of community have a negative view of those who do.

A 2020 study by scholars at  Washington University found  that the urban-rural political divide is rooted in geography and not merely differences in the type of people who choose to live in these places. How close people live to a major metropolitan area (defined as cities of at least 100,000) and the population density of that urban environment significantly affect political beliefs and partisan affiliations. The researchers found that “The distance we live away from a metropolitan area shapes what we think about the political world and the partisan labels we adopt.”

There really are two Americas, and they are increasingly at odds. Perhaps it isn’t “civil war”–but it’s uncomfortably close. 

 

 

 

A Cold Civil War

Back in high school when most of us studied the Civil War (usually briefly and superficially), it was hard to get our heads around the extent to which Americans held wildly different world-views. I remember my own inability to understand how so many Southerners (and not a few Northerners) fervently believed their skin color entitled them to own another human being.

At the time of the Civil War, a majority of people willing to defend the institution of slavery lived below the Mason-Dixon Line, a geographic reality that made it possible to take up arms against those who disagreed. Today, most of the divisions we face lack that geographic clarity. Although it’s true that we have Red States and Blue States, we also have bright blue cities in those Red States, and Blue States have pockets of rural Red voters. So our current Civil War–and I don’t think that is too strong a descriptor–is a “Cold War,” being fought primarily with propaganda, but threatening to erupt into assaults like the January 6th insurrection.

Most readers of this blog are well aware of the recent speech given by former General Michael Flynn, at an event for QAnon believers that featured other representatives of LaLaLand like Texas Representative Louis Gohmert.

As the New York Times reported,

Michael T. Flynn, a former national security adviser, suggested that a military coup was needed in the United States during a Memorial Day weekend conference organized by adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, drawing criticism from political scientists, veterans, Democrats and a handful of prominent Republicans.

I don’t know how many of the Southerners who ultimately took up arms in America’s first Civil War actually believed in the core precepts of slavery and “the White Man’s burden,” but thanks to advances in polling and survey research, we have a fairly accurate understanding of the percentage of our fellow-Americans who claim to believe QAnon nonsense.

A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core found that 14 percent of Americans, including about one in four Republicans, believed in three central tenets of the QAnon conspiracy theory: that the United States is being run by a cabal of Satanist pedophiles, that “American patriots may have to resort to violence” to get rid of that cabal, and that a “storm” will soon “restore the rightful leaders.”

In a robust democracy, fourteen percent of the population can be bat-shit crazy without endangering the Union–but we don’t have a robust democracy. As over one hundred political science scholars recently wrote, the attacks on voting underway in several states are transforming democratic decision-making into “political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.” The scholars warn that “our entire democracy is now at risk.”

Ezra Klein recently reminded readers that Democrats face an unforgiving context:

Their coalition leans young, urban and diverse, while America’s turnout patterns and electoral geography favor the old, rural and white. According to FiveThirtyEight, Republicans hold a 3.5 point advantage in the Electoral College, a 5-point advantage in the Senate and a 2-point advantage in the House. Even after winning many more votes than Republicans in 2018 and 2020, they are at a 50-50 split in the Senate, and a bare 4-seat majority in the House. Odds are that they will lose the House and possibly the Senate in 2022.

This is the fundamental asymmetry of American politics right now: To hold national power, Democrats need to win voters who are right-of-center; Republicans do not need to win voters who are left-of-center. Even worse, Republicans control the election laws and redistricting processes in 23 states, while Democrats control 15. The ongoing effort by Texas Republicans to tilt the voting laws in their favor, even as national Republicans stonewall the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, is testament to the consequences of that imbalance.

This is how a Cold Civil War is conducted. Although there may be scattered bloodshed a la January 6th, the actual battles–the coups favored by crackpots like Flynn and Gohmert and numerous other Republicans– are taking place in state-level legislative bodies where the will of the majority has been neutered by gerrymandering and on media platforms where facts are twisted or sacrificed to feed the appetites–and generate the rage– of angry  old White guys. 

What is really terrifying is the likelihood that this current iteration of Civil War will be won or lost with most Americans totally unaware that it is even being fought….

 

Tearing The Scab Off

MONDAY’S POST–INADVERTENTLY PUBLISHED EARLY…(Every once in a while, I hit the wrong button…)

It has taken nearly 150 years–since the end of the Civil War in 1865–for America to face up to our most consequential deviation from the sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence. During most of that time period, we have engaged in various kinds of denial–the most widespread and egregious being the oft-repeated assertion that the war was fought over “states’ rights.”

That description was true, as far as it went. The war was fought to defend the “right” of some states to authorize and enforce the enslavement of black human beings.

Although very few school history classes have taught the realities of slavery, reconstruction and the various horrifying efforts to thwart the civil rights movement, we find ourselves at a point where the reality and extent of racial animus can no longer  be ignored. Over the last four or five years, members of what the late Molly Ivins used to call “the chattering classes” have focused more honestly on the extent to which racial grievance permeates our politics and distorts American public policy.

I posted a few days ago about the eruption in the Indiana General Assembly, but the verbal expressions of incivility certainly weren’t the only metric of racial bias: the assault on Indianapolis by more suburban and rural lawmakers–displayed this session in a number of truly offensive bills–is driven in large measure by disdain for the racial diversity of urban life. Legislative support for Indiana’s costly voucher program, which aims to “privatize” (and not so incidentally, resegregate) education, has its roots in that same disdain.

The under-appreciated problem with policy grounded in racial and ethnic bias is that such policies don’t hurt just the people who are targeted; they also hurt those who support them, as a new book makes very clear.

Michelle Goldberg described that book–“The Sum of Us” by Heather McGhee– in a recent column for the New York Times.

McGhee’s book is about the many ways racism has defeated efforts to create a more economically just America. Once the civil rights movement expanded America’s conception of “the public,” white America’s support for public goods collapsed. People of color have suffered the most from the resulting austerity, but it’s made life a lot worse for most white people, too. McGhee’s central metaphor is that of towns and cities that closed their public pools rather than share them with Black people, leaving everyone who couldn’t afford a private pool materially worse off.

One of the most fascinating things about “The Sum of Us” is how it challenges the assumptions of both white antiracism activists and progressives who just want to talk about class. McGhee argues that it’s futile to try to address decades of disinvestment in schools, infrastructure, health care and more without talking about racial resentment.

She describes research done by the Race-Class Narrative Project, a Demos initiative that grew out of her work for the book. McGhee and her colleagues, she writes, discovered that if you “try to convince anyone but the most committed progressives (disproportionately people of color) about big public solutions without addressing race, most will agree … right up until they hear the countermessage that does talk, even implicitly, about race.”

There is a widespread zero-sum approach to social justice–a deep-seated fear that equality for “them” will diminish dominance/status for “us.”

McGhee’s book shifts the focus from the ways in which racism benefits white people to the substantial costs it imposes on them.

 Why is student debt so crushing in a country that once had excellent universities that were cheap or even free? Why is American health care such a disaster? Why is our democracy being strangled by minority rule? As the first line of McGhee’s book asks, “Why can’t we have nice things?” Racism is a huge part of the answer.

An unhealed wound will form a scab; a healed wound will leave a scar.  Racism is America’s wound. There will always be a scar, but it won’t heal until we recognize and acknowledge the ongoing, significant damage it causes to all of us.

As Goldberg says, counting on altruism will only get you so far.