Experts on conflict predict unrest, but America has a long way to go before it is as divided as it was in 1861
January 9, 2022
Violence is in the air. No one who saw the shocking scenes during the Capitol riot in Washington on January 6, 2021, can pretend that it was just a big misunderstanding. Donald Trump and his allies attempted to retain power at all costs. Terrible things happened that day. A year later the wounds are still raw and the country is still polarised. Only Democratic leaders participated in last week’s anniversary commemoration; Republicans stayed away. The one-year mark has produced a blizzard of warnings that the US is spiralling into a second civil war.
Only an idiot would ignore the obvious signs of a country turning against itself. Happy, contented electorates don’t storm their parliament (although terrified and oppressed peoples don’t either). America has reached the point where the mid-term elections are no longer a yawn but a test case for future civil unrest.
Predictably, the left and right are equally loud in their denunciations of each other. “Liberals” look at “conservatives” and see the alt-right: white supremacists and religious fanatics working together to suppress voting rights, women’s rights and democratic rights. Conservatives stare back and see antifa: essentially, progressive totalitarians making common cause with socialists and anarchists to undermine the pillars of American freedom and democracy. Put the two sides together and you have an electorate that has become angry, suspicious and volatile.
The looming threat of a civil war is almost the only thing that unites pundits and politicians across the political spectrum. Two new books, one by the Canadian journalist Stephen Marche and the other by the conflict analyst Barbara Walter, argue that the conditions for civil war are already in place. Walter believes that America is embracing “anocracy” (outwardly democratic, inwardly autocratic), joining a dismal list of countries that includes Turkey, Hungary and Poland. The two authors’ arguments have been boosted by the warnings of respected historians, including Timothy Snyder, who wrote in The New York Times that the US is teetering over the “abyss” of civil war.
If you accept the premise that America is facing, at the very least, a severe test of its democracy, then it is all the more important to subject the claims of incipient civil war to rigorous analysis. The fears aren’t baseless; the problem is that predictions are slippery things. How to prove a negative against something that hasn’t happened yet? There’s also the danger of the self-fulfilling prophecy: wishing and predicting don’t make things so, although they certainly help to fix the idea in people’s minds. The more Americans say that the past is repeating itself and the country has reached the point of no return, the more likely it will be believed.
Predictions based on comparisons to Weimar Germany, Nazi Germany, the Russian Revolution and the fall of Rome are simplistic and easy to dismiss. But, just as there is absolutely no basis for the jailed Capitol rioters to compare themselves to “Jews in Germany”, as one woman recently did, arguments that equate today’s fractured politics with the extreme violence that plagued the country just before the Civil War are equally overblown — not to mention trivialising of its 1.5 million casualties.
There simply isn’t a correlation between the factors dividing America then and now. In the run-up to the war in 1861, the North and South were already distinct entities in terms of ethnicity, customs and law. Crucially, the North’s economy was based on free labour and was prone to slumps and financial panics, whereas the South’s depended on slavery and was richer and more stable. The 13 Southern states seceded because they had local government, the military and judicial institutions on side.
Today there is a far greater plurality of voters spread out geographically. President Biden won Virginia and Georgia and almost picked up Texas in 2020; in 1860 there were ten Southern states where Abraham Lincoln didn’t even appear on the ballot.
When it comes to assessing the validity of generally accepted conditions for civil breakdown, the picture becomes more complicated. A 2006 study by the political scientists Havard Hegre and Nicholas Sambanis found that at least 88 circumstances are used to explain civil war. The generally accepted ones include: a fragile economy, deep ethnic and religious divides, weak government, long-standing grievances and factionalised elites. But models and circumstances are like railway tracks: they take us down one path and blind us to the others.
In 2015 the European think tank VoxEU conducted a historical analysis of over 100 financial crises between 1870 and 2014. Researchers found a pattern of street violence, greater distrust of government, increased polarisation and a rise in popular and right-wing parties in the five years after a crisis. This would perfectly describe the situation in the US except for one thing: the polarisation and populism have coincided with falling unemployment and economic growth. The Capitol riot took place despite, not because of, the strength of the financial system.
A country can meet a whole checklist of conditions and not erupt into outright civil war (for example, Northern Ireland in the 1970s) or meet only a few of the conditions and become a total disaster. It’s not only possible for the US, a rich, developed nation, to share certain similarities with an impoverished, conflict-ridden country and yet not become one; it’s also quite likely, given that for much of its history it has held together while being a violent, populist-driven society seething with racial and religious antagonisms behind a veneer of civil discourse. This is not an argument for complacency; it is simply a reminder that theory is not destiny.
A more worrying aspect of the torrent of civil war predictions by experts and ordinary Americans alike is the readiness to demonise and assume the absolute worst of the other side. It’s a problem when millions of voters believe that the American polity is irredeemably tainted, whether by corruption, communism, elitism, racism or what have you. The social cost of this divide is enormous. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project: “In this hyper-polarised environment, state forces are taking a more heavy-handed approach to dissent, non-state actors are becoming more active and assertive and counter-demonstrators are looking to resolve their political disputes in the street.”
Dissecting the roots of America’s lurch towards rebarbative populism requires a particular kind of micro human analysis involving real-life interviews with perpetrators and protesters as well as trawls through huge sets of data. The results have shown that, more often than not, the attribution of white supremacist motives to the Capitol rioters, or anti-Americanism to Black Lives Matter protesters, says more about the politics of the accuser than the accused.
Social media is an amplifier for hire — polarisation lies at the heart of its business models and algorithms. Researchers looking at the “how” rather than just the “why” of America’s political Balkanisation have also found evidence of large-scale foreign manipulation of social media. A recent investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post revealed that after November 3, 2020, there were more than 10,000 posts a day on Facebook attacking the legitimacy of the election.
In 2018 a Rasmussen poll asked American voters whether the US would experience a second civil war within the next five years. Almost a third said it would. In a similar poll conducted last year the proportion had risen to 46 per cent. Is it concerning? Yes. Does it make the prediction true? Well, polls also showed a win for Hillary Clinton and a landslide for Joe Biden. So, no.
Before there was Halloween, there were costume balls and Carnival, among other occasions for the liberation of dressing up
October 28, 2021
Costume parades and Halloween parties are back after being canceled last year. Donning a costume and mask to go prancing around might seem like the height of frivolity, but the act of dressing-up has deep roots in the human psyche.
During the early classical era, worshipers at the annual festivals of Dionysus—the god of wine, ritual madness and impersonation, among other things—expanded mask-wearing from religious use to personal celebrations and plays performed in his honor. Masks symbolized the suspension of real world rules: A human could become a god, an ordinary citizen could become a king, a man could be a woman. Anthropologists call such practices “rituals of inversion.”
In Christianized Europe, despite official disapproval of paganism, rituals of inversion not only survived but flourished. Carnival—possibly a corruption of the Latin phrase “carne vale,” farewell to meat, because the festival took place before Lent—included the Feast of Fools, where junior clergymen are alleged to have dressed as nuns and bishops and danced in the streets.
By the 13th century, the Venetians had taken to dressing up and wearing masks with such gusto that the Venice Carnival became an occasion for ever more elaborate masquerade. The city’s Great Council passed special laws to keep the practice within bounds, such as banning masks while gambling or visiting convents.
The liberation granted by a costume could be dangerous. In January of 1393, King Charles VI of France and his wife, Isabeau of Bavaria, held the Bal des Sauvages, or Wild Men’s Ball, to celebrate the wedding of one of her ladies-in-waiting. The king had already suffered his first bout of insanity, and it was hoped that the costume ball would be an emotional outlet for his disordered mind. But the farce became a tragedy. The king and his entourage, dressed as hairy wild men, were meant to perform a “crazy” dance. Horrifically, the costumes caught fire, and only Charles and one other knight survived.
The masked ball became a staple of royal entertainments, offering delicious opportunities for sexual subterfuge and social subversion. At a masquerade in 1745, Louis XV of France disguised himself as a yew tree so he could pursue his latest love, the future Madame de Pompadour. Meanwhile, the Dauphine danced the night away with a charming Spanish knight, not realizing he was a lowly cook who had tricked his way in. More ominously, a group of disaffected nobles in Sweden infiltrated a masquerade to assassinate King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792. Five years later, the new ruler of Venice, Francis II of Austria, banned Carnival and forbade the city’s residents to wear masks.
Queen Victoria helped to return dress-up parties to respectability with historically-themed balls that celebrated creativity rather than debauchery. By 1893, American Vogue could run articles about fabulous Halloween costumes without fear of offense. The first Halloween parade took place not in cosmopolitan New York but in rural Hiawatha, Kansas, in 1914.
In the modern era, the taint of anarchy and licentiousness associated with dressing-up has been replaced by complaints about cultural appropriation, a concern that would have baffled our ancestors. Becoming what we are not, however briefly, is part of being who we are.
The “Inferno” brought human complexity to the medieval conception of the afterlife
September 30, 2021
What is hell? For Plato, it was Tartarus, the lowest level of Hades where those who had sinned against the gods suffered eternal punishment. For Jean-Paul Sartre, the father of existentialism, hell was other people. For many travelers today, it is airport security.
No depiction of hell, however, has been more enduring than the “Inferno,” part one of the “Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri, the 700th anniversary of whose death is commemorated this year. Dante’s hell is divided into nine concentric circles, each one more terrifying and brutal than the last until the frozen center, where Satan resides alongside Judas, Brutus and Cassius. With Virgil as his guide, Dante’s spiritually bereft and depressed alter ego enters via a gate bearing the motto “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”—a phrase so ubiquitous in modern times that it greets visitors to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
The inscription was a Dantean invention, but the idea of a physical gate separating the land of the living from a desolate one of the dead was already at least 3,000 years old: In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 2150 B.C., two scorpionlike figures guard the gateway to an underworld filled with darkness and dust.
The underworld of the ancient Egyptians was only marginally less bleak. Seven gates blocked the way to the Hall of Judgment, according to the Book of the Dead. Getting through them was arduous and fraught with failure. The successful then had to submit to having their hearts weighed against the Feather of Truth. Those found wanting were thrown into the fire of oblivion.
Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the ancient Persians, was possibly the first to divide the afterlife into two physically separate places, one for good souls and the other for bad. This vision contrasted with the Greek view of Hades as the catchall for the human soul and the early Hebrew Bible’s description of Sheol as a shadowy pit of nothingness. In the 4th century B.C., Alexander the Great’s Macedonian empire swallowed both Persia and Judea, and the three visions of the afterlife commingled. “hell” would then appear frequently in Greek versions of the New Testament. But the word, scholars point out, was a single translation for several distinct Hebrew terms.
Early Christianity offered more than one vision of hell, but all contained the essential elements of Satan, sinners and fire. The “Apocalypse of Peter,” a 2nd century text, helped start the trend of listing every sadistic torture that awaited the wicked.
Dante was thus following a well-trod path with his imaginatively crafted punishments of boiling pitch for the dishonest and downpours of icy rain on the gluttonous. But he deviated from tradition by describing Hell’s occupants with psychological depth and insight. Dante’s narrator rediscovers the meaning of Christian truth and love through his encounters. In this way the Inferno speaks to the complexities of the human condition rather than serving merely as a literary zoo of the dammed.
The “Divine Comedy” changed the medieval world’s conception of hell, and with it, man’s understanding of himself. Boccaccio, Chaucer, Milton, Balzac —the list of writers directly inspired by Dante’s vision goes on. “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them,” wrote T.S. Eliot. “There is no third.”
September 17, 2021
Nearly two centuries earlier, the founders of the U.S. penal system had intended it as a humane alternative to those that relied on such physical punishments as mutilation and whipping. After the War of Independence, Benjamin Franklin and leading members of Philadelphia’s Quaker community argued that prison should be a place of correction and penitence. Their vision was behind the construction of the country’s first “penitentiary house” at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia in 1790. The old facility threw all prisoners together; its new addition contained individual cells meant to prevent moral contagion and to encourage prisoners to spend time reflecting on their crimes.
Walnut Street inspired the construction of the first purpose-built prison, Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened outside of Philadelphia in 1829. Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement and slept, worked and ate in their cells—a model that became known as the Pennsylvania system. Neighboring New York adopted the Auburn system, which also enforced total silence but required prisoners to work in communal workshops and instilled discipline through surveillance, humiliation and corporal punishment. Although both systems were designed to prevent recidivism, the former stressed prisoner reform while the latter carried more than a hint of retribution.
Europeans were fascinated to see which system worked best. In 1831, the French government sent Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont to investigate. Having inspected facilities in several states, they concluded that although the “penitentiary system in America is severe,” its combination of isolation and work offered hope of rehabilitation. But the novelist Charles Dickens reached the opposite conclusion. After touring Eastern State Penitentiary in 1842, he wrote that the intentions behind solitary confinement were “kind, humane and meant for reformation.” In practice, however, total isolation was “worse than any torture of the body”: It broke rather than reformed people.
Severe overcrowding—there was no parole in the 19th century—eventually undermined both systems. Prisoner violence became endemic, and regimes of control grew harsher. Sing Sing prison in New York meted out 36,000 lashes in 1843 alone. In 1870, the National Congress on Penitentiary and Reformatory Discipline proposed reforms, including education and work-release initiatives. Despite such efforts, recidivism rates remained high, physical punishment remained the norm and almost 200 serious prison riots were recorded between 1855 and 1955.
That year, Harry Manuel Shulman, a deputy commissioner in New York City’s Department of Correction, wrote an essay arguing that the country’s early failure to decide on the purpose of prison had immobilized the system, leaving it “with one foot in the road of rehabilitation and the other in the road of punishment.” Which would it choose? Sixteen years later, Attica demonstrated the consequences of ignoring the question.