by Edward H. Telfeyan
December 10, 2020
I was thirteen years old in the summer of 1960, and I was just awakening to the world of U.S. politics. The Democrats had just nominated John F. Kennedy for president. The Republicans had countered with the then-vice president, Richard Nixon. I was for Nixon, probably because most of my friends were for Kennedy, and I was already a classic non-conformist.
Anyway, one day that summer, my dad and his friend Charley (who lived next door and was, I think, pretty conservative) were driving the three of us (me, my younger brother, and Charley’s son) to an event. Maybe it was a baseball game; I really don’t recall.
What I do recall, vividly, is that while the three of us were sitting in the back seat of Dad’s car, Charley and my father were talking about the election. They were discussing the pros and cons of each candidate in a serious but friendly exchange of ideas. And then, suddenly, at some point, Charley turned around and addressed the three of us.
“Now you understand, boys, that both of the candidates are fine men, fine Americans. And we’re so lucky to live in a country where we get to choose from two excellent candidates to lead our country.”
Sixty years later, this past summer, I considered that it would be surprising, if not shocking, to envision any two adults saying anything remotely close to what Charley said that day. And it wouldn’t matter if the two adults were both Republicans or both Democrats or if they were one from each party. In very few, if any, spots in America, would any two adults agree that both Donald Trump and Joe Biden were both “fine men, fine Americans.”
What has happened to our country, in those sixty years, to put us where we are today, on the verge of a second civil war? Do I sound hysterical? Hold your judgment until I make my case.
Let’s start with the Civil War. What caused it? The retro-racist answer that I was taught in high school was “States’ Rights,” meaning the right of every state to determine its own laws regarding property and contracts and personal freedoms and crimes. Of course, that reason was a euphemism promulgated to cover the real racist reason: slavery.
But that answer is still too simplistic because many of the young men who fought for the South were not slave owners. They were too poor to own slaves. And many of those who did own slaves found ways to avoid fighting (mainly by paying their way out of having to serve). Similarly, many who fought for the North had no opinion about slavery, and some may have been racists themselves.
I think the real cause of the Civil War was absolute ignorance of the other side’s perspective. The North had no understanding of the southern culture, its dependence on its agriculture, the need to successfully harvest each year’s crops, and the bigotry, to be sure, that was part of all of it. The South had only known the agrarian culture that made slavery “necessary” and had no appreciation of the basis for Northern opposition to its continuation.
And in the North, where a more industrial economy had taken hold, and where Black men and women were fully recognized citizens and always had been, the thought of the enslavement of an entire segment of the population just because of their skin color was incomprehensible. Abolition was the only solution that was morally defensible.
In truth, the country had been divided from the start. The authors of the founding documents were unable to deal with the basic issue, let alone reach any meaningful, lasting compromise of it. The Declaration of Independence was written by a slave owner (Jefferson) and edited by two abolitionists (Adams and Franklin); the Constitution was drafted by men who could not even agree on whether enslaved Blacks were to count as full human beings for purposes of Congressional representation (the “three-fifths” of “free persons” provision in Article I, section 2).
The South seceded from the Union in 1861 because it could not abide the North’s relentless opposition to its way of life and the threat that that opposition (personified in the election of Abraham Lincoln) would only increase to the point of a proclamation of emancipation. Lincoln led his country to war against the secessionists not to end slavery, but to preserve the Union.
The country was ripe for the internecine war that broke out in 1861. News was locally reported by newspapers that spoke to the interests of their readers. No other mass outlet of information existed that the entire country could absorb at the same time. No Walter Cronkite took to the airwaves every evening to proclaim definitively “the way it is.” Everyone lived in their own geographic silos with their own narrow perspectives based on their own entirely parochial experiences.
And so the country went to war with itself, the one side seeking to leave, the other refusing to let it go. Neither side could see the merit in the other side’s position. Neither side even understood the basis for the other side’s perspective. Both sides were ignorant of the other’s beliefs and of the facts on which those beliefs were based. The war was the inevitable result of structural ignorance and irrational obstinance. And many who fought and died in the war had never been given the opportunity to understand what the other side wanted, needed, and believed to be true.
Jump ahead 120 years and a whole lot has changed, but the basic conditions are much the same. Let’s consider the changes in the country and then consider how remarkably similar critical conditions are to those that led the country to our Civil War.
At the top of the list of major changes (apart from the end of slavery and the greatly expanded identification of equal rights that we now recognize in law and in fact) is the explosion of information that is available to just about every person in the country. The Internet, and all that it makes available, is accessible in even in the most impoverished of communities. Anyone with a smart phone can uncover a gazillion times more information than the wealthiest or most educated person could even dream of in 1860.
The ubiquity of the information is almost scary. If you don’t want to do an actual Google search, Alexa or Siri will do it for you. And if you missed something that was reported on your evening newscast of choice, you’ll be able to watch it on You Tube or see it analyzed one hundred different ways on Twitter or track down every reported version of it on Wikipedia within days if not hours of the original report.
We live in a world where ignorance is a choice, not a mandate. If you want to know anything about anything, it’s available to you in mere seconds. The only thing you need is the desire to know.
Technology, we have learned, knows no bounds. In the span of a lifetime, we have progressed from faceless voices reading headlines on a radio to nightly television newscasts to 24/7 cable news to social media that can provide just the news you want to know.
Our friendly computer collects and stores everything about us that we unwittingly reveal to it (by the products we show interest in, by the news stories we follow up on, by the donations we make to politicians or causes, even by the blogs we read and the twitter accounts we follow). And, as a result, the information we get is customized to our unique profile. Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest all track the indications we provide them of our preferences, our predilections, our patterns. (This scary reality is brilliantly captured in the current documentary “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix. Watch it and be scared.)
In 1860, Johnny Reb had no idea what his northern counterpart was thinking. He just worked off of stereotypes that were fed to him by his local newspaper, if he was lucky enough to even have access to a newspaper. So he just assumed that his northern counterpart was set on destroying his way of life.
But in 2020, as much as life has changed, today’s Johnny Reb is likely to be just as ignorant of his counterpart (and vice-versa), not because the information isn’t available, but because he won’t get to read it or hear about it.
We live in the very same kind of silos that existed in 1860, and the hostile ignorance that those silos promulgate are just as likely to cause another civil war.
Let’s consider where we are as a country as I write this column on December 10, 2020. We are now over a month removed from our presidential election, an election that, by all counts, resulted in the defeat of the incumbent. The actual results now show that Joe Biden received over 7 million more votes than Donald Trump. Even in the Electoral College, which is, after all, how our presidents are elected, Biden will have 306 votes to Trump’s 232.
And yet, for many of the over 74 million Americans who voted for Trump, the election is not over. They are remaining steadfast in their belief that the election was “rigged” and that countless instances of fraud “stole” the victory that Trump should have secured.
With court after court rejecting the Trump campaign’s claims of fraud, and with no meaningful evidence available of such fraud (as even acknowledged by Trump’s Attorney General Bill Barr), how can that fervent belief persist among so many Americans? And the answer is the same as it was in pre-Civil War America: we live in silos that provide us with our understanding of reality and that provide the basis for our opinions and beliefs. The silos aren’t labelled North and South anymore, and they aren’t built around cultural differences or racial views.
Instead, we have silos that are specific to our interests. Of course, there are silos for Republicans and for Democrats, but within those large silos there are smaller ones, too. There are silos for evangelicals and for libertarians and for free market capitalists and for social justice warriors and for queers and for vegans and for gun owners and for white supremacists and for Black Lives Matter advocates and for animal rights zealots and for the super-rich and for the working poor and for cult worshippers and for conspiracy believers. Each of those silos provide the version of reality that comports with the perspectives and beliefs of the inhabitants of those particular silos.
I had a recent email exchange with a reader of my blog. He complained that I had blatantly called Trump an unabashed liar. He wanted to know what proof I had of that view. I referred him to the Washington Post’s running tally of Trump lies while he has been the president (the count was over 22,000 as of last August). “Fake news” he replied.
Another reader took me to task for expressing admiration for Barack Obama’s presidency. He sent me a list of over 35 “serious” Obama “scandals,” most of which I was completely ignorant of. When I asked him where he got the list, he informed me that “those kinds of lists are widely available.” Maybe, but not so widely available that I had ever seen them, which I admitted to him. “I think I stay pretty well informed,” I told him. “How?,” he asked. “Well I read the New York Times and two other national newspapers every day.” “They’re all fake news,” he replied.
A third reader recently called me out for referring to Trump as an enemy of our democracy. “How would describe Obama and Biden?,” he asked. “Patriots,” I replied. “That’s disgusting, Ed,” he said.
These are just anecdotes, of course, but they paint what I think is a pretty accurate picture. All of us, those readers, me, and everyone in our siloed society, firmly believe the perspectives we have. We know they must be accurate because in the silos in which we live, it’s all we hear.
I’m as siloed as my three reader friends. I read my New York Times in the morning, watch MSNBC or CNN at night and scan the Internet for news reports with the same kind of media slants. I’m like the 1860 Northern abolitionist who had no idea what my Southern counterpart believed and understood. The equivalent today is represented by my reader who has the lengthy list of Obama scandals that I, in my silo, have never seen or even knew existed.
I have always felt good in my silo. Professionals report the news to me. Deep thinkers guide my thinking on the issues of the day. I’m not an intellectual, but I’m informed. And being informed has made me feel superior to those I view as uninformed. Staying informed is important to me because I want to be a positive force in my community, my world. And so I’ve relied on my silo to tell me what I need to know and to guide me in how I need to think.
But since these exchanges, I’ve actually grown tired of the obvious bias of my media sources. Why, I wonder, can’t Rachel Maddow ever interview someone who doesn’t echo her (and my) thoughts? Why must the Times’ reporters all disparage anything that Trump says as if to do otherwise would be unprofessional? Why is Political Correctness feeling more like mind control than righteous truth? Why am I still shocked that so many of my fellow Americans think the election was stolen from Trump?
Matt Taibbi, the iconoclastic journalist, uncovers the truth about our silos and the inherent bias that all media project in “Hate, Inc.” It’s an unpleasant but valuable read. Taibbi is no conservative, and he certainly isn’t an admirer of Donald Trump, but he makes clear that people who are in anti-Trump silos only get one part of the story, just as those in pro-Trump silos only get a different part of the story. And that fact clearly accounts for the differing understandings my readers and I have on Trump “lies,” Obama “scandals,” and Biden’s “patriotism.”
And then we have the conspiracy silos. These are bubbles that exist for those who have become convinced that the world they live in is controlled by forces of an almost alien nature. In these bubbles, you can fervently believe that a child sex-trafficking market is run out of a pizza store in downtown Washington, DC, as was reported by far-right media cites like Alex Jones’ Infowars in 2016.
QAnon grew out of Pizzagate. It is the hot conspiracy movement of 2020. QAnon (short for Q Anonymous, referring to a mystical leader only known as Q) believes that America is run by a cabal of pedophiles and Satan-worshippers, and that President Trump is the only person who can stop them.
QAnon has now been identified by the FBI as a growing domestic terrorism threat. Read more broadly (because QAnon is not the only group the FBI is watching), there are large groups of people in our country who don’t accept much of what the established institutions are proclaiming to be fact. And they are a potential anti-government army that would make the Confederacy look tame by comparison.
That QAnon is now out in the open, with large throngs of its adherents at all Trump rallies, is a warning sign of how close we may be to a second civil war. And with Trump feeding the frenzy, it might not take much for outbreaks of coordinated violence to start to occur throughout the country. He already has the Proud Boys on “stand by.” The Boogaloo Boys and their loosely affiliated far-right radicals are already visibly armed at Trump rallies. (They’re the ones wearing Hawaiian shirts and carrying AR-15s.) They are outspoken in wanting a second civil war.
Think about it for a minute. We are over a month removed from the national media’s call of the election for Biden, and yet we still have at least a third, maybe 40 percent, of the population that believes the presidential election was “rigged.” Their silos are telling them exactly that, with the current president providing much of the impetus for that perspective. And even though his defeat was decisive, it’s worth noting that Trump would have won re-election with a swing of just 45,000 votes in three states (Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin).
So a call to arms, if it came to that, by the outgoing president would likely see a rise of militancy from the various gun-toting Trump-siloed Americans that could erupt nationally with only a little bit of encouragement.
Those in leftward leaning silos are less likely to start the second civil war, but Antifa (whether it’s a generic title or an organized group) is certainly not afraid of violent conflict. And if the Supreme Court were to decide to hear the appeal that Trump’s legal team is trying to get before it, things could suddenly get very dicey. I’m not a constitutional law expert, but I do think the current configuration on the Court would look long and hard at a legitimate claim that the Equal Protection Clause was somehow violated in our presidential election. They did it in 2000 when the ideological split was 5-4 (conservative to liberal). It’s 6-3 now, and three of the six are Trump appointees.
Either way, we’re at a dangerous point. Even if Biden does take office on January 20, Trump is not going away. He may even become more reckless (focused?) in his tweets and in his post-presidency rallies. And his followers are not likely to be mollified by the left-of-center, very establishment-oriented direction that Biden sets for his administration.
The democracy that is our republic survived the first civil war. But it never fully recovered from it. We may not have a second one, or we may already be on the verge of it.