While an armistice was signed at Appomattox in April 1865, the Civil War never really ended. The shooting stopped, mostly, but fighting continued by other means, and on other battlefields: in the courts, in newspapers, in popular culture, in flag controversies and statue-erections and statue-removals, and and, most of all, within the institutions of electoral democracy. America continues, and will probably always continue, to pay the price for the monstrous acts of violence — slavery, genocide, labor exploitation, ecological devastation — that accompanied the march of the flag on this continent. For four years in the mid-nineteenth century, Americans stood in neat ranks on battlefields and attempted to blow each others’ heads off. Since then, the aggression has been expressed less evenly, but not, when you get right down to it, much less lethally.
Some journalists have lately suggested that civil war — shooting war, I mean — is about to break out again. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you why: public discourse, or what is left of it, has deteriorated to the point that it no longer has any practical political application. When words become useless, people who seek power turn to other tools. I don’t know for sure if those who crawl around in the nastiest corners of the Internet are just trolling us, or puffing themselves up, or if they really do mean business when they write they’re taking up arms and coming for those who don’t share their outlook. But that it’s even conceivable that they could be serious — and that they could be getting aid and comfort and reinforcement from people in positions of great power — tells us how far along the road toward actual violent confrontation we’ve come.
So on this ominous Independence Day, I’d like to remind everybody of an important lesson of American history that has, lately, been lost amidst the anxiety and noise. Sooner or later, the Confederates lose. Always. Oh, they make a heck of a rebel yell while they’re in mid-charge, and they fight vigorously, and they shed gallons of blood and scorch acres of earth. But the war always ends the same way: the Confederates downed after a hard struggle, bruised and grumbling, in retreat, swearing that they’ll rise and fight again. And then they do. And then they lose again.
We can kid ourselves, if we want to, about our moral and technological superiority. If that’s reassuring to you, Yankee, in 2017, go ahead and believe it; I’m not in the mood to strip anybody of her security blanket today. But the real reason the Confederates always lose is because defeat is the very foundation of Confederate ideology. Even as he marches, the Confederate, and his many modern analogues, understands that he has already lost: history has passed him by, he has been weighed against the standards of modernity and found wanting, he is prohibited from participation in the society to come. This is why he fights so ferociously. He is looking to inflict pain on you, who he imagines, is the beneficiary of the same processes that he feels have dispossessed him. If he can’t have it, he doesn’t want you to have it, either. The turning of the world is, for him, a grave accusation, and he is looking to avenge that insult.
This is a powerful motivation. But, I hope, you see that it’s also a dead end. No society will ever be refashioned or even realigned according to these principles. To put it crudely, too many people have far too much invested in the American experiment to let it crash to the earth. The Confederate threat will always, in the long run, be answered. Those who have to do the answering are often caught flatfooted by the force of the indignation; they aren’t mobilized, they look slow and out of touch. But don’t mistake lack of initiative for irrelevance, or senescence. Confederates and their heirs have been making that error for centuries. I can see them making it right now.
Leaders come and go; some are acceptable, some are awful. America has, in its long history, weathered plenty of misrule. We’re going to get through this crisis, too: not without a terrible cost, I’m sure, but when has it ever been easy? I think most of us realize we’ve got some sins to pay for, and that national atonement takes strange shapes. As novel as the present moment feels, just about everything that is troubling the country right now has deviled us before, in one form or another; go on and ask a historian and she’ll tell you so. She’ll also probably tell you that its going to get worse before it calms down — so be careful out there, and choose your side wisely.