In the 158th year of the American civil war, also known as 2018, the Confederacy continues its recent resurgence. Its victims include black people, of course, but also immigrants, Jews, Muslims, Latinos, trans people, gay people and women who want to exercise jurisdiction over their bodies. The Confederacy battles in favour of uncontrolled guns and poisons, including toxins in streams, mercury from coal plants, carbon emissions into the upper atmosphere, and oil exploitation in previously protected lands and waters.
Its premise appears to be that protection of others limits the rights of white men, and those rights should be unlimited. The Brazilian philosopher of education Paulo Freire once noted that “the oppressors are afraid of losing the ‘freedom to oppress’”. Of course, not all white men support extending that old domination, but those who do see themselves and their privileges as under threat in a society in which women are gaining powers, and demographic shift is taking us to a US in which white people will be a minority by 2045.
If you are white, you could consider that the civil war ended in 1865. But the blowback against Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, the myriad forms of segregation and deprivation of rights and freedoms and violence against black people, kept the population subjugated and punished into the present in ways that might as well be called war. It’s worth remembering that the Ku Klux Klan also hated Jews and, back then, Catholics; that the ideal of whiteness was anti-immigrant, anti-diversity, anti-inclusion; that Confederate flags went up not in the immediate post-war period of the 1860s but in the 1960s as a riposte to the civil rights movement.
Another way to talk about the United States as a country at war is to note that the number of weapons in circulation is incompatible with peace. We have 5% of the world’s population and 35%-50% of the guns in civilian hands, more guns per capita than anywhere else – and more gun deaths, too. Is it any surprise that mass shootings – an almost entirely male and largely white phenomenon – are practically daily events? Many synagogues, Jewish community centers, black churches and public schools now engage in drills that are preparations for the gunman who might arrive, the gunman we’ve met in so many aftermath news stories, who is miserable, resentful, feels entitled to take lives and is well equipped to do so. The psychological impact of drills and fear, and the financial costs of security, are a tax on other people’s access to guns. So are the deaths.
We had an ardent Unionist president for eight years, and now we are 21 months into the reign of an openly Confederate president, one who has defended Confederate statues and Confederate values and Confederate goals, because Make America Great Again harks back to some antebellum fantasy of white male dominance. Last weekend might as well have been Make America Gentile Again. And then came the attack, last Tuesday, on one of the signal achievements after the end of all-out war between the states: the 14th Amendment, which extends equal right of citizenship to everyone born here or naturalized.
So much of what is at stake is the definition of “us”, “ours” and “we”. “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union,” says the preamble to the Constitution. It was murky about who “we” were, and who “the people” were. That document gives only some white men the vote and apportions each state’s representation according to “whole Number of free Persons, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons”. “All other persons” is a polite way of saying enslaved black people, who found the union pretty imperfect. “Who’s your ‘us’?” could be what we ask each other and our elected officials.
“You will not replace us,” shouted the mobs of white men marching through Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 in a rally organized in response to the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee. When Dylann Roof murdered nine black people on 17 June 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, he declared: “Y’all are raping our white women. Y’all are taking over the world.” His “us” was white people, perhaps white men, since “our women” seems to regard white women as white men’s possessions.
Taking over the world: there is a great deal of fear and rage about an increasingly non-white nation. “The US subtracts from its population a million of our babies in the form of abortion,” Representative Steve King told a far-right Austrian magazine. “We add to our population approximately 1.8 million of ‘somebody else’s babies’ who are raised in another culture before they get to us. We are replacing our American culture two to one every year.” (He ignored that, also, almost 4 million babies are born in this country annually; factual accuracy is not a pursuit of many on the far right.)
The current president has harped on for almost three years with the idea that immigrants and refugees are criminals who pose a danger to the rest of us. He has preached the gospel of a monumentally restrictive “we”. A Florida Trump enthusiast sent bombs to leading figures of the Democratic party and to prominent liberals, some of them Jewish, the other week. In Kentucky, two elderly black people were shot by a white supremacist who had earlier tried to enter a black church. After the attacks, the president ranted about “globalists”, an antisemitic code word for Jews, and when part of his cultic crowd shouted George Soros’s name – after Soros had been among the bombers’ targets – and then “lock him up”, the president repeated the phrase appreciatively. Then came last Saturday’s synagogue massacre.
The man who allegedly killed 11 people in the Tree of Life synagogue last Saturday morning was focused on what the far right – president, Fox News and the like – pushed him to focus on – the Central American refugees in southern Mexico: the “caravan”. He bought into it as a threat and blamed that threat on Jews in general and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in particular. “All Jews must die,” he reportedly shouted as he allegedly shot elderly worshippers with the high-velocity bullets of his AR-15. He had posted just before: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered” – “my people” meaning that restrictive “us” the white nationalists urge people such as him to identify with. (The alleged killer also posted photographs of “my Glock family” on social media.)
Rightwing media and the president himself have depicted the refugees as a menacing horde. “Trump’s suggestion that Middle Easterners had joined the group came shortly after a guest on the Fox & Friends news talk show raised the specter of Isis fighters embedding themselves in the group,” reported the Hill. The vice president, Mike Pence, justified the baseless speculation with his own luridly counterfactual speculation. “It’s inconceivable that there are not people of Middle Eastern descent in a crowd of more than 7,000 people advancing toward our border,” he said. Latin Americans, who are also Muslims, who are also the fault of Jews. Refugees who Fox News, reviving an ugly old tradition, warn might infect us with deadly diseases (including smallpox, which is functionally extinct, and leprosy, which is perhaps the least contagious of all contagious diseases). Refugees who are aggressors. A distant “them” to rally a fearful idea of “us” against.
We never cleaned up after the civil war, never made it anathema, as the Germans have since the second world war, to support the losing side. We never had a truth and reconciliation process like South Africa did. We’ve allowed statues to go up across the country glorifying the traitors and losers, treated the pro-slavery flag as sentimental, picaresque, fun, Dukes of Hazzard, white identity politics. A retired general, Stanley McChrystal, just wrote a piece about throwing out his portrait of Robert E Lee that he’d had for 40 years, and why a US soldier should celebrate the leader of a war against that country says everything about the distortion of meaning and memory here.
The Washington Post reported the other week that a senior Veterans Affairs official finally removed his portrait of a Confederate general who was also the first grand wizard of the KKK after employees, many of them black, protested at having the image in their workplace. There were death threats against the contractors hired to take down Confederate statues in New Orleans, and an epic battle over the sale of Confederate flags at county fairs in New York state. The Confederacy, which should have died a century and a half ago, is with us still, and the recent attack on the 14th Amendment is an attempt to return us to its vision of radical inequality of rights and protections.
Even before the United States was founded, great conflicts arose between the Puritans and other Christians who wanted to live in a segregated, homogeneous society, and the pluralists, between narrow and broad “us”. In what is now New Mexico, crypto-Jews –Jews who had survived the Spanish Inquisition by hiding their faith – found refuge in the mid-17th century. In 1657, Quakers in what is now Queens, New York, issued the Flushing Remonstrance, a manifesto in favor of religious tolerance countering the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam’s attempt to drive out Jews and anyone else outside the Dutch Reformed Church.
That pluralistic, inclusive impulse never vanished. It’s in a recent Muslim fundraiser for the victims of the massacre at the synagogue and Muslim work to guard Jewish cemeteries in recent years; in the work of relatives of Japanese-American survivors of internment to stand up for targeted Muslims in the wake of 9/11. It’s in all the work of inclusion and liberation and solidarity made since, in abolition and human rights work, including by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Mark Hetfield, head of the society, tweeted the other weekend: “We used to say we welcomed refugees because they were Jewish. Now we say we welcome refugees because *we* are Jewish. We know what persecution and terror is. We are a refugee people.”
You don’t have to be oppressed or come from a history of oppression to stand with the oppressed; you just have to have a definition of “we” that includes people of various points of origin and language and religious belief and sexual orientation and gender identity. A lot of us do: many large US cities are places of thriving everyday coexistence across difference. A lot of Americans have married across racial and religious lines, some have devoted themselves to the work of solidarity, and a lot subscribe to a grand inclusive “we, the people”. Those who don’t are not a majority but they have an outsized impact, more now than in a very long time. The Confederacy didn’t win in the 1860s and it is not going to win in the long run, but inflicting as much damage as possible seems to be how they want to go down.
In the short term, it is immensely worth trying to win as much as possible in this week’s elections. Some politicians support gun control; some belong to the NRA. Some want to take away reproductive rights; some are ardent defenders of those rights so essential to women being free and equal members of society. Some oppose taking refugee children from their refugee parents and putting them in baby gulags; some are enthusiasts for this child abuse. The differences are clear-cut.
And in the long run we need to end the war with a decisive victory for an idea of a pluralistic, e pluribus unum union, with an affirmation of inclusive values and universal human rights, and of equality across all categories. Pittsburgh’s Jewish leaders wrote: “President Trump, you are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you cease your assault on immigrants and refugees. The Torah teaches that every human being is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. This means all of us.”
Long after Trump is gone, we will have these delusional soldiers of the Confederacy and their weapons, and ending the war means ending their allegiance to the narrow “us” and the entitlement to attack. As Michelle Alexander reminded us recently: “The whole of American history can be described as a struggle between those who truly embraced the revolutionary idea of freedom, equality and justice for all, and those who resisted.” She argues that we are not the resistance; we are the river that they are trying to dam; they are the resistance, the minority, the people trying to stop the flow of history.
Perhaps peace means creating so compelling a story of abundance and possibility and wellbeing that it encourages people to wander out of their bunkers and put down their weapons and come over. It means issuing invitations, not just rebukes, and that’s a long, slow complex job. All week I’ve had the title line from Johnny Cash’s song Like a Soldier in my head. How does a soldier get over the war? I don’t know, but it helps if the war is over.
I do know that so much of what makes this country miserable is imagined poverty, the sense that there is not enough for all of us, that we need to become grabbers and hoarders and slammers of doors and ad hoc border patrols. Wars are fought over resources, and this is a fight over redistribution of resources and who decides about that distribution. We are a vast land, a country of unequaled affluence – albeit with obscene problems of distribution – a country that has always been diverse, and one that has periodically affirmed ideas of equality and universal rights that we could actually someday live up to fully. That seems to be the only real alternative to endless civil war, for all of us.
Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist. She is the author of Men Explain Things to Me and The Mother of All Questions