The common space required for civil debate has shrivelled to a very thin sliver of ground
The ‘cold civil war’ in the U.S.
The common space required for civil debate has shrivelled to a very thin sliver of ground
William Gibson, South Carolinian by birth, British Columbian by choice, is famous for inventing the word “cyberspace,” way back in 1982. His latest novel, Spook Country, offers another interesting coinage:
Alejandro looked over his knees. “Carlito said there is a war in America.”
“A civil war. ”
“There is no war, Alejandro, in America.” “When grandfather helped found the DGI, in Havana, were the Americans at war with the Russians?”
“That was the ‘cold war.’ ”
Alejandro nodded, his hands coming up to grip his knees. “A cold civil war.”
Tito heard a sharp click from the direction ofOchun’s vase, but thought instead ofEleggua, He Who Opens And Closes The Roads. He looked back at Alejandro.
“You don’t follow politics, Tito.”
That’s quite a concept: “A cold civil war.” Since 9/11, Mr. Gibson has abandoned futuristic sci-fi dystopias to frolic in the dystopia of the present. Spook Country boils down to a caper plot about a mysterious North America-bound container, and it’s tricked out very inventively. Yet, notwithstanding the author’s formidable powers of imagination, its politics are more or less conventional for a novelist in the twilight of the Bush era: someone says, “Are you really so scared of terrorists that you’d dismantle the structures that made America what it is?” Someone else says, “America has developed Stockholm Syndrome towards its own government.” Etc. But it’s that one phrase that makes you pause: “A cold civil war.”
Or so you’d think. In fact, it seems to have passed entirely without notice. Unlike “cyberspace” a quarter-century ago, the “cold civil war” is not some groovy paradigm for the day after tomorrow but a cheerless assessment of the here and now, too bleak for buzz. As far as I can tell, April Gavaza, at the Hyacinth Girl website, is pretty much the first American to ponder whether a “cold civil war” has any significance beyond the novel:
What would that entail, exactly? A cold war is a war without conflict, defined in one of several online dictionaries as “[a] state of rivalry and tension between two factions, groups, or individuals that stops short of open, violent confrontation.” In that respect, is the current political climate one of “cold civil war”? I think arguments could be made to that effect. My mother, not much of a political enthusiast, has made similar assessments since the 2000 election...
Indeed. A year before this next election in the U.S., the common space required for civil debate and civilized disagreement has shrivelled to a very thin sliver of ground. Politics requires a minimum of shared assumptions. To compete you have to be playing the same game: you can’t thwack the ball back and forth if one of you thinks he’s playing baseball and the other fellow thinks he’s playing badminton. Likewise, if you want to discuss the best way forward in the war on terror, you can’t do that if the guy you’re talking to doesn’t believe there is a war on terror, only a racket cooked up by the Bushitler and the rest of the Halliburton stooges as a pretext to tear up the constitution.
Americans do not agree on the basic meaning of the last seven years. If you drive around an Ivy League college town—home to the
nation’s best and brightest, allegedly—you notice a wide range of bumper stickers, from the anticipatory (“01/20/09”—the day of liberation from the Bush tyranny) to the profane (“Buck Fush”) to the myopically self-indulgent (“Regime Change Begins At Home”) to the exhibitionist paranoid (“9/11 Was An Inside Job”). Let’s assume, as polls suggest, that next year’s presidential election is pretty open: might be a Democrat, might be a Republican. Suppose it’s another 50/50 election with a narrow GOP victory dependent on the electoral college votes of one closely divided state. It’s not hard to foresee those stickered Dems concluding that the system has now been entirely delegitimized.
Obviously the vast majority of Americans are not foaming partisans. It would be foolish to adduce any general theories from, say, Mr. “Ed Funkhouser,” who emailed me twice in the small hours of Tuesday: the first epistle read, in total, “who needs facts indeed. How do you live with yourself, scumbag?” An hour and a half later he realized he’d forgotten to make his devastating assessment of my sexual orientation, and sent a followup: “you are a f-kin’ moron, and probably queer too!” No doubt. Mr. Funkhouser and his friends on the wilder shores of the Internet are unusually stirred up, to a degree most Americans would find perverse. Life is good, food is plentiful, there are a million and one distractions. In advanced democracies, politics is not everything, and we get on with our lives. In a sense, we outsource politics to those who want it most and participate albeit fitfully in whatever parameters of discourse emerge. For half a decade, the “regime change” and “inside job” types have set the pace.
But that, too, is characteristic of a cold war. In the half-century from 1945, most Americans and most Russians were not in
active combat. The war was waged by small elite forces through various useful local proxies. In Grenada, for example, Maurice Bishop’s Castro-backed New Jewel Movement seized power from Sir Eric Gairy, the eccentric prime minister, in the first-ever coup in the British West Indies. Mr. Bishop allowed the governor general, Sir Paul Scoon, to remain in place (if memory serves, they played tennis together) and so bequeathed posterity the droll paradox of the only realm in which Her Majesty the Queen presided over a politburo. Though it wasn’t exactly a critical battleground, Grenada springs to mind quite often when I think of cultural institutions in the U.S. and the West. The grade schools no longer teach American history as any kind of coherent narrative. “Paint me warts and all,” Oliver Cromwell instructed his portraitist. But in public education, American children paint only the warts—slavery, the ill-treatment of Native Americans, the pollution of the environment, more slavery... There are attempts to put a
positive spin on things—the Iroquois stewardship of the environment, Rosa Parks’ courage on the bus—but, cumulatively, heroism comes to be defined as opposition to that towering Mount Wartmore of dead white males. As in Grenada, the outward symbols are retained—the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance—but an entirely new national narrative has been set in place.
Well, it takes two to have a cold civil war. The right must be doing some of this stuff, too, surely? Up to a point. But for the most part they either go along, or secede from the system—they home-school, turn to talk radio and the Internet, read Christian publishers’ books that shift millions of copies without ever showing up on a New York Times best-
sellers list. The established institutions of the state remain under the monolithic control of forces that ceaselessly applaud themselves for being terrifically iconoclastic:
Hollywood’s latest war movie? Rendition. Oh, as in the same old song?
A college kid writes a four-word editorial in a campus newspaper—“Taser this: F-k Bush”—and the Denver Post hails him as “the future of journalism. Smart. Confident. Audacious.” Anyone audacious enough to write “F-k Hillary” or “F-k Obama” at a college paper? Or would the Muse of Confident Smarts refer you to the relevant portions of the hate-speech code?
Speaking of which, Columbia University won’t allow U.S. military recruiters on campus because “Don’t ask, don’t tell” discriminates against homosexuals, but it will invite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose government beheads you if they think you’re bebottoming.
It’s curious to encounter the soft-left establishment’s hostility to the state. Go back to that line of Gibson’s: free peoples develop “Stockholm Syndrome” about government all over the world, not least in Stockholm. It seems a mite inconsistent to entrust government to manage your health care and education and to dictate what you can and can’t toss in the trash, but then to fret over them waging war on your behalf. Perhaps the next president will be, as George W. Bush promised, “a uniter, not a divider.” Perhaps some “centrist Democrat” or “maverick Republican” will win big, but right now it doesn’t feel that way.
Asked what would determine the course of his premiership, Britain’s Harold Macmillan famously replied, “Events, dear boy, events.” Yet in the end even “events” require broad acknowledgement. For Republicans, 9/11 is the decisive event; for Democrats, late November 2000 in the chadlands of Florida
still looms larger. And elsewhere real hot wars seem to matter less than the ersatz Beltway battles back home. “The domestic political debate has nothing to do with what we’re doing here,” one U.S. officer in Iraq told the National Review’s Rich Lowry this week, “in a representative comment offered not in a spirit of bitterness, but of cold fact.” As Lowry remarked, “This is the lonely war”—its actual progress all but irrelevant to the pseudo combat on the home front. In Neuromancer, William Gibson defined “cyberspace” as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators in every nation.” The “cold civil war” may be another “consensual hallucination,” but for many it’s more real than “the lonely war.” M
CUMULATIVELY, HEROISM COMES TO BE DEFINED AS OPPOSITION TO THAT TOWERING MOUNT WARTMORE OF DEAD WHITE MALES
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