Deep regional divides, crippling political stalemates, refusals to compromise, escalating rhetoric and attacks on government property.
Sound like America in 2021? It’s the setting for one of the darkest and and most precarious chapters of our nation’s history.
On April 12, 1861, 160 years ago today, the deep cultural hostilities within America finally boiled over into full-scale war.
When the newly-formed Confederate States of America attacked a U. S. military fort, this nation faced the gravest test in its existence, either before or since. At the time, America was a powder keg ready to explode. Seven states had already seceded from the Union and the South was quickly raising an army.
Four year later, when the nightmare of our Civil War finally ended, over 600,000 Americans had died. Taken as a percentage of population, that would be over 6,000,000 deaths today.
America in 2021 may be a fractured nation, but we’re not on the brink of an outright civil war pitting one region against the other. We are a mobile and digitally connected people, subject to shifting political bases and ideologies in surprising places (see Georgia’s last senate race).
Still, the past is never irrelevant and societies that ignore the lessons of yesterday do so at their own peril. America may not be on the brink of civil war, but who would deny that we live in a time of gathering storm clouds?
We see frightening spikes in racism, antisemitism and other ethnic-based hate and violence. Voter disenfranchisement measures are being pushed (and sometimes adopted) in 45 states. Our politics seem hopelessly divided, the wealth gap is widening, and on January 6 we witnessed the largest attack on the U.S. Capital since the War of 1812.
“Not since the Civil War,” writes Professor James Davison Hunter in his book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, “has there been such fundamental disagreement over basic assumptions about truth, freedom, and our national identity.”
Many of our politicians — on both sides of the aisle — contribute to this divide. Of all people, they should own the responsibility of dispensing with corrosive name calling and incivility. But too many see incivility as politically expedient, and so it falls on us, the people, to call them out and soundly reject them for it. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, for example, may get a rise by selling t-shirts that say Impeach the MF, but it’s a juvenile act that decimates our unity and diminishes her credibility. It’s neither funny nor harmless. And former President Trump, always willing to stir the pot, just last week (in an Easter message, no less) continued his name-calling, saying that “Radical Left CRAZIES...rigged our Presidential Election, and want to destroy our Country!"
The examples are endless, but if we recall our history, we would know that divisive and inciteful language stirred up a toxic mix of discord in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. Just as we see today, people grew irreparably distant from others and retreated to their respective, insular corners.
Today we have a new and more flammable accelerant — social media, which algorithmically targets us and easily connects us with like-minded people. It’s a dangerous spiral that is hurling us back to a time of seismic divisions that escalated to a calamitous outcome.
April 12th, 1861, should be a critical date for us to take note of today. It’s right in front of our faces — 160 years ago and yet yesterday. It sits there watching us, judging us, ready to instruct us if we don’t want it to be tomorrow too.
If we pay close attention — and we must — it will show us exactly what happens when a society forsakes its moral compass and allows itself to become rudderless in a gathering storm of hatred and rhetoric that threatens to explode into uncontrollable rage and violence.
Are we really going to be oblivious to that history lesson?