The Un-Civil War

On Martin Luther King Day, I was thinking back to remarks made in Ken Burns’ The Civil War by historian Barbara Fields.  She appeared several times in the series, articulating a counterpoint to the series’ overall theme, that the The Civil War was a great trial of fire, through which we, as a nation, did successfully pass.

Fields’ message:  when the Civil War is viewed only as history its costs and gains will ultimately be forgotten, and its messages lost.  People will have died to little avail, in a war that was eventually fought to help re-establish human dignity. As she puts it succiently: “The Civil War … can still be lost.”

Well, it’s Martin Luther King Day 2017, and guess what?  We’re losing.  We are about to anoint an openly bigoted President, whose few actual policies are confined to deconstruction of government function, throwing up barriers, and hurling insults at anyone who might conceivably dent his delicate emotional state.  If Donald Trump were a student in any decent school system, his unhappy parents would be receiving emails from teachers concerned about a troubled boy who exhibits social and emotional challenges, and a tendency to bullying.  Un-civil, indeed.

I admit, when I first watched Fields’ remarks in the 1980’s I thought she was too negative. I accepted the idea that social justice was improving in this country, perhaps unevenly, but improving nonetheless.  Trump’s election blows that idea out of the water – Fields was right all along.  Liberal American values that espouse respect for all fellow people are not yet the values of the country – they remain in the realm of King’s American ideals.

The liberal establishment has asserted that Trump was elected essentially by fluke, through the combined actions of the FBI, Vladimir Putin, and the modest geographical bias of the Electoral College.  That is not only unproven, it’s irrelevant: what matters is that someone like Trump, and the techniques he used to achieve election, garnered enough votes to make him anything more than a far-right-wing fringe candidate, much less President.  If you think I exaggerate, consider the openly racist, fascist, and “alt-right” groups here and in Europe who are amongst his most ardent fans.

I admire Congressman John Lewis and other politicians of conscience, who have openly declared their opposition to Trump (and taken TrumpTweeted insults for their trouble). But Trump will nonetheless hold the office of President, starting this week.  I don’t know if the word illegitimate fits the bill for Trump – until further notice, he appears to have been legitimately elected. But certainly, Trump represents a presidential parody, both of the person and of the office.  And a dangerous parody he is – no identifiable group of people from “professor,” to “dog lover,” to “immigrant” to “cancer patient” to “business owner” should assume the status quo remains in effect, and that they are immune to abuse. (Yes, I said business owner. Business owners thinking they are beyond the long arm of the New Order might want to review recent cash-flow-based federal tax proposals.)

And the good news? Well, we know where we stand, don’t we?  Instant information has shown the diversity of ideas in currency, including ideas that are nothing more than prejudice.  Nonetheless, information is also the means of improving things – ideas really are fought with other ideas.  Prejudice is emotional, but also the product of isolation and over-simple, convenient thinking about groups – about “aggregates” in analysis terms.  The means now exist to dispell nearly any prejudice in minutes: any person who can Google, can also know that representing any complex group – especially a group of people – is beyond the range of simple representation.

As King and Fields warned decades ago, being able to dispell a prejudice, and being willing to do so, are very different things. But just possibly, we’re not as far away as it might seem. People of conscience will have differing values and reach different, thoughtful, conclusions from the same information.  That’s as it should be, and let’s face it: uniformity of opinion would be deadly dull, even if it were somehow achievable.   But how hard is it, really, to establish a core value that simple statements about complex groups are rarely valid, and never valid without substantial proof?   If we learned to be prejudiced against, and to properly call out,  unconsidered or dubious statements about groups, we might be on our way to restoring some sense, and civility, to our dialogue.

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