“You plant a demon seed. You raise a flower of fire.” – Paul Hewson
The number of views on my site have dropped off noticeably in the final three weeks of 2020, and I am relieved. Perhaps that doesn’t make much sense at first. Who doesn’t want people to read their stuff? Let me explain.
This year was not a good one – the pandemic raged across the world, and divisions in the U.S. were tense and palpable. I saw this indirectly on this blog. In 2020, the most read essays on this site, by far, pertained to the topic of another civil war in the U.S. These were the five most read posts in 2020, along with the year I wrote them, and the number of views:
Red States versus Blue States: Who Would Win a Civil War in the U.S? (2019) 9,340 views
16 Reasons We Should Have Another Civil War in the U.S. (2020) 1,394 views
Humans are (Blank) –ogamous (2011) 731 views
Dangerous Speech & a 2nd U.S. Civil War (2020) 684 views
“To Tame the Savageness of Man” (2015) 648 views
So, that’s three posts related to civil war, one about keeping our baser impulses in check, and one about sex and love. Go figure. Two were older essays, and the other three were written in the last two years. And, unlike previous years when some of my essays were shared on social media, this year the vast majority of my visitors arrived on their own via Internet search engines.
This is a small blog with a funny name, and it doesn’t get much traffic. To see a post that I wrote last year skyrocket above the others, it made me notice. In fact, the “Red States versus Blue States” post is already the fifth most read essay on this site, even though it is just a year old and I started this blog in 2010. The graph below shows how it compared in terms of views with other popular posts in their first two years. As you can see, most started with a little flurry of activity, and then trail off. “Red States vs. Blue States” did something different. Few people read it in 2019, and then it took off a year later, mid-2020.
I noticed that the spike in views were tightly linked with current events. From the George Floyd protests in the summer, the North Carolina police officer caught on tape saying that he could not wait for another civil war and a chance to kill Black people, the killings of Aaron Danielson and Michael Reinoehl in late August, the people shot and killed by Kyle Rittenhouse, Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in September, Trump telling militia groups to “stand back and stand by,” the plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, the actual election itself, the pushing of the false narrative that the election was stolen. The site views ebbed and flowed, almost perfectly along with the national news.
None of this is a scientific analysis, but altogether my blog gave me the sense that the national mood was dark and that civil war was on people’s minds. I cannot say with any certainty what people were thinking of when they searched for this topic. It could be anxiety. For others it could have been a search for knowledge about what to do in case the worst actually happened. However, I also know for a fact from comments I received that, like the North Carolina police officer, some people were genuinely looking forward to the prospect of killing their fellow citizens. It’s not a good place to be as a nation, and that dark mood sometimes affected me this year.
I tried to remind people in these essays that there are lessons we can learn from history, that virtually every war has entailed enormous human suffering, and that suffering can last for generations. This is not only true of wars in faraway places, like Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Syria. That pattern has held in the United States since the colonial era, to the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and of course the Civil War. At various times, U.S. civilians during those wars have been victims of atrocities, lost loved ones, diseases, destroyed and stolen property, starvation, forced displacement, sieges, and crumbling economic conditions (Heidler and Heidler 2007). To imagine that another civil war would avoid these patterns things – or that only the people we dislike would be harmed – is the worst kind of magical thinking.
Wars may sometimes be necessary, when forced upon us. But to enthusiastically wish for an unnecessary one misses so many lessons of history. If just a few of the thousands of people who arrived at my site got that point, then I would be satisfied.
This is why seeing those views decline a bit at the end of the year has been a bit of a relief. It’s not to say that we are out of the woods yet. I think some damage has been done, and some seeds of animosity have been planted. But it also helps to know that, while there will always be disagreements, our attitudes and behaviors are pliable. Us and them are not permanent categories. War is not inevitable. Humans have the ability for cooperation and conflict, contingent upon circumstances. Maybe we’ll learn these lessons one day and stop falling into the same traps.
David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler (2007) Daily Lives of Civilians in Wartime Early America: From the Colonial Era to the Civil War. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. Link
War is not inevitable. But the unresolved issues of past conflicts increase the likelihood of their repeating.
That was the argument made by Kevin Phillips in The Cousins’ Wars. He drew a line of connection from the English Civil War to the American Revolution and American Civil War.
He saw one leading to the next and it is a compelling argument. I might extend that line further back to the Peasants’ Revolt, the first time that kind of conflict erupted in the English-speaking world.
I’ve been reading another book about that earliest era. It is Eric Vuillard’s The War of the Poor. It’s haunting how the same basic conflicts have been with us for at least seven centuries.
Happy New Year, Benjamin. I haven’t read Phillips’ book, but I think it’s true that wars breed resentments and instability, which make fertile ground for future wars. It does seem that we are in a cycle that is hard to break out of. And it seems to be getting worse right now.
Happy New Year, indeed! I must admit that the beginning of the new year feels anti-climactic. I live in a college town, but the university is shut down because of COVID. New Years Eve would typically be crazy busy downtown, but this year it was calm and quiet.
A key element to Phillip’s argument is that there is a deep undercurrent of cultural identity and division. It’s interesting that the English Peasants’ Revolt happened a few centuries following the Norman conquest. And it was the first time that class identity clearly took form in the English imagination.
The emerging sense of class war was built on ethno-cultural differences. The Norman-descended aristocracy did not mix with the British natives. Proto-racial thought created the perception that the aristorcracy and the peasantry were two entirely separate populations.
That definitely fed into the English Civil War (Cavaliers vs Roundheads) and continued through the later conflicts. Even in the American colonies and later the United States, there remained a sense of two separate ethnic cultures existing that were ever in conflict, even though this was based more on a narratized perception.
Still, it was a powerful sense and it is maybe still with us. Thomas Jefferson, although descended from Norman aristocracy, invoked the Anglo-Saxon resistance to Norman invasion from 7 centuries before. With some combination of actual history and revisionism, he asserted a surviving Anglo-Saxon tradition that justified revolt against Norman-style imperialism.
That same basic narrative was dredged back up for the American Civil War, although reversed from Jefferson. Southerners claimed a Cavalier culture (i.e., Norman-descended aristorcracy), even though most Southerners had zero connection to Norman anything and their ancestors, if anything, probably fought the Normans.
Yet, here we are and that same underlying narrative maintains its hold on the American mind. It’s built into our cultural DNA, as part of the founding myth of Anglo-American society. It’s not only resentments and instability but how they are framed, largely un unconscious ways. It has little to do with real world issues that get used symbolically.