Part 2—Charles Blow defines the two tribes: Is America facing “a new Civil War?”

That’s what Andrew O’Hehir said last weekend at Salon (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/7/13). Given the sweep of our first Civil War, this sounds like a troubling notion.

Strangely, though, O’Hehir says he isn’t even clear what this new Civil War is about. “The new Civil War is not entirely or even principally about race, although there’s no mistaking its pernicious racial component,” he writes. A bit later, he adds this: “While the Civil War of the 1860s really was about slavery first and foremost...the true subject matter of the new Civil War is much less clear.”

As it turns out, this new Civil War mainly seems to involve disagreements about abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Those disagreements do exist, of course, although opinion is rapidly changing about the latter topic.

That said: Unless we just like to whip ourselves up, do these disagreements really define a “new Civil War?”

We liberals tend to get upset when the other tribe compares political disputes to profound historical events. (Does the number of abortions in this country constitute a new Holocaust?) But as we liberals belatedly build our response to the world of Fox, we seem inclined to the sweeping tribal claims that tend to make the blood race.

These tribal claims bring on the heat. But do they blot out the light?

Is Michigan a border state? Is North Dakota now part of the neo-Confederacy? Some commenters praised these peculiar claims when O’Hehir advanced them at Salon. But aside from the need to stir the blood, do these claims really make sense?

Whatever! Increasingly, liberal leaders like to picture a world in which two starkly different tribes clash in the night. In one example of this impulse, Lisa de Moraes, the Post TV writer, quoted a Hollywood producer as he mused about The Other last week:
DE MORAES (1/5/13): John Wilkes Booth "could be the poster child for the tea party," Erik Jendresen, exec producer of National Geographic Channel's "Killing Lincoln," told shocked TV critics at Winter TV Press Tour 2013.

Booth was not mad, and his views were, in fact, pretty common when he assassinated Lincoln, Jendresen said Friday.

"This is not the act of somebody who can easily be dismissed as a psychopath, so that it's easy to understand—'Oh well, he was crazy.' This is a man who believed what still probably 20 percent of this country still believes."
Booth is one of our most famous murderers. Could he be the poster child for the Tea Party? As she continued, de Moraes quoted Jendresen as he further unpacked his highly exciting beliefs. She then moved on to another key topic: Courteney Cox’s declaration that 2013 is going to be “The Year of Her Cleavage.”

Cox was discussing a change in her exciting show, Cougar Town. In the new year, “You will not see one scene where I don’t show my boobs,” the thoughtful TV star said.

We live in a very dumb culture. As we liberals move to confront the dumbness of the Limbaugh regime, we seem inclined to heighten tribal distinctions, sometimes in fairly dumb ways.

Now we’re engaged in a new Civil War! Michigan is a border state; North Dakota is neo-Confederate! Granted, the liberal world’s tired blood starts to flow as we define this tribal division. But as we excite ourselves in this way, is all that heat perhaps wiping out a bit of our cultural light?

Are we really caught in a new Civil War between two enemy tribes? To see a major journalist heighten this general notion, consider Charles Blow’s column in Saturday’s New York Times.

Blow began by stating his views about Lincoln and Django Unchained. The two films have “caused me to think deeply about the long shadow of slavery,” the columnist said, none too humbly.

Soon, Blow was nut-picking a dumb remark by a former state legislator in Arkansas. He quoted similar statements by Robert E. Lee and John C. Calhoun, though he could have quoted such statements by sainted Lincoln himself.

Had we attained the deep thought yet? From there, it was an easy move to the troubling yet pleasing world of The Two Dissimilar Tribes. This was Blow’s first iteration of this pleasing problem:
BLOW (1/5/13): Still, the persistence of such a ridiculous argument does not sit well with me. And we should all be unsettled by the tendency of some people to romanticize and empathize with the Confederacy.

A Pew Research Center poll released in April 2011 found that most Southern whites think it’s appropriate for modern-day politicians to praise Confederate leaders, the only demographic to believe that.
Blow told us that most Southern whites “think it’s appropriate for modern-day politicians to praise Confederate leaders.” He told us we “should all be unsettled by this tendency.”

According to that Pew poll, Blow’s statement was technically accurate. But here’s what he left out:
Percentages who think it’s appropriate for modern-day politicians to praise Confederate leaders:
Southern whites: 52 percent
African-Americans nationwide: 33 percent
Oops! In this case, “most” was just 52 percent—and one-third of all black respondents said they felt the same way! Should we be unsettled by their tendency too? Are they like John Wilkes Booth?

Uh-oh! In responses to that tortured question, there was a lot of overlap between the two warring tribes! Blow kept that overlap out of sight, then played a somewhat similar game with a second survey:
BLOW (continuing directly): A CNN poll also released that month found that nearly 4 in 10 white Southerners sympathize more with the Confederacy than with the Union.
In fact, that CNN poll showed that “nearly 4 in 10” southerners (full stop) “sympathized more with the southern states that were part of the Confederacy.” Presumably, the figure for white southerners would have been higher.

But uh-oh! According to that poll, twenty percent of the nation’s non-whites also said they sympathized more with “the southern states that were part of the Confederacy.” (The poll didn’t show separate results for black respondents.)

More bad news: Only 26 percent of Tea Party supporters said they sympathized with the southern states. In that response, they only exceeded non-whites by six points!

For ourselves, we don’t know why non-whites would say they sympathized that way. But when you ask peculiar poll questions, you sometimes get odd results. At any rate, Blow was helping us learn to “be unsettled by the tendency of some people to romanticize and empathize with the Confederacy.” Now, he completed the Rule of Three, offering a passage we regard as utterly foolish:
BLOW (continuing directly): What is perhaps more problematic is that negative attitudes about blacks are increasing. According to an October survey by The Associated Press: “In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election.”
Is it true that “negative attitudes about blacks are increasing?” In our view, Blow was citing an exceptionally unintelligent piece from the AP (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/29/12). It's the type of piece our tribe likes to use to help us see that the bad old days of the first Civil War are pretty much still with us.

We live in a very dumb culture. Within that culture, we may like to hear about Cox’s bosom—and we may like to hear that we belong to one of two warring tribes. We may like to hear that the other tribe is just like John Wilkes Booth!

(On Fox, they tell it different.)

The longing for war is typically based on the perception of stark tribal difference. Where the differences aren’t sufficiently stark, such differences will sometimes be hyped.

Over the Christmas break, we reread a book which urges this perspective on us liberals. Lord god of hosts, that book feels good! But we think it’s quite poorly reasoned.

Tomorrow: Chris Mooney tells us we’re smart


  1. It's more of a Cold Civil War at this point. And it's not about one single issue, any more than the 1860's Civil War was about one single issue. Slavery was perhaps the fundamental, underlying cause of the split, but the war didn't explicitly become about abolition until the Emancipation Proclamation; and that proclamation caused great controversy in the North and almost toppled the Lincoln Administration.

    If I had to pick one single issue as the most likely cause of the divisions we see today, I would suggest that it is an unresolved question going back to the founding of the republic: should the Federal government involve itself in the daily lives of citizens, or should it not? Secondarily, if it does involve itself in the lives of citizens, in what spheres and in what manner should it do so?

  2. I dunno. I agree that the several things I've read lately (like the O'Hehir and Blow pieces) don't argue the Civil War connections very well or helpfully. But at least they are raising what I strongly suspect are profound issues.

    A week or two after 9/11, two very dear European friends asked my husband and me over for a simple supper, sort of a sympathy meal. As we talked in grief together, I recounted how moved I'd been by an Alabama woman interviewed on TV, who'd expressed her sympathy for people in NYC. It just got to me, really buoyed me, that this woman from Alabama truly cared so much, felt not just connected to but one with us in the northeast.

    Our European friends, very well educated and cosmopolitan, were confused. Why was I particularly struck by her reaction, just because she was from Alabama? And I tossed off some remark about the south, the Civil War. My husband (raised in Oklahoma, with strong Texas family connections) understood completely and immediately, but our foreign friends were baffled and politely dismissive: oh, the Civil War, that was over a hundred years ago!

    Their dismissiveness was somewhat hurtful to me at the time, truth be told (my emotions were raw). But I reflected even then that this is the strength of being an "immigrant nation": immigrants' new perspectives can help us forget, forge a future shifted from the worst premises of our past. Though, now that these friends (who have become U.S. citizens) live in the south and have lived through the last four years, they've come to understand what I was saying.

    Why don't we transform our orientation more successfully? This is a big institutional, sociological sort of question, not simply a personal or regional one, but it is worth raising and exploring.

  3. I can think of at least one reason why some African-Americans said they felt more "sympathetic" to the former Confederate states. I am very liberal. I have lived in California for over twenty years, but I was born an raised in Indiana. Except for a few small areas, Indiana is conservative politically. It also has an ugly racial history (in the 1920s, the KKK ran the Republican party and therefore the state; African-Americans were lynched as late as 1930; etc.) However, I love Indiana. I love my family there. It still feels like home. if someone asked me whether I felt more "sympathy" for California or Indiana, I would instantly say "Indiana". I assume at least some of the African-Americans who said they felt more "sympathy" for former Confederate states lived in one of those states. There is a sizable African-American minority in the South.

  4. I had always presumed that National Geographic was above such partisan hatchetry. I would love to know how Mr. Jendresen has arrived at his baseless conclusion. We all know that Abraham Lincoln was a conservative Republican and yet I am to believe the claim that John Wilkes Booth was a conservative that despised Lincoln for his conservative belief system. That makes as much sense as claiming that Lee Harvey Oswald was a poster boy for the Occupy Movement and hated Kennedy for his liberal belief system.  How sad that National Geographic has lost any credibility as a legitimate media outlet.