There is an enduring point of conversation on talk shows and in opinion columns, conjecturing about the imminence of a new U.S. civil war, between the coastal regions and the rest of the country, or between the higher-educated and those of more modest or less-formal upbringing, or between those with more progressive views of social behavior and those who uphold more conservative customs. I should add that this chit-chat seems to occupy mostly people of my age cohort, and that I have practically no idea how it is discussed by the millennials, and so the prospect of a civil war of the young and younger versus the rest of us seems at least as plausible as those other conjectures.
But whatever fault lines may yet emerge, I do not believe any of these is now the cause of the social tension we must admit afflicts us. I happen to have a simpler view.
You see, by my reasoning a civil war has to meet a few basic criteria: there has to be some established condition that causes one group to declare its separation from the other group, such as the Union and the Confederacy of the actual Civil War, or more recently the Reds and Whites in Russia (1918), the Loyalists and Nationalists in Spain (1936), or the KMT versus the CPC in China (1947.) More than this, the separation between the belligerents has to be total – such that nothing like faith or custom can cause them to reconsider their hostility.
We are better off than that, to be sure, and though very few of us may realize or appreciate what unites us it is fairly obvious: we are unified by commerce. I do not think this is a particularly admirable cause to claim as our core principle, but there’s not much to be done about this detail. I have so far been rather ineffective at persuading many of my followers to adhere to my particular blend of philosophies.
This, not incidentally, is fairly central to the point. I am able to pursue and preserve my principles without penalty, and if I’m inspired I can propagate these principles as long as I do not violate the rights and safety of anyone. These limitations are tested by other people all the time, I should note, and the results give us quite a lot of stupidity and indecency, and more individual boorishness than one would imagine is tolerable — but so far there is no civil war. The predictable arrival of the FedEx or USPS delivery every day is proof that our system is not breaking down.
This not to argue that we cannot improve the civility of the civilization we have cultivated here, but we’ll do that better if we understand what unites us and what separates us. The unifying factor may not be very inspiring, but it is remarkably flexible. And in that flexibility there is some reassurance.
The other half of the problem is more serious, and significantly so. What separates us is the animating force behind commerce — the individuality that fuels commerce, and the technology that supports and increasingly defines individuality. We have power over ourselves that is not fully defined in law but is impossible to restrain. Each one of us can interact with anyone, for good or for ill. We can gather ideas from anywhere, whether it’s true or not, and we can use it or abuse it based on our individual judgement.
But nothing compels us to learn or to discern. Nothing encourages me to curb consumerist cravings or momentary impulses, except for memory and experience, and principles developed over the course of a life. If we all shared more of those, civility would not seem so elusive.