A few days ago, in the context of a (relatively minor, albeit symbolically intense) controversy, I described the debates over Zionism and the BDS movement as exhibiting the character of "Manichean battle" that should not be encouraged because ultimately the only side that benefits are those that prefer open-ended war and authoritarian forms of government; that in fact, we should keep trying to see each other's perspectives and shared humanity. Right on cue, the New York Times published an editorial by a staff editor in which one side of that debate got treated without any sympathy at all and characterized as exhibiting a "Manichaean view of life."
Today Jacob Levy shared the recruitment video by the NRA above on Facebook. I find it chilling because it villifies political opponents and treats those as un-american enemies and violence prone. It also suggests that such violence will be met with "violence of truth." If there were room for comedy, one could note that this last use of ‘violence’ is remarkably close to the way 'violence' gets used in some postmodern circles. But, alas, there is no space for comedy here because the NRA's message, which shows graphic effects of very real violence and whose tone is not exactly uplifting, will receive wide audience and, I fear, will only incite more fear and loathing. To be frank I think this video is laying the ground-work for a civil war between red-state and blue state America.
For, with political polarization at levels not seen before in the modern era, a heavily armed citizenry, many different kinds of armed forces, and a volatile, intemperate President, who rightly feels threatened by the deep State and who will almost certainly face obstruction of justice charges and risk impeachment over the emoluments clause, we are now entering extremely dangerous territory. The news shows a steady drip of political violence, including deadly violence; ominously, the polarized echo chambers are seeing mostly the violence directed by the ‘other side.’ The tipping point to a more massive escalation by one side or another can’t be too far off if passions are mobilized and violence becomes – Weimar-style -- organized.
All of this is quite peculiar, because while The Great Recession in the aftermath of the financial crisis was very serious and there has been stagnation in living standards for non-trivial parts of the population, and disruptions caused by rapidly changing economy, the United States is at (relative) peace, near full employment, and with low inflation. While there are serious religious disagreements, a future conflict will not be a religious war familiar from Europe’s past. While the populace of the Unites States is more violence prone than many other advanced liberal democracies, it is still a remarkably safe and flourishing country. It has a party in control of all branches of government (including the Judicial), and so can exercise effective government if it so wishes. These are ordinarily not conditions for great concern.
In my view there are two fundamental sources of our present predicament: first, the for-profit press and modern media are playing a non-trivial role in generating the conditions for escalation. It’s quite clear that a 24/7/365 manufactured sense of crisis, which produces fear and anger, is good for their business. Moreover, they benefit, too, when citizens’ groups and corporate associations generate more eye-balls (and, thus, advertising).
For example, the NRA’s video just feeds the hungry beast of outrage guaranteed to generate more coverage for its message. (And, yes, this post plays right into that.) It is to be hoped that serious students, who are mostly focused on the looming environmental catastrophe, confront this conundrum at the core of capitalist, liberal democracy: a free, unregulated press is essential to keep our kind of polities thriving, but it is increasingly likely that they will facilitate our downfall. In a better world, the executive, who controls the armed forces, would be a source of calm. Unfortunately, President Trump has perfected the art of renewing and triggering the hunger of the beast of outrage.
Second, the United States has no serious military and political rival. This has made its politics fundamentally unconstrained (e.g., the invasion of Iraq), un-strategic (its proxies are fighting each other increasingly all over the Middle East), and irresponsible (e.g., climate-science denialism). The lack of felt external threat means that forces of disunity overtake those that may generate unity. (The previous sentence suggests that the effects of Islamic terror are not really feared.) Maybe one day China will concentrate American minds and we will discover our common humanity and the vibrancy of contested patriotism. But by then it may well be too late to stop the present Manichean march off folly