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I recently moved right smack dab into the middle of a Civil War battlefield. My new neck of the woods in West Virginia and its environs passed back and forth from the Union to the Confederacy 14 times in four years. The local citizenry by mid-war would vote to divorce from the Old Dominion, Virginia, and form a new Union state. The people by and large, according to the local histories, were not particularly ideological, mostly they just wanted the ravages of war to take place somewhere else for a little while. It is hard to avoid thinking about those times as America contemplates a new Civil War or national divorce.
One thing seems clear, this new Civil War will not be a military enterprise. There is no Mason-Dixon line to separate the combatants in our current troubles. There will be no distant battlefield shimmering above with fixed bayonets and bathed in brotherly blood below. Our battles are fought on the high ground of cable news and the endless tortuous fields of social media. Like the denizens of the Shenandoah Valley so long gone, we live our lives constantly amidst both sides. Each takes its turns with our attention.
But what are the sides in this Civil War of the mind? What is the irresistible difference between us that forms the lines of battle and its flanks? Put simply, this war is about nothing short of reality itself. For one side, that we vaguely call the Left, reality is a tabula rasa, swept clean of history’s sins. They can choose what is real and build a new society befitting those high-minded ideals. The other side, roughly the Right, are the stubborn practitioners of received reality, they see the new definitions of gender, racism, and even freedom not as an opportunity, but as a dead end.
The decades leading up to the American Civil War were an ultimately fruitless and flailing attempt at accommodation. Perhaps, the great compromisers like Henry Clay believed the nation could survive, half slave, half free, if a balance could be struck and if people could mind their own business. That, of course, was not to be.
We too have spent decades now in search of accommodation regarding the culture war, and like the AnteBellum period itself there have been some successes. On gay marriage, we have found a balance, notwithstanding a few disputes over bakers and photographers. But in other areas, especially race and gender identity, our efforts at compromise have largely failed.
On basic questions, questions like can a man become a woman, or should people be judged by their race there can be no more compromise. Gender-neutral bathrooms cannot save us, nor can endless affirmative action or departments of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion lurking in every corner of civic life. One side must be right, the other wrong, and so with memes and tweets instead of lead ball and cannon we seek to destroy the other side.
In 1994, the celebrated Civil War historian Shelby Foote spoke about the great compromise on how we look back at that seminal conflict. “It consists of southerners admitting, freely, that it’s probably best the Union wasn’t divided, and the north admits, rather freely, that the south fought bravely for a cause in which it believed,” he said. But he says something else, something vital. This compromise, according to Foote, took a century to obtain, it took that long for tempers to cool. Thirty years later that “great compromise” has completely collapsed along with countless Confederate statues.
It seems to me that the great historical compromise over the actual Civil War is not an analogy for the compromises we have sought and failed to find in our new cultural Civil War, but that it is, in fact, the self same compromise. At bottom, the compromise is the belief that those with whom one so adamantly disagrees, are also acting in good faith. Sadly, but for good reasons, we are a long, long way from that. And so, the animosity and hurtful rhetoric, the fiery fusillade crashing into every faction will only increase in its virtual noise and smoke.
Today as I wander the twisting byways of my new West Virginia home, the rattle and hum and historical churn of the city is replaced by the almost audible sound of marching soldiers on a landscape not much changed. By the end of the war, the men and boys marched home to the Shenandoah Valley, some from the north, some from the south, some not at all. I see the shadow of clouds pass on mountaintops, and I wonder where our Appomattox Courthouse is to be found.
Civil war is one of those terms that you don’t want to say out loud too often lest you manifest it — it has that kind of power. But facts are facts. In almost every way short of martial engagement we are a society at war with itself, in definitional battles over reality, over science and education, over the very nature of what America is, of what being an American is.
Shelby Foote said that the great American genius was for compromise, but he was quick to note it doesn’t always work. And so we are at the beginning not near the end of this Civil War of the Mind, the fighting will continue. And only one version of reality can win.
David Marcus is a West Virginia based columnist and author of “Charade: The Covid Lies That Crushed A Nation”
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.