We’re told that “division” and “partisanship” and “bigotry” are destroying America. “Hate” is the cancer in our cultural bloodstream, they say. We must fight against hate speech and hate crimes and hate in every other form. There is so much hate, allegedly. Some people are even worried that another civil war might be on the horizon.
I think we flatter ourselves. There will be no civil war. We’re far too lazy for such an onerous pursuit. It’s easier to snipe at each other in the comments section or shoot off insults on social media. We much prefer a tweet war to an actual war because tweet wars don’t interrupt a Netflix binge.
During the real Civil War, men marched over mountains in bare feet in the winter. They lived on salt pork and black coffee made from acorns. They charged headlong into cannon fire. They used whiskey as an anesthetic while they had their limbs amputated. They had convictions, and they died for them.
We do not have that kind of conviction. We have enough conviction to participate in a hashtag campaign, or to hurl a snarky gif at our cowering adversaries, but civil war? We need not worry our silly heads about that. We spend literally billions of dollars on iPhone upgrades, porn, video games, tickets to superhero films, and accessories for our pets. How many people would be willing to jeopardize a life of such insane, stifling luxury for the sake of fighting a gruesome battle out in the street? Not many. Not nearly enough to get even a halfway respectable war together.
I don’t say this with disappointment, by the way. I say it because it leads me to an important point: hatred is not destroying our society. Hatred could destroy a society, and has destroyed many in the past, but our case is different. The cancer in our blood is indifference. Our moral and intellectual apathy is the thing that will prevent our country from breaking apart or exploding into civil war, but it’s also the thing that will drag our nation, as one whole piece, into ruin and decay.
We have misdiagnosed all the symptoms. The occasional bursts of rioting and violence in the streets, whether committed by Antifa or BLM or white nationalists (the one time that happened), are the result of a deep-seated nihilism, not bigotry. The same can be said for most of the recent mass shootings. The same can be said for the monsters who live streamed the kidnapping and torture of a disabled man, or the teenagers who laughed as a man drowned right in front of them, or the people who watch and cheer as suicides are broadcast online. The rising suicide rate itself, along with the drug abuse epidemic and our reported “mental health crisis,” all speak to this same problem. Throw in our obsessive TV-watching, our addiction to smart phones and the internet, and the rabid materialism that causes herds of Black Friday shoppers to trample each other in pursuit of heavily discounted electronic equipment. The collapse of the family, the decline in religion, all of this comes back to the same thing: emptiness, indifference, apathy.
Here’s the dirty little secret about the nature of the disputes in this country: most of the combatants screaming and fighting don’t actually care. I saw a thread on Facebook this morning where five or six people were lobbing invective at each other over the issue of Trump’s Jerusalem policy. As I read through the exchange, I got the distinct impression that nobody involved in the discussion actually knew anything about the topic, or cared. I could imagine one typing his fury-filled comment as he waited in line at Starbucks, another passionately arguing his case while watching a YouTube video of cats chasing laser pointers. People fight with each other online because it’s something to do, it’s a form of entertainment, no more serious or significant than the cat video playing on the other tab.
We are not really a hateful people. We are certainly callous, but our callousness stems from the same hollowness and indifference that informs every aspect of modern American life. Hollow, callous, indifferent people do not fight civil wars. Rather, they float softly into oblivion. That will be our fate, at least if we stay on our current trajectory. The country will not break apart. We will remain stuck together. But our unity won’t be due to any kind of common principle or shared understanding. It is more like a kind of paralysis. Or, you might say, rigor mortise.