Death in Dallas and America's existential crisis: Our new "civil war" over the nature of reality

Our broken republic is divided not just by race, culture and ideology, but between competing versions of reality

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 9, 2016 4:00PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
(Reuters/Rick Wilking)

After a week of shocking and polarizing violence in America, which featured two black citizens shot dead by police in ambiguous circumstances and ended with Thursday night’s sniper killings of five police officers in Dallas (apparently by a lone African-American gunman), we are badly in need of some perspective. Unfortunately, perspective is exactly what we lack in our broken-down republic, although you could just as well say that we’ve got too much of it. Different Americans, and different groups of Americans, perceive different realities, and can barely be said to inhabit the same country.

That fact lies at the heart of our deepening national crisis, which goes beyond political disagreement or racial conflict into existential or epistemological realms. There was nothing exceptional about this week's body count, sadly, although the Dallas attacks unquestionably got the entire nation's attention. But certain aspects of our current situation are new and striking. There was a certain grim hilarity to Donald Trump’s post-Dallas Facebook lament that “Our nation has become too divided,” which is roughly like Count Dracula complaining that all the pretty girls in Transylvania have become vampires. But you can’t argue with the sentiment. We are an intensely divided country — in terms of race, culture and ideology, of course, but also in terms of basic facts and how to understand them. This profound disconnection is not without precedent, because American history is full of echoes. History also teaches us that such division holds great danger.

There’s no neutral high ground that can offer you or me or anyone else some clear vision of this week’s tragic events, or the painful decades and centuries that led up to them. When you’re in the middle of a crisis about the fundamental nature of your country and where it’s going, nobody gets to stand outside it. Very likely no such view from above was ever possible, but in the days of Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite we convinced ourselves it was. I recently had lunch with the legendary television producer Norman Lear, whose 1970s sitcoms sometimes attracted 50 million viewers or more. He told me he felt a responsibility to reach viewers who were nothing like him, and who disagreed with him about every possible issue. Lear’s most famous creation, Archie Bunker, was a racist, sexist and homophobic bigot, portrayed with immense compassion and complexity.

For better or worse, we have abandoned the notion of a shared mainstream culture and embraced a radical subjectivity worthy of 1980s critical theory. Experts and authority figures can be cast aside anytime we don’t like what they say; science is understood as a matter of opinion, and the difference between science and opinion is itself a matter of opinion. Some aspects of that iconoclasm have been healthy, like the realization that we have all been shaped by cultural forces we may not perceive, and that none of us is free of bias. But the technology that has connected us and made us so self-aware has also isolated us in electronic cocoons that magnify our existing prejudices and reflect them back at us. Archie Bunker minus the running arguments with Meathead, plus Fox News, leads to Donald Trump.

President Obama, who has had plenty of practice making somber speeches in the wake of national tragedies, did his best to play unifier-in-chief this week. He has long since learned it’s a lost cause. Both in his earlier remarks about the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and in his Friday morning comments after the Dallas attack, Obama sought to stress abstract principles that nearly everyone claims to believe in: Fairness and justice, along with the idea that there is no excuse for cold-blooded murder. As he knows all too well, there will be widely divergent views about what “fairness” and “justice” mean in practice in these cases. I couldn’t help thinking of the central theme of James McPherson’s magisterial Civil War history “Battle Cry of Freedom”: The Union and the Confederacy both believed they were fighting for freedom, but understood that word in radically different and mutually contradictory ways.

That’s why I wasn’t as horrified as some people were by the New York Post’s “CIVIL WAR” front-page headline after the Dallas shootings. In a bizarre and no doubt accidental fashion, it pointed at the truth. I don’t disagree that the phrase was reckless and irresponsible, or that it tried to stoke white fears that Dallas was the beginning of a race war rather than an isolated crime committed by a disturbed individual with a high-powered rifle. The Post has a long history of siding with New York cops even in the most egregious cases of abuse, and has devoted considerable energy to depicting Black Lives Matter and other protest movements as homegrown terrorists. (Years after the black and Latino young men known as the Central Park Five had their convictions in an infamous 1989 rape case thrown out, the paper occasionally recycles arguments that they were guilty after all.)

But without meaning to, the Post’s headline writers illuminated a crucial historical analogy: The last time our country was this badly divided, torn between incompatible visions of our nation’s core identity and future destiny, we wound up fighting the bloodiest war in our history, whose wounds have never entirely healed. (Even after all the carnage of the 20th century, approximately half of all Americans who have died in wars died in the Civil War.) I’m not suggesting that a second Civil War is likely to happen anytime soon, or at least not one that looks anything like the first one. It might be more accurate to say that we’ve been fighting it for the last 20 years, in the cultural sphere and the media and on the Internet, and that it’s beginning to leak into the physical world as well. If we understand the Civil War in the terms Lincoln used at Gettysburg — as an existential conflict that nearly destroyed the nation — well, we’re getting closer to that every day.

In his ascent to the presidency, Obama modeled himself on Lincoln a bit too obviously, and maybe he resembles the Great Emancipator in a way he never anticipated, as a central symbol and principal flashpoint of American division. It’s easy, and perhaps cathartic, to mock people who tell pollsters they’re still not quite convinced, after eight years of deadpan Oval Office cool, that Obama’s not a Muslim. (Or right-wing media figures who say that at any rate he likes Muslims too much.) But the novelty has pretty well worn off, and such suspicions point vividly at the fact that there is no mutually agreed-upon reality in America. This problem is definitely bigger than America; some British commentators have described the Brexit vote as an exercise in “post-factual politics,” an angry protest against the status quo that flies in the face of all available evidence. But our country exhibits an advanced form of the disease: We find ourselves, pretty much, in post-factual reality.

No doubt it’s overstating the case to say that America has a white reality and a black reality, which are mutually contradictory and rarely overlap, but it’s not overstating by much. Most whites perceive law enforcement as even-handed and fair-minded, and believe the unnecessary use of lethal force is a rare and unfortunate event. Law-abiding citizens, of whatever color, have nothing to fear from the cops, and those who suggest otherwise are stirring up trouble and apologizing for thugs. African-Americans, of almost any class or economic background, are alert to a long history of official racism and police brutality that may have altered its form and terminology but keeps recurring, year after year, in dozens or hundreds of cases that end with black bodies dead in the street. No matter how clear-headed I think I am about that divide, my lived reality is that I will never fear for my life if I get pulled over for a traffic infraction.

As we can see from the reactions to this week’s dreadful events on the competing news channels and social media, it’s not overstating the case at all to say that we have a “liberal” reality and a “conservative” reality. (I would argue that both words have been stripped of their original meanings and are virtually useless, but never mind.) In one version, the greatest nation in the world has come under sustained attack both at home and abroad, and its enemies — big-government socialists, the identity-politics thought police, Black Lives Matter, feminists and gays and Spanish-speaking immigrants and “radical Islam” and Barack Hussein Obama — share a common agenda and are quite likely working together. In another, evil corporations and embittered white racists have forged a nightmare coalition devoted to rolling back every progressive reform of the last 80 years and turning 21st-century America into a “Doctor Who”-style mashup of Victorian England, “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

I hardly need to tell you that I think one of those versions of reality is a lot closer to being true than the other. I’m not advancing some postmodern theory of knowledge where there are no facts, and where flat-earthers and Galileo both get to be right. But that’s not really the point. Both of them are impregnable and self-reinforcing structures of belief. Convincing people which facts are actually facts, and which arguments deserve to be taken seriously, is proving devilishly difficult at the moment. Each side’s view of reality looks obviously and ludicrously wrong to the other side, which is not that surprising when you consider that we all spend so much of our time congratulating ourselves for being right. Political disagreement, cultural warfare and outright violence are nothing new. But that mutual incomprehension, and that near-total inability to communicate, is both new and dangerous.

As a colleague suggested to me on Friday, we seem to have gone back to the Civil War era in more than one sense. Technology can connect us instantaneously with people anywhere in the world, and yet our understanding of people outside our own cadre or tribe is as limited as it was when it took days to travel from one city to the next. One aspect of the Civil War that dramatically shifted American history was that thousands of Union soldiers, young white Northerners who had rarely encountered African-Americans and knew little about slavery, came face to face with enslaved people and realized that they were self-aware human beings, willing to risk their lives to change their situation. Stereotypes about slavery as a benevolent institution, and blacks as a simple, contented people, vanished at a stroke.

There might be a lesson there for our current predicament, although I'm not saying it's easy to apply in practice. Which would be more useful: For me to confront the fact that large numbers of my fellow citizens really believe that black radicals are waging a race war against white America and the police, and that Obama and Hillary Clinton hope to flood the country with Muslims and Mexicans while building socialism? And then to try to figure out how the hell that happened, and whether I can do anything to bridge the gap between that reality and mine? Or for me to carry on ridiculing others for their paranoid and superstitious beliefs, and congratulating myself for being a product of my class and educational background? I guess it all depends on whether I think the second Civil War can still be won, and whether anyone's version of reality can save our perishing republic.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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