The Second American Civil War: A Reckoning

  • Ilan Stavans, Amherst College Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture, at his Amherst home, Monday, June 5, 2017. —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

Friday, September 08, 2017

Dear Editor:

Is it we who now are bringing down monuments of Antifa soldiers that valiantly fought in the Second American Civil War (2018-2023)? Does anyone remember the roots of the war? This is indeed a nation of amnesiacs.

The statue of Lieutenant Sergio Meléndez was brought down in Amherst in the middle of the night. Why was it done with such fear?

As we commemorate yet another anniversary of the Battle of Palmer, Mass., in which almost 50,000 people died in the span of three days, I can’t but be overwhelmed by shame. Two of my daughters died in battles in Virginia and Arizona. I’m part Korean. Their mothers were Colombian and Vietnamese, respectively. I keep telling myself: All of this could have been prevented.

Not that yesterday’s ceremony — in which President Gupta consecrated the grounds by time and again invoking the 272 words Abraham Lincoln used at Gettysburg in 1863 — was unworthy. Your editorial insinuates that much (Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 7, 2031). Yet you’re unhappy with President Gupta’s use of the term “coexist,” and you bring her to task for it. “We cohere,” you write, “and we coalesce. But coexisting is no longer enough!”

You might be right. The Second American Civil War has not put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Nearly 3 million dead in the span of less than five years. In comparison, only about 620,000 soldiers died in the First American Civil War (1861-1865). The origins of the two conflicts are summarized in a single word: color. Was the optimism upon which our country was built utterly misconstrued? Were our original sins irrevocable? Is it still possible for a citizenry whose origins are all over the planet to truly coalesce in peace?

Everyone blames the Trump years. They were toxic, no doubt. It is universally known that, after he won the November 8, 2016, election, the entire world entered a period of stagnation. It was as if time were moving backwards. In the United States, a considerable segment of the population marched against Trump. “Not My President!” was a favorite slogan.

The divide was irreconcilable. The left and the right had long stopped being civil. A bumper sticker now at the Smithsonian reads: “Elect a clown, expect a circus.” Before Trump came to the White House, he already had made a career as a buffoon. He had no principles. He was incapable of sustaining a coherent ideological view. He was dangerously impatient. Trump’s language was made to be advertised. In fact, more than a president, Trump was a marketer: he sold a portion of the electorate a bill of goods.

Does anyone remember the insistence with which Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was staged in those years? Audiences were looking not at a play but at a mirror. It is no coincidence that in Act II, Scene 1, Brutus wonders: “How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport.”

Shakespeare’s Roman play became the blueprint of what was to come. Sedition, as everyone knows, was in the air. Of course, it didn’t come from the usual suspects: the pro-cosmopolitanism crowd. This sector was also guilty of follies. Not of treason, though. That came from Trump’s entourage, as your newspaper, and others, fittingly reported. Like Brutus, Cassius, Casca, Trebonius and other conspirators, those surrounding Trump had egos to feed. Not as huge as Caesar’s but large nonetheless.

Your editorial is correct. Neither Trump nor Pence, Castro, or Piltowsky are the cause of our cosmic tragedy. It wasn’t the fault of Russia. Or ISIS. Or Lieutenant Menchaka. It was our fault — and ours, alone. The irrationality that befell us has no name. Look at China today. Look at superpower Chile.

Just as the 20th century saw the rise of America, the 21st witnessed its unraveling — and rather precipitously. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: “There are no second acts in American lives.” The same goes for reckless empires.

Is it at all surprising that we have gone through this second American Civil War when for decades the National Rifle Association made it infuriatingly easy to acquire semi-automatic weapons? In the end, it wasn’t about self-protection, as advocates kept on suggesting. It was about building militias whose sole mission was to enhance particular ideological views. It is a well-known truth that war is the continuation of politics by other means. But America had forgotten that war is also a crime.

What about the demonization of immigrants and the inhumane repeal of DACA? Or blacks, Jews, homosexuals and other “deviants”? Sooner or later, the rhetoric of hatred became a tool of destruction. Americans forgot that words aren’t made of air.

And what about the biblical flood brought along by Hurricane Harvey in Texas? Was than not an omen for a new Noah to ready the ship?

It isn’t true, as you state, that the secession of California was the cataclysm that opened the door. New York and Connecticut followed suit, and then Vermont. By the time Texas was out, there was hardly anything in, except Massachusetts. We stuck around and paid the price for it. 

By 2019, when Trump abolished Congress and dismantled the Supreme Court, we had all ceased to be citizens. Instead, we had become consumers. And we built ourselves to subsist as well-trained consumers. Countless ads told us what to buy in order to be happy, whom to vote for in order to feel secure, what news to watch in order not to distract our attention in “superfluous” endeavors.

Our diminished nation is no longer a nation. Call it a conglomerate. Or a corporation.

What exactly am I saying? That our dead shall not have died in vain, again. That bringing down Antifa monuments — in Amherst, of all places — is proof that the past is far more malleable than the future.

That I have trouble imagining a country still more idealistic than ours. Or more foolish. 


Your Dutiful Reader (Robert Chang Lee)