David Nightingale: Civil Wars | WAMC

David Nightingale: Civil Wars

Mar 1, 2020

Politically the U.S. is now in a state of polarization, a state showing few signs of going away.

As we all know, the political divisions in America were particularly bad by the 1850s-60s, leading to the Civil War, lasting from 1861 - 1865. Although that war had many contributing reasons, the basic one was that the Unionists in the north couldn't accept the southern way of life of slavery. The problem became insurmountable, with compromise out of the question; abolishing slavery would seriously impact the Confederate way of life, and emphatically, their pocket books.

'Bellum civile' was the term that Romans used for their civil wars, between 100 BC – 400 AD, and examples include Caesar versus Pompey's senatorial elite; Octavius vs Mark Antony; and the two civil wars involving Lucius Sulla -- amongst others.

The polarization we are experiencing now involves a level of hatred that is disturbing, even setting family members against each other.

Of course, mankind has fought civil wars throughout recorded history, and there’s been nothing civil about them. One of the bloodiest was the Mexican Civil War lasting from 1910 to 1920. The basic problem was power, and who decides: the ‘leader’ (some would say dictator) General Porfirio Diaz was favoring the wealthy – something our current president also does.

Before the Roman wars there were plenty of Greek civil wars, primarily involving the central power of Athens vs city states and islands. There were also the Islamic wars of the 7th century, Vietnam wars in the 10th century, Denmark's civil wars of the 12th century, England's "baron's wars" in the 13th century -- and such wars have taken place in Spain, Poland, Lithuania, Russia and France. If we list civil wars merely since World War II we find they have been waged, with some still being waged, in Iran, Sudan, Congo, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and so on. We learn about those every day from newspapers and TV.

In America's present divisions we can see (many of us see) "we can’t live your way" in these basic forms:

  1. One group says "Leave us alone so that we may use our coal & oil & gas for our comfort alone, and stop exaggerating the negative effect on nature, such as global warming. Let all countries do their own thing as long as it doesn't affect our own wealth and comfort ..."

    the opposing side saying "That’s wrong; it is the planet not the country that is primary; our way of life affects others. We must rapidly phase out using fossil fuels, to save all human life on the planet, even if it costs us personally ..."

  2. The first group also says: We have emerged as the most powerful country in the world, and anyone crossing us is our enemy ...

    the opposing side saying: All the nations of the planet should be united, with all represented in a world body. We cannot selfishly do what we want any longer; it’s a finite world.

So what can we do about this present situation, when compromise seems unattainable? Are we falling into a deeper division, even involving war again?

Well, all these differences have been about who has the power, who gets to decide -- with discussion, accommodation and any kind of cooperation set aside as dirty words not worth considering.

Yet, in the words of that Californian construction worker/activist/and self-admitted alcohol and drug abuser, Rodney King, in his 1992 TV appearance (quote):  "I just want to say -- you know -- can we all get along?" ending with "Let's try to beat it, you know. Let's try to work it out."

Simple words, crucially relevant today, but apparently not what most of mankind has ever done.

David Nightinglale is an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY New Paltz where he taught for 31 years. His first novel, The Centauri Settlement, is produced by TheBookPatch.com .

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