The Center Cannot Hold

Every few generations, it seems, over the past couple hundred years (and, indeed, much further than that), there have been immense crises that have threatened our civilization and our socities between two extremes. Almost invariably there end up being three (or more )camps of people—those who are passionately involved in each side of an issue and those who want to make peace and be neutral. After decades of crisis, the conflict eventually arises between the two camps and winners and losers are decided in history through immense and painful conflict that slaughters many of the contenders and allows societies to return to some sort of equilibrium, with the crisis ending once the underlying tensions have been resolved.

So far, the reader of Howe And Strauss’ Generational Theory (where I belong as a late cohort Generation Xer in the midst of our culture’s growing crisis), or the reader of Peter Turgeon’s work on cliodynamics (the source of the very title of this blog) can follow the reasoning very easily. Nor are historical examples of this sort of crisis dynamic hard to find. Witness the fate of the deeply divided West in the era before World War II, caught between Fascism and Communism and trying to muddle through the Great Depression without succumbing to either extreme, and facing death by the tens of millions in the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Witness the fate of the neutrals in the American Revolution or in the American Civil War between, as brother fought brother, and as momentous and uncompromisable political positions were settled not by logic and evidence but at the barrel of a gun. In examining the growing crisis of our own times, where people who ought to be statesmen (with the full support of voters and stock market investors) kick the can to future administrations and future generations because we are unwilling (or, as is the case with myself personally, unable) to pay the price of our errant folly and exceptionally poor fortune. What is going on here?

The problem is not a new one, but as humans tend to be
myopic in the moral and historical sense as some of us (myself included) are nearsighted in the physical sense, we often forget that this same script has played out over and over again in human history with fairly typical and very tragic results. And what is this problem? In the end, it seems to boil down the fact that some differences cannot be solved through talking and compromise, and that some divisions cannot be papered over, but must be resolved through conflict. The difficulty springs both from the sorts of issues that prove to be impossible to compromise (and these are generally moral issues) as well as the fact that the centers, whose purpose is to smooth over differences, become increasingly unable to do their job in the midst of crises such as our society has been facing now for slightly longer than my entire life.

First, let us look a little bit at history to see what sort of issues are particularly unable to be compromised. Since I am an American, I will take the American Revolution and the American Civil War as case studies, since these are the two most notable crises prior to our present time (though the crisis of the Depression is certainly also important because of its historical importance for our present crisis, and I will examine it separably when looking at the contemporary crisis). The rallying cry of the original American Tea Party was no taxation without representation, part of a very serious feeling that the English core thought themselves superior to the peripheral American colonists and did not take their concerns and interests seriously but only wanted to exploit them for their own economic gain. Nor was England alone in this problem—the same precise problems led to revolt among the Spanish colonies of Central and South America as well shortly afterward. Nor, it should be noticed, are the same problems magically resolved, as they are a recurrent problem in imperial nations like Thailand and the United States which favors the interests of the few and the well-connected and the centrally located at the expense of the many and poor and remote. Core and periphery is a huge problem, essentially dealing with power sharing (which elites are unwilling to do unless forced at the barrel of a gun, or redistributed after the elites are exiled or killed) as well as respect for all. For this reason the American Revolution enshrined a belief that all mankind is created equal, without fullying realizing (or accepting) its implications for our own ’empire of liberty.’

Not surprisingly, once we won freedom for ourselves we were soon faced with the ugly reality that in fighting for our own freedom we had set an example that encouraged those whose concerns were marginalized, be they black slaves desiring of freedom or women upset with double standards that forced them into more homebound concerns when many of them were quite intelligent and politically competent (witness the letters of Abigail Adams to her husband John Adams, for example). Not surprisingly, both the cult of domesticity and the myth of benevolent antebellum plantation culture were both under attack as well as violently defended by those new traditionalists that sought to preserve the power they had gained without sharing it with anyone else.

The fact that the South was a minority and the fact that arguments against enslaving black men also tended to speak against male privilege tended to make the fight for dignity and respect for disenfranchised groups very ugly, especially since those who fought for such matters (only one of which, the issue of black slavery, ended up in open warfare) were speaking accurately according to the founding documents and spirit of our country, and direcly against the interests of the powerful elites in contemporary society. A conflict between power and principles almost always ends in warfare. In the end, the South lost its elite status (until the rise of the Republican Party in the 1970’s, another aspect of our present crisis) over its inability to give up power to the majorities in its own nation, or accept the moral wrongness of their desire to exploit other people. Not that the North had its hands entirely clean, but their pot and kettle were at least slightly less black and therefore less blameworthy.

In both cases questions of power and morality were at the core of the issues. Are all men (and women) equal in the eyes of God, or are some more equal than others? What ability do just and godly men (and women) have to resist evil and unjust laws or to change unjust social structures without being in rebellion against God? And what is the fate of those whose primary desire is not decisive victory of one side or another but the preservation of peace and harmony between deeply divided families, communities, sections, and society. And therein lies the problem of the squishy moderate and the inability of the center to hold in the face of such crises. When fundamental questions of dignity and morality are at stake, there is no middle ground, only yes and no. Is a fetus a human being with the right to life as protected by our nation’s Declaration of Independence, with anyone who seeks to deprive that right punished as a murderer? Yes or no? Either someone is a human being or not. There is no middle ground. Is an American colonist the equal of a metropolitan Englishman? Yes or no. Are men and women and blacks and whites (and everyone else) equal in the eyes of God? What about poor and rich? Union workers and non-unizied workers? Employees and employers? What about taxpayers and free riders? These questions become increasingly contentious when a deeply divided society is facing economoic crises as well as a crisis of morality in being unable to defend or even define its positions with any clarity, trying to kick the can and muddle through without being faced with its contradictions and injustices and wickedness.

The moderate again has an untenable position in such crises. Speaking as someone who is very close to the border of a moderate, and therefore someone who dislikes being tarred with inaccurate and steretypical ideological brushes, as I am far more complicated a person than such small boxes and constricting labels seems to concede, I have a great deal of sympathy with the difficult plight of the moderate. In fact, as a history student in my undergraduate studies, one of my “course ideas” was an examination of the moderate in Western political history from the 1770s to today. My adviser did not think that moderates had any principles or any genuine existence and therefore were an unworthy subject of interest. He, of course, like most of his ilk, was an ideological left-winger not entirely conscious he was dealing with a cautious, plodding, and very stubborn but not extremely ideological conservative. Personally speaking, I am not very quick to engage in ideological warfare, preferring peace, but because I prefer to fight rather than tamely surrender, I end up involved in seemingly endless conflict with the enemies of my personal dignity and honor, be they family members or former brethren or political opponents. Without having any personal desire to fight, the simple fact that I am not a pacifist and others behave unjustly and tyrannically has led me to fight long and bitter wars as a result of my preference to fighting over caving in.

And that is what puts me slightly on the ideological warrior side and not on the moderate side, but not by a great margin. At any rate, I am sympathetic to the plight of the moderate. For the moderate, the principled and genuine moderate, the goal is peace and harmony. These are moral goals (it must be conceded). We have an obligation to love others as ourselves. We have a responsibility to seek for the interests of others and not merely for our own. At their core, moderates do an unpleasant and very necessary job to maintaining order. Not being ideologically biased, as a general rule, they seek to build bridges and keep peace between restive and hostile extremes. In moral times, this means that they logroll and compromise and keep political discourse from being too nasty. They prevent molehills from becoming mountains through fair settlement, trying to balance the extremes. They divide the spoils to keep everyone from feeling totally cheated. If they are principled moderates, they do all of this very necessary work of saving face for everyone and preserving harmony (tasks that I must admit I am not very good at) without profiting from corruption themselves.

And we ought to remember that this needs to be done. If our societies and families and churches are to represent broad coalitions and broad talents, someone has to make peace without turning everything into a battle. Someone has to point out that everyone will be better off if everyone gets part of their way but no one runs roughshod over others. This is a necessary task, requiring considerable skills in diplomacy and communication. In times of crisis such as we are in now (and have been in for as long as I can remember), we are prone to consider such people to be squishy and weak and without principles. We look at people like American President Buchanan or British Prime Minister Chamberlain as being appeasers (which is true), not realizing that the stock and trade of a moderate is appeasement, lowering the temperature of conflict and making peace rather than making everything into a fighting matter. Such work needs to be done on a frequent and ordinary basis, because some of us (myself included) can be pretty combative about matters that are sometimes not very important. So long as moderates retain principles that they will not compromise under any circumstances, and so long as ideologues maintain a sense of proportion (not risking their political and moral capital over small matters but knowing when to draw lines in the sand that will not be crossed) then everyone is for the better both in terms of practical politics where compromises are necessary (and useful) and where synergy may even be possible, but also where certain actions will trip the wire from “normal” politics of compromise into the “crisis” politics of warfare.

And it is precisely this area where moderates tend to fail, and why our present political culture in the United States is in such danger. Often moderates forget their principles (if they ever hd them) and seek peace and unity as the only goal, rather than a desirable but secondary goal to righteousness. For those of us like myself with a prickly sense of dignity the lines in the sand develop somewhat faster, as we are unwilling to submit to an unjust peace to avoid a necessary and inevitable conflict. Our current moderates in United States politics (most of them, notably, Republicans) desire peace above all else, and have behaved somewhat shamefully in compromising their principles to try to retain some small sliver of peaceful behavior in an increasingly divided political scene.

This weakness, though, is eventually fatal (as it was for our nation’s First Republic in the 1850’s) as an increasingly polarized population becomes increasingly unwilling to accept milquetoast compromisers and increasingly set on ideological warriors to defeat the evildoers and put down the corrupt elites. The United States (and Thailand, it must be noted) are at this stage. Moderates willing and able and inclined to compromise to make peace and allow everyone to save some face at the stake of their principles are being actively hunted down on both sides, with the #occupy nonsense as well as the growing ideological fervor on the right with the Tea Party Movement as well. When moderates start becoming an endangered species, there is only one way the cisis can end, and it’s not with people of all sides holding hands and singing “kumbaya” around a campfire.

There will be blood shed, a lot of it, and a lot of blood and treasure will be wasted in fratricidal conflict. For those are the moods of these times, as I have seen time and time again. The center cannot hold, our societies and institutions are becoming unglued, and increasingly the choice is not what sort of peace one is willing to accept but who one hates enough to kill, even in self-defense. If God will not save us from ourselves, we will all have blood on our hands soon enough. When no just peace can be made because of a total lack of trust in the other side, the only option is warfare, the only goal to beat our opponents into a bloody pulp, bomb them into the stone age, and into leaving them with no option save bitter exile, a painful death, or a humiliating surrender. Such is the price of ideological fervor and purity. Will that price be charged to my generation?

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Center Cannot Hold

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Five Thousand Year Leap | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: The Most Qualified President Since James Buchanan | Edge Induced Cohesion

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