It's an uncivil war

I finally read The Undertow: Scenes From a Show Civil War by Jeff Sharlet in late 2023 and passages of it kept bouncing around in my head for some time. I'm not sure I have anything new or interesting to bring to it, or if in talking about it I can only flail about, repeating the facts that haunt me the most until I misremember them, like Don the “town meshuga,” a character Sharlet met whilst doing research in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, who compulsively recounted to Sharlet scenes from a docudrama about local history, Wisconsin Death Trip, which Sharlet knows so well that he has discussed it at length with the author of the book on which it was based.

In short, The Undertow explores why so many people in the United States today are either preparing for a new civil war they believe to be imminent, or effectively waging one they believe is already underway.

It frustrates me endlessly that as a country we're stuck with old notions about “swing voters” and “moderate conservatives” and “family values” when increasing numbers of people inhabit a parallel social/political world where reality has more to do with what feels true than with observable fact. It's good to hear Sharlet honestly grapple with that world as he interviews authoritarians all over the contiguous United States.

It's also refreshing to read about these things from the perspective of someone who writes competently about religion. Sharlet is a thoughtful scholar of religion who elucidates the historical faith traditions and biblical justifications of religious currents that have attached themselves to the broad fascist movement in Twenty-First Century U.S. politics. Shorthand references to “the evangelical vote” and so on in the news never really conjure a clear picture in my mind; these modes of Christianity are uncanny to me (in the sense of being at once familiar and unfamiliar) as someone from a New England Catholic background, and it really clarifies things to have someone walk through the theology behind these political alliances, as vexing and topsy-turvy as it may be.

I was struck by Sharlet's reflections on “rootlessness.” Sharlet, whose late father was Jewish, understands well the old anti-Jewish trope of the “rootless cosmopolitan,” but in the course of his research he finds a very different application of the concept of rootlessness in the context of White people on stolen land. The middle section of the book, structured as a kind of road trip narrative in which Sharlet encounters a variety of fringe and not-so-fringe perspectives on the possibility of civil war, is framed within an examination of and engagement in the practice of land acknowledgements. Land acknowledgements are simply acknowledgements of the specific indigenous peoples connected to the land that is relevant to the discussion at hand. For example, I am writing this on Mohegan and Wangunk land. Land acknowledgements do not materially return land to living indigenous people, and at times they can even come across as empty gestures intended to deflect criticism, but they reintroduce to the discussion a context that has been obscured through centuries of genocide. And this is the function they serve in The Undertow: to surface the submerged history of genocide underlying the foundation of this country as a vital context for understanding the threat of civil war today.

For some time I've felt maybe it would best if I (and other White people here) could acknowledge our rootlessness—not as a badge of honor or of shame, but as a baseline fact about ourselves, a starting point for understanding the world and where we fit in it. I'm reminded of something I've been wrestling with lately, something the New York Times writer Ezra Klein said (at about timestamp 15:22) as a parenthetical remark on American ethnicity in his podcast, as he addressed the conflicting perspectives of past guests on the idea that the Israeli state has an obligation to maintain an ethnic majority. He said, by way of analogy, that it's not so strange, that it's just as normal as the United States ensuring that it remains primarily a nation of Americans. But isn't that strange, in a U.S. context? Isn't it odd that we would think we can define an “American” as anything other than either Indigenous (in which case Americans have long been a minority in this country) or simply someone who lives here? Indeed, one of the consequential outcomes of this country's original Civil War was the institution of jus soli citizenship; in effect the Constitutional position is that an American is any person “born or naturalized in the United States”—regardless of ethnicity or parentage.

I didn't know going into the book that the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision would play a big role. But I was relieved to find it being reckoned with. I remember the political columnist Jamelle Bouie opining on the Know Your Enemy podcast in early 2022 that, as a student of the 1861-1865 Civil War, he felt that as bad as things were, the conditions of another civil war were not present. The argument was like this: for the White antebellum Southern planter class, every facet of life—economic, cultural, and so on—was predicated on the institution of slavery, whereas life in the North was increasingly predicated on organizing industrial labor without slavery. And for Bouie in March 2023 it seemed like there was no one ideological issue that could create two diametrically opposed ways of life in the same way. But as states swiftly started the most draconian enforcement of their anti-abortion laws post-Dobbs, Bouie said something on Twitter that sounded less sure about that thesis. A person really can live a drastically different life now just because they live on the other side of a state line.

The question of what Sharlet's father would make of the state of things as a “Sovietologist” and “rule-of-law man” caught my eye. Lately I've been trying to better understand the collapse of the Soviet Union myself, and I thought mostly so I could better understand Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but maybe also because it helps me think through the contradictory way I relate to my lifelong home country. Do I believe in “America”, the empire and its dreams? Not particularly, but history suggests its dissolution could be so much worse.

I appreciated the musical framing of the book, in which biographical anecdotes from the lives of musicians Harry Belafonte and LeeHays illustrate the historical context of the text's contemporary observations. In particular, I've often struggled to understand the radical folk traditions of musicians like Belafonte and the Weavers (Hays's band) because I get too focused on the lyrical text and miss the significance of some of the performance aspects that Sharlet describes so beautifully. I had my own musical reference points for understanding the portrait of contemporary U.S. socio-political life—particularly “Bloodless” and “Manifest” from Andrew Bird's 2019 album My Finest Work Yet. I could hear them as I read the middle sections of the book.

The most difficult moment of the book to me wasn't any implicit call to violence that happened in a megachurch or any of the extreme ways people are preparing for a civil war, but when an activist of the “men's rights” movement going by the pseudonym Factory talks about his daughters in the hotel room after a Men's Issues conference, talking with pride about how he will not allow them to say that they have experienced sexual violence. If someone can at least hear and support his own children when they tell him this has happened to them, maybe there's still hope. I think this may be the single most hopeless utterance in the text.

I hope I've communicated how much I appreciate this book. When I was a kid, we drove the width of the contiguous US, from the Pacific Northwest to New England or vice versa, three times. I came to think that I basically knew what this country was. I haven't had much opportunity to travel over the last ten years and I've started to feel that maybe I don't know this country at all. I feel that I got the tour that I needed. It felt personal and real. And I have more questions than when I started reading, which is a good sign that I've learned something.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.