*This is the first part of a piece called “The Savage Peace: An Essay on Civil War and the Amnesia of Democracy,” the rest of which can be found in other posts on this website.
“I might compare myself to a person who, on beholding beautiful animals either created by the painter’s art, or, better still, alive but at rest, is seized with a desire to see them in motion or engaged in some struggle or conflict to which their forms appear suited.” -Plato
On November 15th, 2015, two police officers approached a young black man in the Northside neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Accounts differ as to what occurred next, but by the end of the night, 24-year-old Jamar Clarke would die in his hospital bed from a bullet wound in his head. On the very next day, the police precinct nearest to the shooting was swarming with people. Neighbors, police, activists and others looking for answers, or trouble. Some came to sing, some to pray, some to scream, some to talk, some to throw stones, some to disrupt, and others to manage. Months after the camp had disbanded, on March 30th, 2016, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced that no charges would be brought against the Minneapolis police officers responsible for the death of Jamar. That same day, a group marched to a rally at sundown at the downtown government center. Speeches were given, cameras flashed, and bodies massed inside the blockade the police had set up. Towards the end, a man in a white t-shirt stepped up to the mic, waited stoically for the chanting to end, and started his speech by declaring a simple fact: “This is civil warfare.”
We all know civil war. We talk about it all the time. We learn about it in school. America had one once. Spain, too, in the glory days. Greece, Italy, Germany. What civilized country hasn’t had a civil war? Our journalists and presidents never stop telling us about the civil war tearing the world apart: global terrorism and disorder, especially in the Middle East. We hear all about civil war when it happens over there in Iraq or in Syria: mass executions in public squares, tanks in the city streets, rebels speaking to cameras. We know these images, too. Some say civil war rages in the streets of Cairo, of Athens, or Paris. Certain images come to mind, depending on where you stand: students occupying their schools, refugees marching through the streets, a general strike being declared. That’s all commonplace now.
We all know civil war, whether it frightens or inspires. It would be easy to paint pictures of either horrors or heroics, to tell the history of civil war as the history of vengeance and genocide or to tell it as a history of aborted missions and failed revolutions. Surely, many have already done so. Our task will be more difficult. I want to show how civil war is happening in the city, even right here in the Twin Cities, even when we speak of peace, community, and stability. Nothing seems more unlikely. I know how bold a proposition it is to talk of civil war, the most unstable of wars in the flat country between the coasts. My task is to demonstrate that civil war is not a marginal event, an aberrant or special occurrence, but rather that it exists in the very heart of the most overlooked institutions of the West. What ought to become clear is that civil war and the strategies developed to deal with it are not exclusive to the outbreak of extreme violence, but appear in the everyday experiences of people in the city.
I will begin with a very peculiar event in the annals of history, one that seems farther from the present than ever: the civil war between a group of oligarchs and the democrats in 5th century ancient Greece. With a great deal of help from Nicole Loraux and her book The Divided City, I will try to clarify why the concept of civil war continues to plague us. I begin with the Greeks because we believe that those who skip them and start with the “modern” political theory accept as truth many things that for the Greeks were partisan positions of war. The ancient Greeks were great experimenters. We are still amazed by their novelty and ingenuity. They fashioned democracy, philosophy, grammar, history, and science out of a loose assortment of shared knowledge and practices from the Mediterranean and Near East. On the other hand, we accept much of what they considered experiment as fact, thanks to certain politicians, philosophers, grammar teachers, historians, and scientists. If I spend a lot of time talking about the old Greeks, it’s because the same arguments, the same problems, and the same strategies for dealing with them persist into today, even in remote Midwestern towns. If one wants to reopen the door to experimentation, one must weaken the foundations at the point at which experiment became truth —one must be willing to dispense with comforting facts. My plan is to trace the way some people have talked about civil war and some of the ways they’ve tried to control it from that particular moment in Greece through its transition into the Roman world, into the American Revolution and the founding of this country, and finally into our homey and more comfortable Midwestern war zone.
What become clear early on in my research on civil war is that the term seemed to prevent every effort made to conceptualize it, to hone in and finally define it. To say “this is civil warfare” is not to say, at least not in itself, “we are the revolutionaries (or reformers) with a plan,” nor is it to say “we are building a movement here” as one is accustomed to hearing at such rallies. The idea of civil war is profoundly, and perhaps definitionally, ambivalent and ambiguous. Civil war is at war with itself. It is not purely a legal term, not purely military, not purely political, not purely subjective, and it resists all quantitative definition. The term is used by some when they want to push something —some unfathomable or discomforting thing— as far away as possible, and by others when they want those same events to be brought crashing down like a meteor into the present. The first people to formally conceptualize something they called civil war began to see it everywhere. They said: “civil war is permanent and it is everywhere. It threatens the stability of my city, my home, my life.” Why? Because any old conflict could potentially become strong enough to threaten those bonds considered eternal or unbreakable. A son who becomes a democrat and who decides to take arms against the party his family holds allegiance to, the oligarchs, will be involved in a civil war. He threatens the bond of the family and of the city, and he brings about their breakdown even if he loses his fight. Picking up arms wasn’t even necessary to cause that breakdown, since a particularly convincing argument that attracted people to its side was also considered an act of civil war insofar as it threatened the stability of the community by tearing it in half.
Many will think of only the most bloody atrocities when we use the term. This immediate identification of the word with the terrible events in the Congo or in Syria is the product of a strategy to bury what is most threatening about it, or even to hide the declarer’s own interest in the conflict. “We have nothing to do with that,” the Western states can say, for example, about the Congo, because “that’s a civil war.” Similarly, ask yourself how in this country some can claim to live in perpetual peace and others in perpetual conflict with the same group of people? Rappers have persistently attested to a war between the police and black youth; a war which is absent from the imaginary of most other popular musical genres, and which many actively deny; a war in which the battlefield, the belligerents, and even the scope, cause, and framework are contentious facts. Sekou Odinga, a member of the Black Liberation Army, once remarked that “People always ask why I did what I did, and I tell them I was a soldier in a war. And they always say, ‘What war?’” Such a war can only be called a civil war.
The same people who would first conceive of civil war as a distinct phenomenon, the ancient Greeks, would be the first to attempt to banish it from the city, and to say that they’d resolved it. But they never stopped talking about it, seeing it in their families, their courts, the battlefield: in short, in every place that relied on the idea that certain bonds held together despite conflict. The family will outlive its strife because it is based on a deeper bond in the truth of blood; the law will prevail because it is objective and eternal and was founded in the inaccessible ancient past; the army will stay unified because this war is just and the soldiers are like brothers. What of the times when they don’t hold together? The West has since then talked incessantly of civil war, because these very bonds were in reality quite precarious, and they rarely held together.
Civil war has retained its characteristic ambiguity and contentiousness, so that each time one is declared, some will arise to claim that it doesn’t exist, others will say it is limited to a certain area, and still others will say it is raging everywhere but disagree about who the actors are and how the war manifests itself. In a civil war, denial is an act of war for delegitimizing the enemy. For this reason, civil war will be the most dangerous possible thought for those most concerned with the idea of unity. Is it surprising that those who would like to banish any mention of civil war talk constantly of the “disease” or of the “infection” threatening their city and households, thus attributing their misfortunes to some horror of fate?
What were the Greeks so afraid of? What were the American revolutionaries afraid of? The city planners? The police? Difference between people. The tie between the two — civil war and difference — is so strong we are tempted to make an equivalency out of them, to say civil war equals difference. That may be going too far, but there is a paradox internal to every way of speaking and acting collectively which claims to unify a large group of people. The most basic form of the paradox is: the more a certain way of speaking or acting claims to represent a large group of people, the more it tends to break down and divide internally. The West has been fighting a losing war against difference. It has tried to contain it, to stifle it, murder it, and manage it but it has always failed. This essay will try to think difference rigorously, and to not stop even when politeness or sanctity demands us to. This entails avoiding thinking difference as an essential attribute. To think difference also means questioning some of the most basic assumptions about our shared history as a city, as a country, as a political tradition based on consensus. To think about difference is to affirm it even when it is unpopular, when it’s called violent or disgusting, when it’s shamed or exiled. A history of difference requires a lot of uncovering. To attempt such a history means to seek the exiles of our history, to try to open up space to let them speak.
I endeavor to discover gaps, however small, in those things most taken for granted and consider some crises in everyday life. One doesn’t have to look far or uncover any deep secrets. The crisis is said all the time in the most banal of ways. The crisis is what is constantly said, but in ways that evade facing it. A crisis first denoted the moment at which a doctor must decide how to act in a life or death situation. A crisis is that which is unexplainable according to any known criterion. It does not present a clear answer or route. It brings forth its own distinctions, and disturbs the old ones. This is why, through the root, it is also related to the English word riddle. It is the the unsurpassable, at which juncture one must make a choice. Locating a crisis in thought and action opens up a new potential precisely where structures and narratives seem most static. To locate and describe a crisis is to find the threshold at which a concept admits of its opposite, falters, and fluctuates into indeterminacy. Speaking of crisis in the context of civil war makes sense, for civil war has, since its uncertain beginnings, been compared to a life-threatening disease.
How will we respond to the crisis of civil war? What will we make of the fact that difference exists? Difference has the power to dispel illusion and open up pathways where we previously thought there to be only one or two, but we must not run away from what is complicated and difficult about it. There will be confrontations. When one accepts this fact of difference, they can begin in earnest. For those who deny and doubt difference, and yet never cease to talk about it, it will remain a Pandora’s box of horror. I assert that it can equally be a fount of possibility.
This work is ultimately one concerning political paradigms and the political languages we speak. A small body of work has arisen in the last decade on the topic of civil war, and I will engage with some of these works in the pages that follow, but this essay will be far more concerned with the implications of differing political paradigms rather than with recounting a history of either democracy or civil war. The following can be read as part of a humble attempt to locate one crisis at the point at which the political becomes solely the administration of civil war in 5th century Attic Greece, and the crises that followed. I write this in the wake of some recent events in Minneapolis in the hopes that these crises may prove decisive in the Midwest and elsewhere, distant though they may seem.