‘m reading a very dangerous book. It jumped off the recommendations shelf of my public library because its title is something I’ve been thinking about lately: How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them (Penguin Random House, 2022)by Barbara F. Walter, professor of International Relations in the University of California system. To say that she’s pushing a neoliberal agenda would be putting it mildly.
The book purports to share findings from research into civil wars and the conditions that precede them. The concept leans heavily on “democracy” in that the author claims nations rapidly democratizing or moving rapidly away from democratic governing structures are most vulnerable to civil war. Do I need to mention that the domestic demons in her book are 45 supporters that cannot or will not accept his defeat at the polls in 2020? Prior to that the U.S. was a beacon of democracy for the whole world [sarcasm, mine not hers].
The extent to which a government entirely captured by business interests and operated for their benefit while denying basic rights like health care and housing could be called democratic I will leave you to ponder.
What’s so dangerous about this book?
As with most powerful propaganda of our day, the danger lies in the multitude of information conveniently left out of the author’s narrow frame. As one example of what I mean, let’s consider how civil wars of the last few decades are presented completely devoid of reference to CIA meddling or to “color revolutions” orchestrated by neoliberal foundations paving the way for business.
Walter poses the question, “When does sporadic vioence escalate into civil war?” and then ignores the influence of outside forces. She is worse than willfully ignorant because she’s deliberately misleading the public, including students, who may read her book while swimming in the sea of misinformation provided 24/7 by U.S. corporate media.
She tells us helpfully that “The CIA has been studying this question for decades, in an effort to quell insurgencies around the world — in effect, to stop civil wars before they start.” Gosh that would be news to Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and the nations that once made up Yugoslavia. Their experience: the U.S. covertly funds insurgencies to effect regime change that favors neoliberal economic interests. Also Ukraine, where U.S. governmental agencies have literally been arming neo-Nazi militias for over a decade to fight their ethnic Russian neighbors in the Donbas.
But the central thesis of Walter’s book is not telling lies about the ways and means of U.S. foreign policy. It is ringing the alarm bell to let us know that the U.S. is poised on the brink of civil war right here at home.
Anyone who’s been paying attention since, say, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, five years ago is well aware of this growing danger.
To take our temperature in the current moment, here’s a report back from Couer d’Alene, Idaho where white supremacist groups organized to disrupt a PRIDE event, and antifascists organized to prevent them. There were inklings of this in Maine this year, too, where nothing of consequence happened in the streets but online saw a lot of sabre rattling, bulletproof vest displaying, and boasting about plans to counter PRIDE in Portland with a “white lives matter” rally.
Portland City Councilor Victoria Pelletier, a Black woman, explained her understanding of this illogical counter messaging:
Basically there are groups here and there are individuals here that want to make their presence known in opposition to anything that is celebrating any marginalized identity..
It could be PRIDE, it could be a Black Lives Matter protest..any event that is in celebration of a group that has been historically under-represented.
One of my favorite jeremiad authors, Chris Hedges, has roots in rural Maine. He often writes about how neoliberal economic policies have abandoned the working class in places like the one where he grew up. One of Hedge’s recent essays, “America’s Gun Fetish” is worth a read in the context of civil war abrewing. Austerity drives radicalization, and as white people lose power and feel backed into a corner economically, they turn ever more toward violence.
My neighbors in rural Maine have been noticing an influx of heavily armed men “from away” i.e. not from Maine who spend an inordinate amount of time shooting weapons after purchasing some acres in the woods. One group has filled the trees in a neighbor’s wood lot with bullets. Another shoots in the general direction of people growing food nearby. To say that these woods are full of doomsday preppers would be putting it mildly, and there seems to have been an influx since the COVID shutdowns of early 2020. Property values in Maine have skyrocketed, and it isn’t not just wealthy urbanites acquiring second and third homes.
Anecdotal evidence, I know.
Here’s another piece: Sen. Susan Collins and her husband just put their Bangor home on the market following an incident where someone scribed a polite appeal to protect women’s reproductive rights in chalk on her sidewalk. She called the cops (who, to their credit, said no crime was apparent in chalking a public sidewalk) and then the city public works department showed up at taxpayer expense to clean away the offending message.
Is Collins retreating to make her home in a gated community? Time will tell.
We know that member of Congress are scared, Supreme Court justices are scared, and little children in schools have been scared for years now. I’m scared every time a gunman mows down Black grocery shoppers or Jewish worshippers or anyone else targeted for their race, religion, or ethnicity.
A nation built on attempted genocide of indigenous people and enslavement of kidnapped African people, a nation that continues to kill and imprison Black, Brown, and indigenous people at alarming rates, probably has such bad karma that it could only end in violent discord.
I know from reading about the rise of Nazism in Germany that one day you’re saying hi to your neighbors and the next day they’re spouting hate speech and you’re left wondering what the hell happened.
Now I have a moral dilemma about How Civil Wars Start: return the book to the library to do its work on young minds, or throw it in the trash where it belongs?
Leave your opinion in the comments.