The verge: Reflections on a second civil war

Prolonged civil strife always produces a need for release—a longing for catharsis. The Rev. Smyth’s letter to his Northern colleague, exclaiming that “blood must be shed” in order to give the South “a new birth,” represented an especially intense yearning for catharsis—for the relief of pent-up frustrations held in check for so long they could no longer be suppressed. Catharsis, a kind of ritual purification, is a crucial concept for understanding the path to civil war, or maybe any war. Societies can stay under pressure for only so long—and then the lid blows off. A half century after America’s first civil war, Europe plunged into what became known as the First World War, a war between aggrieved neighbors. “War! What we experienced was cleansing, liberation and an enormous sense of hope,” Thomas Mann wrote from Munich in 1914.

By this standard, the strength of the urge for ‘cleansing,’ the distance to outright war does not seem all that near in America, 2017. Our frustrations may be intense but our spirit of charity is not yet spent. Violent rhetoric, while not unusual, is not really pervasive, and violent incidents of a clearly political content remain sporadic. We may liken incendiary figures among us to the fanatical John Brown, but in truth, no John Brown has yet emerged. White nationalists may be loud and spoiling for a fight, but they are few in number. Secession is mumbled about by rebellious sorts in Blue California and Red Texas but is no more than a fringe cause in either state.