Doing Our Bit to Avoid a Civil War
Leave your bubble, get out in the U.S.A. — it’s too easy to fear and loathe people you encounter only second-hand, on screens
How very American of America to swipe an ancient phrase referring to the outcome of war — from the Latin status quo ante bellum, things as they were before a war — and then shrink and redefine it to make it American, referring exclusively to life in our South before our Civil War.
I discovered the etymology of antebellum while researching Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, my history of America’s founding weakness for exciting falsehoods. And I realized the word could usefully apply to modern times and places and situations.
For instance, the way many white Southerners, after losing the Civil War, romanticized their slave-based antebellum period as a golden age, plenty of Americans in the 1970s, after our 1960s wars — after Vietnam, the civil rights struggles, the countercultural explosion — instantly mythologized the 1950s and early ’60s as their own late lamented antebellum era of American Graffiti and Grease and Happy Days.
And now here we are in 2021, approaching the first anniversary of a mob attack on Congress as it certified a presidential election, with more and more people routinely referring to our new civil war, an echo of the one in the 1860s, a 21st-century war Americans are supposedly itching to fight or will inevitably fight or (as in Kenosha last summer) are already fighting. No longer just random nuts and freaks but elected federal representatives (among them more nuts and freaks than ever) and a $22 billion Manhattan-based corporation are squirting fuel on these embers.
So this fall when my wife and I left our hyper-Democratic Brooklyn bubble to wander around Republican-bubbly rural Appalachia — western Virginia and North Carolina, eastern West Virginia and Tennessee — I wondered if our first long road trip in years might turn out to be our last-chance tour of a large swath of…antebellum MAGAmerica.
We imagined how we, in our black Audi with New York plates, might be received: suspicious stares and glares in cafes and gas stations and stores, confrontational remarks about our fucking libtard masks.