One of the strange knock-on effects of the recent events in Charlottesville in the American state of Virginia is that the American liberal-left has decided to pause from re-inventing the Cold War with the Soviet Union and has instead resurrected the American Civil War.
One could easily say that such things are symptomatic of a left that refuses to examine its own policies which have not only failed at the ballot box but have deeply divided America along sectarian lines.
For over a year, Russia was the enemy of the self-identified patriotic liberal left. It was Russians who were meddling in US elections, it was Russians who deprived Hillary Clinton of her ‘anointed’ election victory and everywhere in the world, it was Russians who were the proverbial bad guys whether they were fighting terrorism in Syria or building internal bridges across the Kerch Strait.
Now though, there is a new enemy which in terms of time is an old enemy: that enemy is fellow Americans. Just as modern Russia is not the Soviet Union neither technically nor ideologically, the states which once comprised the Confederate States of America are in the United States and have been since 1865. Nor are all of the so-called and at times self-defined alt-right from the American deep south, they are from every state in the US.
But the over all narrative is a re-invention, perhaps even a re-inversion of the US Civil War, even if the characters are slightly different. Where in the actual Cold War, it was generally the interventionist right as best represented by the John Birch Society that wanted to purge communist influence at home while opposing it abroad, in the new Cold War, it was the anti-religious liberal-left against Orthodox/moderately conservative modern Russia and everything it actually and more often than not supposedly stands for.
Today, in the repeat of the US Civil War, it is not really about preserving the historical memory of the 1860s, but rather, the conflicts revolve around using the Civil War as a jumping-off point to fight battles which did not exist in the 1860s.
The statures of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals and leaders are now defended by the literally reactionary right on the basis of opposing condemnation by the liberal-left that has less to do with what Robert E. Lee actually stood for than what they have retroactively made him out to stand for by the liberals.
Today, according to the left, Robert E. Lee stands not for the Confederacy per se, but for someone who opposes homosexual politics, opposes mass immigration, opposes Donald Trump’s border wall, opposes transvestites in the military and opposes Hillary Clinton. If this list sounds absurd, this is because the narrative is absurd. It is literally impossible for the long dead Lee to have opinions on issues and people which did not exist during his lifetime.
In this sense the alt-right have adopted Lee and his statues as the antithesis of what the left wants to stand for. The left has consequently achieved a success in forcing the right to react to their post-factual definition of what Robert E. Lee and his comrades stood for, as opposed to forcing the right to explain let alone defend what they actually stood for. This is not historical revisionism but rather fake-history which both the left and those who react against the left have bought into. If people were arguing about statues of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at least one could say the violence was connected to reality rather than distopian fiction disguised as real history.
It is not an infrequent occurrence however for nations searching for an explanation to a contemporary crisis to re-invent both the facts and collectively agreed upon history of events in order to justify, explain or even excuse a present day crisis.
All of this speaks to a country deeply ill at ease with itself and deeply lacking in confidence.
In the former East Germany, communist statues still line many streets in the former Soviet allied state. Most of these monuments remain erect as symbols of an era in time that will almost certainly not be revisited but can still be discussed in a manner that is mostly civilised. This is not to say that modern Germany is perfect. It is far from perfect and its current demographics shifts are making things only more difficult for many. But still the contrast with Poland is striking, especially since Poland faces fewer external crises than Germany.
By contrast, Poland is a country that has faced many more tensions than modern Germany. With an economy that has never reached modern German levels, with a current dispute raging with the EU which it joined much more recently than Germany (West Germany being a founding member) and with an anti-Russian narrative which promulgates a sense of paranoia that Russia is about to invade at any moment, even though this bears no relationship to present realities; many Poles feel apprehensive.
This apprehension has led Poles to make the decision to tear down Soviet War Memorials which commemorate the Red Army’s liberation of the country, a liberation which contrary to the present Polish mainstream narrative, was welcomed by millions of Poles who were happy to be free of fascist domination.
For a country that keeps telling itself (and others) that it is the strongest and most free in the world, America is looking far more like conflict ridden Poland than a modern Germany that has learned to cope with many aspects of its controversial 20th century past.
For decades, the statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate Americans stood in various southern states with little notice. There were occasional debates but they never resulted in the kind of bloodshed and civil strife of 2017.
What has changed? Is the ‘solid south’ rising again? Is state’s rights a big issue? Is the abhorrent institution of slavery back in fashion? The answer to all of these questions is ‘no’. In fact, Donald Trump talked less about state’s rights than just about any so-called right wing candidate in recent US electoral memory.
What has changed is that America has lost its confidence and a nation ill at ease with its present will often dig up the past both literally and metaphorically, rather than examine the past intelligently and civilly. In this sense America’s geo-political decline is having repercussions on the home front. Where America used to tear down statues in other people’s countries, its inability to do so eerily corresponds with fights over statues at home.
At this very uncivil moment in American domestic history, the Cold War has been replaced by an even older war, this time one which actually killed Americans and many of them at that.