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Czech Yourselves Before You Wreck Yourselves
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Czech Yourselves Before You Wreck Yourselves

We’re not on the cusp of a civil war. But we are way over the precipice of dangerous stupidity.

Dear Reader (and lovers of crudite in all parties)

I spent some time in Czechoslovakia in 1991. I often joke that I went to be a starving writer and batted .500—I didn’t starve and I didn’t write. But I had a great time.

While I was there, war broke out in Yugoslavia. 

I’m going to pause for a moment to point out something simultaneously obvious and shocking: Neither of those countries exist anymore. History, man.

Anyway, I met a bunch of Yugoslavs—a term you could still use because, again, that was a country—who came to Czechoslovakia to stay out of the war. There were Bosnians, Croatians, Serbs, etc. The distinctions between these groups were extremely important to many of their countrymen back home—and often them, too—but not so important that they were willing to kill or be killed over them.    

I had numerous conversations with Czechs about whether they thought a similar conflict could break out in Czechoslovakia. After all, many in Slovakia wanted to leave the duo and launch a solo career. I met plenty of Czechs and Slovaks who favored keeping the country together and more than a few who wanted a divorce. But I never met anybody who wanted to shoot someone in service of their desired position. Pretty much every Czech I talked to about it said something like, “Eh, if they want to go, they can go. Why should I care?” In fairness, this was most often said with shrugs and eyerolls rather than full sentences. (Czechs and Slovaks alike are very shruggy people. I suspect some of it comes from living in a country where forcefully expressing clear opinions could cost you your job, apartment, or life.) Most of the Czechs I talked to thought the Slovaks were stupid for wanting to break away. But they thought the idea of killing Slovaks—or being killed by Slovaks—to stop them was incomprehensibly more stupid. 

About a year after I left, parliament peacefully dissolved the 94-year-old country. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because there’s been a lot of chatter of late about an American civil war. In the wake of the Mar-a-Lago search, a lot of idiots idiotically spewed a lot of idiocy on this point. I’m sorry if you take offense at my unsympathetic characterization of this nonsense, but just take a step back for a moment. Even if you think the search was an unmitigated outrage, if you think it’s worth killing anybody over, you’re either a moron or so high on TikTok-farts you can’t think straight. I honestly don’t see how any reasonable person can disagree with this assessment. 

If you think at all seriously about what is worth risking your life or the lives of loved ones for and then look at the actual disagreements dividing even strong partisans, it’s hard not to have contempt at the stupidity of it all. 

Then again, I should confess my priors. I don’t much like political activism, enthusiasm, or even peaceful crowds of political activists and enthusiasts. I think most forms of politically driven rudeness are ugly, and I think any hint of violence is beyond the pale. If you’re a Black Lives Matter protester who thinks a rational—or defensible—response to indefensible police brutality is burning down a grocery store, I think you’re at best a fool. And that’s generous. If you think threatening election workers because they refuse to “discover” evidence of conspiracies that don’t exist is justified, I think you’re a thug and a whackjob.

Or, let me put it a different way. You know what you call someone, on the left or right, who uses actual physical violence to settle any of America’s current political disagreements? A criminal. 

The truth, I very strongly suspect, is that roughly 98 percent of the people prattling about civil war don’t really mean it. They like saying it. Many more probably like thinking about it. (I like thinking about the zombie apocalypse, but that doesn’t mean I’m hoping for one.) And some significant number of the armchair civil warriors want their friends or foes to think they’re serious when they say it. Such boasting is a form of bravery on the cheap, common to insecure men in every age. 

The right-wing cable Catos and YouTube yawpers like talking about civil war because even if most of their audience will never muster with their kit, they will do their part by tuning in. And various left-wing cable Cassandras and editorial page Eeyores like the civil war talk because it makes them feel like they have the enemies they deserve.  

 Trump clearly likes it when people talk about civil war because he interprets it as proof of his fans’ commitment to him and the power he has. All of the talk—including my own—about the grave political risks of the search is music to his ears because that’s another way of saying, “You must respect Trump. You must fear insulting Trump,” etc. That’s probably why, last May, Trump boosted a post on his website calling for civil war. 

But not all concern about civil war is ridiculous. For instance, my colleague David French wrote an excellent book on the subject. Students of political violence are not wrong when they see ominous signs, starting with all this ludicrous talk of civil war. After all, all wars start with war talk at one level or another.  

And while I think chances of an actual civil war breaking out in the foreseeable future hover just barely above zero, a lot of terrible things can happen by raising expectations of civil war. 

Take, for example, all the loose talk about “grooming.” The argument goes something like this: Breaking down taboos, blurring norms about sex, sexuality, and gender, and celebrating the sexualization of children encourages all sorts of abhorrent behavior and exploitation. I don’t think such concerns are unwarranted, even though I think a lot of the “groomer” talk is reckless fear mongering. The same argument applies to all of this rhetoric about civil war, secession, the FBI and the IRS being the Gestapo, and so on. When you normalize the rhetoric of violence and convince people that violence is either inevitable or morally necessary, you’re grooming some number of people toward a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Last month, Science magazine published a preview of a study that scared a lot of people: “Half of Americans anticipate a U.S. civil war soon, survey finds.” There were some important and significant findings in the paper, but the summaries were wildly overblown and the methodology is flawed. For instance, while the headline says “half of Americans” expect a civil war, only 14 percent say their belief in a coming civil war is strong. 

More importantly, expecting a civil war is a very different thing than wanting a civil war, never mind wanting to participate in one. I want the Chinese Communist Party to be overthrown. I expect that one day it will be. I have very little desire to take up arms in pursuit of either my expectations or desires.  

That said, convincing people that violence is inevitable is historically—and anthropologically –one of the best ways to invite violence. “We have to get them before they get us” is an idea that has killed millions of people. How many wars and genocides have been rationalized as an act of self-defense? 

If you get a chance, listen to this EconTalk podcast with Eric Jacobus on violence, particularly the bits about the role of mirror neurons in both the evolution and escalation of  human violence. Like most animals, we are wired to worry about potential violence. The difference between us and other animals is we have weapons—from sticks and stones to guns and thermonuclear weapons. Dogs usually don’t kill other dogs, in part because they can assess who would win in a fight to the death long before it got that far. But it’s much harder when you don’t know whether the smaller human has a rock—or a Glock—behind his back. Thus, our brains run simulations about possible violence, and sometimes the lines between possible, plausible, and probable get blurry and we convince ourselves to act first. 

Again, I think there are real problems with the survey. Extrapolating from a sample of 8,600 respondents, the authors estimate that “more than 60 million could at least sometimes justify violence ‘to preserve an American way of life based on Western European traditions.’” Well, at that level of abstraction, I might be one of those 60 million people. But come on.  

The authors continue: 

Our extrapolations suggest that to achieve a political objective that they support, 6 million Americans would be very or completely willing to damage property and between 4 million and 5 million to threaten or intimidate someone, injure them, or kill them. Between 3 million and 5 million Americans would be very or completely willing to commit violence against others because they are representatives of social institutions: government officials, election officials, health officials, members of the military or police. Three million would commit politically-motivated violence against others because of differences in race/ethnicity or religion.

I’m very skeptical of all these numbers for a bunch of reasons. First of all, 6 million people is a scary way of saying “2 percent of the U.S. population.” Americans in that percentage range say they believe all sorts of crazy stuff. Heck, twice as many Americans, according to a Pew survey from a few years ago, say they believe that an alien lizard race in human suits rules the country. With both Stephen Miller and Sidney Blumenthal now out of the government, I find this theory entirely implausible. 

I suspect most of these belligerent respondents are thinking at a very high level of abstraction and hypotheticality (yes, it’s a word). 

But directionally, my skepticism gives way to concern. 

You don’t need 6 million people to endorse violence to have a problem. You need one. Tim McVeigh represented a very, very small percentage of Americans. But he believed violence was necessary and actually acted on it, killing 168 Americans, including 19 children. Does anyone doubt that all of this crazy talk is creating more McVeighs? 

Second Amendment defenders are absolutely correct that the overwhelming majority of gun owners will never become murderers, never mind mass murderers, and laws that assume otherwise have profound flaws. But in a universe of extremely large numbers, statistically insignificant occurrences can be extremely socially significant. If one in every 100,000 people are potential spree killers, you’d have 10 spree killers in a population of 1 million gun owners. In a population of 100 million gun owners, you’d have 1,000 spree killers. The effects on broader society of 1,000 mass murderers are exponentially greater than the effects of 10. 

But this isn’t a math problem because we know that mass shootings, much like suicides, yawning, gender identity disorders, St. Vitus’ Dance, and insanely irresponsible political rhetoric are socially contagious. We live in an era where more and more people spew bulls***t so routinely they start to believe it. Worse, the more people—especially people in responsible positions who have a moral and civic obligation to talk responsibly—talk this way, it becomes a political litmus test to go along. I know polls say otherwise, but I think the surveys showing a huge share of Republicans believe the election was stolen exaggerate the prevalence and strength of the belief. But it has now gotten to the point where right-wing political correctness demands that you uphold the lie out of partisan loyalty. In some quarters, saying “the FBI isn’t the Gestapo” is RINO talk, even though that is a slanderous insult not just to the far-from-perfect FBI, but to the United States of America. America is too good a nation for anything like the Nazi Gestapo, which is why if the FBI was acting like the Gestapo, violence against the FBI would be defensible. But it’s not acting remotely anything like it, so saying otherwise is an indefensible and dangerous lie. 

Just as it seems obvious to me that most Americans don’t buy all of this crazy talk, it seems equally obvious that the more such talk proliferates, the minority of people who believe it in one form or another will grow larger. If you don’t think that’s already happening, you haven’t been paying attention. I mean, when Chuck Grassley gets in on the crazy talk, you know the contagion has reached epidemic levels. 

And again, where crazy talk goes, crazy deeds follow. So for God’s sake, shut up with this nonsense already.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: Oh, the dogs are happy, though they didn’t like me leaving them behind with my sister-in-law and her kids for a day and a half so I could go speak at Chautauqua (something I talk about on the latest solo Remnant). Pippa quickly adapted to her new owners, plopping in their laps and saying, “Did I tell you I love you?” almost immediately. Zoë was far more mopey. She apparently spent the first few hours in my bed sulking. But eventually, she too realized that these bipeds were tolerable wardens. They were extremely happy upon my return and the next day I made it up to them with various woodland and water adventures. The Fair Jessica returns tomorrow and I fully expect them to give me the comparative cold shoulder in favor of their true love. I will try to get the reunion on video. 


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.