Who Wants to Skip the Civil War?
What if the ethical challenge of our own time is not to have the courage to be a combatant for the last century's great causes, but to negotiate a much more complex set of moral issues, values, and worldviews?
I love a good wartime drama, so it was with pleasant anticipation that I sat down to watch A Call to Spy, a 2019 movie about British female spies in France during World War 2. It was an enjoyable spy flick, and one I found it particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. First, one of my best friends is in the movie and he does a great job playing the British spymaster. Second, the main spies in the movie are based on real characters: Virginia Hall, Vera Akins, and perhaps most notably Noor Inayat Khan.
Noor, sometimes called the Spy Princess, was the courageous daughter of Hazrat Inayat Khan, the man who brought Sufism to the West. Born in Northern India, he married an American woman who happened to be the cousin of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science. Their older daughter became a spy for the British army, showing extraordinary courage and willingness to sacrifice in the fight against fascism and Nazism. It’s an unlikely tale that made a great storyline in the movie.
Like many people, I grew up watching dramas like this. The good guys fighting against the fascists (and they mostly were guys). The Civil Rights heroes against Jim Crow, the courageous activists against the homophobes, the whistleblowers against the malicious corporations who pollute our waters and destroy our land. These are, in some sense, the morality tales of the second half of the 20th century. The battle lines are clear. It’s the heroic underdogs who have the courage to stand up to the powerful, the immoral, the greedy, and the deplorable.
Obviously, Hollywood is not the real world, but I wonder if our own psychological and moral frameworks are shaped by those narratives to a greater extent than we realize. On some level, in our own small ways, I think many of us long to play a heroic role in such virtuous dramas. Have you noticed the way so many protests today, on both sides of the political spectrum, feel oddly self-conscious, as if activists are half protesting and half performing—playing out narratives that were shaped as much by Hollywood’s minions as by actual history?
The challenge in these archetypal 20th century dramas, at least in our collective imagination, is not moral clarity. It’s courage. It’s the willingness to put one’s personal safety, reputation, or even life on the line and battle against difficult odds. No doubt there are still real world fights that certainly resemble the righteous dramas of recent history. And we should certainly celebrate the protagonists who prevail. My concern, however, is that today, so many think that “being on the right side of history” simply means summoning the courage to fight the “good fight.” They assume the “moral clarity” element, as if that part was relatively easy.
My concern, however, is that today, so many think that “being on the right side of history” simply means summoning the courage to fight the “good fight.” They assume the “moral clarity” element, as if that part was relatively easy.
On both the Right and Left, I see a deep hunger to embrace a righteous destiny—whether it be ridding the world of fascism and racism, or protecting it from socialism and communism, or saving it from environmental disaster, or rescuing it from authoritarianism. It’s as if all the moral fault lines of the twentieth century are arrayed before us like so many options at the national political/cultural buffet. Make your choice and fight! It’s so easy and tempting to just jump into the ring. After all, these are all the “good fight,” right?
Well yes, they are. Or were. And yes, good things have been done in the name of these causes. But if we define the twenty-first century by these twentieth century battles, and each get on our high horses riding in opposing directions, I worry the main lesson we’re all going to learn at the end of the inevitable conflagration is how stupid, pointless, and painful it all was. How little it achieved but destruction. As with World War I, I worry we’ll find out that stupid and pointless creates its own cultural karma and historical consequences, and who knows when we will finally escape that troubling cycle.
Here’s a thought: Maybe the twenty-first century isn’t like the previous one. What if the ethical challenge of our own time is not to have the courage to be a combatant for one of those great causes, but to negotiate a much more complex set of moral issues, values, and worldviews? To somehow weave a national tapestry out of seemingly opposed and conflicting values? What if the unique test of our time is not to figure out the “right side” of history and line up as soldiers in that revolution, but rather to figure out ways to move society forward without descending into a civil war?
But . . . But . . . Racism! Antifa! Socialists! Wokes! MAGA! The Horror! We so badly want the ethical fault lines to be bright and clear. We so badly want to just be able to fight the bad guy, expose the real corruption, save the Republic, make history, and…scene.
Today, the center of our nation’s political Venn diagram is looking disturbingly small. At the same time, the diversity of the American populace is greater than it’s ever been—whether you define that by creed, color, comportment, political persuasion, religion, sexuality, or anything else. And more than likely, that’s going to continue. The country itself seems to have fractured into thousands of small tribes. Even our choices about where we live seem to be more tribally based. People retreat to zip codes, communities, and even online worlds that look, feel, and think like them. America has always been a place where a million life experiments can bloom. That’s for the good, but it’s not enough to connect and cohere a nation. For that, we need to embrace a type of inclusiveness that will inevitably make everyone a bit uncomfortable. We all need to accept more of who we aren’t. Of course, I realize that there are elements of today’s society that don’t belong in any future national picture. But let’s draw those boundaries as broadly and as widely as we can. And let us not, to paraphrase Emerson, fall into the “vulgar mistake” of believing we are persecuted whenever we are contradicted.
Hazrat Inayat Khan, father of the Spy Princess, was fond of a phrase from Sufism, “the reconciliation of the irreconcilables.” It refers to the mystical notion that the self is both infinite and finite. And yet, I think the idea is also relevant as we consider our national moment. Our polarized society shows no sign of any pending convergence, or even common ground, only the drift further apart. Across the political and cultural spectrum, there are sets of values that seem irreconcilable. And yet, we must live together. We must forge ahead in some form. We must continue to act as more than individuals or tribes—as a nation. The urgency to form some type of functional unity is likely to grow stronger in the coming years, and with it will emerge a natural desire to crush dissent and form a collective that is less encumbered by contentiousness. To relieve the polity of the burden of the irreconcilables.
But there is another option: To reach for a new reconciliation. To craft a complex, coherent, fractious alliance out of our separate worlds—one that doesn’t erase or ignore our differences but seeks novel amalgamations and innovative political integrations. To recognize the positives on the various sides of our polarities. To mine our separate values for raw material that can build new coalitions of the future. This will not be easy. I suspect such a reconciliation will inevitably be temporary and contingent and fractious and difficult. But it can also be win-win-win and forward-looking and open-ended and affirming of more of this country’s diversity. It will be built with more humility than ideology. It may have elements that are post-modern, but it will also be post-progressive (and thus the name of this publication designed to promote its development and feature its emerging champions). To use a phrase from my colleague and author of Developmental Politics, Steve Mcintosh, we’ve lost our common ground; now we have to build higher ground. Who wants to be a hero in that historic drama? Who has the courage? Who wants to build a future that skips the Civil War? Who wants to reconcile the irreconcilables?
A modern, liberal nation is built on the presumption that no one side has every answer. That no one tribe has all the right values. That no one worldview adequately sees the future. That dialogue, debate, and persuasion are the appropriate means to political ends. That wrong is not evil. That given the right set of conditions, people are more likely to have positive intentions than nefarious ones. But if we abandon those presumptions as subordinate to our particular moral or political cause, we will all lose. We may be convinced that we see the way to a better world, but we must not forget that we need to build on top of a liberal order; we can’t just replace it. Otherwise, the path to our postmodern utopia will be interrupted by a descent into a Manichean nightmare.
A modern, liberal nation is built on the presumption that no one side has every answer. That no one tribe has all the right values. That no one worldview adequately sees the future.
You know why I think we revere the Greatest Generation, and refer to them by that awe-infused term? It’s not just because they won World War II. It’s because they won the peace. They succeeded where the post-World War I generation failed. The fight to crush Nazism was an enormous endeavor, but in some respects, it may have been simpler than the task of actually shaping a nation, and to some extent a world, that could thrive for the rest of the century—and that could slowly expand autonomy, dignity, and prosperity to new generations in the most peaceful, win-win arrangements humanity had ever seen. Was it perfect? Far from it; there were a million mistakes and problems. But it was arguably the best we’d seen up to that point.
Back in 2000, as a young journalist on one of my first assignments, I was sitting listening to a speaker in a large conference room at a hotel in New York City, when the doors opened at the back of a room, and an older gentleman, dressed in robes with flowing grey hair, entered. With the dignity of a revered patriarch, he slowly ambled down the aisle, eventually stopping at my row and planting himself in the chair right next to mine. He leaned over and introduced himself, and we struck up a conversation. I already knew who he was—Pir Vilayat Khan, revered spiritual teacher, Sufi master, son of Hazrat Inayat Kahn, and, though I didn’t know it at the time, the younger brother of the Spy Princess. He must have been about 84 at the time.
I don’t remember much about the content of our conversation, but I remember him. Warm smile, a lightness of presence, curiosity, a tremendous sense of dignity. What I didn’t know was that he too had participated in the war. As proponents of a Gandhian form of nonviolence, he and his sister still wanted to find a way to serve with distinction in the struggle against fascism. They both resolved to volunteer for dangerous but non-combat positions. While she operated a wireless to support and rally the French resistance; he served as a minesweeper. His boat was torpedoed on D-Day; he was probably lucky to survive. A member of the Greatest Generation, he went on to live a remarkable, inspirational life. Unfortunately, his sister was not so lucky. She was captured in Paris and lost her life at Dachau. Her last word before being executed was “Liberte!”
There’s a reason that stories like theirs are still so moving today. Nazis, or their equivalent, exist in our world, and when that kind of evil rears its ugly head it must be defeated. Sometimes, we need heroes who know that, and have the extraordinary courage to follow through. I’m thankful for the Spy Princess and her brother and so, so many others who recognized that truth, lived it, and sacrificed themselves for the victories that made this world a better place for all of us. Still, let’s not forget that we had to win the Second World War, in part, because we didn’t win the peace after the First. Today, we still have a better option.
All we need is a new kind of hero.