Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Arkansas Toothpick Test


Earlier in the year, the legislature of my home state passed a resolution making it official.  The Bowie knife is the official state knife of Arkansas.  I actually didn’t know that there were official state knives, but in this instance the legislative effort was fully justified.  The nickname of the Bowie knife has for at least a century and a half been “an Arkansas toothpick.”  In 1837, at a session of the House, in the middle of a debate concerning the taxation of wolf pelts, the Speaker stepped down from the podium and, using this implement, stabbed a fellow representative to death.  While one can hardly take pride in such history, one can and must find some comfort.  When I hear about “unparalleled political polarization” or “unprecedented refusal to seek legislative compromise,” I can subject the evidence to the Arkansas Toothpick Test.  So far nothing that has happened or not happened in the admittedly disgraceful 115th and 116th Congresses—public approval ratings ranging between nine and thirteen percent—has passed the Toothpick Test.

I try to apply the Toothpick Test also to the increasingly numerous incidents of supposed “constitutional crisis” in our political reports.  We are in that huge swath of the North American continent that is just emerging from a ferocious heat wave, and I had for a couple of days a slight viral something or other that I dare not offend by taking lightly.  Luke and his two kids, accompanied by their older cousin Cora, left for Montreal Saturday morning, and enabled by General Motors refrigeration engineers, reached their destination safely before nightfall.  Settling into a Sunday indolence I dignified as therapeutic, I spent a long while reading the “Weekly Review” section of the Times.  Almost all of the actual Op-Ed pages are taken up with blistering denunciations of President Trump and/or the entire Republican Party.  There is nothing very new here, and that is the point.  The New York Times, by any rational judgment one of the world’s great newspapers, has become as partisan, repetitive, and fulminating as all the rest of the national press.  The Times is of course “left.”  Many other voices are on the “right”.  They shout at, and about, each other.  The PBS “News Hour” sort of continues its brave fa├žade of impartiality, but with increasing difficulty.

I have discovered that there is a great deal of chatter on the Internet concerning the question of civil war--whether one is possible in current America, whether it has not already begun.  Not all of the chatter is entirely loony.  Our actual Civil War of the 1860s, which was by no means without its ideological complexities, was motivated with a certain clarity.  It was sectional and closely related to the distinctive economies of North and South and in particular the southern agrarian economy and the institution of slavery that enabled it.  A very large part of the wealth of the southern states was in human property.  The Framers of the Constitution had notoriously attempted to accommodate the institution of slavery without exactly enshrining it.  Political unity, however attenuated, was a goal so desired as to enable a kind of cosmic wishful thinking, from which one might say we have not yet entirely broken free even today.

The comparative clarity of 1860 is gone today.  Today’s war-gamers generally speak of Blues and Reds, but these groups are by no means identical to our two main political parties which, we are forced to note, have in a sense exchanged valences from the Old Days.  The differences between the groups are still to a degree regional, but by no means cleanly so.  Economic, social, educational, and cultural disparities and divergences play a major role. The role of race, so prominent in popular rhetoric, is actually rather opaque.  The salient differences between 1860 and now are dramatic, and include the following.  Our populated territory is now huge.  Its population is huge.  It is also about eighty percent urbanized.  Comparatively few Americans today have any direct role in their own food production.  There is a vast armory—hundreds of millions of guns—distributed among the population.  All sections of the country are dependent upon cooperation with others, but this is particularly true of the cities, which in gross generalization tend in their political organization to the Blue, often dark Blue.  Were there (God forbid!) an actual new civil war, such factors could preclude organized armies in uniforms and most other things we think of when we think “war”—most but the horrors, that is.  And they reveal large advantages for the Reds.

Several political commentators have spoken of a metaphorical “civil war” already underway.  But the violent political discourse of past few years has invited even some of my intelligent and knowledgeable compatriots to imagine not metaphors but frightful realities.  I should have thought that one 1858 was sufficient for our nation.   The Impossible, it appears, perhaps isn’t after all.  We are perhaps closer to the discourse of the Arkansas Toothpick than I had imagined.  Toothpicks remind me that today’s unpleasantnesses begin with an early dental appointment; but just as soon as I get back I intend to watch the appearance of Mr. Mueller before his congressional inquisitors.  On PBS.
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