People often wonder about history. We often ask questions like, how does history happen? How do wars happen? Are wars inevitable? More specifically how did the Civil War Happen? Would it have been possible for Americans living in the middle of the 19th century to prevent the Civil War from happening? What do unconscious decisions and tipping points have to do with history. Is it possible for humans to choose their own futures?
Yesterday my biking partner who is a very smart guy and who likes to think about such things, wondered what would have happened if the Civil war had never happened. Could Americans living at the time have just decided that such a war would be catastrophic, so we should just skip it?
When the Confederacy threatened to leave the Union rather than give up slavery, my friend suggested that we should have said, “Fine, leave. We don’t want you anyway, especially if you insist on being a slave state.” My friend suggested that the US today would be a far better place without the southern states who advocated slavery all through the first half of the 19th century.
This got me to thinking. Could the North have actually avoided the war just by telling the Confederacy to take their slaves and leave? I told him that I had no idea if he was right or wrong. But I told him that I thought it was much too simple. Nothing is ever that simple.
After talking to my friend, I started thinking about how easy or hard it might be for individuals or states to rationally, logically, consciously choose their own future. Is it possible to do this? Or is it more likely that certain chains of action lead to irreversible outcomes. Or at least outcomes that are very difficult to reverse.
I’m certainly not ready to believe that something like fate decides what happens in the future. I’m not ready to say that humans have no power in deciding their future or the future of their country. But I do think that there are limits for individuals and states in choosing their futures. Or at least that there are points of no return where certain aspects of our future become almost inevitable.
I decided to think about all of this a little more seriously. And then I started thinking about where we Americans are right now. Some new futures seem to be just over the horizon for us. How hard would it be for us to choose a different future. How much are we in control of what’s going to happen next. Are we humans and we Americans in control of our future or not?
The more I thought about this, the more confused I became.
Below are some of my thoughts about all of this.
I began by thinking about how we Americans ended up with the Civil War, certainly one of the most catastrophic periods in American history.
What causes things like the US Civil War to happen? The more I thought about this, the more I began to think that maybe Tolstoy was right in his theory that individual men never cause things like the Civil War or, in his case, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia or the battle of Borodino.
Tolstoy said that what causes wars and other human adventures is more probably the billions of unknown and unnoticed decisions by millions of unimportant, individual men. He says it is these small daily decisions that men make that cause wars and other catastrophes. He said it is not the grand decisions of great men that create history.
The more I thought about it, the more I tended to agree with something like Tolstoy’s theory. Wars don’t just happen. Nor are they caused by a few powerful men. Nor are they entirely under the complete rational control of the few humans who run governments. I think probably big wars and other such occurrences happen when men get trapped into thousands of small decisions that don’t seem particularly decisive at the time but that slowly grow into something that becomes inevitable or close to it.
It seems to me that the directions of nations might be decided by everyone who lives in that nation, or at least influenced by everyone. Maybe lots of individual thoughts slowly coalesce into streams and then into consensuses and maybe then into politics, and maybe finally into official policy.
It seems to me that certain small things that happened hundreds, maybe even thousands of years ago started pushing Americans toward a civil war in 1861. Nothing seemed all that far reaching at first. Men just did small things that seemed to be the right thing to do at the time. And of course most of the kinds of things humans do are the things that are most beneficial to themselves.
And then all of these small shoves began multiplying. Tipping points are reached and committed to until finally things like the civil war became inevitable and a few men do something like firing on Fort Sumpter and we are off to the races. There was probably no single event or one single person that pushed us into fighting the civil war. Maybe it was just millions and millions of tiny decisions by thousands of men living their every day life that finally resulted in the civil war.
One conclusion of all this is that small streams of thought sometimes coalesce into bigger things like national policy. So maybe we should be looking at all of the streams of thought in the US right now, all the undercurrents churning through America every day and think about where this may be heading.
Clearly there are some pretty dangerous things being thought in America currently. Thoughts like the entire presidential election was rigged. Thoughts like the QAnon theory which asserts that the Democratic Party is full of child molesters and pedophile who can only be defeated by Donald Trump. Thoughts like all the people in America who own military automatic weapons have the duty to arise and defeat the evil followers of Biden. America is full of this kind of thinking right now. And a lot of it is fairly similar to what the believers in the righteousness of slavey were thinking in the 1850s. Crazy stuff.
At first the civil war could probably have been averted. But as the decisions began to build, a series of tipping points were crossed and it got more and more difficult for the war to have not happened.
At this point, let me indulge in an analogy, I’ll get back to the civil war in a bit.
Maybe deciding to go to war is some long slow process like walking gradually down into some sort of vast geological funnel, like a long shallow valley gradually steepening into a deep canyon. Maybe decision making is something like deciding to walk down to that nearby valley you see way down there when you are out cross-country hiking. I do a lot of cross-country hiking so this is a familiar analogy for me.
At first, walking toward that distant valley is very easy, the gradations are very slight, not even noticeable. You don’t even realise that you are walking down hill. At this point it would be very easy to go back, to get out of the canyon you are approaching. You could turn around and walk back to where you came from, get in your car and go home. But never the less you decide to continue on downhill just a little further. Nothing dangerous here you think. I’ve done this a million times, No problem.
And downhill is always easier so you continue to head in the easy direction. And also, it’s a long, long way back if you go back the way you came and it looks like if you can get around that corner just ahead, there is probably a short cut up that ridge over there that will get you home very quickly.
But very gradually the descent steepens and finally it has become so steep that it would take a real effort to turn around and go back. Maybe you climb down a short little ten foot cliff that you can’t easily climb back up. And so you look for a better way back and traverse a bit. But the more you traverse, the more you realise you really aren’t going to get back up that little cliff. It just keep getting steeper and higher. And you can’t find that little place you originally got down. And as you go on the descent gets steeper and steeper and then finally it becomes impossible to reverse course and you are more slipping and falling down a steeper and steeper hill and going back is no longer possible.
I have always been this kind of hiker and I love to find new routes. I’m always looking for new hikes that will be complete round trips so I don’t have to go back the way I came. I hate retracing my steps. And I can’t tell you how many times this has gotten me into deep trouble. Just ask my biking friend how many of many round trip explorations I insisted in taking him on that ended up not being an awful lot of fun.
For example, I got one myself into quite a bad situation one day on a hike in California. And this was just one of my problematic, exploratory, round-trip, adventure hikes. Now that I think about it I can remember similar nasty hikes in Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. I seem to have made a career of such nasty hikes.
At the time of the California hike, my wife and I were living for a few months in a little RV park near San Francisco where my wife was going to jewellery school. So one day, while my wife was at school, I decided to cross the road in front of the RV park and then walk up an interesting looking road that led up a good sized hill. More like of a small mountain.
So I walked up the road for a couple of miles until I got to the top where I found a nice little park. The park had a path at the downhill end of it that set off down the mountain along a promising looking ridge. So I thought I would just walk down this little trail, all the way down the mountain and skip the boring road and take a much more interesting round trip home. So that’s what I did.
About half way down the hill, the trail petered out. So I just headed off down the hill, making my own trail. Finally, when I was almost at the bottom, and where I could see the backyards of the houses lining the road at the bottom of the hill, I came to what looked like an impossible barrier. I had to cross a deep, steep gully that looked to be straight down and filled with packed little trees armed with spikes an inch long and deathly sharp. And everything was intertwined with tough looking vines. It was the only way to get to the road. I had to somehow get through this gully or go all the way back to the top and take the long boring road down.
It was at this point, while I was not yet at the point of no return, that I should have stopped and thought just a little bit. And then I should have turned around and gone all the way back up the hill and taken the nice paved road back home. But it was a long, steep journey back to the top of the hill so I decided to go for it. This was not a good idea.
So I started down the steep gully and soon fell the final ten feet which was pretty much vertical. Now there was really no way back. I would never be able to climb back out the way I came. So finally, after many cuts and scratches and curses I forced my way though the tightly packed trees and bushes on the other side of the gully. This side as also covered with the same tightly packed spine covered saplings as the downhill side, but luckily it wasn’t quite as steep.
So I persevered and finally made it to the top where I found myself in front of the backyard of a big mansion. And there was a high chain link fence all around this yard. At least it was not the kind of fence topped with out-sloping barbed wire. That would have really doomed me.
There was no choice, I had to climb the fence. And then I had to break the law and trespassing onto private property posted with no trespassing signs, which I really, really did not want to do. But again there was just no choice. I had gone too far and the only way out was onward. I knew I would never be able to climb the uphill side of that gully.
I finally managed to climb the fence and get through the backyard to the street in front of the house. By this time I was covered with deep cuts from the thorns and thoroughly shook up. I wished I had never started down that hill to begin with, but in the end there was just no choice, I was forced to go on no matter how bad the going on was.
So, is this maybe the way things like the Civil War happen? At some point men get so far down the wrong road that there is just no going back, no matter how much they want to. There has been just too much water under the bridge.
So, where did the Civil War death spiral begin.
You could go back 200,000 years to when Homo sapiens first appeared on earth but that’s a little ridiculous. Even though 200,000 years ago is, from certain points of view where the Civil war actually got started, its not very practical to begin there.
And it’s also impossible to list every little decision made by each individual human, but some of the decisions made by thousands or maybe hundreds of men coalesced into turning points that are a bit more visible.
Let’s begin early in the 17th century. Here are a few of the headline turning points that led us to the Civil War. As more and more decisions were made it became harder and harder for Americans to halt their downward spiral.
1619: the first slaves were imported into the Jamestown colony. Since just a few men couldn’t do all the work themselves, this seemed a sensible decision and a good way to get rich.
1787: the US constitution is ratified and slaves are counted as 3/5 of a person with no rights.
At the end of the 18th century the steam engine was perfected and trains and steam boats were powered by steam engines. Without this technology the later great economic boom in cotton and sugar would have never happened.
1793: the cotton gin was invented.
1803: The Louisiana Purchase doubles the size of the US and the number of states that could be pro-slavery states. The great contest was on.
1820: the Missouri compromise happened.
American elites in the south began to get very, very rich. Particularly those whose plantations lined the Mississippi River.
1831: William Lloyd Garrison begins a radical abolitionist newspaper
1831: Fifty-three whites are killed in the Nat Turner revolt
1837: A pro-slavery mob kills abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois.
1850: the fugitive slave act was passed.
1852: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s international best seller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, exposes the evils of slavery.
1854: The Kansas-Nebraska Act allows incoming settlers to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery.
1857: The Supreme Court decides that a slave, Dred Scott, has no rights a white man is bound to respect.
1859: the raid on Harpers Ferry happened.
1860: Lincoln was elected president in 1861: The Confederate States of America is formed, with Jefferson Davis sworn in as president.
1861: the first shots are fired at Fort Sumpter
1861: Lincoln summons the troops. And then it all just gets worse and worse and there was probably no real way out except for war.
Now lets jump to the present. All of this feels to me a little like the situation that we Americans find ourselves in right now. We seem to be caught somewhere in an unplanned downward trajectory slipping lower and lower, circling around and around toward some kind of catastrophe that is as yet unvisualised and unseen. It’s kind of like water sliding down a drain. Once you too far, it’s impossible to avoid slipping all the way down.
It is feeling more and more like that is now happening in America. It’s beginning to feel like things are out of control and tending toward something very bad. It also is beginning to look like it will be very, very difficult to avoid whatever it is that’s about to blow up in America. Whatever we are working up to may not happen for a year or five or twenty, but we do seem headed for some cataclysmic event that we may wish we had managed to avoid.
Is escape still possible? I have to think that it is. I’m not ready to accept that America is doomed. I think that now is the time to consider that something pretty bad may be just over the horizontal and still out of sight. All we seem to have right now are omens and warnings of some danger that we don’t even know the shape of yet.
I think we could be very close to a point of no return, like I was when I decided to head down into the deep gully at the bottom of the hill. It’s time to stop and think and try to get out the mess we are now in.
How bad is our situation right now. Consider six news stories that appeared at the top of the NYT news this morning, Dec 9, 2020, the day I began this post. We have been seeing news stories like this for awhile now. Things are getting very bad indeed.
“My Son was killed because I am a Federal Judge”
Our Oceans, Our Future. Without healthy oceans human survival is not possible.
NY State sends a blunt Message to Big Oil. Switch to renewables now or we are all in serious danger.
The Resentment that Never Sleeps: the anger of working people must be dealt with very soon.
Moderate lawmakers struggle to finalize a bipartisan stimulus deal to help victims of the pandemic as leaders remain at odds. A solution does not seem possible at this time.
Intensive care facilities are nearing capacity across the U.S. Soon health workers must begin deciding who lives and who dies.
It looks to me like something pretty cataclysmic could be approaching just over the horizon. And it also looks to me that we may be getting to the part of the hike where we are very close to passing some irreversibly tuning point, after which we will not be able to go back. Let’s not be like those people who swept past so many irreversible turning points that they could no long turn away from the Civil War.
I think there may still be time to fix America. I’m thinking about both the political situation in the US right now and about the global environmental situation.
I think there is still a little time in which to turn back global warming. I may be wrong about this but we have to try. If we just give up, we really will be doomed.
Let’s stop and think people. And then let’s try as hard as we can to fix this situation that we find ourselves in.
We are never going back to lots of industrial jobs powered by fossil fuels again. We are never going to be an all-white country. We never were and why would we want to be? We are never going to go back to an unsullied, pure nature like pre-Columbian America. And who would really want to do that either. That would mean giving up books and education and the internet and modern medicine and civilisation, some of which is pretty wonderful.
What we can do is to create a political and economic New Deal something like FDR’s to save our working and middle classes and a Green New Deal that will save our natural ecosystems and actually our own lives. But we have to do it now or it will be too late.
Let’s see if maybe we can miss the huge disaster that now seems to be looming in our future. Let’s pick our own future. We have fixed stuff like this before. Think of World War II. It took a huge effort to win, but we did it. Think about the Great Recession of the 1930s. We fixed that too.
But we have to begin right now, today. We have a new President who seems to be heading in the right direction. He may not be the greatest President we have ever had, but who knows. He just may become our greatest president if we all pitch in and help him. This is something we all need to get together on and do together. We have done this before you know.
The first thing we might do is listen to what Trump’s base is saying and try to somehow make life better for them. We need to give the working classes some new and hopeful truths that will defuse the hatred and despair that is now driving the Trump base. A very good start would be a strong bipartisan bill to give some real relief to those who are out of jobs, out of food, out of shelter, out of everything and becoming more and more desperate every day.
And the next thing we might do is make college free for everyone who wants it.
And of course, we need to get the Covid pandemic fixed. We are probably well on the way to doing this with the new vaccines and with an administration which is knowledgeable and back on the right track again.
And then we need to turn our full attention to fixing our environment. This will be a long hard battle but we can do it.
If we could do these things, this country could be well on its way back to greatness again.
But we need to begin on this right now, today.
More reading on this subject.
Here are a few more images to help us remember there are still a few wonderful things left in America.
Post summary: People often wonder about history. We often ask questions like, how does history happen? How do wars happen? Are wars inevitable? More specifically how did the Civil War Happen? Would it have been possible for Americans living in the middle of the 19th century to prevent the Civil War from happening? What do unconscious decisions and tipping points have to do with history. Is it possible for humans to choose their own futures? Bottom line, if we try hard enough, we can make our own history. This is the best answer to how does history happen?