The War of the Hyphens

(The Daily Progress via AP)

The riots in Charlottesville reflect the breakdown of the Narrative, which has been the subject of several past posts.  What happened on the street has been a long time coming on the Internet. The bonds of trust are breaking down.  Reputation and authority are no longer recognized outside of a membership group.  The personal, already political, finally became commercial. Some companies have flatly refused to serve those whose views they disapprove of.  Political views are becoming conditions of employment.  Some national political leaders are proposing explicit “litmus tests” to sort people according to virtue.


Now cars are ramming into people.

The riots and death in Charlottesville are the physical manifestation of the idea of separateness.  If the thought is the father of the deed, the children of hate, the offspring of “by any means necessary” and the scions of superiority so long in gestation, are finally being born. Donald Trump’s plea for calm and his exhortation to remember “we are all Americans first” may find scant resonance among those for whom hyphens come first of all.  The war of the hyphens has broken out, and for its combatants there is only one thought: how do I get back at the enemy hyphen? The long sought-after goal of diversity has been attained and it is not what many imagined.

President Trump denounced the riots in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday afternoon saying, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides…many sides.”

“We must love each other, respect each other and cherish our history and our future together,” the president said in remarks before signing the Veterans Affairs Act in Bedminster, New Jersey.

“What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives,” Trump said. “No citizen should ever fear for their safety and security in our society.”

“No matter our color, creed, religion, or political party, we are all Americans first. We love our country, we love our God, we love our flag, we’re proud of our country. We’re proud of who we are,” said the president.

“We want to get the situation straightened out” he declared, adding that it’s important to “study it” to determine “what we’re doing wrong as a country.”


Hopefully it isn’t too late for reconciliation but there is every chance that resentment will intensify.  Human history suggests that conflict like entropy, grows faster than understanding.  It is harder to unscramble an egg than to scramble it.  The process of division may grow until the resentments which drive the hyphens apart are finally overcome by the attractions of cooperation and commerce.  That day has not yet returned.  Until then division will spread and spread.

One of the recurring themes of recent Belmont Club posts is that complexity has raised the costs of a hyphenated society to such a degree that individuals are hiding behind the interfaces of group identity.  The Narrative led people to the cliff — and they refused to jump. When public policy itself turns public life into a kind of zero-sum competition for resources and legitimacy, they may feel obliged to join gangs to get a slice of the pie. We are in a self-made political prison and the hyphens have become our prison bars.  This is tragic, but if it is inevitable at least the opportunities in promoting inter-gang trade, cooperation and negotiation in our newly fragmented world should be pursued to the fullest.

For if people will not “love each other, respect each other and cherish our history and our future together” they can at least do business. The Red and the Blue (and all the shades in between) may go their separate ways but it remains in their mutual interest to cooperate against common threats, respect the “full faith and credit” of each other’s institutions, and exchange goods and services.  In many surprising respects the future may resemble the pre-Federal past.  It will be a simplified (as opposed to simpler) world where people live in “safe spaces” and deal with the Other through borders.


But may also be a world without the Pax Americana — or a Pax Sinica either. The identity politics on display in Charlottesville has long been dissolving bonds in Europe, the Middle East — even on the borders of China and Russia.  The acid came to America relatively late but it is at work everywhere.  The question may no longer be “how can we return to the old Global system” so much as can we survive in a world new-built on hyphens.

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The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency , by Chris Whipple. The book offers an essential portrait of the toughest job in Washington. Through extensive, intimate interviews with all seventeen living chiefs and two former presidents, Whipple pulls back the curtain on this unique fraternity and revises our understanding of presidential history.

The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President, by David Aaron Miller. The book explores the concept of greatness in the presidency and the ways in which it has become both essential and detrimental to America and its politics. Miller argues that greatness in presidents is a much overrated virtue, too rare to be relevant in the country’s current politics and, driven as it is by nation-encumbering crisis, too dangerous to be desirable. The preoccupation with greatness consistently inflates people’s expectations, skews the debate over presidential performance, and drives presidents to misjudge their own times and capacity. The book helps readers understand how greatness in the presidency was achieved, why it’s gone, and how they can better come to appreciate the presidents they have, rather than being consumed with the ones they want.


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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
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