What False Equivalence Looked Like in the Civil War Era

A Harper's essayist reflects on his distaste for both factions in the conflict -- and why he got over it and chose sides.

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My colleague James Fallows regularly criticizes the political press for what he calls "false equivalence," or "the reflexive assumption that 'reality' is halfway between whatever two contending sides assert." The term also refers to situations where the press treats two sides as if they're equally wrong when they're not. As James Carville once put it, 'We say 50 + 50 is 104, they say 50 + 50 is 104,000, and the press will say, 'Well, both of 'em are stretching the numbers a little bit.'" 

Fallows jokingly cited that 1992 quote as "the paleolithic origins of false equivalence." I was 12 years old when it was spoken, so it's certainly from the pre-history of my political consciousness. But I've just happened upon an example of false equivalence from Harper's New Monthly Magazine that is much, much older -- this excerpt is taken from the June 1866 issue:

A native of the valley of the Shenandoah, I have passed the greater part of my life on the Northern border of Virginia -- a region which, from its geographical position and mixed population, has always been debatable ground between the contending opinions of the age, and which eventually became a most important theater of the war, resulting from these opinions. It is thus that I became, almost from necessity, an interested observer of many of the operating scenes of the contest, and subsequently an active participator in its armed solution.

During the winter of 1860-61 I was residing at my father's house in Martinsburg, occupied with my private affairs and arranging plans for a future of peace and seclusion. These dreams were disturbed from time to time by the indications of the approaching storm, but I resolutely closed my eyes and stopped my ears, determined not to be disturbed. I had never taken any active interest in the party politics of the day, and was the less disposed to mingle in the present strife, as I sympathized with neither of the extreme factions which, from opposite quarters, seemed to be mutually intent on breaking down the Government and destroying the peace and prosperity of the country. I saw nothing in the contest but the rage of adverse dogmatisms, sharpened by the baser lust for official plunder -- that party spirit, which, Addison says, "robs men, not only of all honor and decency, but of every article of common sense." 

What struck me about that passage is how effectively its author makes his ambivalence on the eve of the Civil War seem perfectly natural. Yes, the United States was polarized as never before or since, huge moral questions loomed over the country, and the union itself would nearly be torn asunder. But this guy was living his life, looking after his private affairs, and planning for a future of peace and seclusion. How natural that, having perceived two antagonistic sides whose bitter disagreements threatened his plans, he'd reflexively regard both with equal distaste. Who doubts that there were distasteful men on both sides to encourage his opinion? 

Today Americans remain mostly interested in living their lives, and they feel resentful when they're distracted from their private affairs by faraway politicians whose seemingly immature bickering threatens to hurt us all. One heuristic, automatically taking the side of one's own party, is widely practiced, and has apparent problems of its own. Another heuristic, often favored by people attuned to the pathologies of partisanship, is to blame them all equally, partly because politicians all seem like disingenuous crooks who deserve it on some level, and partly because they feel there isn't any reliable way to adjudicate who is worst, even if one wanted to figure it out.

The press is partly to blame for that feeling of uncertainty.

Yet false equivalence in the press is partly a matter of telling those people what they already believe (while telling weak partisans something that a lot of them will at least accept from their newspaper). There's always a market for false equivalence among Americans and so it gets filled. (There are lots of other factors at play too.) 

Our Civil War-era correspondent went on to explain what prompted him to move beyond false equivalence:

It became manifest that the questions before the country were not to be put aside with this cynical and superficial observation. Under a monarchy a subject may be permitted to seclude himself from the political storms that shake thrones and menace dynasties. Even amidst the fury of war he can calmly pursue some favorite science with reasonable assurance that his motive and character will be respected. The citizen of a free Republic can claim no such privilege. "The price of his personal liberty is eternal vigilance." Under whatever pretext he may seek to hide himself or evade the responsibilities of his condition, when the storm rises he is sure to feel his neighbor's hand upon his shoulder, and hear the cry of warning and reproach: "What meanest thou, O sleeper? Arise and call upon thy God."

Interesting, isn't it, that he felt an imperative to choose a side before figuring out which one to choose. Does not knowing if he fought for the North or the South complicate your thoughts on this subject?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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