a novella by benjamin kerstein

Monday, October 8, 2007


There is not and never will be an objective account of the Schism. Historians will waste centuries foisting their pretensions upon the subject. That which was once impossible will be declared inevitable. Architectures of thought will be constructed. And events will disappear.

The process has already begun. Origins are being discovered in the Civil War, the Continental Congress, in the beginnings of European settlement in North America. Bifurcations are being examined. Paradoxes exploited. The present makes a slave of the past. As memory dies. History makes its home upon the grave of memory. And catastrophe becomes words.

Here, my only living companion is memory.

In my dreams it begins in 2057. The words do not agree.

The others call it the “Pelman Mythos”. Some call it the truth. They remember words better than I.

Arthur Pelman was an obscure professor of political economy at Fordham University in the first half of the 21st century. In 2045 he published a book entitled “Slouching Towards Apocalypse”, the title being a tedious play on Yeats. The rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem would later make Pelman into “the prophet of the Schism”. The book itself went almost completely unnoticed at the time of its publication.

Pelman’s thesis was not complicated: given current trends in economics, cultural mores, religion, natural resources, legal precedent and political philosophy, the inescapable conclusion was that the United States was swiftly becoming two separate countries. Divisions were forming which showed no signs of receding and were fundamentally unbridgeable. The center and south of the United States, as well as several large portions of the Western states were increasingly religious, mistrustful of professional politics, industrially inclined and ill-disposed towards centralized government. The demimonde regarded material gain as a positive virtue and avoided its attendant spiritual emptiness by their enthusiastic faith in a living divine presence which was an immediate and palpable influence on their lives. They admired individual courage and disliked deviations from established norms. Despite their traditionalist mores, they nonetheless harbored an ethic of militant individualism which manifested itself in an emotional hatred for politically imposed restrictions. This dynamic paradox was driving an increasingly coherent and uniform culture which was taking on attributes of a separatist nationalism.

The northeast and Pacific Northwest, as well as many of the states bordering Canada, displayed a mirror image of their counterparts. Fanatically secular to the point of atheism, predominately urban and therefore inherently collectivist, confident in the capacities of the political sector to manage social and economic complexities, they derided materialism and tended towards admiration for the secular arts and humanities as a salve for the inherent spiritual malaise of an irreligious society. They were excited by the unusual and eccentric, and harbored a strong reverence for the unconventional. They lived out an equal and opposite paradox to their counterparts. The paradox of cultural individualism and political conformity.

The most surprising of Pelman’s findings was the fact that, despite their cultural reverence for non-conformity, political opinions were more uniform in the north and east than in the south and central west. On both sides of the divide, the dynamic paradox was pushing the regional blocs into a militant uniformity suggestive of an emerging state. And these states were moving in entirely opposite directions from their double and opposite.

“It is now certain,” Pelman wrote in his conclusion, “that the consolidation of these regional-cultural-political blocs into coherent and entirely separate political entities cannot be prevented and is likely not desirable. We can expect a slow but increasingly public bifurcation between these two blocs in the very near future. Ultimately, the mutual advantage of a formal partition will become obvious to leaders on both sides. When and where the document will be signed is impossible to predict, but when it is signed it will be to the mutual benefit of two amicable, but nonetheless essentially different and separate nations.”

Pelman was prescient, but he was not a prophet. He was not even much of a historian. Despite ample precedent, he failed completely to predict the slaughter that was coming. I have counted only a handful of incidental references and footnotes in “Slouching Towards Apocalypse” that make mention of the rapid growth of liberationist militias in the south and central regions, and the concomitant activities of eco-terror groups and urban anarchist cells in the northeast and west. On page 169 he makes the unfortunate statement that “there is no doubt that these groups are a fringe phenomenon of no significant impact and will continue to be so. Nonetheless, they are indications of more significant and eventually decisive trends.” Despite his reputation, Pelman failed to prophesy the integration of these groups and their ideologies into the regular army units which quickly chose sides when the moment came.

Two years after his books unsuccessful publication Pelman died of liver cancer. He never saw the events of 2057. A fact which has been much to the benefit of his posthumous reputation.

The official breaking point was the debate over Commemoration. The original bill was introduced in late 2056 by Garson Kilor, senator from Vermont and head of the congressional delegation from the Democratic Unity Front. The proposed Kilor Commemoration Bill of 2056 declared that 2068 would be the Centennial Commemoration of Countercultural Uprising. A year of official events and ceremonies would mark the events of 1968. These included parades, national holidays and reenactments of historical events. Bobby Seale day was to be recognized on February 8th. August would be Black Panther Month. The Symbionese Liberation Army Memorial weekend would replace Memorial Day. Official holidays were proposed to mark the founding of the SLA, the SDS, the Weather Underground, and the Baader Meinhoff group. Martyr’s day, an official day of national mourning, was to mark the combined assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luthor King, and Huey P. Newton, as well as Salvador Allende and “all other victims of counter-revolutionary violence and state terrorism.” The president was expected to attend Newton’s reinternment in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. The unknown soldier himself was to be moved to a newly designed memorial plot honoring the Unknown Victims of Imperialist Warmongering.

The year’s events were to culminate in a full scale reenactment of the 1968 Chicago riots. Actors were to be hired to play the assembled protestors and stuntmen to act as the rampaging riot police. A pyrotechnics team would be hired at great expense to simulate the tear gas, spurting blood, protruding bones, and other effects required by historical authenticity. A noted stage actor was recommended for the role of Hubert Humphrey.

Kilor introduced his bill with a speech in which he called the proposal “a too long delayed celebration of the tradition of dissent which makes this country great.” Bernard Thurman, leader of the Republican Federationist Coalition, rose almost immediately afterwards to call it “a reprehensible attempt to grant official sanction to ideologies and actions of treason.” The shouts of denunciation and approval were of equal measure. By the end of the week, the DUF had given notice of their attentions to boycott the next congressional session if the bill was not brought to a vote. The next day the RFC made a similar statement, with opposite intentions. Unless the bill was immediately withdrawn not a single party member would set foot on the floor of the Capitol. Upon his return to Vermont, Kilor was hailed as an uncompromising and courageous leader. He was burned in effigy in Atlanta and Dallas.

There were a handful of attempts at a compromise. Most notably, the Wehauken Summit called by president Flaherty. Despite his reputation as a moderate, Flaherty’s membership in the RFC likely destroyed any possibility of compromise from the outset. The DUF had spent a lifetime worshipping their grandparents. Compromise was unthinkable.

Pelman’s thesis was borne out by subsequent political developments. The DFU demanded an immediate floor vote. The RFC agreed. The bill lost. The vote went entirely along regional party lines. The DUF abandoned its initial demands in favor of a more extreme position. They announced their intention to boycott the next congressional session if the bill was not immediately ratified. Remarks were heard from the other side of the aisle referring to “legislative terrorism”. Exception was taken. The speeches dragged well into the night on the last day of the legislative session. At 3:30 am, his tie undone and his shirt stained with coffee, senator Kilor rose before a packed chamber of dozing legislators and gave his now legendary “consent of the governed” speech.

“The consent of the governed,” he said, “is irrelevant. Must be irrelevant to what is historically true and morally correct. If democracy cannot bring itself to recognize such elementary values as justice and truth, then democracy be damned! And damned be the United States as well!”

Kilor and the DUF delegation left the hall to cries of “treason!” and a small number of flying projectiles, mostly pens and ashtrays. They were escoted from the capitol by capitol police. This was necessary because of the pandemonium which had erupted in the District streets, with protestors from both sides hurling insults and, by the end of the night, Molotov cocktails across the police barricades.

At 4:56 am the M street barricades collapsed, and the crowds surged over each other in an orgiastic explosion of flying limbs and screaming wounded. The National Guard in full riot gear dispersed the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets. Kilor no doubt appreciated the irony. Ten people were killed.

Two days later, the DUF secretariat published the Manhattan Statement. Rumor held and holds today that it was predominately written by Kilor. Citing the “police mass slaughter” of two days before, it concluded that “the farce called American democracy can no longer be maintained.”

The country had reached the precipice moment. It is here that Pelman’s thesis collapses.

This was not immediately apparent. The three months following the riot and the publication of the Manhattan Statement has now been named the Interregnum. It was the period of uneasy calm before the inferno. Historians have made comparisons between the Interregnum and the “false war” of 1939-40. This is not entirely accurate. Paramilitary units on both sides were arming at alarming rates. It has now been conclusively established that most of the weaponry was supplied by sympathetic National Guard units. President Flaherty quietly recalled 70% of the country’s overseas forces to the homeland. He was too late. They had been watching the news. Individual gun sales skyrocketed. America’s nuclear arsenal was secretly taken off its automated mainframe and placed under the direct control of the president. Kilor was rumored to be hiding in upstate New York, allegedly convinced that the FBI was plotting his assassination.

Flaherty was determined to make his plea for peaceful resolution. He was an idealist. The DUF had already delivered its Notification of Non-Participation in the 2057 legislative session declaring “representative democracy is the enemy of the people.” In response, the RFC petitioned the president for the immediate arrest of Kilor and the DUF leadership on charges of treason. They refused to take their seats until the demand was met.

The president decided to take his plea directly to the people. From the steps of the empty Capitol.

On 25 March, Flaherty mounted the steps to spit in the face of history. Standing behind a dais draped with the American flag and the seal of the president of the United States, he faced a weeping crowd holding signs pleading for reconciliation. Prominently displayed on television screens the world over was a twelve year old girl in the front row. She held a hand lettered sign on yellow cardboard which read “Don’t Tear Us Apart”. Those who witnessed what followed claimed that there were noticeable tears in the president’s eyes as he waved to her and put his hand in his inside pocket to remove the 4x10 index cards on which he had written his speech. His aides later claimed that it contained several quotes from Lincoln.

Eric McCandless was three yards away at the time. At the edge of the crowd. Leaning on a motorcycle. He was twenty-two years old and arson charges against him stemming from a fire which had leveled an entire Wisconson housing development had recently been dropped for lack of evidence. He was a member of Warriors for Gaia, an eco-terrorist group which was known for blowing up park ranger jeeps and setting fire to lumber factories. Their last manifesto declared that “The human race is the virus of the earth. We are the cure.” His motorcycle contained over two thousand pounds of explosives packed with nails and ball bearings. When he pressed the detonator, it killed himself, forty-five bystanders, the last president of the United States, and the twelve year old girl. She was never officially identified. An urban legend contends that her name was Faith. I think this is unlikely.

By midnight, 26 March, regular army units loyal to the RFC had occupied the District and declared martial law. A warrant was issued for Kilor’s immediate arrest on charges of treason and conspiring to kill the president of the United States. At seven o’clock that morning the DUF formally declared the Union dissolved and declared New York City its temporary capital. Garson Kilor was declared acting president of an emergency DUF war government. The northeast and northwest states joined them almost immediately. The southern states seceded for a second time on 30 March. The Midwest followed them a day later. By 2 April, both California and Maryland had been invaded by RFC forces, determined to prevent secession. The Democratic Union declared itself an independent state on 15 April. Three hours later the Republican Federation did the same. The United States ceased to exist.

About Me

My photo
Benjamin Kerstein is an Israeli-American writer, editor, and novelist.

Michael J. Totten, the prize-winning author of The Road to Fatima Gate, has called him "one of the finest American-Israeli authors of his generation."

Jay Nordlinger of the National Review has referred to his work as "some of the most intelligent, clearest, most honest writing I have read in a long time."

He lives in Tel Aviv.

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