11/26/2012 12:00 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

A Different Argument on the Middle East: The Conquered and the Conquerors

Leave aside, for the moment, the standard cul de sac arguments that sound so much like angry children in the back seat of a car, appealing to the parent for permission to punish the one who "started it first." Many an academic tome has been produced on the history of the Israeli/Palestinian problem from that perspective. Instead, take a fabulist's trip with me to the American Civil War, and take a hard look at what victory and defeat mean when two opposite world views collide with force of arms.

A true Southerner still does not name it as "The Civil War." It is always the "War of Northern Aggression," or "The Cause," or some such euphemism. The Confederate flag is still flown, and not just out of the back of beaten-up pickup trucks. Here we are, over 150 years afterwards, and there remains a huge cleavage between North and South -- by culture, by tradition, by religion. In the 2012 elections, President Obama's share of the white vote in the traditional Confederacy was woefully small, in some places in the single digits. We are one country, and we are not.

Americans are relearning some difficult history when watching Steven Spielberg's splendid film Lincoln. That history includes the tenacious hold racism had even in the North, so that those proposing the 13th Amendment dared not say aloud that this would mean that freed slaves would get the vote. The Confederates knew their much-mythologized "Cause" was lost for sure over a year before they finally surrendered, and yet they fought on, because surrender would be death writ large for their culture -- a culture that included a permanent power structure of white men in control of all the powers of state. In Lincoln, we see Confederates willing to surrender, if they didn't have to actually surrender. The conquered Southerners could not face facts.

Facts are not all there is to discuss. Facts are often less important to people than their cultural identity, which they will cling to even as rigor mortis settles in to the dead bones of an ideal.

What happens afterward, when a people are conquered, not by ideas but by brute force? What would the sequel to Lincoln look like?

After the South was conquered, it had to be occupied. The occupying force was the Union Army. After taking away the vote from all former Confederate soldiers as punishment for their rebellion, the federal government enforced Thaddeus Stevens' harshest idea of Reconstruction. The 13th Amendment was followed by the 14th and 15th Amendments, neither of which would have passed if the old Confederates were allowed a right to vote. These amendments were supposed to provide for total equality before the law for all men, but specifically for the freed slaves. The freedmen could vote, and they gladly turned out to send black men to the U.S. House of Representatives and the senate. They voted in black mayors and constables. And yes, they sometimes sold their votes to unscrupulous white men, the "carpetbaggers," who could pull the strings for government spoils from the sidelines. Enter the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan.

Let's speak plain English here; the Klan saw themselves as defenders of their own culture and their own rights, which largely meant they were sworn to end Reconstruction by any means necessary. The Klan were terrorists by definition. They spread terror through violence. And they got what they wanted. For those with strong stomachs, let me recommend another film after you see Lincoln: watch D. W. Griffith's silent masterpiece, Birth of a Nation, a love letter to the Klu Klux Klan.

Here's how the Klan won. In the 1876 elections, the Republican and Democratic candidates for the presidency were locked in an election too close to call. A corrupt bargain was made between the pols in both parties: the Democrats, who most likely were the actual electoral college winners, if the Florida (yes, Florida!) votes were to be properly counted, offered the White House to the Republicans under one condition: Reconstruction must end. Back then, Republicans were the party of civil rights for Freedmen, and Democrats (especially in the South) were the party most friendly to the Klan.

The Republicans understood they were giving away the rights of black folks for many generations, rights that Northern abolitionists and many others had fought and died for, but that was the price to be paid for the White House, and for peace. That had been the slogan of the two-term Republican president retiring in 1876: "Let us have peace," General Grant had said, as he became President Grant. The former general had spent two terms sending Federal troops in to try and stop the Klan from intimidating black voters in the Old Confederacy. The Klan would merely disappear into the mists, and reappear again as soon as the Federals turned their attention elsewhere. The Klan was waging a guerilla war against their conquerors, brutally raping, shooting and hanging black voters and any whites who stood with them. The Confederacy lost the war, but a strong case can be made to say the Klan won the peace, such as it was. Peace for white people.

After Reconstruction ended, the Jim Crow laws were passed. Poll taxes and literacy tests were applied as naked voter suppression of the worst sort. That was the end of the black vote, and black representation in Congress, for nearly one hundred years. And generations of white Southerners happily kept joining the Klan.

Keep this in mind as you hear pundits bloviate about the Middle East, the same old talking points, the same jockeying for political advantage in both Israel and the United States, the harsh, fiery rhetoric wielded by the conquered Palestinians, who have been conquered again and again, and like it with the same ferocity as America's defeated Confederates liked Reconstruction. Let's move toward peace with eyes open wide. Let's understand human nature, and what it feels like to be the conquered, and what price the conquerors pay, as well. The Palestinians have no money, almost no technology, and know they have no chance really to ever "push Israel into the sea." The Arab League knows this. Surely the new president of Egypt knows this. But conquered people do not go gently into a political good night, and the more we understand this, the better off we all will be.