Better Angels

“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it’ . . . We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Those are the final words of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, one of the most eloquent and elegant evocations of the sanctity of the American Union ever put to paper. His words resonate with me, 150 years after he delivered them. Like President Lincoln, I once swore an oath as a military officer to support and defend the United States Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and it remains “registered in heaven” all these years later, even though my time of active service is over.

Given that fact, it honestly pains me how glib many people have become in their use of secessionist language within contemporary political discourse, especially when the Confederate States of America (CSA) are evoked and lauded as part of that discussion. It has become fashionable in some circles to dress up and romanticize the Confederacy today in terms of States’ rights or pride in Southern heritage, but the fundamental bottom-line is that the “general welfare” and “blessings of liberty” that the leaders of the CSA desired hinged solely on the disenfranchisement of millions and millions of slaves.

Regardless of one’s political views, I can see no combination of current social, cultural or governmental ills coming anywhere close to the raw evil of a government that went to war to preserve the utter debasement of human life and dignity implied and enacted by institutional slavery. I’m proud to be a native Southerner, I’m proud of my deep South Carolina roots, but I’m ashamed of the role that my ancestors played in attempting to perpetuate and preserve the miseries of human slavery for economic gain. I view the Confederate flag with every bit as much antipathy as I view a Swastika accordingly. I hate seeing it displayed publicly today, no matter what the rationale for hanging it may be. It’s a tarnished symbol, beyond restoration or rehabilitation.

So I grieve for the soul of my Nation when this most shameful chapter in our collective history is often glossed over for the sake of political expediency in contemporary political debate, and the model of the CSA is upheld as a viable, admirable solution to current events. The way I see it, the question of whether or not healthcare should be considered a public good (to cite but one example) is in no way, shape or form comparable to the question of whether or not one human being should be able to treat another as chattel. Media and political operatives who make such romanticized and sanitized connections to the Confederacy as they cry for the dissolution of the Union do a grave disservice to us all. It’s one thing to be educated about and vigilant toward our government’s actions, but it’s quite another thing to call for the sundering of the Nation when the government doesn’t pursue the political agenda we might prefer it advance.

Lest you think this is a partisan screed aimed only at right wing demagogues who use fearful incitement as a blunt instrument to whip their followers into a frenzy, I should note that I hold left-leaning operatives who play to their listeners’ senses of victimization by evoking the specter of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or the Stalinist Soviet Union in exactly the same disdain. Holding up the CSA as an admirable model is grievously wrong-minded, but so is comparing anything going on in the United States today to the systematic genocide of millions of Europeans. The Nazi exaggeration is just as provocative, and just as incorrect, as the myth of the noble Confederacy. Frankly, I’d be just as happy to see Michael Moore and Janeane Garofalo go away as I would be to see Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck disappear. Propaganda is propaganda, no matter which side of the political spectrum it serves. Discourse doesn’t thrive when you’ve got a waggling finger shoved in your face.

And what we need more than anything else today is discourse. Not ranting, not hyperbole, not finger-pointing, not name-calling, not personal attacks, not insinuations, not skullduggery and certainly not a fantastic rewriting of American or European history to create a sense of fait accompli pointing us toward some particular contemporary outcome.

About J. Eric Smith
Executive Director, Salisbury House Foundation.

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