Judge Not

I had a thought regarding the discussion I sponsored on this blog a little while ago, in re: the nature of Obama hatred and Bush hatred, and the similarities and differences thereof.

I was re-reading Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, which I do every once in a while, as it (and not, in my view, the Gettysburg Address) is the single most astonishingly great political utterance in this country’s history. Lincoln decided to speak about the Civil War which was then, finally, coming to a close, and instead of glorying in the by-then inevitable victory of the Union, or even gloating a bit at all those who had doubted him — hell, I would’ve — he gave a remarkable capsule history of the war and its causes. It is remarkable, more than anything, for its rhetorical distance. It’s almost as if Lincoln is already speaking to future generations, who would not know the combatants or even their cause.  Of the two sides, he says:

 Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

Now, look at that last line. He spends four sentences, each rung in with a word of equivalency (Neither, neither, each, both) establishing how alike the two sides were. As well he should: he had staked his presidency and his life on the proposition that “both” sides were in fact, one side.  And then, with a masterful touch of understatement — “It may seem strange…” — he alludes to the underlying vast, categorical distance between the two sides: one of them fought for the right to enslave other human beings.  In the speech, he has more to say about slavery and the blood drawn by the lash, but by then he has moved on to a general context of national guilt, implying, as the war comes to an end, that slavery was not the Southern sin, but a national one, and thus all the vast suffering, on both sides, was somehow divinely (or, I might say, karmically) just.

But what’s fascinating for me is Lincoln’s understanding that no matter how similar the two sides of that political argument may have been,  there was, underneath the equivalent protestations about freedom and democracy and liberty, something profoundly different. Lincoln doesn’t go so far to suggest that one side, his side, was right — as he alludes to, ending slavery was not the aim of his government as the war began — but he does indicate, in his elegant way, that one side was, essentially,  profoundly and objectively wrong. And thus, all the superficial similarities become moot.

Back to our current disputes, which has already begun to have subtle and not-so-subtle echoes of the Civil War.  There is a lot of similarity to those who say “I want my country back,” and those who demand the restoration of our Constitution, whether they did those things in 2004 or 2010. But there must be, and I think there is, a profound difference, if only because of the nature and policies of the regime they are protesting. But let us judge not, lest we be judged.

2 Responses to Judge Not

  1. Jolene April 26, 2010 at 5:09 am #

    Peter: Have you read anything by Ta-Nehisi Coates? He blogs at The Atlantic’s web site and has been posting a variety of things related to the Civil War, prompted in part by Gov. Bob McDonnell’s awkward, offensive, and unnecessary proclamation honoring Confederate soldiers. He’s posted excerpts from Grant’s memoirs, excerpts from the statements issued by the various states when they seceded, a letter from a former to his master, and other things you might not have seen before. You should check it out.

    More generally, you should read Coates regularly. He is very impressive–profoundly thoughtful and deeply honest, especially in writing about race in America past and present, but other topics too. And charming. For instance, he occasionally refers to the woman he lives with as “my Co-D”, for co-defendant, a term that he feels is warranted because, together, they have inflicted on the world a “knuckle-headed boy”.

    He’s published a memoir about his own growing up called “The Beautiful Struggle”. Also very much worth reading.

  2. Ida April 28, 2010 at 12:57 pm #

    Nice post, Peter. I enjoyed reading it a lot. Reminds me that I need to get out that book of Lincoln speeches I have somewhere. What an absolutely amazing man and president. I wish I could have met him!