Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Photo from Lincoln's Inauguration 1861
So many lessons come from a study of history.

A little over 151 years ago on Monday, March 4, 1861 Abraham Lincoln  delivered his first inaugural address, taking of the oath of office for his first term as the sixteenth President of the United States.  On that same day the new flag of the Confederacy—the Stars and Bars—was adopted and raised in Alabama (one of the seven states that had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States.Less than a month later, the country experienced the beginning of the four year American Civil War,  with the Confederate attack of Fort Sumter.

Motivated by his hope of reconciliation toward the southern rebellious states, Lincoln's inaugural address included the following themes:

1) a pledge to "hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government"—including Fort Sumter
2) an argument that the Union was "indissolvable," making secession impossible
3) a promise that while he would never be the first to attack but that any use of arms against the United States would be regarded as rebellion, and met with military force.

Lincoln denounced these states actions as anarchy, and explained that majority rule had to be balanced by constitutional restraints: "A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of free people."

Desperately wishing to avoid war, he concluded his speech with this plea:
"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."

The Better Angels of Our Nature.jpgI wonder if those listening would have known the price of the American Civil War, if they would have chosen differently...
Those four years produced about 1,030,000 casualties (3% of the population), including about 620,000 to 850,000 soldier death—as much as two-thirds by disease.  Approximately 56,000 soldiers died in prisons.  Based on 1860 census figures, 8% of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6% in the North and 18% in the South during the Civil War.  The war accounted for roughly as many American deaths as all American deaths in other U.S. wars combined.

The causes of the war, the reasons for its outcome, and even the name of the war itself are contentious topics today.  Why would we expect discussions about the Dakota Conflict / U.S- Dakota Indian War of 1862 to be any less contentious?  

Fast forward to today.  Sentiments and passions still run deep here in the United States, just like other countries.  The past is not completely passed.  Even if we are too busy to listen...or if our lives have become so loud we can't hear dissension...or if we are now living so far removed from voices that are different from ours...that doesn't mean the sentiments behind those other voices are gone.  Our inability to hear does not mute the voices.   Our choice to not listen does not diminish the importance of their message nor does it diminish the inherent dignity of the person who desires to be heard. 

Author Steven Pinker's 2011 book title hails from Lincoln's speech; he sets out to prove that violence in the world, especially the western part is declining. (Aligning with Azar GatJoshua Goldstein and Robert Muchembled, who all  defend that the world has been becoming steadily more civilized an more peaceful for thousands of years).

Gat writes that because peace has become profitable it will become more increasingly common.  He believe the recipe for peace includes:
A)  the emergence of the state: citizens give up parts of their autonomy in return for the state taking care of their security. B) modernization.  He believes that an industrial revolution leads to economic growth, interdependence, increase in affluence and standard of living, new liberal democracies and ultimately military/nuclear deterrence.  He argues that if you add A + B, society experiences fewer wars and fewer war casualties. To prove his theory, he points to less developed countries where war is more frequent.
Help countries develop, become profitable and secure so that their leaders and the common man won't want to risk losing the comforts of life... and society will choose to avoid war.  

Sounds great if you can get to the state of peace and comfort to begin with!

My hope is that we will learn from history. It doesn't take a college degree in history to discern that war has a price... and peace has one too.  We need to decide which price we are willing to pay for the result we want for our children and grandchildren.  We will either pay for our choice up front OR the choice will be made for us and we'll simply get the bill later.

May we choose to listen, to recognize the dignity in each other and to take the proactive steps that are needed to build a peaceful world for our kids.