Commentary: Our leaders owe us civil discourse, not civil war
“Why do men fight who were born to be brothers?” was the question posed by Confederate General James Longstreet after the American Civil War.
During that war, the day after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to United States Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Lee was reunited with old friend, Union Gen. George Meade, the man who had led the Union forces against Lee at Gettysburg.
Like Lee and Meade, Gen. Longstreet and Gen. Grant were also friends before the Civil War, enemies during it, and friends again, after it. It cost America the deaths of 620,000 soldiers and sailors, both North and South, to allow them to resume those friendships.
Soldiers and sailors who in death left behind even more thousands of mothers and fathers, wives and children, sweethearts and friends, to mourn them. All that, and the hopes and dreams of every one of them unfulfilled.
Today we are engaged in what seems almost a civil war without weapons, but with words. While the southern promulgators of the Civil War were defending their “right” to own slaves, the common soldiers, who had no slaves, were whipped into an emotional frenzy against the Union such that they were convinced the threat to the slaveholders was a threat to themselves.
Believing that, they readily took up arms to fight for the Southern aristocracy’s ability to enslave people to make themselves wealthy. It was a classic case of the argument, “let’s you and him fight”.
It seems always so in war. The young are used as cannon-fodder to protect and preserve the economic status of the elite. In the World War I novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” a platoon of German soldiers reflect that they don’t really have a grudge against the French soldiers they are fighting, and propose that the war could be quickly settled if the leaders of their respective countries took on each other in a boxing match.
Conflict can be initiated by many things, but common among them is inflammatory speech. There is a lot of that in America today and it is all about “Us” whoever they are, against “Them”, whoever they are. These are the “Brothers” General Longstreet was talking about. These are all Americans.
Words that single out others as enemies to be hated are not cheap, except to those who use them. There is no difference in the purpose of Hilary Clinton calling Americans who do not agree with her “Deplorables” than it is for Trump to say about Clinton, “Lock her up.” They are each used to bring people to your side by making your enemies their enemies. It is mean, it is selfish, and it is un-American.
Those leaders who inflame emotion all have one thing in common; when it comes to a fight, they will not be the ones doing the fighting.
Whatever turmoil that might ensue from their actions will be felt by those who were sucked into fighting for a selfish cause and by the innocent bystanders. No one who is trying to enflame emotions believes they are being out of line. That is how dangerous their arguments are. Dangerous because the perpetrators believe that their diatribes against others is within the bounds of accepted social behavior. The even larger danger is, that unchallenged, it will become accepted social behavior. It will become normal.
The people of America are caring and generous, up to a point, and that point is where self-promoting politicians begin to divide us. Hate and anger are emotions that are easy to incite. People of limited integrity know that and milk it to their advantage. When you hear someone condemning your neighbors and fellow Americans, that is when you must begin to challenge the accuser.
Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.