Bach: Lessons from Dixie
When the American Civil War ended over a century ago, a shattered nation was made whole. North and South came together once more, as the United States became a unified country again. But the newly reunited America was fraught with new problems, not least among them a lingering hostility against the people of the South. With the defeat of the Confederacy came cries for retribution, and vengeance after so many years of tears and bloodshed. Justice, clamored the enraged voices of the past, justice! There was no place in America for Southern traitors! Punishment was their only just reward!
Among these radical voices, it was a war-weary Abraham Lincoln who offered reconciliation in place of revenge. Lincoln knew that the country should be unified not with malice, but with love and respect. No doubt this was why Lincoln requested the Marine band to play “Dixie” following Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Playing the unofficial anthem of the South in Washington, after a Union victory, made it clear that the South was welcome home with open arms. “It is good to show the rebels,” Lincoln remarked, “that with us they will be free to hear it again.”
With the Confederate defeat, the states remained united and a great many people had been freed from the bonds of slavery. Yet even in America’s righteous victory, Lincoln understood that true healing would come through compassion, not unfettered anger. Even now, the wisdom of Lincoln ought to resonate with our countrymen. This is a wisdom that recognizes the differences amongst people without vilifying them, that chooses instead to look upon that which unites us as a people instead of that which divides us. This ideal is born from the knowledge that diversity in thought makes us stronger, not weaker. It allows us to look past the vitriol and squabble to realize that opposite perspectives are two sides of the same coin, inseparable and indivisible.
Though it is hardly a second American Civil War, the divisions that have since grown within our society today rage with the same sort of belligerence. Radical voices grow more extreme by the day, both from the left and from the right, the rancor of their discontent springing forth to challenge the integrity of democracy. Just as radical voices of the past placed a wedge between opposing sides, so too do the radical voices of today seek to establish a stark line between an “us” and a “them.” Justice, clamor the enraged voices of today, justice! There is no place in America for people who disagree with us! Down with the opposition!
This time, there is no Lincoln emerging from either side to play “Dixie” for the other, no one to reassure us that we are free to hear each other once again. The frustration that pervades the politics and social issues of today’s America have sprouted from a narcissistic desire to be right and to establish one’s superiority at the expense of all others. This was true of the radicals of the Civil War, and it is just as true today. The bitter contempt that defines our generation betrays a refusal to engage with our dissenters. Though it is perhaps a tale as old as time, it is no less regrettable for its cyclical nature.
We must eschew the aggression that consumes the discussions of today, and remember the importance of civility. Arguments are won respectfully, the winner being the better argued, not by strangling the speech of the other side. Discussions do not last if we base them only on emotions, with no regard for the facts. And we must be gracious even in victory, knowing that in spite of our different convictions we are part of the same people. But most importantly, we must uphold this civility even when our opposition does not. Reason and charity will succeed where restrictions and attacks do not. Above all we must fear neither one another nor each other’s convictions, for in the end we all hope to do what is best for all of us.
In time, perhaps, we can learn to emulate Lincoln and reflect upon why his legacy lives on in the hearts of Americans everywhere. In the worst of our divisions and the darkest of our fears, we may yet persist under the same ideals that make us free, enshrined in our laws so long ago by our forefathers. And in time, symbolically if not literally, perhaps we will hear that tune that thrills the hearts of a reunited nation: “Look away, look away, look away, Dixie land.”