Who Can Heal Our New Civil War? Only the Partisans

L. Prang & Co. print of the painting "Hancock at Gettysburg" by Thure de Thulstrup, showing Pickett's Charge.

By Joe Long Published on November 4, 2018

It’s an old and bitter joke that the Civil War was anything but “civil.” One parallel between that bitter conflict and our current bitter cultural divide, is that it will have to be combatants who restore civility.

Culture warriors must lead the way to cultural peace. This might seem exactly the wrong approach. Don’t we need the nonpartisan to help us out?

No.

They Never Saw the Point

Those never saw the point of the struggle in the first place, don’t get much respect from either side. This was true of our Civil War, and it’s true of our current incivil national arguments.

As a partisan myself, I certainly tend to dismiss those bloodless beings who don’t understand why we “can’t just get along.” Those who don’t see why abortion, guns, and immigration are major issues make no sense to me. They make no sense to my Progressive opponents, either.

Those never saw the point of the struggle in the first place, don’t get much respect from either side.

The “exhausted majority” just wish right and left would stop arguing, but all they can really do is shout “Calm down!” That never helps. It will only leave us where we are, and we argue so fiercely over these issues for a reason. They matter.

We the partisan must do the difficult part. We (right and left) agree with one another that culture issues are vital, and we agree to fight over them. For the sake of our beliefs, we endanger civility. Therefore we must be the ones who re-establish it.

Conservative and progressive can do that, whoever wins the battles and maybe the war, by treating the other side magnanimously. We can treat the others as we would like to be treated — not as we darkly suspect they might have treated us.

What Lee and Grant Did

That is what Lee and Grant did. After the real war, and even before that war was quite over, Union and Confederate war heroes led the way in reconciliation. At Appomattox, Lee and Grant briefly became one of the great command teams in American military history, working together to end the war as cleanly as possible.

One was triumphant, one utterly defeated. Still, each still saw leadership as an ongoing responsibility. And each had earned the respect of the warriors themselves. Only because they had been fighters could they be peacemakers.

Grant opened his supply wagons to feed the Confederate army, and sent Confederate officers home with their swords at their sides and their dignity intact. Lee prevailed against his own president, refusing to adopt a vindictive guerrilla warfare strategy.

Real Reconciliation

Another lesson of the Civil War’s aftermath, is that practically nobody’s going to decide that he was wrong all along. Reconciliation is not conversion. Most partisans will go their graves believing they were right in every important way.

A famous film from the Gettysburg reunion of 1913 shows old soldiers shaking hands at the site of Pickett’s Charge. Few of those soldiers had come to believe that the other side had been right about any important issue. They likely even disagreed about what the true issues had been. Rather, as they shook hands, they recognized shared sufferings, shared valor, and a shared stake in the nation’s future. This was enough.

Consider the many on the Left who’ve been personally involved in an abortion. They’ve had one, or counseled others to do so. This creates a tremendous emotional investment in abortion not being an atrocity. Few would overcome this, even in a best-case scenario in which pro-life policies prevailed nationwide. Their rationalizations would remain.

However, so long as the atrocities had been stopped, their continuing belief in abortion would do no harm to others. Changing their minds, happily, would not be necessary. Neither would punishment. Victory isn’t any more of an excuse than defeat for abandoning civility. Never attempt to catechize the defeated into adopting the victors’ point of view.

What Reunion Requires

A third lesson is that reunion requires new, common interests. Those may seem hard to find but we must earnestly seek them.

During the height of the conflict, the irascible Jubal Early had remarked to General Lee, “I wish all of those Yankees were dead!”

“How can you say so, General?” replied Marse Robert. “Now, I wish they were all at home, attending to their own business, leaving us to do the same.” This mirrors my view of Progressive protests.

At Appomattox, Lee would work for this goal by a different route. “Be as good citizens as you were soldiers,” he ordered the veterans. Let us be as good citizens as we are partisans, right now, at a time of special ferocity in our cultural struggle. Afterwards, like Grant, we can also be magnanimous in victory.

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