I seem to have touched a real nerve last week in my letter to you all—I don’t think I’ve ever gotten as much feedback as I did after writing last week about the specific way I found myself thinking about Second Amendment issues as we got ourselves ready for Purim and the details of the story behind the holiday imposed themselves on me slightly differently than they had in the past.
Especially engaging, apparently, to you was my musing about the endlessly interesting question of why the country was so willing to embrace the reasonableness of sedition in 1776 and so mercilessly unforgiving a mere eighty-odd years later when the southern states tried to travel down the very same route by unilaterally renouncing allegiance to the government of their own country, then proclaiming their intention to live in a new state carved out of the old one and possessed of a government more in tune with its citizens wishes and beliefs. Responding to your interest, it seems to me now that an even more provocative way to frame that same question would be to wonder whether the founding fathers, and particularly the Virginians among them (including particularly George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison), would have sided with the federalists or the secessionists when it came time either to go to war to defend the union or to acquiesce to the departure of the deep-Southern states who wished to form their own country. As I wrote last week, the signers of the Declaration of Independence were, after all, all people who had once been loyal, law-abiding subjects of the king of England, yet who felt finally that the chasm that had lately opened up between the direction in which they perceived their own best interests to lie and the way that the British authorities insisted autocratically on ruling over them was simply too wide to bridge other than by declaring their independence from Britain and daring the Brits to make them take it back. But an even more sharp way to pose that same question would be to ask what exactly is it that makes Americans lionize Abraham Lincoln for going to war to prevent secession and punish sedition while holding poor King George, who also went to war to prevent secession and punish sedition, in contempt as a doddering fool who cost scores of thousands their lives merely because he was incapable of seeing the justice of the colonists’ cause and the wisdom in acquiescing to their entirely reasonable demands?
One approach to answering these questions is to remember, as Jay Feldman (Shelter Rock’s most well-published letter writer, and by far) reminded me the other day, that the victors pretty much always get to write the history books. Therefore, we consider the colonists’ cause just because they won the war. Had they lost, we—perhaps still British subjects, but even if not—would consider them disloyal traitors to crown and country and have long since forgotten most of their names. The same applies to the Civil War—the union won, so we consider the rebels to have been, well, disloyal traitors. Had the southern states won, on the other hand, we could call the conflict the War of Southern Independence or the Confederate Revolution, or something like that, and have long since made our peace with sedition-sauce for the goose being, almost by definition, something the gander has occasionally to make his peace with being basted in. And by now northerners like ourselves would surely harbor no specific animus against Confederate citizens, just as the British today seem to have gotten over the whole Revolution and made their peace with the existence of the United States on territory that was once part of their self-proclaimed, yet politically real (and for a long time more or less viable) empire.
All of the above sounds reasonably cogent to me, but another way of approaching the issue would be to frame the issue not in terms of history or politics, but in terms of philosophy.
I’ve occasionally written to you about my distaste for moral relativism, the school of philosophy that presumes that there can be no fixed point against which beliefs or actions can be measured other than the vantage point of the believer or the actor. It sounds complicated when put like that, but the concept itself is actually quite simple. If you think you are behaving well, then you are behaving well. If you think of yourself as a freedom fighter, then you are a freedom fighter…no matter how widely the rest of the world unsympathetically condemns you as a terrorist. If you believe yourself to be justified in renouncing your allegiance to the crown, then you are justified in renouncing your allegiance to the crown…and that thought is unrelated to the way the man or woman wearing the crown in question may feel about your decision. Rightness rests in the conviction that one is behaving rightly. Wrongness means, almost by definition, acting counter to what you yourself think right. There is, therefore, no absolute concept of right or wrong, only an ever-shifting ethical landscape against which people either do or do not behave in ways consonant with their own sense of rightness and wrongness.
By framing the question that way, the answer suggests itself that the reason that the nation responded differently in 1776 and 1860 had to do with Lincoln’s rejection of this concept of an inherently anchorless moral code. To say that because it was just for the colonists in the 1770s to declare their independence as a valid response to tyranny did not imply, apparently not even remotely, to our sixteenth president that it must also be so, therefore, that the secession of the southern states was reasonable or justifiable. In other words, the fact that the thirteen colonies seceded from the British Empire, so to speak, did not imply that the southern states had ipso facto the right to secede from the union. Resistance to tyrants may well be obedience to God (as Thomas Jefferson famously said) but that absolutely did not imply to Lincoln or to his supporters that the union could be unilaterally dissolved by dissenters who falsely castigated our president as a tyrant and unfairly denounced Congress as an agency of his tyranny. It’s a compelling argument, although today I wonder how popular it would be today if our country were facing a serious threat to its unity because one or several states wished formally to secede. Would we go to war again to prevent that from happening? I doubt it. And if we did it certainly would not be enthusiastically.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how this specific concept of moral relativism is still alive and well in the world out there. Because Israel is reputed to have a nuclear arsenal, it must ipso facto be reasonable for Iran also to have one. The counterargument that the fact that the Iranian government is a world-wide sponsor of terror that speaks openly and enthusiastically about its hope someday to annihilate the State of Israel by murdering its citizens makes it entirely reasonable to work to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power without it being unfair that Israel is left to its own devices—that seems unconvincing to all who consider that what’s sauce for the (Israeli) goose must be sauce too for the (Iranian) gander. And, besides, who’s to say that the violent militants that the Iranians sponsor are terrorists? They don’t think of themselves that way! So how different is Iran from any other nation that outsiders condemn for failing to live up those outsiders’ standards and instead charting their own course according to their own lights? How about it simply being right and reasonable for Israel to have the mightiest arsenal of weaponry possible, and wrong and unjust for countries committed not to peaceful coexistence but to aggression, violence, and belligerence not to be permitted to acquire even more powerful weapons with which to threaten the world and its peoples?
It all seems obvious to me. But there are many out there that seem to see things entirely differently. These are the people who can’t quite understand why it is reasonable for Israel to respond forcefully (and, yes, militarily) when, since 2001, more than 15,000 rockets are sent across the border with Gaza aimed at civilian targets and eventually causing more than sixty deaths, and unreasonable for terrorists to blow up discotheques and pizza restaurants where children are dancing or dining. These are also the people who can’t quite see the difference between the people on the Exodus in 1947, desperate refugees trying to slip past a blockade designed to prevent desperate refugees from settling peacefully in their own homeland, and the thugs on the Mavi Marmara in 2010, who also attempted to slip past a blockade of the Israeli coast but only to show their support for a terrorist regime that chooses to express itself politically by murdering innocents, including children. Or the difference, for that matter, between the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan in the 1980s specifically to install a puppet government that it could control and the U.S. involvement in that same country now which, flaws and set-backs and all, is basically about supporting a democratically-elected regime that is committed to playing its part in the war against terror.
Americans are by nature a fair, just people. We have enshrined in our Constitution a basic approach to society that is anchored in the sense that everybody deserves a hearing, that freedom of speech is reasonable precisely because everybody is entitled to his or her opinion. And yet President Lincoln’s example speaks to me profoundly and loudly these days. Surely, he was a proponent of free speech! But to make the leap from that thought to the notion that no one, no matter what views they espouse, can ever simply be wrong—not because they have no right to their opinions, but because some opinions are simply unjust and morally wrong—that is a notion President Lincoln, I believe, would have found beyond peculiar, and so do I!