Bitter Angels

“I’m glad I found this meeting,” a newcomer said this morning. “I went to one in” (name of nearby city that is big enough to have a dilapidated downtown) “yesterday and I was scared. I thought my car wouldn’t be there when I left.”

He was not speaking with me. I slowed down my already slow pace to hear the rest, and he supplied it: “You know, because I was the only white person there. I assumed it would be broken into or stolen.” I thought to myself, “Did I really just hear him say that?” I am grateful that racism and sexism and the rest of the hate-filled isms still possess the capacity to surprise me when I encounter them; I am furious every time I am exposed to that level of ugly stupidity, that degree of odious and casual hatred. If he had been speaking with me …

Yeah, and what, Mark? What would you have done?, I imagine someone sarcastically asking me. He was not speaking with me, and I went on with my after-meeting chores, but with my ears tuned to our new racist acquaintance, to hear if he had anything else of note to share about his fears. I do not like that I was shocked into a dull complacency, that I did not speak up.

“If you spot it, you got it.” That is, if I think I am angry about something, I ought to look inside myself first: the thing that is irritating me may in fact be irritating in and of itself, but it also may be irritating because it reminds me of something I do not like about me, and I resent seeing it displayed so clearly. What I spotted was one more example of my complacency. I am angry right now that I did not speak up. Like all matters of rhetoric, racism and sexism and anti-religious hatred always need two parties (at minimum) to exist and multiply: a speaker and a listener. I was one more pair of ears in a room that did not make racism unwelcome, which is the same thing as welcoming it.

So I am angry at me right now.

* * * *
The bitter angels of our nature are sometimes easier to hear. Sometimes, the words chosen and spoken by the “better angels of our nature,” the peace-lovers among us, are heard by the bitter angels as bitter words themselves. That is insidious.

When President Lincoln delivered his First Inaugural Address 155 years ago next month, from which we get the phrase, “better angels of our nature,” there was little he could have said or done that would have averted the Civil War. There was no guarantee that the war was going to happen, but enough people were looking for the fight rather than looking for areas of agreement that the war was minutes instead of hours or months away. (Some states wanted to leave—and these states had already formed a new country—and the remaining states did not want them to leave but did not want them to stay in the Union with slavery as a part of their economy, so there were few areas of agreement.) Once an anti-slavery, pro-Union Republican (a new political party) was elected president, secession began, and war looked ever closer.

Lincoln dedicated his speech to an explanation that secession was logically impossible, since a Union is a union (or a union is a Union), and to the promise that the federal government would not fire unless fired upon (which happened a couple weeks later, at Fort Sumter).

He concluded his address with an emotionally stirring paragraph, and it began with this plaintive sentence: “I am loath to close.” He did not want to end the speech. He did not want to reach the conclusion. It was almost as if he believed that, the longer he talked, the longer the Union would remain. But he went ahead and finished with these famous words:

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.

There was no response from the states that had seceded, no words offered, official or otherwise, until the attack on Fort Sumter. That attack was their reply, and then the war was on. Those southern newspapers that deigned to report on the new president’s very first speech focused on his “threats” (their word) to preserve the Union, and they ignored or insulted the concluding sentences that are quoted above. The “better angels” were seen with bitterness. Most of the northern newspapers highlighted with optimism the “better angels” passage.

(I have an acquaintance who believes himself to be a Southerner more than an American, and he refuses to allow pennies in his house, because “that man” is depicted on them. It would be comical, except it is not funny at all.)

In her book, Abraham Lincoln the Orator, a Binghamton University scholar named Lois Einhorn writes about the first inaugural address and the marked difference in reactions to it from North and South:

Selective listening, in effect, means that people hear what they expect and perhaps want to hear. All people listen selectively, hearing only part of any message. In the case of Lincoln’s Inaugural, one could expect a great deal of selective listening because the situation was marked by a high degree of prejudice and because Lincoln had said little to counter these prejudiced views. Many of the editorials evaluating the Inaugural Address support the view that selective listening and selective perception help account for the divergent reactions to the speech. Northern and Southern editorials tended to quote different portions of the speech: Northern editorials usually quoted the speech’s conciliatory peroration, while Southern editorials usually quoted Lincoln’s forceful statements about how he would treat the South.

“Selective listening” is an enormous phrase.

I saw it in all its power a couple years ago. A friend who was important to me started to express opinions that I found offensive, started to reveal a racism that I had not yet detected, and, further, my friend expressed a desire to act on that racism, to do ugly things with it. I struggled to find the words to express my discomfort—this friend was not attacking me personally, after all, so why complain? There must be some reason behind what I felt was ugliness coming from my friend, I thought. “You spot it, you got it,” I thought, and I tried to find what was bothering me about me as I saw it reflected by this friend’s ugliness.

I wrote a letter in which I explained that I was not going to attempt to change my friend’s opinions, that I did not need an explanation in return nor did I want a debate, but that I simply needed to express my discomfort and for that to be accepted so we could move on to happier conversations. Even if my friend simply expressed discomfort with my discomfort, I would have been fine. (“Agree to disagree,” as they say.)

I hoped my better angels were present. Because the issue was social unfairness and race, an issue I have written about before—in “Guilty of White” —and will again, my friend responded to my letter with a group photo in which my friend was with people of color, as if such a thing could even be a response. (I restrained myself and I did not write this: “Okay, fine. You have black friends. Do you share with them what you have been sharing with me? How well has that been going?” Perhaps I ought to have.)

A joke that I will not reprint followed from my friend; it was at about the same level of emotional maturity as not allowing pennies in one’s house because Lincoln is on them. At that moment, I walked away from that friendship, grateful that I learned a lesson, but I am still not certain what that lesson was or is, because this was a friend who tended to (tends to?) find better angels in almost every circumstance. I was and remain confused.

My friend interpreted my expression of discomfort not as an expression of discomfort but as an attack that needed to be rebuffed; it is sad. Was I “selectively hearing” my friend’s words as hate? Yes. Was my friend “selectively hearing” my words as an attack? Yes. Both at the same time.

The person I wrote about at the top, from earlier today, most likely would have selectively heard anything I said about racism being unwelcome as an attack as well. I do not know this, however, because I did not (as every one else in the room did not) give him the opportunity to take sides and to know what side he was taking.

I give myself too much credit in believing something I have written in the past about myself, that “there is a line I can not cross just so I can say that I am friends with all sorts of individuals, even intolerant people who insist on being tolerated.” Nope, that is simply not true. I just don’t make waves … and the smooth seas that I helped maintain with my silence this morning also helped racism live just a little bit more comfortably in the world today.

* * * *
Some of the section about Lincoln’s First Inaugural came from a January 2015 essay and then was worked into a post from earlier in 2016.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for May 8, 2017, asks us to reflect on the word, “Bitter.”

The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 28 asks us to reflect on the word, “Disagree.”

The WordPress Daily Prompt for May 10 asks us to reflect on the word, “Diverse.”

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  1. Anton Wills-Eve · May 11, 2016

    Mark, we could both write books on this post. Just let me say that you do NOT ignore things you feel you should speak out on when they really matter. You have nothing about which to reproach yourself. I often squirm internally at the remarks of others, but learning when to denounce, agree or hold my tongue has been the most difficult lesson I’ve been learning for 70 years. I am still learning 🙂 Ciao Anton

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: False. Evidence. Appears. Real. | The Gad About Town
  3. Sascha Darlington · September 28, 2016

    Your acquaintance, the penny person, astounds me. He is just one in a long line because it’s his environment that shaped him and he was never smart enough or tolerant enough to understand that you can be better than your nurture. I could almost jump up on a soapbox and say: this is why there is so much hatred and war. People cling to years of ancestral animosity rather than embracing new ideologies. Fear of change? (Sorry. I’ll end here. I feel tangents coming.)

    Excellent, though-provoking post as always.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sascha Darlington · September 28, 2016

    (that was supposed to be “thought-provoking”…I don’t really thing you’re trying to provoke any other way.) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: I’m with the Banned | The Gad About Town

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