Civilization and its Lost Lessons

Commentary, Culture Wars, Gerry Bowler

On the afternoon of May 22, 1856, Preston Brooks, a plantation owner and pro-slavery politician who had been elected as a Congressman from South Carolina, strode into the nearly deserted U.S. Senate chamber. There he accosted Charles Sumner of Massachusetts who had been making a series of fiery abolitionist speeches. Brooks announced that Sumner had used insulting language toward his relative  and to the entire South. Not giving Sumner a chance to rise, Brooks struck him with a gold-headed cane repeatedly, causing Sumner to lose consciousness and fall to the floor bleeding profusely. Satisfied with his work, Brooks left the room. It would be three years before the wounded Sumner could resume his duties, while Brooks was given only a token fine for his brutal attack.

Brooks found himself a hero throughout Dixie, recipient of many replacement canes and congratulatory messages, while Sumner was hailed as a martyr to the anti-slavery cause.

Tempers were at a boiling point all across the United States: no insulting term was considered too low to be used against one’s opponent and no crime or immorality too vile to be ascribed to fellow citizens with different opinions. Mobs burnt down opposition newspaper offices, vigilante groups were raised to defend neighbourhoods, night riders began murderous raids. In “Bleeding Kansas”, “free soil” and pro-slavery groups contended, each side importing weapons and partisans from outside the territory. The town of Lawrence, Kansas was attacked and set on fire by pro-slavers and abolitionist John Brown’s gang hacked five pro-slavery neighbours to death with swords. A few years later the American Civil War was required to settle the issue.

Anyone who is unable to see the spirit of the 1850s alive in America of 2018 has not been paying attention.

A cultural war divides the United States, with control of the courts a key issue. Democrats abolish legislative rules that used to promote compromise; Republicans retaliate by abolishing even more. Republicans pull a fast one by refusing to consider an Obama nomination; the Democrats retaliate with orchestrated eruptions in the chamber, and a calculated array of last-minute accusations against which there is no defence. Left-wing fanatics harass politicians and their families in public and attempt assassinations of Republican congressmen; a right-wing President continually lowers the tone with personal crude remarks.

Each of these moves erodes those institutions and unwritten conventions which keep us at peace with each other. Every transgression against civility and order prompts an escalation that brings society closer to violence.

Canada is not immune from corrosion of social norms. Our Governor-General feels free to sneer at people of religious faith; foul-mouthed Members of Parliament hurl F-bombs in the House of Commons. Pro-abortion students tear down pro-life displays; vegan vandals attack butcher shops; mobs of all descriptions disrupt speakers to whom they object; blogsters and their social media shock troops gang up against enemy websites. The once-hallowed notion of tolerance is now seen as a sign of condescension, a traitorous act punishable without evidence or trial.

Civilization is not a natural thing; it is the product of centuries of hard lessons and some of those lessons are compromise, moderation, and a willingness to take turns in power. Insisting on righteous victory at any cost is the greasy slope to violence.