Opinion: With Malice Toward None…


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Michael Greenebaum

I have been doing a bit of teaching about racial attitudes among abolitionists and Radical Republicans before and after the Civil War, and it is not a happy study.  Being for or against slavery is one thing; believing in the equality of the races is quite another.  And it is quite easy to draw a straight line between 1865 and 2024, when antagonisms in the world seem quite as driven by hate and disdain as they were a century and a half ago.

I think of two quotations: one, by Mark Schorer I cannot find but I think it was in his study of William Blake – “man is not first of all but last of all a rational animal”  (I would be glad for help in locating this citation, which may be inexact.)  Our rational capacity developed on top of instincts, passions, and appetites that we share with other species and which never disappear.  Much of what we identify as tribalism, the division of the world into “we” and “them” and the dislike or hatred of “them” is rooted in these pre-rational instincts and passions which we all are perhaps more comfortable with than with our rationality.

And the other quotation – which I have borrowed for my title – is from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in March 1865 in which he announced his attitude towards the defeated Southern States and their slavery-based culture.  It is eloquent, admirable, and astonishing.  The idea that the South would view the victorious Union without malice sounds incredibly naive, and perhaps equally naive that the North, with its tremendous loss of life, would feel charitable towards the South.  What did Lincoln have in mind?

We will never know.  A month and a half after his address he was assassinated by a zealous son of the Confederacy.  I am haunted by the question of whether, had he lived, Abraham Lincoln could have carried off the audacious program of generosity his words suggested?  And of course when I ask that question I am asking not about 1865 but about 2024.  And I am asking not only about the Middle East but about Amherst.

This morning (Thursday, May 16) I read an opinion piece by Nick Grabbe celebrating the anniversary of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. I read it in the Indy, although it first appeared on the Amherst Current, which has been the preferred site for Amherst Forward and its supporters to express their views.  Nick’s piece was generous and so was the decision by the Indy to republish his commentary.  True, it was about an issue not currently divisive in Amherst although it certainly is elsewhere.  But Nick did not have to write it and the Indy did not have to republish it.  And I do not want to make too big a deal of it, lest I kill the gleam of hope it engendered. But dare I imagine that here in Amherst the “better angels of our nature” might allow us to build on the compassion that both Nick and the Indy have demonstrated and apply it to the issues which separate us?  We won’t always agree – democracy thrives on disagreement –  but we could perhaps learn to make our disagreement more constructive and less distrustful.  The passion for principle and the courage to compromise might in fact turn out to be two sides of the same coin, as Abraham Lincoln recognized.

Michael Greenebaum was Principal of Mark’s Meadow School from 1970 to 1991, and from 1974 taught Organization Studies in the Higher Education Center at the UMass School of Education.  He served in Town Meeting from 1992, was on the first Charter Commission in 1993, and served on several town committees including the Town Commercial Relations Committee and the Long Range Planning Committee.

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1 thought on “Opinion: With Malice Toward None…

  1. Good one, Michael, and thank you for reminding us all of our better angels. Hetty

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