Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Comity

Alan Jacobs reviews Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the struggle for America's Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. Jacobs writes "Andrew Delbanco narrates this history in lucid prose and with a moral clarity that is best described as terrifying. It is not easy to look upon the long march of the nation towards war, and even harder to look upon the suffering of American slaves during that march—and not just slaves. .... You read all this with a feeling of rising horror, and not just because of the physical and mental and spiritual suffering. You feel that horror also because it becomes increasingly difficult, as the story progresses, to imagine how even the worst of the pain could have been avoided. ...."
One of the most admirable features of this truly great book is the subtlety with which Delbanco considers his story’s applicability to our own moment. Throughout the narrative proper he remains silent about the implications—except to note that the consequences of slavery for America’s black people persist to this day. But at the end of the introduction he quotes a passage written by the historian Richard Hofstadter in 1968 about comity—consideration of others, mutual regard. “Comity exists in a society,” Hofstadter writes, when “one party or interest seeks the defeat of an opposing interest on matters of policy, but at the same time seeks to avoid crushing the the opposition, denying the legitimacy of its existence or its values, or inflicting upon it extreme and gratuitous humiliations beyond the substance of the gains that are being sought.” Comity is present when “the basic humanity of the opposition is not forgotten; civility is not abandoned; the sense that a community life must be carried on after the acerbic issues of the moment have been fought over and won is seldom very far out of mind; an awareness that the opposition will someday be the government is always present.”

But how can one tell whether comity is present in one’s own society? “The reality and the value of comity can best be appreciated when we contemplate a society in which it is almost completely lacking.” The War Before the War describes how the United States of America, in the period between the composing of the Constitution and the outbreak of civil war, became such a society. And this happened not only because of wicked people who supported a wicked system—though Lord knows there were plenty of those—but also because so many Americans lost the ability to see the moral legitimacy of any proposed remedy of that wickedness other than the one they themselves embraced.

It seems clear, to me at any rate, that our society has not yet abandoned comity altogether. But the choice to do so presents itself to us with increasing force, at least if we watch television or participate in social media. I would only suggest that it is not too late to refuse that choice—and that the costs of accepting it can be very, very high.