We are dining at Belshazzar’s feast, and it is time to heed the writing on the wall. In Chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel, the Babylonian ruler Belshazzar’s meal is interrupted by a disembodied hand that writes, "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin." Balschazzar calls in the Jewish sage Daniel, who tells him that the words mean (in the King James version), "God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. . . . Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting," Thy kingdom [shall be] divided . . . "
In this riveting biblical story the sage is trying to tell the king of the threat of division and ruin. That, of course, is where we, as a nation, are now — facing the starkest political divide in America, perhaps since the Civil War itself. It is no coincidence that we find ourselves suddenly dramatically divided over that earlier conflict, as a constant chant is now heard demanding the obliteration of monuments to one side in that Civil War.
It is a refrain of the politically correct, insisting that a part of our history, of our heritage, indeed of who we are, simply be obliterated.
This is done with what the would-be silencers regard as the best of motives, since they see the Civil War as a pellucid struggle between slave-owners (the South) and those who would free the slaves (the North). The conflict, though, was about much more than that, and involved fundamental questions of the nature of our Constitutional system.
The struggle of the 1860’s was terrible, with a loss of life difficult to fathom. Still out of that national cataclysm, and that nation divided by war, emerged a stronger union, one that began the slow process of correcting the painful false start of slavery.
We can celebrate that, and still be troubled by divisive debates about statues. Taking down a statute of General Lee won’t give anyone the cheap grace of guilt-free absolution from historical wrongs, still less an excuse to vent their hatred on others. Lee in particular represents a useful lesson too little seen in America, the idea of tragedy, that honorable people are sometimes driven to play their role to the bitter end. Understanding that is a sign of moral maturity.
Life, society, and democracy cannot be captured by a politically correct ideology that seeks to muzzle its critics by dismissing them as irredeemably evil, and refuses to understand those who represent an older religious and moral tradition. By shutting off debate, this dominant philosophy of our time creates hardened divisions that result in outbursts like those we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia.
It is a cause for great concern when a chief executive, who was elected on a platform of moving beyond the politically correct, and who seeks to remind us that no one side in our political conflicts has a monopoly on virtue, is branded a bigot. Small wonder, then, that it becomes nearly impossible to arrive at compromise and bipartisan solutions to the difficult issues of immigration, healthcare, taxes and infrastructure that must be confronted if this country is to remain the hope of the world and our government is to continue to provide for the general welfare.
We enjoy abundance and material prosperity of a kind unparalleled in human history, but we remain with the foibles that humans have always possessed. Moreover, unless we want to see our nation once again riven as it was in the 1860’s, we ought to understand that, just as Balshazzar learned, wallowing in materiality, an untrammeled arrogance and pride lead to disaster.
Mr. Trump deserves a chance to succeed, and the program on which he attained his office ought to be entitled as least to be tried. Just as we all must still struggle to learn the lessons of the past, and, where we can, rise above them, we won’t master those lessons by silencing those with whom we disagree.
Democracy, Russell Kirk reminded us "is the fruit of public discussion, not its seed." By this he understood that a robust public debate will preserve popular sovereignty, but if we seek to obliterate those with views unpalatable to us, we will eventually lose self-government itself. That’s something those who voted for Mr. Trump were trying to tell us, and something his opponents have yet to grasp.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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