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Brunch Sampler: Peter Gilbert Brunch Sampler_122612_Gilbert.mp3

(Host) This week we're featuring a Sampler of some of the essays recorded live at the Commentator Brunch earlier this year. For commentator Peter Gilbert, the theme - When Worlds Collide - was all about the Civil War.

(Gilbert) I'm Peter Gilbert and this is called, Emotions versus Reason and Reality.

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Actually,the laws of physics make that an impossibility. Something, as they say,has to give.

OK, but what happens if a nearly irresistible force meets an extraordinarily intractable object? The answer - a cataclysm of heat, noise, light, and motion.

One hundred and fifty years ago, our nation was in the midst of a bloody civil war brought on when emotions and rhetoric ran ahead of reason and reality, and when one side considered compromise impossible. Or at least unacceptable.

Partly due to impassioned editorials in the southern press and incendiary assertions in state legislatures and Congress, many Southerners became convinced that President-elect Lincoln and the Republicans were set on abolishing slavery. This despite repeated and emphatic protestations to the contrary. In his Inaugural Address, Lincoln even said he would support a constitutional amendment that guaranteed the perpetuation of slavery forever in the states where it existed. But he would not agree to slavery expanding into the territories.

Not good enough. I don't believe it, said the South. Lincoln is really a closet abolitionist. Lincoln wants to take away our slaves. The Federal government has acted unconstitutionally in numerous ways. And so states seceded.

How could this happen? Ina special address to Congress four months after taking office, Lincoln said that secessionist leaders had persuaded otherwise patriotic Americans to take up arms against their government by convincing them of something that wasn't true. They invented, he said, an ingenious sophism, a false argument
intentionally used to deceive. The sophism was that secession is neither rebellion nor treason because states could lawfully withdraw from the Union any time they wanted. This was neither true nor even logical. But with passions running high, southern leaders were successful, Lincoln asserted, in what he called (in an extraordinary phrase) an insidious debauching of the public mind. The result was between six and eight hundred thousand dead and a tear in this nation's social and political fabric that's still evident a century and half later.

Sometimes - perhaps often - we all believe things because they fortify other opinions we hold or justify feelings we have. But overheated rhetoric and incendiary assertions have consequences. Yes, they sell newspapers and advertising; but whenever incendiary assertions mislead or make compromise impossible, they damagethe nation and its ideals.

See the When Worlds Collide main page.


Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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