Words To Ponder

Ulysses S. Grant was a truly remarkable general during the Civil War. After several of his generals failed to win a single battle in the first years of the war, Lincoln heard about a general in the West who was winning in stunning fashion. He considered bringing the general East and putting him in charge of the Army of the Potomac which was gun-shy and had a habit of losing. He was warned that the man was a drinker and he famously said, “Find out what he is drinking and give some to the rest of my generals.” The rest, as they say, is history. Grant went on to defeat the man whom many regard as an even greater general than he was.

In the event, Grant became President of the United States. As is often the case with the “Peter Principle” it happened that a person who was good in one position demonstrated after promotion that he was not very good at another. In a word, his presidency was repleat with scandals and Grant was at best a fair and middling president, great general though he was.

But he was brilliant and a wordsmith whose battle-field commands to his troops were written with remarkable clarity and who was able late in life, at the urging of his good friend Mark Twain, to write his Personal Memoirs which are regarded as an example of the highest expression of the writer’s craft. His words not only sounded and read well, they made sense. Unlike a president whose name will not be mentioned, the man could make his ideas crystal clear and his ideas were worth pondering.

A good friend of mine is currently reading a biography of Grant written by Ron Chernow and he was so impressed by a passage in the biography he sent it to me and I would like to share it with you. If nothing else, it provides a sharp contrast to the outpourings of words that comes forth from the Oval Office these days. But it provides a great deal more. It provides ideas worth pondering.

Note that when Grant talks about “free schools” he is talking about public education which has lately come under fire and is blamed by many for the growing number of shortcomings this country has experienced. Indeed, there are those on the right of the political spectrum who would eliminate public education altogether and insist that the government subsidize private schools.  Many of those are of the “spiritually certain” persuasion who insist upon melding in mysterious ways church and state. Grant opposed both. Chernow begins with a quote from Grant:

“‘The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation.’ He affirmed that in the near future, ‘the dividing line will not be Mason & Dixon but between patriotism, & intelligence on the one side & superstition, ambition & ignorance on the other.’ He wound up with an eloquent appeal for separating church and state: ‘Encourage free schools and resolve that not one dollar of money appropriated to their support no matter how raised, shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school … Leave the matter of religion to the family circle, the church & the private school support[ed] entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and the state forever separate.’”

Let’s focus on the initial comment: “The free [public] school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation.” This strikes me as a penetrating observation as it brings together two ideas that are often found far apart: the preservation of a free society and the education of the young. The founders knew, as did Grant, that these two must be bound together and protected against erosion from special interests, greed, and the lust for power. The latter forces are taking over in this country as we find increasing evidence that our young people are not intelligent (on the whole) and the schools are failing while defending themselves from demands that they be all things to all people — and do so for little or no money.

It is time for us to face the fact that this country will not survive as a Republic if the education system is not radically overhauled. This will require at the very least that the teachers who are overworked and under-compensated be paid an attractive salary and at the same time that the Education Establishment (smilingly referred to as the “Blob”) acknowledges that the system is not working. Compared with tiny Finland, for example, the United States is failing its children. Period. Full stop. The teachers in Finland are rewarded for their efforts and the best and brightest college graduates seek jobs in the classroom whereas in this country we attract the students from the lower third of the student population in our public colleges and universities. Teaching doesn’t pay in America and it lacks prestige. This is not a formula for success.

Education must be a top priority in a country where athletes earn obscene amounts of money and teachers must work in the Summers simply to make ends meet. There is no question that were the priorities of this government different a great deal of money might be spent healing the wounds in public education instead of, say, building a wall separating this country from Mexico. The money is there. We simply choose to spend it on wall-building and what we like to call “defense.” But we need to defend ourselves against ignorance which is the greater threat to this country and to the ideals that have made it great.

Let us, indeed, make America great again. Let us inject lifeblood into a sick and weakened education system which we require to “preserve us as a nation.”

 

 

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“Sierra” Revisited

I recently posted much of an editorial by the editor-in-chief of the “Sierra” magazine who spoke with conviction about the seriousness of the upcoming election. In the same issue of that magazine (September/October 2016) Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club had an equally compelling editorial, which I shall copy in part below:

“. . . American democracy is under attack.

We’ve seen unregulated campaign funding corrode our political process. Legislatures are mired in bitter, partisan deadlock. We’ve watched Republican leaders tout voting restrictions as a mechanism to ensure electoral victory, while millions (often in low-income neighborhoods) wait for hours in line to vote. And — most incredible of all — the party whose very first nominee for president was Abraham Lincoln has now chosen an unapologetically misogynist racist to be its standard bearer. Today, Lincoln’s first inaugural address and its appeal to ‘the better angels of our nature’ would be met with sneering tweets.

“How does this affect the environment? Profoundly. President Donald Trump would be the worst setback for the environmental movement since . . .well, I can’t think of anything that compares. For those who remember the 80s, Trump  makes James Watt look like Johnny Appleseed. If you care about the environment, our nation, or the future of the planet, this presidential election will be your most important vote ever.

“And yet, embattled though our democracy may be, I’m optimistic about its future. That’s because American politics and American democracy are not the same thing. One may yet save the other.

“In 1943 the great New Yorker essayist E.B. White . . .wrote ‘[democracy] is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half  the people are right more than half the time.’

“What White was getting at, I think, is that our democracy is more than a system of governance devised by a fractious committee of rebellious colonists. Our democracy has always been shaped by our national character. It encompasses our rejection of pretension, our common decency, our fierce belief in fair play, and our stubborn optimism. . . .

“. . . . There’s another reason to be optimistic. The only way our democracy could truly fail is if we lose our faith in the future. Giving up hope only feeds the darkness. If failure’s not an option — and it isn’t — then neither is pessimism.”

Wise words. And his point that our vote in this presidential election is the most important vote we will ever cast is especially well stated. As Bernie Sanders has said repeatedly, this is NOT the year to think about reform. Much as that is needed, the defeat of a candidate who has repeatedly demonstrated his gross incompetence and ignorance is the top priority for anyone who cares about this country and not just about themselves. It cannot be stressed too much: our choice this November is between sanity and insanity.

 

 

 

 

Colin’s Sit-Down

I admit it: I have never been a huge Colin Kaepernick fan. I don’t like all the tattoos and I have thought him a bit of a doofus when he has spoken to the media — like so many of his fellow N.F.L. players. Colin is, of course, the wannabe  quarterback of the San Fransisco Forty-Niners football team. Before the last two pre-season football games he has refused to stand during the national anthem as a protest  against what he perceives as injustices in this country, particularly injustices involving minorities. He also includes in his protest, as I understand it, the inaction of those paid to “serve and protect” the minorities and other disadvantaged persons. This topic has been very nicely discussed in a recent post by Jill Dennison that I reblogged. It is well worth reading.

The interesting thing about Colin’s protest is that the protest itself has drawn more attention (and ire) than the injustices it is directed against. It is seen by many as unpatriotic despite the fact that the First Amendment of our Constitution guarantees each of us the right to speak our minds and express ourselves as we see fit. I would argue that he is being a bit of a rebel in the true American spirit. This country is guilty of a great many injustices against minorities, increasingly of late. And we have seen the police reluctant to step in and even to over-react when they do step in. Theirs is a difficult role to play in neighborhoods where the tempers are at the boiling point and violence is just a word away. I don’t envy them in the least.

But the fact that this young man would choose to draw attention to a situation that needs to be addressed should be applauded, not condemned. It takes great courage these days to stand up for what one believes, and for that alone Kaepernick is to be praised. Whether or not his action will have the desired effect is doubtful, and there is always the possibility that it will have a reverse effect — especially in today’s political climate. But as an action in protest of an injustice it is not to be condemned as “unpatriotic.” After all, the flag he chooses to refuse to salute does represent his right to protest. And the actions he is protesting against are not those of a country that prides itself on taking and holding the moral high ground.

As a nation we have much to answer for of late and we have never fully accepted the equality of the races. Lincoln thought we never would. And with a major politician with a mouth far too large raising temperatures and tempers around the country, waiving red flags in front of bigots and racists, the injustices Kaepernick is protesting against become all too visible.

We need to pause and reflect just what it is this country stands for. If for no other reason, Colin Kaepernick is to be lauded for his stand.

Corporate Power

One of the major issues facing this nation, and one which I have addressed several times on this blog, is that of the immense power of the corporations and their determination to take control of this government. It goes without saying that we are becoming an oligarchy, if that ship hasn’t already sailed. The wealthy hold the reins of power. The real strength of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy is his determination to take control away from the corporations and return it to the people — where it should reside. Our democracy is under attack and most of the citizens of this country are totally unaware of this fact. If they pay any attention to politics they simply want do move away from “politics as usual,” a sentiment I strongly share. But the real problem, the elephant in the room, is the unfettered power of major corporations.  The following comments from a site called macintosh reader.com show that this is not a new problem:

If the populace ever had true control of the US government, they lost it shortly after the nation’s founding. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people, we have the finest government money can buy.

In 1816 Thomas Jefferson said:
I hope we shall … crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

In 1864 Abraham Lincoln said:
I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country … corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.

In 1947 George Seldes said in One Thousand Americans:
The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling power. Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing.

In 1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower said:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Since the founding of this nation, prominent thinkers such as those above have warned about the unrestricted power of the corporations. Lincoln’s comment is particularly prescient. The Supreme Court decision Citizens United determined that corporations are legal persons and entitled to the same rights and privileges as you and I. This decision opened the coffers of the corporations who have untold treasure and are throwing it at political candidates right and left in an obvious attempt to buy the government. Sanders is perfectly correct, but the real question is whether he can get enough popular support to stem the tide and return this country to some semblance of what the Founders envisioned.

Related to that, as I have noted in previous blogs, is whether a Democratic Congress would have enough courage to support Bernie in some of his more radical innovations (such as taxing the wealthy!).  It seems doubtful given the number of politicians the corporations already own. A Hillary presidency seems a real possibility given the support that she has within her own party and the fact that she is not much of a threat to the corporations.  So, instead of a return to true democratic principles where the people run the government, it appears we will continue to snail along toward a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.

 

Lincoln’s Hope

Perhaps the most famous speech Abraham Lincoln ever penned was the Gettysburg Address which only took a few minutes to deliver but which encapsulated the whole of what Lincoln believed the Civil War was all about. We have all heard it numerous times and as school children many of us had to memorize it. But I wonder how many people have read it slowly and pondered what Lincoln is really saying? Let’s consider the ending of the brief address where Lincoln notes that

“. . .It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that, government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Beautiful words. Pure poetry, like so many of Lincoln’s speeches. But, more to the point, it embraced the core of what Lincoln was convinced the war was being fought to protect — to wit, popular government, government of, by, and for the people. Not only is this conviction repeated twice in this brief Address, it permeated Lincoln’s speeches and correspondence throughout his presidency from the time he was elected until his terrible end. He was very much aware that he was himself  “of the people.”  During his presidency he awoke one morning and laughed (as he was often inclined to do) at a thought he had during the night. He had been called “common” in one of the many newspapers he read and he awoke with the perfect rejoinder: “Well I guess I am common, but God must love the common people because he made so many of us.” That was Lincoln. Each week, on Tuesdays, he opened the White House doors and stood for hours shaking hands with the “common people” to remind himself who he was and where he came from. A poor man with little education who worked by the sweat of his brow until he could raise himself by his own bootstraps to join a law firm and begin to practice law before entering politics.

When the war broke out, even before Lincoln had a chance to make the White House his home, he knew the war had to be fought to preserve the Union. As the months went by it became clear that it was really about slavery and the freedom of four million people who were being bought and sold in this country and denied their fundamental humanity. He became increasingly sympathetic with the slaves’ plight and stressed that their rights had also been guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence which loudly declared, in Jefferson’s words, that “all men are created equal.”  And all must share the burden of self-government. He knew full well that America was the world’s first and most fragile experiment in popular government, built from the ground up, an experiment that would determine whether or not humans could govern themselves. This was what the war was all about in Lincoln’s mind. This was what his presidency was all about. This is what 630,000 men died to guarantee, as Lincoln saw it.

In light of these reflections on the thoughts of perhaps the greatest president this country has ever had — and assuredly one of the most extraordinary human beings of all time, the man Ulysses S. Grant called “the greatest man I ever knew”– it is deeply disturbing to acknowledge that today this grand experiment in popular government appears to be on the brink of failure. The “people” are now far removed from the seat of power and seem unconcerned; they care not that they have little or nothing to say about the machinations of an inept group of men and women in the Congress who are, for the most part, placed in office by wealthy special interests determined to see that their own private agendas are realized. Lincoln’s hope of a government of, by, and for the people — people like those who tramped all over Mary’s beautiful carpets in their muddy shoes at the Lincolns’ open houses — has become a government run by the corporations and a handful of wealthy individuals who give no thought whatever to the common people who are central to what this country is all about and worry only about their profits.

To be sure, something has gone terribly wrong. Dare we hope that at some point the people will realize what has been taken away from them and will rise up and take it back? Or have they been successfully benumbed by the entertainment industry to the point where they know all about, say, “deflate-gate” but nothing whatever about Watergate? To be sure, there are scattered pockets of concerned citizens and  a few voices in the Congress that speak for what truly matters. Let us hope they are heard by increasing numbers of people and that what they have to say somehow brings this country back to what our forefathers intended this country to be — a government of the people, by the people, and for the people that shall not perish from the earth.

Right Or Wrong?

One of my favorite episodes of the excellent British detective series “Foyle’s War,” which takes place during World War II, involves the master detective in a moral  dilemma. He has caught the man who murdered a German woman, the wife of a wealthy English landowner. The evidence is overwhelming, but the problem is that the murderer is a naval officer who is working with the British navy to crack German codes. He is one of the few men in the country who has the background to make it possible for his country to achieve this, and if he does he will save countless British lives. He puts it squarely to Foyle who is faced with the moral dilemma: arrest the man for murder (of a woman who was, after all, German), or let him go to continue to work on the codes that may save lives. He arrests the man. It’s who Foyle is: he is convinced that even in wartime it is only the law that separates us from barbarians such as the Nazis they are fighting and he has sworn to uphold the law.

This is a most interesting moral dilemma and it gives rise to the question: Did Foyle do the right thing or did he not? Whatever we decide in this case, we cannot determine that he BOTH did the right thing AND he did the wrong thing. It’s either/or. Ultimately, all moral dilemmas are of the same type: it’s not possible for there to be an answer that is both right and wrong at the same time and the same respect — any more than it is possible for my computer to be both a computer and a telephone at the same time and the same respect.

The problem is that in our age a great many people deny that moral issues are like computers and telephones. The common view is that ethics is all a matter of opinion and when it comes to opinions you have yours and I have mine. This is, of course, true, but irrelevant. Our opinions are simply the starting point, not the end, of discussion.  Someone who has never watched a tennis match may have an opinion about who will win the match they are now watching. But that opinion doesn’t count for much, because the person knows nothing about tennis. In the case before us we may have our opinions, but the answer — somewhere out there — is that Foyle either did the right thing to arrest the murderer or he did not.

In a seemingly unrelated topic, Abraham Lincoln wrote what has come to be called a “Meditation” during the Civil War that was only recently published. He was wrestling with the question why God was permitting the war to happen. Ultimately, he was wrestling with the question of free will versus determinism. Regarding the war, which was not going well and eventually cost America 630,000 lives, Lincoln muses thusly:

“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.. . .”

Lincoln picked up the same theme in his Second Inaugural — regarded by many (and himself) as the  best speech he ever wrote. And this suggests that he was still wrestling with the dilemma at the end of the war. And well he should. But he knew one thing: either the North or the South was right in fighting the war, they could not both be right. They might both have been wrong, as Lincoln suggests, but they cannot both be right. It is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact. But it is a fact that we may not be able to make out clearly, groping as we do through a thick mist of bias and confusion with our limited perspective, prejudices, and meager intelligence. From God’s perspective, there is one right and one wrong and perhaps only He knows which is which. So as we struggle to determine which side was in the right we may never see the answer clearly, but we can be certain, as Lincoln was, that one side or the other is right — they cannot both be right. Lincoln expresses this difficulty at the end of his famous Cooper Union Address when he famously says, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” (Italics added).

This is the nature of ethical argument. It parallels arguments that require evidence and careful thought which we might come upon in history (what would have happened if Chamberlain had not been so conciliatory toward Hitler?) or even in the hard sciences (does light consist of waves or particles?). But above all else, ethics is not simply a matter of opinion. Again, Foyle was either right to have arrested the murderer or he was wrong. He cannot be both. Ironically, it is precisely this fact that makes dialogue possible in ethics and takes us beyond the shallow realm of gut feelings and hunches.

Liberal Individualism

British and American political thought arise out of the Enlightenment tradition that places the individual at the center of the political state. For thinkers like John Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and even Thomas Hobbes thinking about politics begins with the individual in what a number of them liked to call a “state of nature.” By placing their emphasis on the individual and beginning the discussion about civic membership with focus on human rights — as opposed to human obligations, which are the other side of human rights — they gave birth to what British MP and author Jesse Norman calls “liberal individualism.” The words, taken in their original meaning, suggest the emphasis of much of contemporary political and even economic thought on the rights of individuals and the notion that the human ideal is one of the self-sufficient individual with complete freedom from the restraints placed on them by civil laws. This thinking permeates much of contemporary political theory by both conservatives and liberals. As Rousseau would have it, the central idea in political thought is the question how a person can obey a law and in doing so remain free — implying that the paramount good in political societies is human freedom. The issue is not what sorts of things a citizen must do in order to become a good citizen and practice what the Greeks called “civic virtue.” The issue focuses almost exclusively on individual rights and freedom, freedom from restraints and the right to do as we want.

This Enlightenment view, as Norman has argued in his excellent book on Edmund Burke, is diametrically opposed to the classical, Greek and Roman view of politics that begins with the notion that human beings are social animals — even, as Aristotle said, political animals — and cannot be taken out of the social context without stripping them of their essential humanity. As Aristotle would have it, society makes possible those things that make Homo sapiens specifically human — such things as law, speech, and morality. A man or a woman taken completely out of the social context that defines them is not fully human: the hermit living alone in a cave is more nearly an animal, struggling to survive, having no ties with others, and lacking in the ability to communicate with others of his kind. Such a person is the imagined man in a “state of nature,” as Burke would have it. And such a man is not one we would want to emulate, one would think. And yet we do, unknowingly, in our adoration of the idea of the individual free to do his or her own thing.

Norman, in his study of Burke, is convinced that this peculiar Enlightenment notion of liberal individualism is the root cause of today’s stress on the self  and the resulting narcissism that permeates our culture and arises largely from viewing the individual in isolation. Much has been lost, in Norman’s view, by ignoring the classical view of human beings as social animals. One of the few thinkers who refused to buy into the Enlightenment view of liberal individualism was Edmund Burke who is usually labelled as a “conservative” thinker even though much of his thought is remarkably in line with such familiar “liberal” or “moderate” politicians as Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. In any event, labels don’t really help us to comprehend where a person stands on complex philosophical and political issues, and the term “conservative” may be the least helpful label of all. It is certainly the case, for example, that Burke would be appalled by the behavior of so many self-styled “conservatives” in America who pursue self-interest and unlimited wealth without any consideration whatever for the obligations they have as citizens.  Norman puts it well in the final paragraph of his rather laudatory study of Burke when he notes that:

“. . .Burke also questions the present self-image of politics and the media, an empty post-modernism in which there is no truth, but only different kinds of narrative deployed in the service of power. Instead, he offers values and principles that do not change, the sanction of history and moral authenticity of those willing to give up power to principle. He gives us again the lost language of politics: a language of honor, loyalty, duty, and wisdom, which can never be adequately captured in any spreadsheet or economic model. And he highlights the importance of moderate religious observance and moral community as a source of shared norms, and the role of human creativity and imagination in re-enchanting the world and filling it with meaning.”

Those who like to think of themselves as politically conservative would do well to read and ponder the writings of Edmund Burke — as would we all. It is certainly the case that the political landscape is barren at present and would benefit greatly by thinking past profit, power, and personal advancement to the values listed above. And it is certainly the case that we could all benefit from another way of looking at ourselves — not in isolation, free and unfettered, but as members of a body politic and as such concerned about others. Therein may in fact lie true self-realization and even happiness — even, perhaps, true individualism.

res publica and Republicans

Years ago, before the Flood, I reviewed a book written by the Ripon Society. It led me to do some research about that group since the book was well written and struck a comfortable balance between political conservatism and “bleeding heart” liberalism. I confess I find the political middle ground more firm than the ground at either extreme. At the time I wrote the review the society embraced moderate Republicanism. I discovered some interesting things about the group, including the fact that it was the first major Republican organization to support passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, it called for the normalization of relations with China, and the abolition of the military draft.

That was then. That was when the Republican party traced its heritage back to Thomas Jefferson who traced his roots back to Cicero and the republican ideal of the “public thing,” the res publica. The founders all had read their Cicero in Latin, of course, and they tended to idealize the Roman Republic of Cicero’s days when individuals were admonished to put the common good ahead of their own in the name of “public virtue.” It was the ideal Augustine had in mind when he established his monastery which became the model for similar Christian communities throughout Europe: committed to the common good, seeking to control man’s natural wish to put self ahead of the good of all.

But, as I say, that was then: the days of Jefferson, and later Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Today the Republican party is the party of Michele Bachman, Newt Gingrich, the Tea Party, the spiritually certain, Fox News, and the corporations that want to squash the common good in the name of increased profits. And the Ripon Society seems to be leaning precariously to the right these days. It is difficult to see any connection whatever between today’s grasping and greedy Republican party that would trash social and environmental programs in the name of saving a few tax dollars and the Roman ideal. The idea of the common good has disappeared behind a stinking cloud of greed and self-interest, the very thing Cicero tried so hard to prevent. And yet these people claim to be “Republicans.”

The Republican party is not alone in its preoccupation with greed and self-interest, of course. Both parties are in the pockets of the corporations and tend to ignore the commonwealth as they push their own agendas — whatever those might be. But on balance, the Democratic party tends to care about people above profits — as a general rule — even as it seeks to solve all problems by throwing money at them. So for all its shortcomings, the Democratic party does seem more concerned about the common good, more concerned about the welfare of others and the survival of the planet. However, the more adept members of this party become at playing the political game (and they seem to be learning quickly) the farther they will remove themselves from Cicero’s ideal of the res publica, the public thing, the commonwealth. If that ideal is to mean anything again it will require a third party that remains disconnected from corporate wealth and special interests. Don’t hold your breath.

In Abe’s Footsteps

A fascinating article in USA Today (11/29/12) suggests that some members of our Congress have seen the film Lincoln and have learned from it how to do their job. Right! Believe that and I have some farm land in the Everglades that I want to sell you. These people clearly do not know how to do their job and watching a Hollywood film isn’t going to solve the problem. It’s called “grid lock,” and our government has a bad case of it. The framers had one eye on the English system of government when they were writing our Constitution; they should have kept both eyes on their model. Unlike the English, we are unable to call time-out and hold new elections when the government reaches an impasse such as the one they are stuck on at present. Lincoln to the rescue!

Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill) is convinced he learned valuable lessons from the film — which depicts Lincoln’s struggles to get the Congress to agree to the Emancipation Proclamation. “We want to prove that democracy is not chaos,” he said on MSNBC recently. “That’s what we have to prove to this generation.” Hot Damn!!  This is exciting stuff, though it is not clear who the “we” refers to. The film needs to be required of all members of Congress. It’s not sufficient that Dick and a couple of his friends saw the movie.

As we all know the Congress is facing a crisis, which has been called the “fiscal cliff,” to scare the crap out of the rest of us. The Republicans have pledged themselves not to raise taxes — especially on the wealthy who helped them get elected. On the other hand, the Democrats are unwilling to cut social programs that many see as unnecessary and expensive ways to encourage leeches who know only how to put their hands out and take from the rest of us.  But with their eye on Lincoln and their hearts true as steel, they will soldier on in the knowledge that progress (which “is never made by pure means”) is just around the corner and we will avoid the cliff altogether.

There are any number of problems with all this of course. To begin with, there are those who think the drastic cuts in programs — including “defense” — are essential and would not be a bad thing. And the tax increases are long overdue, especially on the wealthy who may in fact be the ones with their hands out. In any event, there is considerable disagreement among experts as to whether or not we will break our collective neck if we fall over the cliff. It is a gamble, to be sure. But it is not the big hairy monster that has been held up before our eyes to scare us to death. More importantly, Congress shouldn’t have to see a movie about Abraham Lincoln to learn how to do its job. This is ludicrous. But when we reflect that these people for the most part know only how to get themselves elected it stands to reason they might draw a blank when it came to the question: what do I do now?

Lincoln was a genius at working with people he disagreed with. He kept an open mind, had infinite patience, and was willing to listen to opinions that differed from his own. It is not clear that today’s politicians can do any of these things. They seem to spend all their time garnering votes and listening to those who think like themselves; they refuse to open themselves to new ideas. As Martha Moore said in USA Today, “It could be seen as alarming that a movie is needed to remind Washington that legislation requires both leadership and compromise.” Alarming, to be sure. But not surprising when we recall that these people are professional politicians who are loyal to the monied interests that got them elected and are focused almost entirely on the next election. Governing this country is not their primary interest or something they are fully qualified to do — whether or not they watch a film about the greatest president this country ever had.

How Dumb Is That?

When the thirteen colonies were writing their constitutions during the American Revolution, the assumption was that the states could rely on the “public virtue” of its citizens, and the primary concern of the framers of those constitutions was the abuse of power by the executive in each state. Some of the states even refused to give the top executive (who was variously named) any power at all — and all of the states wanted the person in charge either to limit his term in office or to be reelected annually to keep him in check.

By 1787 it was becoming clear to men like James Madison that self-interest was trumping public virtue and the sense of unity that had made a coherent whole out of thirteen disparate colonies during the Revolution was disappearing. The main problem was not abuse of power by the executive in the states, but the unwillingness of the states to take their commitment to the nation as a whole seriously. The states were starting to go their separate directions and it was becoming difficult for the make-shift Congress to regulate commerce and conduct business with foreign powers. As things stood, the Congress had to rely on the cooperation of thirteen states that wanted to focus almost exclusively on problems near at hand. Something had to be done. After several years and the remarkable effort of Madison working with the support of Thomas Jefferson across the pond and John Jay and James Monroe at home, the result was the Federal Constitution. How on earth they were able to get the separate states to agree to a Constitution that would create a federal power greater than the power the separate states would retain is truly extraordinary.

When the Southern states later started to break off from the Union, Abraham Lincoln drew on the ideas of Madison in his attempts to preserve the Union against the separatism that was growing in strength. The Civil War, as we know, was not fought over slavery but over the preservation of a union of states that would otherwise be powerless in a world where bellicose nations threatened on every side. The idea of a separate Confederation of Southern states was no more practical in the nineteenth century than it had been in the eighteenth. A nation divided could not stand, as Lincoln was fond of pointing out. And we now pledge allegiance regularly to “one nation indivisible.”

In this light the current move by at least 20 of these United States to secede from the Union following the reelection of Barack Obama is not only historically blind, it is positively stupid. We know the movement is an exercise in futility on its face and will go nowhere. The President shouldn’t even have to waste his time responding to these fools. But the fact that nearly all of the states that are currently circulating petitions to allow them to secede from the Union are conservative states — the ones in red on the political maps we have become so tired of seeing — is in itself something to note. These states are at the top of the list of those that actually receive more federal monies each year in aid and subsidies than they pay out in taxes. They complain that the Federal Government is a burden and yet they could not survive without it — or the citizens who are busily signing their names to these ridiculous petitions could not.

It is one of the strange phenomena that have bubbled to the surface in recent years that those who complain about the Federal Government’s interference with their “freedoms” are the ones who shout loudest to get the attention of that same government to bail them out or come to their aid in times of trouble. In this case the states that pay the most in Federal taxes and receive the least Federal assistance on a yearly basis are the ones that voted to reelect the current President and give him another four years to help get the country back on its feet. Now there’s irony for you!