Friday, November 24, 2017

Fundamental and astounding

Presidential nominee, 1860, via The History Place.
David Brooks has finally come up with an idea for that new national narrative he's been talking about, I think, and it's a doozy ("America: The Redeemer Nation"), custom made for Thanksgiving: just as he's suggested in the past that Jews ought to celebrate Shavuot on Passover instead of Passover, so on Thanksgiving he's celebrating Lincoln's Second Inaugural address.

The story of America, then, can be interpreted as a series of redemptions, of injury, suffering and healing fresh starts. Look at the mottos on our Great Seal: “A New Order for the Ages” and “Out of Many, One.” In the 18th century divisions between the colonists were partially healed. In the 19th century divisions between the free and enslaved were partially healed. In the 20th, America partially healed the divisions between democracy and totalitarianism. In the 21st, we have healing fresh starts still to come.
The great sermon of redemption and reconciliation is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.
That's such a bizarre picture of the Revolution, in the first place, "divisions between the colonists", as if the British government had nothing to do with it. It's true that some 15%-20% of the Americans nominally supported the Crown, though they never came out to fight in anywhere near the numbers the British hoped they would.

Nor is it in any sense true that "After the revolution, we quickly became allies with Britain," as Brooks puts it in an earlier paragraph. "We" were on the point of going back to war with them when war broke out between Britain and France in 1793, and the John Jay treaty in 1794 set up a period of neutrality which began growing into more and more of a cold war after Jefferson's election in 1800 and ultimately hot war in 1812. Britain came close to siding with the Confederacy in 1861, and relations remained bad until 1895 and the beginning of the "Great Rapprochement". It was touch and go for a while whether the US would side with Britain or Germany in the Great War, and the "Special Relationship" we've had throughout the memory of most of us only dates back to 1940.

Even weirder to picture the 19th-century contest as a division between "the free and enslaved", as if the Union and Lincoln himself didn't exist. Without wishing to minimize the resistance of enslaved black people through the 18th and 19th centuries, they were, you know, enslaved, and couldn't do much to end it until the states of the South rebelled after the Republican victory of 1860, and the United States government and armed forces entered the struggle (with the help of many self-liberated African Americans), fighting not against enslaved people but their enslavers. And when Brooks suggests that the divisions of that era were "partly healed" I'm not sure what he's talking about, unless its's the decision on the part of Republicans 11 years after the war ended to throw their radical faction away and to ease up on the defeated whites of the Confederacy, taking out the occupying troops and permitting a little bit of enslavement to be restored, in the form of ignoring the hard-won 14th- and 15th-Amendment rights of the former slaves for the next 90 years.

I can see the point, at least in familiar cliché terms, of talking about a struggle between democracy and two different totalitarianisms engaged alternatively for most of the 20th century, that of the right most of the time during the Second World War in alliance with communistis, and that of the left otherwise in alliance with fascists, but pretty sure I never signed up for a "partial healing" where my side agreed with Hitler or with Stalin or one of their successors not to be so darn democratic all the time, if that's what he's saying, and if it isn't I'd like to know what it is.

Driftglass says

which may be true, or it may just be the most Surrealist one, in the sense of automatic writing, where he's not monitoring what he's saying at all, and allowing something very strange to emerge from his unconscious. There's certainly something very peculiar that comes early on in the piece, in the use of the word "realistically":

if you are under 45, you were probably taught an American history that, realistically, emphasizes division — between the settlers and the natives, Founders and their slaves, bosses and the workers, whites and people of color. It’s harder for many today to believe this is a promised land. It seems promised for the privileged few but has led to marginalization for the many.
Make that "if you are under 45 or if you've ever studied any history beyond the 10th-grade Anti-Communism syllabus", but it's realistic in the sense that, as Brooks seems to be acknowledging, these divisions truly have existed throughout our history, and that progress in reducing them seems to have reversed as more and more people have been marginalized with the increase in structural inequality over the last four or five decades. The "national narrative" Brooks is calling for is going to be one that isn't true, on purpose:

We once had a unifying national story, celebrated each Thanksgiving. It was an Exodus story. Americans are the people who escaped oppression, crossed a wilderness and are building a promised land. The Puritans brought this story with them. Each wave of immigrants saw themselves in this story. The civil rights movement embraced this story.
But we have to admit that many today do not resonate with this story. This story was predicated on the unity of the American people. 
It's the story where there was no oppression once you got to our sacred shores; you just did whatever you wanted. The Puritans feasted with the Indians, and nobody ever felt their land had been stolen, or got genocidally slaughtered, not to mention practicing your own religion without hindrance to the extent that you could execute those who wanted to practice it a somewhat different way, and the immigrants just went to work without hindrance and got comfortably rich in a generation or two, and the civil rights movement wasn't a struggle either, as if slavery and Jim Crow had been an altogether different country, not this one in which we're all united.

It's a story Brooks knows to be false—as he knows his version of the Exodus omits the forty years of aimless wandering and furious internal struggle between idolators and iconoclasts, between the leaders and the populace, between a constantly enraged God and the entire nation—if you think it was "predicated on the unity" of the Hebrew people you really need to take another look at that sucker. It's a unity that never existed, even during that blessed week in 1776 (William Franklin, Benjamin's bastard son and the ci-devant governor of New Jersey, was in prison in Connecticut at the time, for leaking the revolutionaries' secrets to the authorities in London, and once he was out of stir in 1778 would take military leadership of a fifth-column effort to restore the Crown government). He wants it to be accepted as true, not because it's true, but because he believes that will create the unity the story imagines.

And it's not the story that fails to resonate with us, it's we who fail to resonate with the story, how weird is that? We're to blame for our stiffnecked refusal to believe this Big Rock Candy Mountain fairy story (Goldene Medina in Yiddish, Gauh Gamsaan/舊金山 or "Old Gold Mountain" in Cantonese).

The narratives that appeal today are predicated on division and disappointment. The multicultural narrative, dominant in every schoolhouse, says that America is divided into different biological groups and the status of each group is defined by the oppression that it has suffered. The populist narrative, dominant in the electorate, says that America is divided between the virtuous common people and the corrupt and stupid elites.
Every word there is false too. It's true that stories of oppression are finally getting told in "schoolhouses", but if there's a "multicultural narrative" it is in absolute opposition to the idea of a population divided into biologically distinct groups (we say these differences are socially constructed; racists say they're biologically different), and it's not about past oppression (something that Brooks may prefer to think was magically disappeared in 1965) but oppression often based in past history but continuing into the present. There's also something quite wrong with using that line about the "virtuous common people" vs. the "corrupt and stupid elites" as an adequate descriptor for Trumpism, when it's an only somewhat false story somewhat believed by most of us (our views of who's common and virtuous being as wildly variant as our views of who's an elite), at least as archetypically American as that Exodus thing (Brooks was using practically the same language to describe Occupy Wall Street in 2011).

Also, if it's Trumpism, it's certainly not "dominant in the electorate". If he's talking about last year's election Trumpism was dominant in the Electoral College, an institution predicated on ignoring the electorate in favor of congressional districts, yielding an elector for every 189,433 people in Wyoming, and one for every 225,302 people in North Dakota and one for every 511,661 in Connecticut and every 651,750 in Florida and every 678,945 in California, so that states inhabited mostly by elk or prairie dogs outweigh states densely packed with humans and voters.

As to the new national narrative embodied by Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, March 4 1865, it's lunatic bothsiderism, read by Brooks as urging the Confederacy and the Union to reconcile by forgiving each other:

Lincoln sets the course for mutual forgiveness, not the cheap forgiveness that carries no weight but the kind that contains all the stages of proper rigorous forgiveness: mercy, judgment, confession, penitence, reconciliation and re-trust.
Let's note the historical context here, since Brooks naturally doesn't, of the fact that Congress had just approved the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, turning the question over to the several state legislatures, of which 18 of the necessary 27 had already ratified it (including two ex-Confederate states, Virginia and Louisiana, now occupied by Union forces and ruled by Reconstruction governments), and that the war was still not over, though the Confederate forces bottled up in bits of Virginia and North Carolina no longer had any hope of winning. Lincoln's speech is designed to tell them it's over, and the longer they hold out, the worse it will be for them.

The speech is a great reconciling speech. The words recurring through it are “we” and “all.” “All thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it … Both parties deprecated war.”
But Lincoln distinguishes his own and the Northerners' earnest efforts to avoid war from the Southerners' insidious attempts to get their way without it, and blames the South for preferring war to the continued existence of the Union, and condemns it (correctly) as the aggressor:
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
That is, he begins, contrary to Brooks's claims, by denouncing the Confederacy as responsible for the war that "all" sought to avoid.

This is a speech of tremendous intellectual humility. None of us anticipated this conflict, or its magnitude. All of us “looked for an easier triumph.” None of us are fully in control. “Let us judge not that we be not judged.”
Deeply misreading the asymmetry of the outcome Lincoln is talking about, in what was or wasn't anticipated, so unexpectedly in the abolitionists' favor; where they had not dared to hope for more than preventing the extension of slavery into the northwest, after four years of war they had embarked on eliminating it forever:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding
The Confederacy has already lost more than it imagined, the abolitionist group won more.

This is a speech of great moral humility. Slavery, Lincoln says, was not a Southern institution, it was an American institution, weaving through our common history for 250 years. The scourge of war, which purges this sin, falls on both sides. Lincoln fought any sense of self-righteous superiority the Northerners might harbor. He rejected any thought that God is a tribal God. He put us all into the same category of ambiguity and fallenness.
I can't begin to understand where Brooks is getting this theory from. Lincoln was completely clear that the evil was in the South, and completely willing to blame the war-making on the South as well.
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.
Brooks may conceivably think that the "peculiar and powerful interest" was the slave lobby, but that didn't exist; what Lincoln is referring to is the slaveholders' interest. As to God and God's judgment, he knows what side he's on; we are commanded not to judge those who are obviously wrong (like slaveholders who ask God to help them in their criminal exploitation), but they still have to be defeated, at all costs:
It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered.... If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
God may have given the war to "both North and South", but God knows who is suffering the most, the land of the bondsman and the whip-ready overseer, which is the land where slavery has been maintained and where the war has been primarily fought, and in the meantime, prayers for peace and all, Lincoln will never give up while he lives, and the Union will win this unexpected battle for abolition in the end no matter what.

The idea that this is a speech about "mutual forgiveness:" is just crazy; Lincoln doesn't suggest that there's anything the Union needs to be forgiven for, and all but says something he'd never have said four years earlier, that God is on the Union side. In the last analysis, I don't think I can say what Brooks is up to, but it couldn't be more wrong. We may indeed need a new national story, but it might work better if it was at least a little less fictional than that. He's not using the narrativium, he's smoking it.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

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