Our progress into degeneracy seems to me to be pretty rapid. As a Nation we began by declaring that all men are created equal, except Negroes.” When the know-nothings get control it will read “all men are created equal except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.” When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty.
-Abraham Lincoln, letter to Joshua F. Speed, 18551
Being something of a creature of the current decade, I expected this passage to devolve into a well-meaning but ill-conceived rant about the decay of American morality. Lincoln was the first Republican president after all. But devolve Lincoln’s letter did not, rather the letter still rings with timely rebuke.
Lincoln seems to have had a rather nuanced view of the founders. And by nuanced I mean a healthy disrespect, which granted him the ability to notice when they were wrong. And, at least on slavery we can agree, wrong, they were. Devastatingly, immorally, stunningly, and inexcusably wrong - yet today we seem quite unwilling to question even our allegiance to the founders and the founding much less criticize and depart from it. Our present politicians seem obsessed with that the founders wanted, we seem to ignore, as Lincoln did not, the imperfection of the founders and the documents that they created.
We should note that, in spite of Lincoln’s lack of capitalization, the “Know Nothings” were a political party of some note at the time. Lincoln rightly notes as should we that a party, or a political system that divides humanity arbitrarily and on some basis disenfranchises or discriminates against those arbitrary groups while claiming to love liberty is more degenerate than a party or polity that at least does not perjure itself professing to “love liberty.”
In our current milieu of paunchy pundits and paid-for politicians we appear to love no such liberty. While plenty of barbs can be sharpened and thrown at one political party with nearly no modification to Lincoln’s letter, the liberty for which there is no love in our present polity is the liberty to disengage the habits of our democracy and find paths forward. On both sides of the aisle we cower, often behind the precedents and practices of the past, hiding from the responsibility to find present solutions to our present problems.
This is exactly the cowardice which Lincoln would later address a Congress more dysfunctional than ours (You think South Carolina is rowdy now, remember when they tried being their own country?) asking them to govern in the present rather than in the past:
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. We must think anew, we must act anew, we must disenthrall ourselves."1
We could use the same council now in every facet of our world, especially in politics, but politics only reflect our society. As we collectively live - so are we governed. By this I don’t mean that we have the government that we deserve, I mean that we have the government that we allow. The corporatization of government that we have allowed, is a natural extension of that corporatization which we have allowed and created in all other aspects of our consumer culture, but that’s a whole different topic. The point is that the solution to our social and political malaise is new thinking, new acting, it is creative. Just as the economy of American industrialization is dying for lack of innovation and evolution (steel belt to rust belt, grain belt to dust belt... I don’t have anything to say about the bible belt) our political system is fraying by the same mechanism. The solutions and habits of the past only worked in the past.
In government and in life creative solutions to life’s pressing problems are persistently prevented when we are preoccupied with precedent. What we need, and what we hope to bring to the table is a perspective free and a place to learn and discuss free from dogma.
Part of the solution will be a safe place to think, discuss and plan. A lyceum that we create together where we can bring novel thought to our persistent present problems.
1All quotes are from Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years - Vol. 1 by Carl Sandberg.
As principal of tenlitre, Arthur writes, records, builds, and analyzes anything and everything that clients might need. When that's not occupying his time he's charging around the Wasatch Range on skis, bikes, foot, or a rope with his wife... or herding their two monochromatic kittens.
Are we doomed?
Are we doomed to repeat ad infinitum our cycles of know-nothingness, do-nothing shirking, and rose-tinted nostalgia? Whether you reference Edmund Burke (1729-1797) — "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it" — or more recently George Santayana (1863-1952) — "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" — it all amounts to the same thing: we never seem to learn. Vietnam to Irag, congress in the mid 19th century and congress now, those fighting the establishment of the National Park Service and those wanting to sell off our public lands today, etc., etc., etc. Despite all that, with all the bruises and band aids, all the zeniths and nadirs on the rollercoaster of the good fight, I am in the end reassured: the march of Progress is ever forward! Though, we must work to ensure that.