Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War isn’t going well at all. His young son, Willie, has died, devastating Lincoln and his wife. At night, alone, the President visits the cemetery, retrieves his son’s body from its crypt and holds it in his arms. 

The President doesn’t know it, but he is surrounded by ghosts or spirits. They are denizens of the bardo:

Used loosely, “bardo” is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan [Buddhist] tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena [Wikipedia].

The phenomena the ghosts experience are strange to say the least. Their incorporeal selves take on bizarre shapes, they are merged with other ghostly beings against their will, they enter Lincoln’s body and know his thoughts and memories. They sometimes disappear amid sound and fury, presumably emerging somewhere else. The conversations they have with each other make up most of the novel. 

The more I read Lincoln in the Bardo, the more I enjoyed it. It’s understandable that it won last year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America by Garry Wills

The brilliant author Garry Wills did a public service when he wrote this book about Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”. Chapters on 19th century oratory, the “rural cemetery” movement and Lincoln’s choice of words provide context, but those aren’t the parts of the book that make it important.

Wills’s principal thesis is that Lincoln’s focus on the idea of equality as stated in the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) changed our understanding of the Constitution and America itself:

The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit — as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it. It is this correction of the spirit, this intellectual revolution, that makes attempts to go back beyond Lincoln so feckless. The proponents of states’ rights may have arguments, but they have lost their force, in courts as well as in the popular mind. By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people, dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America (146-147).

As originally written, the Constitution not only accepted the existence of slavery but gave preferential treatment to the slave states. Lincoln, however, forcefully proclaimed that “our new nation” was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. Furthermore, he challenged us to continue “our unfinished work” to insure that America’s government would truly be, by implication, of all the people, by all the people and for all the people. Lincoln’s brief remarks at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a few months after the cataclysmic Battle of Gettysburg, helped make our country a different and better place. Garry Wills’s excellent book explains why and how that happened.

This Passed for a Sermon Tonight

We decided to deliver our own Christmas Eve sermons this year. This was mine:

It was on November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg, that Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, where 3,512 soldiers who died in the battle were still in the process of being buried.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract….

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 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.

Not everyone agreed with Lincoln’s speech. In his book, Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills quotes an article from the Chicago Times published a few days after Lincoln spoke. The author of that article pointed out that the U.S. Constitution made no mention of equality and accepted the institution of slavery. Lincoln, therefore, was supposedly betraying the soldiers who fought to defend the Constitution as it was written and adopted. From that article:

It was to uphold this constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.

Garry Wills, on the other hand, argues that Lincoln’s words were important because they gave new meaning to the Constitution, to the battle at Gettysburg and to the entire Civil War. Lincoln avoided “all local emphasis”. His speech “hovered far above the carnage”. He mentioned “no particulars” — “no names of men or sites or units, or even sides”. Lincoln didn’t even mention slavery.

Listening to Lincoln, it was as if the Southerners, against their will and without realizing it, were also engaged in the “unfinished work” of making sure government of, by and for the people would not “perish from the earth”.

In addition, Lincoln claimed that America had been founded on the proposition that all men, and perhaps all women, were created equal, despite the obvious fact that some people, including women, weren’t born with the same rights as the men who wrote the Constitution. And by expressing the hope that government of, by and for the people should not perish, he implied that such a government already existed.

Despite Lincoln’s exaggeration or imprecision, Wills concludes that the Gettysburg Address was a tremendous success. It “cleared the infected atmosphere of American history … tainted with official sins and inherited guilt”. Lincoln’s words changed the meaning of the Constitution in the minds of most Americans:

The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one … they brought with them. They walked off, from those … graves on the hillside, into a different America.

I n fact, how different was it? Did America become as different as Lincoln would have wanted it to be after the Civil War, or in the 20th century or the 21st? We all know that progress has been made, but it hasn’t been enough.

From The Atlantic last month:

One hundred thirty-nine years since Reconstruction, and half a century since the tail end of the civil-rights movement, a majority of white voters backed a candidate who explicitly pledged to use the power of the state against people of color and religious minorities, and stood by him as that pledge has been among the few to survive the first year of his presidency. Their support was enough to win the White House, and has solidified a return to a politics of white identity that has been one of the most destructive forces in American history. This all occurred before the eyes of a disbelieving press and political class, who plunged into fierce denial about how and why this had happened. That is the story of the 2016 election.

Maybe we will never cure humanity of tribalism, the tendency to favor people who look and sound like we do. Fear of strangers was probably built into us through thousands of years of evolution. But we have made progress. There is less slavery in the world. There is more equality, even with the economic inequality that’s increased since the 1980s. But we all have more work to do. Lincoln’s implied promise of a government of all the people, by all the people and for all the people has not been fulfilled. In recent years, we seem to have gone backward.

So it’s worthwhile at this time of the year, when “joy to the world” is proclaimed, “peace on earth” and “good will to men” are sung, and A Christmas Carol always ends with “God bless us, everyone”, to remember the words and the challenge delivered by a real president, 154 years ago, at the dedication of a new cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Filling in the February Gap

One thing leads to another, especially in the Age of the Internet, so I recently learned a few things about America’s official national holidays.

First: Even though some states celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, it’s never been an official national holiday (blame the South). I thought it was, because when I was growing up in California, we got the day off from school. Now, unfortunately, it’s only a holiday in four states. California isn’t one of them.

Second: The lame national holiday widely known as Presidents Day, which I thought commemorated Presidents Washington and Lincoln, isn’t actually called “Presidents Day”. As far as the federal government is concerned, it’s Washington’s Birthday. Even though it never falls on the day Washington was born.

Third: This means we only have four national holidays devoted to individuals: George Washington, Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesus of Nazareth.

I’ve always been especially good at remembering Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s birthday because they both come along in the middle of February. That’s when my father was born. It’s also when there’s another family anniversary that’s best kept private. 

So here’s the mid-February lineup:

February 12th is Lincoln’s birthday, the 16th was my father’s, the 18th is that other important anniversary, and the 22nd is Washington’s. And of course the 14th is (Saint) Valentine’s Day. That’s the 12th, 14th, 16th, 18th and 22nd.

But, as you can see, I’ve got nothing for February 20th!

Until now?

Further research revealed that all of this happened on the 20th of February:

1673 – The first recorded wine auction in London
1792 – The United States Postal Service was created
1872 – The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in New York City
1927 – Golfers were arrested in South Carolina for violating the Sabbath (the South again!)
1962 – John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth
1974 – Cher filed for separation from her husband Sonny Bono
1975 – Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party

Rather slim pickings, as we used to say. I’ve never been a fan of Sonny or Cher, and I always preferred Alan Shepherd (the first American in space) to John Glenn. And Margaret Thatcher is simply out of the question. Sadly, the past has let me down.

But there’s always the future.

Libertarianism Again

While writing about libertarianism a few weeks ago, I came across a 2011 article at Slate by Stephen Metcalf called “The Liberty Scam”. Its subtitle is “Why even Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism, gave up on the movement he inspired”. Having finally gotten around to reading it, I highly recommend the article if you’ve ever considered yourself an economic libertarian or tried to argue with one. Or if you have an interest in politics or the recent history of ideas.

Metcalf points out that modern, generally right-wing economic libertarianism relies on a very selective view of capitalism. In particular, Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain argument equates all economic activity with the special case of an extremely talented basketball player who can negotiate a stratospheric salary. Nozick claimed that someone like Wilt Chamberlain should be able to negotiate whatever salary the market will bear, and that forcing Chamberlain to pay taxes in order to benefit other people is forced labor (“Need a gardener allocate his services to those lawns which need him most?”). The rest of us, presumably, are a lot like Wilt Chamberlain.

After demolishing the Chamberlain argument and briefly explaining why Nozick came to appreciate that society is more than a random collection of individuals, Metcalf tries to explain why someone as thoughtful as Robert Nozick would make the arguments he did. Metcalf’s theory is that in 1970, when Nozick published Anarchy, State and Utopia, America and places like Harvard had benefited from decades of enormous government investment:

The GI Bill was on its way to investing more in education grants, business loans, and home loans than all previous New Deal programs combined. By 1954, with the Cold War in full swing, the U.S. government was spending 20 times what it had spent on research before the war.

As a result, members of the academic elite, including Harvard professors, were sharing in the general economic prosperity, even if their salaries hadn’t matched Wilt Chamberlain’s. Unfortunately for their bank accounts, however, tax rates were much higher than today. In 1969, when Nozick was writing his classic book, the highest federal tax rate was 77%, almost twice what it is now. It’s no wonder that Nozick saw virtue in a political ideology that considers taxation beyond the bare minimum a kind of theft:

By allowing for the enormous rise in (relative) income and prestige of the upper white collar professions, Keynesianism created the very blind spot by which professionals turned against Keynesianism…. Many upper-white-collar professionals convinced themselves their pre-eminence was not an accident of history or the product of negotiated protections from the marketplace but the result of their own unique mental talents fetching high prices in a free market for labor. Just this cocktail of vanity and delusion helped Nozick edge out [the liberal philosophy of John] Rawls in the marketplace of ideas, making Anarchy a surprise best-seller. It helped make Ronald Reagan president five years later. So it was the public good that killed off the public good.

One day the tide will turn (maybe). In the meantime, I was going to sum up with that well-known quote to the effect that we in the modern world are ignorantly walking in the footsteps of some obscure academic of the past, but couldn’t find the damn quotation (clearly, search engines haven’t got artificial intelligence quite yet). So I decided to go with a remark attributed, probably incorrectly, to Abraham Lincoln:

The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.

But while writing the previous paragraph, a key word popped into my head, namely, “scribbler”, which is the term John Maynard Keynes used when he wrote The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 35 years before Robert Nozick wrote Anarchy, State and Utopia:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back….Sooner or later, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.