Thursday, November 21, 2013

Democracy and the Indispensable Person

Earlier this week was the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln's dedicatory remarks at Gettysburg National Cemetery. It's worth re-reading. Here's the complete text, taken from wikipedia:
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 battlefield 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 this 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. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. 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.
To me, the speech is an exhortation to a war-weary nation that the Cause--representative government--is worth the hundreds of thousands of casualties already suffered, and the unknown deaths to come. It's also a deft, eloquent pivot to the new meaning for victory; victory means union, yes, but also a "new birth of freedom" for four million slaves.

The speech is a statement of democracy's worth. It's also a work of Lincoln's genius. One could argue that Lincoln's genius is pretty un-democratic stuff--it's his genius; he was born with it, or worked for it. And I think, to a large extent, genius isn't democratic at all--genius belongs to individuals. But in order for a democracy to thrive, genius must be used in the service of democracy. Perhaps the most dramatic example in American history is how Lincoln used his political genius to save democracy (and his genius with language to help give the war meaning), but it isn't hard to think of other ways the products and talents of geniuses have been harvested to protect or promote democratic growth.

This is something I've only begun to wrap my head around, and I'm still struggling with it. During the Civil War, Lincoln frequently employed means of dubious legality to achieve what he believed was a more important democratic end--victory. He's frequently criticized for this, along the lines of: how can one save democracy by ignoring democratic laws? I tend to sympathize with that reasoning, but it's clear that Lincoln made unilateral, deeply undemocratic decisions out of necessity, without a desire for un- or anti-democratic power. He was successful because out of his genius. And Lincoln's genius was indispensable to the Union cause.

I'm not sure exactly what it all means, but I think history makes the point obvious: democracy cannot survive or prosper without singularly talented people who want democracy to succeed. Is that a contradiction? I don't know, but Gettysburg Address is amazing.

Monday, November 18, 2013

DKG reviewed in the NY Times Book Review

In Bill Keller's review of Doris Kearns Goodwin's new history, The Bully Puplit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, the politics of the past become a nostalgic pleasure, contrasted with the "grubby spectacle of today's Washington." Of DKG, Keller writes:
Let her transport you back to the turn of the 20th century, to a time when this country had politicians of stature and conscience, when the public believed that government could right great wrongs, when, before truncated attention spans, a 50,000-word expose of corruption could sell out magazines and galvanize a reluctant Congress.
Let her transport you back, in other words, to the romance and honesty of a bygone time. Is this much different from the Lost Causer raving about the romance and honor of the world in Gone With the Wind?

I haven't read The Bully Pulpit, but I'm a fan of Team of Rivals, DKG's last history, a joint biography of Lincoln and his most prominent cabinet members. Part of what makes DKG such a compelling historian is her skill as a writer. She's expert at synthesizing the disparate documents of a historical record into a story that appeals to a modern reader in the same way a good novel might*. But Keller has been seduced by DKG's story into losing the long view of history. He seems to believe that the past, vividly rendered by DKG's, is somehow more important--more real--than the present. Keller has fallen into this trap, probably, because he's unsatisfied with the "grubby spectacle" of his own world**.

Keller writes:
Much of the pleasure of this book--besides recalling for us that once, leaders stood tall, our government didn't seem to be in a state of constant stalemate and journalism got results--is the re-creation of a day when life moved at a statelier pace.
There's a lot of unexamined nostalgia in that sentence. Almost everyone thinks Teddy Roosevelt was a great President (anti-imperalists aside), but what about Taft, about whom even Keller writes "his single-term presidency is generally counted a failure." The phrase about journalism getting "results" sounds like the assessment of a jaded journalist. And the last clause, referencing the pleasure of reading about the "statelier pace" of life, is absurd***, ignoring all the quantifiable improvements technology has made in almost every aspect of life for all Americans (not to mention the problematic nature of fetishizing the turn of the 20th century while ignoring the political, social, and economic gains made by women, African Americans, and most other marginalized minority groups since then). It's strange that such a regressive statement could be made in the context of this review, focused on the the lives of two major progressives who worked to use the "bully pulpit" to improve the lives of the poor.

I doubt that DKG is guilty of the historical romanticism that infects Keller's review of her work. I'm sure the depth of the historical America she builds, the vitality of the characters she revives, and the quality of her research are excellent. I look forward the reading the book. But Keller's review points to the trouble that even the best works of history run into: readers eager to bend history to suit some entrenched vision of the past.

*I don't believe it's strange, or wrong, to compare a history to fiction. Both can be graded as stories. Some novels, like some histories, fail to hold readers' attentions. But for a history, the story is not all. The storytelling aspect of history is (should be?) inseparable from a history's ability to justify its synthetic view of historical documents.

**This is not a problem unique to history. Remember this reaction to the film Avatar?

***At least baby boomers longing for the "simpler" 1950s lived through that decade as children.