“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” - Abraham Lincoln
I was busy yesterday with the crisis at my son’s school, so it is only today that I get to reflect a little bit on the election, and more importantly, on America. I was a little surprised at how delighted and moved I was yesterday - you see, I have my doubts about Obama. But the acceptance speech was quite something, and I think that there’s a measure of hope, even beyond the remarkable fact that America, a state that has since its very inception, been inscribed with racial divisions, crossed an important line. It didn’t magically transform our history, but it immediately reshapes the narrative in important ways.
What remains to be seen is not so much what kind of man Obama is now, but what kind of president the crisis he inherits will make him into, and what kind of people Americans will shape themselves and their president into.
How is this different than asking who Obama is? Well, I think it is safe to say that the majority of American presidents have been, if not mediocrities, mixed blessings. Simon, my 7 year old, is fascinated by the history of the American presidency, and he asks me “who were the best” “who were the worst” and why all the time. And for the most part, in most times, the answer is “a little of both.” There are some truly awful presidents out there (obviously not in any way excluding the lame duck in office), and some really great ones.
The really great ones tend to be great not because they were essentially great men - although sometimes they were that too - but it isn’t clear to me, reading history that the best of our presidents, in ordinary times, would have been much more than on the good side of mixed. But two things have meant that for the most part, in America’s times of greatest crisis, it has gotten some truly remarkable presidents, and a history worth loving and valorizing. The first is that the people have had the courage to risk something, to venture into difficult territory and choose a man they believe has what is needed. Manifestly, that is true today. And the second is that the responsibilities and courage demanded by events has often harrowed the presidents facing vast crises into men of more than ordinary greatness.
It would be a mistake to ask now whether Obama is our Lincoln or FDR yet - Lincoln was not fully Lincoln, in the sense we think of him at his inauguration. Read the First Inaugural Address and then the Second, to get a very simple, broad sense how even a short period in office transformed Lincoln, from a remarkable man into a great one. I open up the possibility that even if Obama is not now quite the man we need, the people and the office, the crisis and the power might just render him into something close to it, as it has done for past presidents. FDR was not fully ready to betray his class and reallocate wealth as he entered the presidency. Lincoln was not ready to take the necessary steps to end slavery at the outset of his presidency.
Both became great, rather than beginning in greatness - and in some ways, this is a better, more glorious thing - for who among us was born great? But if events can bring greatness, each of us can achieve a small measure of it. And in each case, not only did the president become great as he faced his enormous crisis, but so did the people under him, those who sacrificed and transformed their lives, whose courage shone so powerfully that they reshaped their president, as flames burnish and reshape cold metal.
I do not know whether Obama is the right man, but I do have faith that we are the right people in this particular moment. I also believe that we are facing a crisis quite as deep as the civil war, and in many ways, more like the civil war than World War II. This is simply because our present disaster, for all it’s world implications, is a deeply internal crisis, one that will force us to consider a question most of us resist examining too closely - what will we love our America for? What will America be, in a shifting world?
We are facing a deep crisis - our economy is simply falling apart, while our ecology and the underlying source of our economic power - our energy supply - is threatened. And Obama is coming to us, like Lincoln, like Roosevelt, at a moment in which the easy solutions to these crises are no longer possible. It is a painful truth, but a truth nonetheless that we are no longer living in a moment where there are simple investments, easy outcomes, or a hope of avoiding great difficulty. No matter what Obama or anyone else does, America will no longer be the America that most of us grew up with - we will no longer be able to rely on old claims to greatness, no longer be secure in our wealth, no longer be able to go one way, while the rest of the world goes theirs.
At fundamental levels, our structures must change - we must take back the power that has been stripped from the people over the last decades, and particularly over the last eight years. We must find new ways to organize ourselves in order to meet basic needs, and in order to find a way to live that keeps at its center, the future of the next generations.
We must change the stories of our culture, the ones that help inform our understanding of who we are. We are no longer frontiersmen, pushing the limits, moving on and growing into the next place and the next. Instead, as Wendell Berry puts it, we must remember that the counternarrative of those who came and stayed and loved a place. That narrative of stopping and staying must become our central a counter narrative to the account failed story of eternal growth and “always-more.”
We have been patriots for a long time based on a certainty about our place in the world that is shifting. Some of us are angry that the country we loved has been cheapened by theft and injustrice, and have come to feel that our patriotism rings false. Others kept their patriotism, but struggled more and more to find present, rather than past glories to hang that love upon. Fortunately, we neither need to be ashamed of a false patriotism nor deny that America’s place in the world has shifted. The roots of patriotism lie in the word itself, and under our feet. The hope for our future greatness, the hope for our future, for “ourselves and our posterity” is in the soil on which we stand. The word “patriotism” which comes from the idea of the “patria” or the land as father to us all, is the place to begin - we need not root our love for our country in the distant past or a flawed present - we can root it solidly in the ground that we love and nurture and grow in. And we can make that ground yield forth an unimaginably hopeful future - one in which each generation no longer takes just a little more from the next, but in which each generation more deeply regenerates their place, and brings forth more fruit to enrich their children.
I’d like to look again at Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, a piece of writing I was taught to love by a wonderful teacher, John Burt, because it is so tremendously apt to the situation we find ourselves in. Although we are not at war, most Americans now face a situation unanticipated, in which all the solutions that both parties have offered and most of us once believed in are inadequate to the terrible situaton we now face. No one will come out of this with everything they need, with “their prayers answered fully.” All of us will pay the piper for a situation we did not fully create, and yet, each participated in.
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. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. 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. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” 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.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
I think most of us fear for the future, grieve for those already suffering, both here and around the world, and tremble for our children and grandchildren and the generations that will have to live in our warming and impoverished world. I think all of us, if we could will it, would change our circumstances, would rewind the last decades and do things differently, lest we not face this terrible unwinding of our imagined future. Those of us who do pray, we probably all pray the same things “Oh please, G-d, protect us all.”
And the answer comes back to us, through reason and from G-d, for those of us who hear that voice - the answer is that our future is literally in our own hands. The man we have made President may or may not rise to the difficult circumstances he faces. I hope and pray he does. And whether he does in part depends on us. If we make it necessary, if we become great, well, perhaps he will follow. Or perhaps it won’t matter that much if he doesn’t.
We are told over and over again that the American people will not sacrifice, that they are lazy, they lack courage, they are not the equals of the people who came before us and gave us pieces of a history worth believing in. I do not know what kind of president we have, but I know, if I know any thing in the world that that last is a slander, a lie. Each of us has the capacity to become greater than we are at present, to invoke the power of past generations, and past acts of heroism, and become what we need to be - the people who will preserve an America worth loving. So far, most people still don’t quite realize what is needed, but I have faith that if we choose, we who have coasted on cheap energy and plenty of wealth will find in ourselves that we are not so very far removed from our past, and that we are tied in the soils and by our courage to a future worth having. I have hope that we can create an America and an American people so deeply worth loving that our current and future leaders are shaped and transformed and burnished in greatness, as we transform and burnish ourselves.