Gore Vidal: I Always Thought Lincoln Was Wrong

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Abraham Lincoln color

“I always thought Lincoln was wrong. I always thought the South had every right to go. If Lincoln had a high moral purpose — which has now been invented for him, posthumously, the abolition of slavery — I’d say, well it’s illegal but it’s morally worthy.

He was not interested in freeing the slaves. He was interested in the preservation of the union and power and centralization. He turned to the Constitution and said I have no right to free the slaves, no constitutional right.

When he finally did get around to a degree of emancipation, he did it entirely under military necessity. I think he made a great mistake.

If I had been around at the time, I think I would have been for [Secretary of State William H.] Seward, who said let the South go. He called them the ‘Mosquito Republics,’ and asked ‘What are they going to do?’. They have two crops: cotton and tobacco. They’ve got no place to go. We’re getting all this immigration. We’re going to seize Canada one day. Let’s take over Mexico and Central America — he was extremely ambitious — and the South will come back. They’ll be knocking on the door. Why kill 600,000 young men for a notion of the union, which nobody had thought much of before then?”

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Gore Vidal, responding to a question about whether his favorite theory of government — that of devolution, where power is drawn outward to states and localities — contradicted the principles fought for by our 16th president.

Unsurprisingly, one of Vidal’s most acclaimed books, Lincoln: A Novel, shatters the saintly Lincoln death mask to reveal a man unrelentingly political, beset by personal and marital hang ups, and often unsure of even minor decisions in office. It’s a compelling portraiture, one you won’t find in the National Gallery.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

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Abraham Lincoln 342

“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.”

Abraham Lincoln second inauguration

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387 of the 700 total words in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered 150 years ago today. Above is the only known photograph of the event.

Months of sleet has made Pennsylvania Avenue look like a muddy riverbed by the first week of March in 1865. On the 4th, thousands of spectators stood in the inch-thick runoff at the Capitol grounds to hear what was one of the shortest, and undoubtedly one of the finest, inaugural speeches by an American president. Standing under a recently finished East Portico, Lincoln was sworn in by Chief Justice Salmon Chase. Lee would surrender to Grant at Appomattox 33 days later. Lincoln was assassinated 6 days after that.

Christopher Buckley, a former speechwriter for George H. W. Bush, calls the Second Inaugural the greatest speech in American history, surpassing Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg as well as the thunderclap from Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Entering that monument, Buckley reflects,

Inside the memorial, graven on the walls, are the two speeches in American history that surpass Dr. King’s: the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. I read the latter aloud to myself, quietly, so as not to alarm anyone. It clocks in at under five minutes, bringing the total of those two orations to about seven minutes. Edward Everett, who also spoke at Gettysburg, wrote Lincoln afterward to say, “I should flatter myself if I could come to the heart of the occasion in two hours in what you did in two minutes.”

Daniel Chester French, who sculpted the statue of Lincoln that stares out on the Reflecting Pool, studied a cast of Lincoln’s life mask. You can see a cast in the basement of the memorial, and it is hard to look upon the noble serenity of that plaster without being moved. Embarking from Springfield, Illinois, in 1861 to begin his first term as president, Lincoln said, “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.” When I first read that speech as a schoolboy, I thought the line sounded immodest. Harder than what Washington faced? Come on! Only years later when I saw again the look on Lincoln’s face that French had captured did I understand.

More from the man:

“Snowdrops” by Louise Glück

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Louise Glück

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring–

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

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“Snowdrops” by Louise Glück, which can be found in her collection Poems 1962-2012.

Bernard-Henri Lévy: The Russia I Respect, the Russia I Despise

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BHL

“Unlike you, I have absolutely no desire to be Russian or to return to Russia.

I used to love a certain idea of Russia.

I loved and defended this idea of Russian culture, which in the 1970s and ‘80s conjured up a whole hodgepodge, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, the Slavophiles and Europhiles, the disciples of Pushkin and those of Dostoyevsky, the dissidents on the right and the left and those who, in the words of the mathematician Leonid Plyushch, belonged to neither of these camps but to the concentration camp and the gulag…

Then there’s what Russia has become, what appeared when the breakdown of communism, its debacle — what a mountaineer like your father would call its ‘thaw’ — revealed to the world: the Russia of Putin, of the war in Chechnya, the Russia that assassinated Anna Politkovskaja on the stairway in her building and that the same Anna Politkovskaja described in her wonderful book A Russian Diary, just before she was assassinated. It’s the Russia of the racist packs who, right in the center of Moscow, track down ‘non ethnic’ Russians… the Russia that has the nerve to explain to the world that it has its own “democracy,” a special, local democracy that is quite unrelated to Western canons and rights.

It’s the country of such specialties as its party, the Nashi, meaning ‘our own,’ which, to call a spade a spade, is a Stalin-Hitler combo, the Russia that, incidentally, is giving new life to the anti-Semitic European pamphlets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries… This Russia, which, apart from this kind of idiocy, believes in nothing at all… This Russia, which, the last time I went there, struck me as having had its culture erased and its brain washed, this Russia, whose most discouraging side, according to Anna Politkovskaja, to mention her yet again, was its amorphousness and passivity, the way it accepts, for example, that it hardly has any employment legislation left and that its workers are treated like dogs… In this Russia, no less than under communism, people are ready to betray their parents to steal a broom, a bowl, a badly screwed tap or bits of scrap iron from deserted buildings abandoned by oligarchs on the run or in prison.

Not only does this Russia inspire no desire in me, it fills me with horror. I’d go so far as to say that it frightens me because I see in it a possible destiny for the late-capitalist societies. Once upon a time, during your postwar ‘glory days,’ the middle class was terrorized by being told that Brezhnev’s communism was not an archaism restricted to distant societies but rather a picture of our future. We were wrong: it was not communism but post communism, Putinism, that may be the testing ground for our future.”

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BHL on a tear in his book-form debate with French novelist Michel Houellebecq, Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World.

Regardless of whether you speak French, I recommend keeping up to speed on Lévy’s work wherever it’s translated. The man has more style and swagger and moral intelligence than several whole societies I can think of.

More from epitomizers of cool:

Below: BHL in Libya (2011), Egypt (2011), Ukraine (2014).

BHL en LibyeBHL place Tahrir

BHL Ukraine

The Girl Who Wasn’t Anne Frank

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Sophie Scholl

Bill Moyers: You dedicate your book [Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts] to four women. Why?

Clive James: Well, it’s a feminist book really. It’s because many of my generation who grew up during World War II, when the men were away at war — some of whom didn’t come back including my father — and the women were all around us, we got the idea it would be a better world if they were running it. And I still think that.

It’s actually dedicated to women who, in my view, are heroines. Two of them are Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. But also Sophie Scholl, who was a German. She was a kid, really. A Roman Catholic, she was 21 years old when she was executed by the the Nazis.

Bill Moyers: Why did you choose her?

Clive James: Well, the White Rose resistance group was a fascinating little bunch of kids. There wasn’t much they could do. They could print a few pamphlets. This was late 1942; Stalingrad hadn’t even happened yet. And all they could do was print a bunch of pamphlets and spread them around protesting the Nazi regime and its treatment of the Jews.

They knew what would happen if they got caught. And they got caught, and it did happen. And Sophie actually could have walked away, because the Nazis realized that it would be better PR if she did. But she wouldn’t; she took the hit along with her brother. It’s a great, great story that’s well known in Germany by now but wasn’t during World War II because the Nazis sat on it. Word has since spread, and by now she’s a heroine and should be all over the world.

Bill Moyers: Because?

Clive James: Because she wasn’t Anne Frank. See, Anne Frank, great as she was — Anne Frank was a victim. She was going to die anyway. Sophie didn’t even have to. Sophie did it because of her solidarity with people like Anne Frank. She was saying there’s a basic human bottom line which you can’t cross. You have to stand up and be counted.

The truth is most of us don’t stand up to be counted. It takes heroism to do it. She was just a natural heroine. And the story has endless implications. Would you have done this, for example? Do you know anyone who has this kind of courage? Wouldn’t you prefer to get on with your life and let those things happen to other people?

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The opening exchange in Moyers’s interview with James on Bill Moyers Journal in 2007.

You can pick up a copy of James’s brilliant, expansive survey of civilization Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts or check out more posts and interviews with the Aussie polymath.

Scholl died 72 years ago this week.

More from The War:

Peter Hitchens: The House I Grew up in

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Peter Hitchens

“I know perfectly well that it’s actually quite wrong to try to live in the past or to seek it.

I think a lot of the reason why people do sometimes do it and some little moment of reminiscence will bring on a voyage into the past is because they would like to open a door and find that their parents were alive again. And then you could show them that you’d grown up. You’d like to say, ‘Look, all that nonsense that you had to put up with, it’s over. And here are your grandchildren,’ who in my mother’s case, she never met and in my father’s case he only ever met one of them.

So yes, that would be a good thing to do. It’s futile. There is no such door. You can go back into the houses of your youth and they are other peoples’ houses — they’re not yours anymore.

The only purpose of going into the past is to examine it and to know what it was really like. And often these days, people defame the past and pretend that it was a waste of time — nothing but misery and poverty and drabness. And to recognize that while yes there were many things that were wrong about the past, there were good things that we’ve lost and that are recoverable.

And those who know nothing of the past will simply experience the future as a series of unnecessary mistakes and of mysterious events they had no possibility of understanding because they have no understanding of the way people behave and the way nations behave.

He who doesn’t know his own past and the past of his own country and his own people is perpetually a child.”

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The concluding remarks from Peter Hitchens in his 2011 profile for the BBC radio program The House I Grew Up In, for which he returned to several childhood homes on the English coastline to see how they reflected and stirred his memories of family life.

These remarks are especially melancholic in context, as Peter spends much of the episode wandering the streets of his childhood and discussing his rebellious youth, which involved, among other things, burning his Bible on the soccer pitch of his prep school. That prep school, more especially the money it siphoned from his working class mother and father, is to his mind at least part of the reason for their unhappy divorce and his mother’s eventual, tragic demise. Peter declines to discuss either event in much detail; Christopher, his older brother by two years, was more open, facing it with beautiful, plaintive words in the first and best chapter (“Yvonne”) of his memoir Hitch-22.

I recommend listening to the entire episode, as Peter’s a first class guide of not only his past but of a kind of postwar English life that’s now nearly all gone. Perpetually overcast skies drizzling on hedgerows and Edwardian pubs; wheezing tea kettles; the cults of Winston Churchill and Admiral Nelson; double-decker buses and soldiers scuttling by in crisp Royal Navy uniforms. The England of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Peter can immerse readers and listeners in that world because he is of that world. His wry lamenting of his 60’s rebelliousness recalls one of his most epic lines, wielded in his debate at the Oxford Union on the existence of God: he opens his rebuttal by saying of his opponents that they — paraphrasing — “remind me of the most obnoxious, selfishness person I’ve ever known: my 15-year-old self.”

For more on Peter’s conversion to Christianity, pick up his apologetic memoir The Rage Against God. For more on his politics, check out The Abolition of Britain and Short Breaks in Mordor: Dawns and Departures of a Scribbler’s Life.

More Hitchens bro’s:

Peter and Christopher Hitchens 3 Peter and Christopher Hitchens 1 Peter and Christopher Hitchens 2

Christopher Hitchens: Their Hatred Towards Us Is a Compliment

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Hitchens


Because anti-Semitism is the godfather of racism and the gateway to tyranny and fascism and war, it is to be regarded not as the enemy of the Jewish people alone, but as the common enemy of humanity, and of civilization, and has to be fought against very tenaciously for that reason. Most especially in its current, most virulent form of Islamic Jihad.

Daniel Pearl’s revolting murderer was educated at the London School of Economics. Our Christmas bomber over Detroit was from a neighboring London college and was the chair of the Islamic Students Society. Many pogroms against Jewish people have been reported from all over Europe today as I’m talking, and we can only expect this to get worse, and we must make sure our own defenses are not neglected.

Our task is to call this filthy thing, this plague, by its right name, to make unceasing resistance to it, knowing all the time that it’s probably ultimately ineradicable, and bearing in mind that their hatred towards us is a compliment and resolving some of the time at any rate to do a bit more to deserve it.”

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The closing of Christopher Hitchens’s fantastic Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture, given in March 2010.

Daniel Pearl, one of the first Americans killed at the hand of Islamic extremism in the post-9/11 era, was murdered 13 years ago this month. His death looks more and more like our most stark, literal harbinger of the kind of barbarism we now see everyday in the Middle East and around the world.

As a supplement to Hitch’s talk, I recommend reading Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Who Killed Daniel Pearl?. In it, BHL argues convincingly that Pearl was murdered not only for his Jewish/American roots, but also because he had uncovered hidden connections between the Pakistani nuclear program and al-Qaeda.

Daniel Pearl

Steven Pinker: The Problem with Political Correctness

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Professor Steven Pinker

“Politically correct sensibilities may bridle at the suggestion that a group of people, like a variety of fruit, may have features in common, but if they didn’t, there would be no cultural diversity to celebrate and no ethnic qualities to be proud of. Groups of people cohere because they really do share traits, albeit statistically. So a mind that generalizes about people from their category membership is not ipso facto defective. African Americans today really are more likely to be on welfare than whites, Jews really do have higher average incomes than WASPs, and business students really are more politically conservative than students in the arts — on average.

The problem with categorization is that it often goes beyond the statistics. For one thing, when people are pressured, distracted, or in an emotional state, they forget that a category is an approximation and act as if a stereotype applies to every last man, woman, and child. For another, people tend to moralize their categories, assigning praiseworthy traits to their allies and condemnable ones to their enemies. During World War II, for example, Americans thought that Russians had more positive traits than Germans; during the Cold War they thought it was the other way around.”

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Pulled from The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker.

Martin Amis: The Problem with Political Correctness

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Martin Amis

“Laughter always forgives… What we eventually run up against are the forces of humourlessness, and let me assure you that the humourless as a bunch don’t just not know what’s funny, they don’t know what’s serious. They have no common sense, either, and shouldn’t be trusted with anything.

Viewed at its grandest, political correctness is an attempt to accelerate evolution. To speak truthfully, while that’s still okay, everybody is a racist or has racial prejudices. This is because human beings tend to like the similar, the familiar, the familial. Again, I say, I am a racist. I am not as racist as my parents. My children will not be as racist as I am. Freedom from racial prejudice is what we hope for down the line. Impatient with this hope, this process, P.C. seeks to get things done right now. In a generation or at the snap of a finger, you can simply announce yourself to be purged of these atavisms.”

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From Martin Amis’s lecture “Masculinity and Modern Writing,” given at Harvard in 1997.

Looking for Friends in Fiction

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Claire-Messud

“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.

The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?'”

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Claire Messud’s response when asked if she’d want to be friends with her “unlikable” characters.

The Problem with Nationalism

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George Orwell

“All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. […]

Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him. All nationalist controversy is at the debating-society level. It is always entirely inconclusive, since each contestant invariably believes himself to have won the victory. Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connection with the physical world.”

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From George Orwell’s essay “Notes on Nationalism,” published in May 1945.

More prophetic words for the politics of today:

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