Archive for January 19th, 2009

Not Advice, but a Warning

Sharon January 19th, 2009

Dear Mr. President-Elect (you can take that last modifier off in 24 hours),

I’m not writing this to give you advice – I think you could heat the White House for the next decade on the printouts of advice that have poured in from the famous, the not famous, the right, the wrong, the righteous and the self-righteous.  Some of it is very good – I would commend to you the material on The Oil Drum, for example, which begins from a set of assumptions both radical and alien to most of the people you have hired.  But I will not, from my own perspective, offer anything that resembles advice.

Instead, I would write to warn you about two dangers you face – one a danger to the moral and perhaps practical legitimacy of your presidency, and the second, a danger to the people you are supposed to protect.  To get there, I think we have to go back to Lincoln again.  It is a parallel you like, and one that I can understand the appeal of – in fact, I’ve written a piece that ties you to Lincoln myself here: But today’s focus is on a less heartening connection to the past.

Lincoln’s primary justification for waging the American Civil War, which laid waste to a large chunk of the nation and killed 620,000 Americans and an uncertain (but large) number of civilian casualties, was to preserve the Union.  The Union had fragmented over slavery, particularly slavery in the Western Territories, as you know, and for more than half a century, slavery had poisoned American discourse and American nationhood.  In the end, the failure of prior generations to resolve the conflict peacefully left us in a situation that nothing but war could resolve. 

But I ask you to make a thought experiment here.  Imagine that the US had fragmented over some issue other than slavery – if, for example, for economic or political reasons, the South had seceeded for primarily economic reasons that did not involve the enslavement of human beings?  What if we had waged the Civil War in the same way in every single particular, but over a growing Southern nationalism based primarily in a sense that the US was not one country and that the south would be better off alone?  Yes, I realize that this comes perilously close to justifying the account of the Civil War popular among some apologists who wish to erase slavery from the historical narrative and make the South’s secession primarily about some nobler agenda of state’s rights, but I think you can acquit me of that speciousness.

Do you see my point?  It is quite possible that Lincoln might have put down the South, and reunited the nation, but how would we view him, and his willingness to sacrifice nearly a million lives now? Were that the case, the war would have been the act of Northern Tyranny that some still believe it to be.  I think there is little doubt that Lincoln might have stood as our most Machiavellian president after that, but I doubt he would have been one of our greatest.

The irony, of course, is that ending slavery was not Lincoln’s primary reasoning – that is, Lincoln and his party were most concerned about the preservation of the Union and preventing the expansion of slavery into the West.  The Emancipation Proclamation was an afterthought, a political response that evolved out of perceived necessity, not out of Lincoln’s passionate desire for the freedom of the slaves.  He would have much preferred a gradual decline and compensation for southern slave owners, ending slavery in a few generations by attrition.  That is, the difference between Lincoln the tyrant and Lincoln the hero was not that his cause was just, but that his cause became just.  High as the cost was, it could be paid to end the great schism of slavery, to root out the poison that undermined American concepts of freedom.  But it could not be justly paid simply to keep others from choosing another way.

And the fact that some moral justification that transcended deep personal anger (and that personal anger is still in many ways real) existed, is what prevented America from becoming a fundamentally divided nation, an Ireland or Israel/Palestine.  That is, breaking the bounds of slavery freed everyone in a sense – southern farmers who could not compete economically with their neighbors without owning slaves, and those who were alive to the deep contradictions, as Sojurner Truth put it, “the little weasel” in the US Constitution were free to see themselves as part of a nation that believed in Freedom, if nothing else.  Lincoln himself came to realize this, when he said to Congress,

In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.”

I realize this is a rather historical discussion, so I’ll get back to the present.  The point of my comments is this – Lincoln very nearly paid a price that was too high for what he bought – when he began his exercise of trying to restore the Union, it was still possible that he might have bought us a Union that did not fully resolve the question of slavery.  Lincoln very nearly did become the tyrant some few still believe him to be.

I suspect you’ve already guessed the parallel I’m going to draw, but I’ll make it explicit – you stand in Lincoln’s shoes today, having embarked on a project whose price is far too high, and whose moral legitimacy is questionable at best.  You’ve decided your job is to save the economy, and to restore the American people to prosperity.  Everyone expects it of you – your own party has made this the central agenda, as the Republicans did for Lincoln.  But that way lies tyranny, and moral failure.  To do so represents the tyranny of the present over their posterity – the extraction of resources that will be urgently needed by your daughters and my sons and their children.  The direction you’ve taken, which involves salvaging the failed industrial and financial projects of the rich, rather than serving the poorest represents tyranny as well – wealth extracted from ordinary working people will now feed the rich, while California cuts off its disability payments to the poor, the lame, the blind.

It isn’t merely tyranny, though, although that would be bad enough.  It is also impossible to accomplish – you will not restore us to what we were at any time in the recent present, because even then, we were not as we seemed – that is, virtually all the accumulated wealth of the last decade and more that actually percolated down to ordinary people was illusory, debt-based, and based on false assumptions.  And all the wealth of the last few decades has been based on a rapidly declining natural resource base that is now not merely depleted, but emptying.  You will not restore us to past versions of our prosperity, nor can you carry the moral water of the preservation of the future on the backs of a false and tyrannical promise.

So my first warning is this – you must find another way, if you wish to walk anything like Lincoln’s path.  I know this will be difficult – and more difficult because most of those surrounding you most closely are not equipped to tell the truth, simply because they cannot see it.  Their worldviews are built around the enslavement of future generations for the preservation of the present.  They decline to see the cost of that enslavement – you cannot afford not to see it.  Because underneath your present justification, the one that leads to tyranny, is another moral ground – firmer and able to hold your weight and ours.  It is the hope that we could serve the future, and create a framework where “our posterity” is not used to support the present, but where the present serves the future.  I find it hopeful that the word “sacrifice” has already passed your lips – were I giving advice I’d suggest it keep coming out, that people be brought to understand that what they are buying is not a temporary ease, although you will use your resources to the utmost to soften the worst blows on those who cannot care for thsmelves – but that they are buying with their efforts real Hope, the kind that lasts past the end of the speech or the party.

In that regard, I’d remind you of another President, one with many flaws and imperfections, but a gift for a turn of phrase as well. John Adams said, “I am a soldier so that my son can be a farmer and his son be a poet.”  That is the natural order of things – that we who are grown and can bear the weight of the world on our shoulders sacrifice and prepare to give our children better than we had.  In the coming years, as food and energy become more acute issues, we face the reality that our daughters and sons may need to be farmers.  But they will not be able to live that life if we do not serve them now.  Nor will they inherit anything worth having if now we do not turn our resources not towards our highways, but towards the poor, the hungry, the disabled, those in need of medical care and education, and the weak.

Indeed, I think that you must know how terribly acute the present situation is, but so many voices speak in moderated terms that I worry you may not realize the depths of human suffering that other people face.  That’s something that presidents, who live in a form of isolation by necessity, sometimes forget.  Many people will cry victims in the next years – and some of them will be.  Others will be victims who can do something about their situation, if they are taught a measure of self-reliance, that virtue that was once so very American.  But the ability to sort out the real victims, the truly vulnerable, those who cannot save themselves, will be your job. It is not one I envy you, but I would observe that you might start by assuming that anyone who has ever had a salary that involved the words “millions” is not a victim worth worrying about. 

Which brings me to my second warning, for which I’m going to use Adams again.  But not John, Abigail.  In her famous letter to her husband, Abigail Adams wrote,

 “Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

The Constitution which you bind yourself to uphold tomorrow is really quite clear on the obligations of citizens towards governments that are tyrannical.  I remind you of Abigail Adams’ call (and have my hopes that your wife will not permit you to forget) to remind you that the disenfranchised and powerless are not bound by the laws that abandon them – the only hope for the rule of law is to create a law and a nation that shelters us all.   Though women lack less for rights in their own right, we ladies are also mothers, aunts, grandmothers and protectors (and we come with an energetic host of passionate fathers, uncles, grandfathers and friends) of the children whose future bread our policies are devouring, whose energy we are consuming, whose stable natural environment we are throwing away.  The tyranny of the present over the future works only if those who guard the future do no rise up, and recognize the moral illegitimacy of any government that enslaves its children to pay its debts. 

Thus I also warn you of this – pay attention to your means, to your costs, and to the price you are asking others to pay.  If the price is too high, or the objective a false one, they will not pay it. I look to your inauguration torn – hoping, not wanting to hope too much, praying, perhaps that you may be able to do what is needed to guide us through these times.  But I put my faith not in you, but in the people – the ordinary people who have taken in trust the guardianship of something besides the Constitution – their posterity, and who will not see their future sold for something as cheap as simply going back to the good old/bad old days of affluence.  But they will follow you forward to a legitimate future, if you can guide us there.  

 am a patriot – by patriot I mean that I am proud of what is worth valuing in America.  My patriotism is rooted in the land, in the idea of preservation and sustenence of something that can be infinitely enriching and regenerating.  As Wendell Berry said, “What I stand for is what I stand on.”  And because I stand on this land, and hope to pass it on to my children, I do not wish to see America continue on a path away from moral legitimacy, nor do I wish to see it torn by the anger of those who are left out of the gifts of their land.

I realize this does not make your burdens any lighter, or your problems less acute. And here, I admit, I fall into the realm of advice giving – my apologies.  All I can say is this – begin as you mean to go on, remember Lincoln – the real Lincoln, remember your children, and I pray for you and my country.