The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands.
And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.
So ends Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Total Effect and the Eighth Grade” (from Mystery and Manners (1970), her posthumous essay collection). Allan Bloom starts his volume Shakespeare’s Politics (1964) where O’Connor leaves off:
The most striking fact about contemporary university students is that there is no longer any canon of books which forms their taste and their imagination.
In a lifetime of speculation, it has never occurred to me that I would ever draw a blowfish. Actually, there’s a limitless number of activities it has never occurred to me that I would ever do, and for all but a tiny fraction of them, my not-occurring assumptions have been right on the mark.
From Crack Skull Bob.
President Obama is now a Whig! I thought I was the only party member left. But Obama found the central structure and philosophy of his second inaugural address this week in the core Whig doctrine of equality.
Let’s first talk structure. Consider how Obama introduces the Declaration of Independence’s equality clause (“all men are created equal”). Obama’s introduction amounts to a restatement of the opening to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Both Lincoln’s and Obama’s openings say that American was founded on a concept (Lincoln, “proposition”; Obama, “idea”), they mention the number of years since the Declaration’s signing (Lincoln, “Four score and seven years ago”; Obama (rather more prosaically), “more than two centuries ago”), they mention the importance of committing to the concept of equality (Lincoln, “dedicated”; Obama, “allegiance”), and they quote the equality clause itself. Here’s a diagram of these similarities:
By the time Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address, of course, the Whig Party was defunct, and most Northern Whigs had joined the nascent Republican Party. But the Gettysburg Address’s focus on the equality clause was a posthumous vindication of the Whig Party and its two central ideas. The first is that America is a single nation and not a confederation of states subject to the states’ secession. The second is that the Declaration’s equality clause was the philosophical force behind America’s social and economic improvement.
I’ll start with the latter idea. Obama cited the equality clause in support of equal pay for equal work, gay marriage, removing barriers from voting, immigration reform, and child safety issues, including gun control. That’s a lot of social and economic change justified by a single clause in the Declaration of Independence. I’ll look at three of those issues (equal pay, gay marriage, and immigration reform) and examine what Lincoln, with his Whiggish political philosophy, might have done.
1. “All men are created equal” and economic fairness
Lincoln might have done much to require equal pay for equal work were he alive today. Equal pay for equal work is an issue of economic fairness, and, according to Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo, Lincoln explicitly tied the equality clause to economics:
Lincoln also read the Declaration as promoting the critical Whig demand for economic expansion. The foundation of any worthwhile idea of equality was economic “betterment,” and that right was what Lincoln found first in the Declaration. “It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.” [Quoting Lincoln]1
Guelzo quotes a Whig newspaper’s editorial connecting the equality clause with internal improvements and greater education on the same “equal chance” line of thought. Indeed, according to Guelzo, “No part of the Declaration had more appeal for the Whigs than the controversial ‘equality’ clause, since equality in the Whig lexicon immediately translated into economic opportunism, and thus positioned the Declaration as an endorsement of the Whig political agenda.”2
Obama’s endorsement of equal pay for equal work, then, would seem like an extension of the Whiggish alignment of the equality clause with economic issues.
Obama was whistling Lincoln’s economic tune long before this week’s inaugural address, of course. When asked during the second debate what was the biggest misperception the American people had of him, Obama answered (in pertinent part):
I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules.
Lincoln also was quick to point out that the equality clause called for economic opportunity and not for economic equality. The Declaration “does not declare that all men are equal in their attainments or social position,” Lincoln pointed out. But “all should have an equal chance”3 – the equivalent of Obama’s insistence that “everybody should have a fair shot.”
The equality clause was aspirational, as Lincoln also took Jesus’ injunction to “be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”:
The Savior, I suppose, did not expect that any human creature could be perfect, as the Father in Heaven; but . . . He set that up as a standard, and he who did most towards reaching that standard, attained the highest degree of moral perfection. So I say in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be nearly reached as we can. . . .4
2. “All men are created equal” and gay marriage
Lincoln, however, probably never conceived of the notion that the equality clause would aspire as far as gay marriage. The very term “gay marriage” suggests, though, that its proponents see the issue as one of equal rights. Those proponents would find more support from Lincoln once the Civil War had begun than they would before he was president. Before becoming president, Lincoln was not prepared to grant African Americans social equality:
Blacks, Lincoln insisted, may have to tolerate some measure of inferiority in their civil or social rights in an overwhelmingly white society, and the probability that this would remain a permanent feature of American life kept Lincoln proposing gradual emancipation and colonization rather than abolition as the ultimate answer. But “no sane man will attempt to deny that the African upon his own soil has all the natural rights” the Declaration “vouchsafes to all mankind.”5
Lincoln changed his mind, of course, about the applicability of the equality clause to African Americans in their home country, the United States. And, as my students pointed out to me today as we discussed Obama’s inaugural, each generation may find its own inspiration from the Declaration’s equality clause.
3. “All men are created equal” and immigration reform
Obama also tracks Lincoln by tying immigration reform to the equality clause:
Our journey [to equality] is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.
Lincoln believed that the Declaration, and particularly its equality clause, made immigrants just as “American” as the colonists who adopted the Declaration in 1776:
“But when [immigrants] look through that old declaration of Independence,” Lincoln believed, they find principles that rise above one’s place of birth . . . . “They find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men . . . and that they have a right to claim it as though they were flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.”3
The universality of the equality clause – its self-evident application to every person in every nation – meant that, for Lincoln, immigrants had as much natural right as Americans in equality. If Lincoln agrees with Obama that “what makes us American is our allegiance to an idea” (i.e., the idea that all men are created equal), then the immigrant seeking equality and the economic opportunity equality envisions is as much of an American as I, a natural-born citizen.
The notion that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (Lincoln) – the notion that what makes an American is her “allegiance to [the idea that all men are created equal]” (Obama) – is a radical departure from the usual concepts of love of homeland; fear of another race, religion, or nationality; and economic protectionism that in part seem to drive our immigration debate and decisions.
4. The Declaration of Independence and Secession
But beyond adopting Lincoln’s expansive and aspirational view of the equality clause, Obama’s speech adopts the Declaration of Independence itself as the document creating the country’s social contract. Obama’s stance is in harmony with the Whigs, who praised the Declaration “for creating a single unified nation, not the confederation of states that Calhoun found in the Constitution.”2 Obama stance about the nature of the union, reaffirmed by his frequent repetition of “We the people” from the Constitution’s preamble, was a philosophical shot over the bow of those who have threatened secession of late.
All this comes six months after I criticized Obama here for ceding the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to the strict constructionists:
Little that Obama or his campaign says or does is ever traced back in the public’s mind to a coherent theory of government implemented before, say, the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.
By adopting this week the old, Whiggish approach to the Declaration and its equality clause, Obama has made things interesting.
The sun rises in the south and sets there. East and west are refinements, dark and white wines we describe with migrating adjectives.
Snow we can sled on hails from the south, riding the coast where we stare past the swells summers, holding our boards.
Snow coats only the lane’s southern berms, the low, white hems of the Blue Ridge beyond. In Virginia, winter skirts all but the mountains.
Winter’s a Southern belle. Her blue mountains swell like breasts beneath her trees’ sheer bodice.
In outdoor chapels, the hymns are hers.
Her drawl thickens like a casement around each word, like a darkroom’s development, like the tongue’s film.
The Southern drawl: the flesh made word, the word made morpheme, the morpheme made phoneme, the phoneme made flesh.
The mouth that says, smiles. It eats. It kisses.
Winter’s green on winter’s terms. What I thought was grass was moss.
I don’t know dormant from dead as a doornail.
Death is both. It’s an abstract process & a concrete product. If time is a river, then death is a frozen fountainhead.
Photos from a hike on December 31 along the Appalachian Trail. “Trill” are my Twitters. Tweet suites from @slowreads.
Perhaps only once, on one blue planet, consciousness may emerge. Why? Was it worth the trouble? In any system, growing in complexity, falling apart as it must, there is a moment of emergence, maintained only by increasing energy and work. Is it worth it? I confess that I find consciousness, if nothing else, irresistibly interesting.
Where are my dead buried? Have the dead buried them off?
Where did we bury Uncle Gi? I hopped on his grave when I was five. The fulvous grass was lined with white in the white, winter sun.
He started being dead the year before. But I grew up and have mislaid him. Is he laying low in my folks’ attic? Or in this very sock drawer?
Time was, we knew our dead and called on them under the birch on the way home from church. Who beat me out of their communion?
I have not organized my closet or my dead. No shoe trees, no family tree.
No shoe trees, no family tree. It’s either a forest or a pair of curled shoes, like the witch buried under the house.
Why are the dead face up? Wouldn’t she rest on her side, just as she turned for him in bed with arms that yawned with years?
The grave at sunrise. The grave buried in snow. The grave in recession. The grave at war.
A rain gauge of departed flowers. Twigs, too. One twig and a knot.
Obsequies are marriages of time and time again.
A bugle plays reverie. In the distance, I don’t recall.
Dirt falls from her hand, from her cloudy face. Leaning back on an awning pole, a funeral guy wrings a fag against his sole.
What is over? After the obsequies, my car door makes a certain thump.
“Trill” are my Twitters. Tweet suites from @slowreads.
Above photo adopted from ClintJCL’s photo. Used by permission.
Three years after that, I was
a guest in your London home,
though like a tortoise
I brought my own
Your house buzzed with
so much activity, both
joyful & clamorous, that soon
my shell began to hum.
From Via Negativa.
Not only did we share it with the butterflies of upturned empty mussel shells, colonies of living ones, casings of spider crabs, groups of gulls, and lonely egrets, and troupes of turnstones, sanderlings and knots, the last whose running back and forth, chiding the waves progression, earned them their name, etymologically the same as that of King Canute, but also even with a few other members of the human species.
From box elder.
A thin, blue dawn rims hills with orange corona, and a wound in youth is a rocket launch.
Dogma falls crisp as hoarfrost, but hormones open new worlds.
Aphorisms fall from an uncle’s lips like tough steak, but an artist’s life is lean.
Perennials die to see the sun, and the counsel of a father is magic.
What, my son? What, the son of my five fingers? What, the wet eye of our backyard springs? What? What?
Is that you, my son? Ache of my withers & rod of my stump? My son my son my seed my seed my son
I wave at black windows as the orange bus sets. My son, where do you sit? Do you see? look?
My son? My sleep’s discomfiture and my age’s disconsolation? Yes, my son? What?
You stare amazed from every bowl of stew, my son, (5) You die at the cry of every distant beast. I am the purblind Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
Before you hung from an oak, three darts through your heart, you carved your pillar and spilled your seed, my son, my son!
A summer moon carves cold clouds, and windshield frost is the tombstone of stars.