Reflections on the Gettysburg Address, Part III

WHEN LINCOLN took office, it was widely known where he stood on the slave issue: his “House Divided” speech, among others, left no doubt about that. He had stated, with all openness, that the Union could not persist in being “half-slave, half-free”; and since outright abolition was impossible, nothing was left but to prohibit slave-owning Southerners from spilling into the new Territories. That is to say, slavery had to be isolated, had to be locked firmly into the South, where it was hoped it would gradually atrophy and disappear. It is worth noting here that Lincoln’s Secretary of State, W.H. Seward, had spoken of an “irrepressible conflict” between the North and the South, and had threatened the South that abolitionism “has driven you back in California and Kansas; it will invade your soil.” What promise, what solace, could the South expect in this new administration of the federal government? Here was a president who had explicitly dedicated himself to a cause the South saw as blatantly un-Constitutional, and even factional. Here was a Secretary of State who had no qualms about revealing his sectional hostilities, and who made not the least attempt to reconcile two vastly different halves of the nation. This was a presidency that had already given itself to cutting off the free Territories, the common property of the people of the United States, from a half of that nation’s citizens. And let it not be forgotten, though it be so very foreign to us – let it not be forgotten what a proud people resided in the South, let it not be forgotten that the patricians of the South would rather have lost their lives than their dignity, that they would rather risk war than dishonor. That Lincoln bears the larger share of the responsibility for sundering our nation, I do not doubt.
      But lay that aside. What we mean to seek here is not so much the cause of the Civil War, as the principle which emanated from it; what interests us is what it means that Lincoln set afire the fuse, and what we, who are all indirectly that man’s children, can learn about our state of being from his beliefs.

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A Window Through, Part I

TO WHOMEVER would seek a window into the real state of affairs in our contemporary societies, no better opening can be suggested than that furnished by the so-called “immigration crisis.” It real causes, its actual consequences, its true goals, are the objects of continual mystification, rendering it difficult if not impossible to see through; but at the same time, it is now becoming such a pressing issue that no one can look upon it with indifference, which has been a great spur toward clarity on the part of a great many. And the image which begins to develop at the other side of it in consequence of all these many cleaning hands, is of some interest indeed.
      Contrary the common “narrative,” the problem of immigration is not caused by wars; there have always been wars, and yet Europe certainly has never seen such an influx as in the past few years. More, the vast number of illegal immigrants to the United States, and a sizable majority of those to Europe, are not the refugees of some blood-rent nation, but rather are individuals who come from poor but relatively stable countries. Were the major wars in the world to end tomorrow, the immigration crisis would relent but moderately.
      The problem can neither be said to lie in famine, in disease, in extreme poverty; for again, none of these phenomena are new; and yet, as is known, the migrant crisis struck Europe in but the past few years, while the United States has seen upward trends for decades.
      Certainly, some external factors can be implicated in all of this. The war in Syria has certainly put greater pressure on European borders, and the fall of Gaddafi in Libya has essentially lain a passage through the African sands which funnels the masses of immigrants of the black continent northward. The entire composition of Europe and Africa at present has the look of an inverted hour-glass—with Europe, however, sitting at the bottom. And one has only to consider the horrifying demographic changes predicted in Africa in the coming century, to grasp just how little time is really left.
      This leads us to the consequences of immigration. No one any longer denies—for no one can any longer deny—that immigration of this scope and intensity leads to disturbances in the social order, often grave and profound. The countries who bear the brunt of the rapidest changes, prove to be the most strongly “anti-immigrant.” And not surprisingly. No matter how much the migrants are touted as being “resources,” no matter how many times one repeats the tired old bromide that they somehow “enrich” the lives of their host nations, this rhetoric wears thin in the face of the real confrontation between customs of vastly different kinds, between individuals who speak no common language nor share a common faith, between ways of life which at countless points come to friction hot enough to start a fire. It is suggested that these migrants will be “good for the economy”—claim which certainly does not stand on common sense, and which, if it is really indicated by some economist’s alchemical equations, is distant enough from everyday life to fall at once into disrepute and suspicion. Idem the commonplace that these immigrants “do jobs no European or Americans will do.” Such is only defensible on the grounds that they are paid far less than a European or an American would be in similar jobs, because they work under the table and live in squalid conditions which permit them to avoid the greater costs of modern Western life.
      In the face of all of which, we cannot help but set before ourselves the question of the ends that this immigrant crisis really serves. It does not suffice to claim that there are no “ends” involved, other than the multifarious ends of the migrants themselves, to escape from hardship and danger, to guarantee themselves and their families better opportunities and a brighter future. This does not suffice, for the simple reason that it is only half the story. These immigrants enter our lands because they are permitted to enter; and since by now it is clear that the peoples of the United States and Europe are less than enthusiastic about the prospects of real “multicultural societies,” for which one speaks precisely of a migrant crisis, of an immigration crisis, we are forced to the question—why has nothing been done to secure the borders?
      Even this is not yet adequate; for in point of fact, actions have been taken. Maurizio Massini, Italian Representative in the United Nations, for instance, attempted just two weeks ago to close Italian ports to NGO ships, the activities of which have been increasingly falling under suspicion for the methods they employ and the interest they take in the immigration crisis. The UN ruled tempestively that such a determination falls beyond the jurisdiction of individual UN members, and forced the ports open before they had even had time to shut. Similar actions taken in the United States on the behalf of numerous judges against most of the strongest of Trump’s executive orders on immigration reveal a similar stamp. Those in power today like to speak about “crises”—but their actions demonstrate that they take a considerably more sanguine view of the situation. What could possibly be their motive?
      It is easy enough to refer to the crudest economic explanations in order to solve part of this conundrum. There can be no doubt that a great many individuals, better say corporations (supposing one makes a distinction any longer), throughout the West are decidedly benefited by an influx of extraordinarily low-cost labor, and look with greedy eagerness at the arrival of yet more de facto serfs. But anyone who is willing to leave the matter at this must take the following view of our contemporary situation: our politicians are puppets on the strings of corporate puppet-masters, and, utterly lacking all independent ideology, sell themselves behind scenes to the highest bidder. But this does not quite hold up to scrutiny, particularly in Europe, for the simple reason that most of the incoming immigrants have not been in any way introduced, not to speak of injected, into the work force, but rather pass their days milling about in squares and parking lots, begging for coins, vending their services as parking-aides, dealing drugs, prostituting themselves or their compatriots; or else they are shuffled off to remote villages or countryside compounds and lodged in houses, hotels, agritourisms, and like structures, where they are given food and clothing, shelter, televisions, high speed internet, and like goods. The European governments often spend exorbitant amounts of money to keep them in such places. It is certain by now that there is a going business in fetching them out of the sea, and it may be that this in and of itself adds sufficient incentive to persuade our good governments to play along. Yet I will not be alone in finding that this entire “economic” explanation of the changes upon us somehow falls flat, does not ring full enough in the ear, to provide an adequate summary explanation of what is really happening. It has its role, to be sure; but as a final explanation, it is slight.
      It is expected that by the midpoint of this century, white Americans will be in the minority in their own homeland. The Europeans will not be far behind. The changes upon us are of a scope and kind unheard of in the history of the West. The stakes could not be higher. It is necessary for us to comprehend our positions, for it is our future, and the future of our children, which is in this very moment being put to the trial. Nay, more yet: it is the future of our very people, of the West itself, which now is coming to the line. To ignore this problem is to forfeit all we have ever had of heritage. To ignore this problem is to prove that we are no worthy scion of our forebears. To confront this problem in all its aspects, amounts perhaps to awakening ourselves to a higher task than the mere clambering after lucre and status, which alas consumes the better part of our joint contemporary efforts. It might be that in the crisis of immigration—which, to be sure, really is a crisis—we might find the spark to rekindle this dwindling flame of the Occident.
      We have here lain out the problem, hopefully with enough force to suggest the necessity of responding to it. It remains for us, then, to gesture toward that sphere wherein we may begin to seek an answer.

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Reflections on the Gettysburg Address, Part II

LINCOLN’S FAMED LOYALTY to the Constitution is a matter of some curiosity if it is considered in reference to the slave question. It has been said that Lincoln throughout his life regarded slavery un-Constitutional; but most of the evidence for this that I have seen is found in speeches Lincoln made to obviously anti-slavery, and often outright abolitionist, groups. (I hope I need not point out that Lincoln was a thoroughgoing and enterprising politician? But perhaps we have even forgotten this about old Honest Abe?) At any rate, it was true that by the time of his presidency, and surely by the end of the Civil War, Lincoln had resolved to settle the slave question, one way or another – and this together with his status as a “Republican,” and the duty he owed to the particular segment of society that had elected him, put upon his shoulders the task of either sowing the seeds for the dissolution of slavery, or – when the war came – destroying that institution forever.
      We have addressed already Lincoln’s position with regard to slavery during the war; so let us concern ourselves for a moment in his position before the war – the position which caused the secession of the South. For this position, and the crisis it ignited, shall tell us very much indeed about the way Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has become for us a founding document.
The ultimate cause the Civil War was not slavery. This fact needs to be insisted upon in this day, needs to be insisted upon in the face of all the bromides and the homilies and the smug platitudes we hear constantly perpetuated regarding that war. We have had a century and a half to throw off the somnolent chains of pleasant illusion: how many of us can say on behalf of this distance that we see more clearly, more freely of the comforting haze of Opinion and Righteousness? How many of us Americans even now have sufficiently disciplined or honest or piercing eyes for what occurred in those days?.. Nay, slavery was merely the occasion, the precipitation, the catalyst, for America’s Civil War. Neither was the cause of the Civil War the doctrine of state’s rights. Surely this doctrine was bantered about and was argued fiercely during this time; surely, it was upon this doctrine that the South felt it had the right to secede; but this, again, was only an occasional argument as far as the true causes of the war go, meaningful only as the rhetorical response of an enraged South to the actions of the North. Slavery and state’s rights, we might say, are but the fuse on the dynamite; where shall we look for the fire?
      We should look nowhere else than in the dispute over the Territories of the United States. It was this that fomented the secession; it was this that made the situation for the South intolerable enough that it was willing to secede.1 And in order to understand these disputes, we must look briefly at their history.
The disputes over the Territories of the United States began in the early eighteen-hundreds, and found their first legal formulation in the Missouri Compromise, a settlement of much-debated Constitutionality, which divided the Territories of the United States into two portions – one in which slavery was absolutely prohibited, and another in which slavery was not prohibited. This compromise definitively settled the question for thirty years, and would have perhaps have remained definitive if not for the politicking of 1850. During the legislative sessions of this year, certain measures were passed which disregarded the line of demarcation accepted in the Missouri Compromise, and instated a new line for the new Territories taken from Mexico: this new line would apply to New Mexico and California. I shall not consider the arguments behind or against this new legislation, nor its practical effects in the new states; it suffices to note that this legislation prepared the way for the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which in turn prepared the situation which sundered the Union.
      The Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 was essentially nothing other than a repeal of the Missouri Compromise. It understood itself as acting, in a more thorough manner, after the spirit of the 1850 legislation, and even went so far as explicitly to name that legislation as its precedent. Its stated purpose was “not to legislate slavery into any Territory or State, nor to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States.” It was considered a return to the established practice which had existed prior to the Missouri Compromise. In this established practice, the Territories were subject to a provisional governance through Congress until such a time as they had fulfilled the requisitions to become a state. This was in accord with that part of the Constitution which deals with the acceptance of new states to the Union, Section 3 of Article IV, which reads in part, “The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice and Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.” This passage was traditionally taken to give the Congress power to establish such temporary government as was required to uphold the dictates of the Constitution in the Territories.
      The Kansas-Nebraska Bill in and of itself would have caused no or at least comparatively little trouble in the relations between the North and the South, had it not been for a certain peculiar interpretation of that legislation. This interpretation, called the doctrine of “popular sovereignty,” or “squatter sovereignty,” as the pejorative of the South had it, held that the new settlers of the Territories had the right, before unifying into a state, to determine their mode of government and the manner of their institutions. If we are to seek anywhere for the pit of contention between the North and the South, this doctrine must be the place. For there was no requirement set as to the number of people who could fulfill this “popular sovereignty.” Presumably, a dozen would be as sufficient as a thousand. The doctrine merely held that, whenever such numbers as had arrived had established for themselves a government, that government would be considered the sovereign popular will. In the North, which was richer and more populated, no time was wasted in taking full advantage of this doctrine. Associations were formed with no purpose other than sending Northern emigrants and money into the Territories of the United States, often with the explicit purpose of barring slave-owning Southerners from settling. It was apparent that whosoever won the race to populate the Territories would be able to determine their government; and whosoever determined that government, would perforce establish the binding legislative precedent, when the time came to establish on that Territory a State.
      Speaking practically, this amounted to a prohibition, not on slavery, but on Southern immigration to the Territories of the United States, and more importantly, on Southern expansion into the Territories. Due to the hostility of Northern settlers, and due to the “personal liberty laws,” as well as the sentiment behind them, both in states and in Territories, it became increasingly impossible for the South to extend its population throughout the inchoate parts of America. Congressional legislation was passed to assuage these problems, and to insure the right of any man to entry into any part of the country – with or without his Negro servants. In 1854, the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court not only upheld this legislation, but effectively condemned the personal liberty laws as un-Constitutional. In spite of this, the aggression against slave-holding emigrants continued. Nor was there cessation in the North of the steadily growing call to abolish slavery.
      Now, it must be understood, prior to everything else, that slavery in the South was sewn into the very fabric of society. To remove it would be to remove half the stitchings of the cloth; it would be to dissolve the social structure; it would be to undermine the very foundations upon which that whole half of our country was built, as surely as if one put an absolute prohibition on factory ownership in the North. If slavery was to be dismantled, it could not be done with impunity, not all at once, neither for the owners of the slaves nor for the slaves themselves; such demands on the part of certain Northerners were dangerous and ignorant. We are not speaking of an “institution” which could be taken down or put up at will without too many secondary or tertiary effects; we are speaking of a way of life. It is commonplace among us to neglect this fact, for we do not see how anything so abhorrent as slavery could possibly contribute to a way of life. Our notion of a “way of life” is conveniently ringed in by our contemporary democratic standards, and has not the courage to step even two steps beyond.
      We must see clearly this state of affairs if we are to get anywhere in understanding the casus belli of the South, or indeed of the Southern reaction to the election of Lincoln. This state of affairs left the South in a position at once precarious and ominous. Southerners were unofficially held out of the free Territories, and could do nothing but watch as the North and the principles of the North gained in area, in population, and thus in legislative power. This, combined with the ever-growing abolitionism in the North, appeared direly threatening to the South, to its very continuation – to its traditions, its customs, its laws, and the very fountainhead of its rich life—to its ethos. If the North could gain a comparative superiority to the South in the legislature, what would stop it from wielding its powers to abolish slavery in the South – that is, to pass legislation against slavery in the United States? And what would stop it from passing legislation barring Southern slave holders from immigrating to the territories? In short – what would stop the North from pressing its own principles legally upon the South, at the expense of Southern principles – indeed, at the expense of the whole Southern social structure and way of life? – And yet, it was not this state of affairs as such that caused the secession.
      What, then? What at last drove the South to break from the Union?.. Not that the North threatened these actions, nor that its power to fulfill them was steadily growing, but that these actions were un-Constitutional, that they were against the founding principles of this government. The South broke from the North because the South held the actions of the North were against the tenets of our founding documents.
      Now, the Constitution guarantees slavery. This is true, no matter what form this guarantee takes. That the word “slave” is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution, that the Negro is never explicitly called property, does not belie these facts: first, that certain “persons” are mentioned, in three places in the Constitution, such that no discerning and knowledgeable reader can fail to grasp the purport of the passages; second, that these persons are not once called citizens, and at best could be thought of as three-fifths of a person; finally, that in one place, the Constitution sets specific provisions down for the “taxes or duties” to be put upon certain “importation” – that is, on persons who are imported; and no man, I think, can deny that this is explicitly the language of property, that one does not “import” human beings, nor does one lay taxes on them as objects. Let it be known: I have no doubts that the Founders expressed themselves in such an obscure manner because many of them were ashamed of slavery, and hoped that that institution would whither away of its own accord. But let it be also known: slavery was a preserve in the Constitution, and without a Constitutional amendment it could be undone. Slavery was presupposed and guaranteed at the founding of this country, and no amount of wishful thinking or moral indignation can erase this fact from the face of our history.
      The Constitution guarantees slavery, supposes that certain states in the Union will be slave states, and builds the South and the North into the Constitution as a sort of extension of the balance of powers – recalling all along that not the majority, but the minority requires the protection of the Constitution. But this means, short of an amendment to the Constitution, the North had no Constitutional right to pass laws prohibiting slave owners from migrating to the Territories. When the South broke the Union, it did so for this reason alone: because the Union no longer preserved the “general Welfare,” because the Union was already split, de facto, into two opposing segments, and because one of these segments had become a faction, seeking to disrupt the Constitutional justice of the nation, and seeking to gain absolute ascendancy over its antagonist.
      The Civil War was at its heart a war over the integrity of a way of life of a people, as embodied in the Constitution. Rather say, it was a war between two different ways of life, which demanded two different Constitutions. If they were to remain together, then one or the other had to fail—Lincoln was clear on this from the beginning, for a “house divided against itself cannot stand.” He took the part of the abolitionists—and in doing so set himself against the standing Constitution, in the name of a principle which we shall soon discuss. He recognized, as everyone in those days recognized, that slavery could only be abolished via an amendment to the Constitution—that is, through a legal change to the Constitution’s fabric. And for this same reason South was able to adopt a Constitution which was almost identical to the original, and which merely clarified the two questions the murkiness of which had caused such trouble: slavery on the one hand, and states’ rights on the other.
      Let it be a measure of the respective faith these two sides bore to the Constitution, the specific degree to which each of them was compelled to alter its first fabric to defend their customs. Lincoln was right about the centrality of the Constitution: he was wrong about what side it better defended, what side better defended it.

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Evergreen Revisited

ONE IS WELL served in the contemporary world by having a mind like an amoeba, which indiscriminately swallows everything it comes across—and has done with it as quickly. One really has to suspect that the daily consumers of the press—not to speak of the journalists themselves—are sprinters of such impossible stamina and speed, that beside them poor Peidippides seems but a short-winded tyro. Never have so many people spent so much time dwelling on the mere moribund facts of the day; and for this, it is safe to say, never has so much of human life been so ephemeral and so death-bound.
      These sluggish reflections aside—for I fear my long-legged reader has already far surpassed them, and is racing on well ahead—I would like today to proceed at least halfway in their spirit, by considering a “news item” which “broke” better than a month ago, and which has thus been lain to rest for almost as long. I return to it for the simple reason that nothing more has been heard of it—meaning that the state of affairs of the first days of June have not changed sufficiently to catch the restless eternally roving eye of our journalists. And since it is in itself a species of “news” that such a ludicrous situation could protract itself so long, then— But really, must we justify ourselves ever by the standards of the moment?
      The events to which I allude are by-now well familiar to many: namely, the “Day of Absence” and the subsequent protests which fell upon Evergreen State College toward the end of May of this year. (A useful overview of the debacle can be found here.) Summed in briefest terms: the students of this college decided, in the unfolding of a “tradition” which I will not bother to explain, that the white people of their “community” should subtract themselves from campus on the day in question, in order to demonstrate their solidarity with the “minorities” of the college. One professor, Bret Weinstein—an individual, incidentally, with a long history of “fighting racism”—refused to comply, on the very legitimate grounds that excluding individuals from campus on the grounds of their racial traits is the very epitome of racism. But of course, good Professor Weinstein forgot that “racism” in our day has been redefined: most conveniently for progressive liberals, it happens that only whites can in principle be racist. (No doubt it is an integral part of our white privilege.)
      But returning to our tale—Bret Weinstein dared to refuse this “invitation” to leave campus, but, after sending in an advisory note to the administration, held his class as usual. Or should have done so, had it not been for the angry mob which appeared at his door to interrupt his teaching, and to upbraid him in the harshest possible terms, and something less than civility. The President of Evergreen, no doubt following his native sagacity, ordered campus security not to intervene, effectively leaving Professor Weinstein stranded amidst the wolves. And despite my disagreements with the good professor, and despite the fact that I believe he is only harvesting that which he himself has long had his hand in disseminating, nonetheless I freely admit that he comported himself with dignity, courage, and admirable self-control in an extremely volatile and hostile situation.
      Enough—I have no will to rehash all the nonsense that followed. The campus descended into chaos for a number of days, as the student mob took control and began roving about with baseball bats in hand. At some point or other they browbeat the college President into acquiescing to a number of absurd and humiliating “demands” (insofar as one can speak of browbeating a man who appears to be as spiritually boneless as a jellyfish). There have since been protests and counter-protests, and a few scenes such as to make one giddy with the awareness of how truly comical our “culture” has become. Bret Weinstein and his wife (herself a professor at this “institution for higher learning”) were forced off campus for some weeks, as their security could not be vouched for, and so far as I know anything about it they have yet to return.
      Now what is startling in all of this is the total lack of accountability of all persons involved. No apology has been issued to Professor Weinstein for anything that happened. Only a single professor in the entire staff has volunteered his open support for Professor Weinstein, and one doubts he has been well repaid for it by the administration or the student body. Indeed, a flurry of demands have come from the student body, requesting, nay, commanding, the firing of Professor Weinstein. He has been accused, incredibly, of inciting violence against minority groups. Even if he maintains his position—which, given his brave comportment in late days, I would not put past him—I do not expect he will be among the more popular professors on campus.
      I said above that these events “fell upon Evergreen.” Yet it is quite inadequate to say that they “fell upon” that college; better say, they were incubated within it. And in the same way it seems to me that they have been incubating within our very educational system, not to say our society at large. It is easy to dismiss Evergreen as but an extreme example of certain unhappy tendencies in the “liberal arts,” but what is really remarkable is how little extreme it really is. Related events have been occurring with increasing frequency. I name only Berkeley, Middlebury, and Yale as examples of a trend. One might respond that these events are still relatively few and far between, that they do not represent the norm—but anyone who has been to college will recognize that they are far from being alien to the proclivities of contemporary academia. The contrary: they occur with a constancy and a consistency which alone can explain the silence surrounding them; for the most part, the only difference between what happened at Evergreen, and what happens with tolerable constancy on college campuses around the country, is that in general there is simply not any Bret Weinstein to put a wrench in the gears, and to cast these absurdities into the spotlight.
      It is difficult to imagine indeed that this kind of fiasco will do anything but grow more frequent and more bitter in coming years, for the simple reason that it is the direct child of our ways of thinking and living. In particular, it is the product of the dogmatic belief in “human equality”—“human equality” understood not as a juridical principle, but, as it were, as a moral and metaphysical principle, a basic and most fundamental feature of human beings by which societies must be ordered and governments arranged. The originating “equality before the law” upon which our liberal nations are founded, in its original sense has little or nothing to do with the establishment of “Equity Councels” dedicated to providing special services, special rules, special exceptions to special groups; it has nothing to do with attempting to eradicate the differences in circumstance standing between this or that “human group.” It cannot have anything to do with these attempts, for the very simple reason that in and of itself it is a repudiation of the entire idea of legal recognition of different human groups as groups. But “equality before the law” is never long for this world. Democratic man is much too short on attention to get so far as the fourth word of this neat little formulation—and he interprets his society accordingly.
      Our poor conservatives, unprepared as always to confront the crisis of modernity even so far as its third or fourth layer, object to all of this rather limply by insisting that it goes against freedom of speech. As if this meant anything any longer to the liberals of the progressive stamp—as if “freedom” were not to them merely a function of equality, a principle whose time can come only when “equality” has been perfected—which is to say, of course, “after the revolution,” at some unspecified future date, when our “progressive work” is finally accomplished and the last “Social Justice Warrior” has lain the last “inequity” to its eternal rest. Or, to speak more plainly and honestly, never.

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