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.

• • •

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.

• • •

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.

• • •

Reflections on the Gettysburg Address, Part I

WHATEVER ELSE MIGHT BE SAID in the end about the Civil War, this much remains: it was not our “historical sense,” nor was it the North, nor the South, that decided for us the meaning of that war; it was Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln alone. What do we as a people remember of the war, but that man? What do we as a people know of that war, but what he told us? Let it never be doubted what effect a single man can have on the courses of memory, even in such an historical age as our own. For us, Abraham Lincoln was the Civil War.
      But it is not Lincoln’s deeds that we remember and know so well; nay, it is his words; it is his words that consecrate that war, and dedicate it to a cause. As for the men who died – what are they, without this consecration and this dedication? In the North, some fought for plunder, and others for freedom, and others for Union; in the South, some fought for slavery, and others for honor, and others for the Constitution: who gave to these two aggregate sides a unified meaning? Who convinced us that the North, at bottom, fought for freedom, and the South, at bottom, fought for slavery? Who gave nobility to the one cause, and ignominy to the other? But this, all of this, belongs to Lincoln and to the words of Lincoln – words which the world took deep and lasting note of, and which it remembered long after the deeds of the soldiers in that war had perished to memory.
      Lincoln achieved this through his speeches. But what is distinctive to speeches is just this: they are words meant for the persuasion of a group. They are not written for one man, for his particular character, but for a host of men, and for what is held in common by that group. They are thus and must be rhetorical, or concerned with the effects of oral or written presentation. They are persuasive; they seek to render a given end; they seek to lead their listeners or readers into a given belief or into a given course of action. The speech is thus not at liberty to reveal the whole of the truth or of the author’s beliefs, because the speech must in nearly every situation speak to the prejudices and misconceptions of a group, and one to whom the author does not necessarily belong. To put it more bluntly, the speech lies. But the speech may be at liberty to lead to the truth, or at least to salutary lies; it may be at liberty, in other words, to persuade men, for tenuous but convincing reasons, to accept a given truth or good, or to act in a the service of that truth or good. Any speech thus contains in itself two different but fundamental questions: does the speech work in the service of truth or health, or of lies or sickness? And secondly: what is the means by which the speech persuades – where is the rhetoric to it, and how does it do its work? And naturally, the second question is not near so important as the first.

• • •

Lashing the Tongue

IN THESE “SKIRMISHES” of mine, I try, for certain definite reasons, to keep to that mass of trivial and transient happenings which is known under the name of “current events,” or more widely yet as “news.” I try to get beyond the mere happenings as they happen—for I am fully aware that the “news” of today shall be the “olds” even of tomorrow—and to indicate how they might, if we but think on them, show us the way to some wider view. For this I try ever to begin from some definite article present in this or that newspaper or journal. Today however I am not going to write of something which is to be found in the news—but rather something which is most interestingly absent, and has been for some time: namely, the fate of one Milo Yiannopoulos.
      Not four months ago one almost could not touch the internet without encountering his name somewhere or other, generally circumscribed by flames of infamy. It is not strange, of course, that a man should fly so prominently before the public eye for a week, a month, half a year, before fading thereafter once more into comparative obscurity. This is even the pattern of fame, governed as it is by the stunted memories and ephemeral hungers of the public. But Yiannopoulos’ cannot be described as a fading into obscurity so much as a plummeting into oblivion—a sudden, wrenching fall, precipitated by certain inflammatory comments. He made a brief reappearance lately when he announced he would be suing Simon & Schuster, the publishing house which dropped his book deal in the wake of the outrage elicited by these same comments—but this news item was something like a disturbance in a flock of pigeons: loud, brief, and quickly forgotten.
      I believe the conventional account of Yiannopoulos’ rise and fall could be put something like this: Yiannopoulos made a name for himself by going about spouting flagrant insults and unseemly comments on sensitive subjects, until one day he crossed the line with a number of really horrendous remarks which seemed to justify or mitigate pedophilia. Looking at his overall career, one might say then that he had courted controversy in order to attain notoriety, but pressed the game too far, and so became persona non grata, losing at once his job, a book deal with Simon & Schuster, and a speaking appointment with the CPAC.
    So much for the conventional account. Yet in truth the matter is considerably more interesting than that. In the first place, the by-now infamous remarks for which Yiannopoulos was shunned in fact date from January 2016, a full year before the scandal in question. They were brought to light with the specific intent of darkening Yiannopoulos’ image, to convince the CPAC to cancel his speaking appointment; they were published, that is to say, with defamatory intent. They were so wildly successful for the simple reason that they were picked up subsequently by Yiannopoulos’ most powerful detractors on the left, and brought against his reputation like a wrecking ball.
      Now, throughout all of this the question of freedom of speech of course was much bantered about—the question of the appropriate limits of that freedom, if there should be any at all, and just what that freedom is meant to protect. It is therefore easy to conclude that Yiannopoulos’ remarks simply transgressed those appropriate limits, and that he was silenced for having outraged the public morality. This in and of itself would not be particularly disturbing. No one believes that freedom of speech should protect an individual from public indignation, should he choose to utter immoral or reprehensible remarks. Freedom of speech is a legal, not a social, principle. The silencing of Milo Yiannopoulos would appear then to be nothing more than an utterly wholesome response to a rather detestable series of statements.
      But slow, now—for the plot thickens. According to what we have just said, Milo Yiannopoulos was cast out for having attempted to blur the clear moral lines distinguishing adult consent in sexual acts, from child abuse. Those who spoke most fervently against him, we may then suppose, are precisely those who refuse to countenance any blurring of the lines whatsoever.
      And if the matter were really so clear, we could let it rest in the silence to which it had rightly been consigned.
      Salon Magazine wasted no time in publishing numerous articles denouncing Yiannopoulos’ statements, and defending limitations on freedom of speech for the sake of democracy. Decidedly the moral high ground. This is the same Salon, however, which in that same period conveniently deleted an article it had previously published in which a man who self-identifies as a pedophile defends his urges. This is the same Salon which to this day has a several articles (see here and here) which seem to accord perfectly, if not with Yiannopoulos’ original remarks, then certainly with the apology he later made for them.
      Or again—Huffington Post ran a series of infuriated articles on the scandal, among which we find one entitled “Milo Yiannopoulos’s Downfall Demonstrates the Necessary Limits of Free Speech.” All well and good—save that this is the same Huffington Post to ran an article celebrating a little shop in New York which panders to those who fetishize sexual fantasies involving babies.
      The issue here, as should be abundantly clear, is not pederasty; the issue is that Yiannopoulos had, quite prior to this scandal, made himself detested amongst the liberal community in the United States. He was but fruit ripened for the fall. The issue here really does regard freedom of speech—but it does not at all regard our freedom to speak on matters of pedophilia. What is at stake here is rather our freedom to speak against this pious nonsense known as “political correctness.”
      Yiannopoulos made himself hated because he refused to bow to this piety. He made a name for himself in part by rubbing salt in open wounds. In what is perhaps the most infamous of these episodes, he mocked and reviled an especially poor actress, even pointing out rather gleefully that her responses to his mockery were semi-literate. (They were: evidently we are not permitted any longer to hold individuals even to the standards of good grammar.)
      There is little of chivalry in all of this, I will grant—but we are not living in chivalrous times. The fate of Yiannopoulos, the unofficial censorship to which he has been subjected, and the mass of pretexts and utterly misleading rationales that are given to defend it, is extremely disquieting. I have claimed, and I will claim again, that freedom and equality are at best uneasy bedfellows, and at worst incompatible and mutually destructive ideals. It seems to me that this entire episode is but another instance of how freedom is ceding fast to equality in our day, how our societies are becoming more and more egalitarian even at the expense of human liberty, and how the pious powers that be are forcing us to bow before this ludicrous ideal of human equality, even when it means suppressing our awareness of the most obvious and once uncontroversial differences between human beings. Indeed, I genuinely fear that we are fast heading in the United States toward that specific form of despotism to which our contemporary democracies are most especially prone. In the future, the confluence of our technology and our egalitarian ideology could well force us all into the shoes of Milo Yiannopoulos—reticent to speak our minds on any subject you please, for fear that some odd comment or other we have once made in passing might suddenly arise to strangle us into submission, lashing our tongues, costing us our jobs, our reputations, and our very futures.
      The already nigh-forgotten fate of Milo Yiannopoulos is important for us to remember, because it may well be but the harbinger of a nightmare which might fall upon all of our heads.

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The New Taboo

BILL MAHER, no stranger to controversy, has recently risked his job for the first time in fifteen years. For the use of a single word during one of his broadcasts, he has called down a rain of holy wrath, and has been accosted by heated demands from all sides that he should resign his position, or be forcibly removed from it. Well might one ask what word in our obscenity-obsessed and godless day any longer could possibly swing this kind of weight against its speaker. Maher broke the new taboo: he took the word “nigger” in vain.
      I have always had a certain distant respect for Maher. He seems to me a man who is willing to speak his mind even against those who agree with him, and in this he displays a kind of uncommon independence and courage. Back in 2001, but a week after the attacks on the Twin Towers, and when it was just becoming fashionable to refer to the terrorists as cowardly, he dared to point out that the word “coward” might not be a very appropriate fit for a man who sacrifices his life for a cause, no matter how erroneous or abhorrent that cause might be. He was roundly reproached for this simple shall we say semantic criticism, but he never apologized for it (his apologies centered merely on the misunderstanding of what he had said), and had to be taken off the public network where he then worked. But what might have been the ruin of another man was for him but the stepping stone to greater fame.
      Anyone who even occasionally watches Maher can attest that he has never lost this proclivity to defy those who support him, as is witnessed most saliently by his vocal and unpopular opposition to Islam. Yet this latest utterance proved a step too far, even for an inveterate scandal-seeder like Maher, and he was quick to apologize for his statement. Evidently, he found either his career or his conscience hanging in the balance—and in either case the episode is of some interest.
      One can always perceive the stark silhouette of a society’s deepest pieties in what it will not permit to be the subject of fast use and ridicule. Censorship of all kinds, and particularly that which is effected not by governmental fiat but by social convention, stems always from one of two urges: from the desire of the ruling order to maintain its power by silencing or shuttering opposition, or else from a society’s protective sense of the holy and the good. Modern censorship in the liberal West issues mainly from the second category. For instance, it was not so very long ago that one could count on strict regulation in the United States of vulgarities, and in certain European countries, like Italy, of blasphemies. The United States thus revealed its devotion to civility and propriety, and those other countries to Christian piety. This is surely no longer true. Under the auspices of freedom of speech, all of these prohibitions have been worn down to the nub, and stand to disappear completely. It is no longer to God nor even to decorum that we bow our heads in these latter days. No other word escaping from Bill Maher’s lips could have brought his employers to reprimand him, nor him to buckle. Perhaps the only other words which might have come close would have been other racial slurs. For we cherish nothing any longer, save the vague hope that each individual should be able to exist without feeling himself discriminated against. Our new piety is the piety of tolerance.
      Now, Bill Maher, for all that he is often esteemed as something more, is at bottom a comedian, and comedians in our liberal society are given a liberty of speech which is not permitted to anyone else. There is not a single act nor issue, nor matter how heinous nor sensitive, that one of our comedians has not pilloried upon the stage. Infanticide, rape, mortal diseases—all’s fair game. Yet the racial question is evidently not to be touched—at least not by white comedians. Nor is this the first time this single word has fallen upon its user: Michael Richards, for instance, effectively had his career ruined when he let this little word slip in a comedy club, nor could redeem himself even in an abject ceremony of contrition which make Maher’s apology seem like a stiff-lipped concession to merest necessity. Nothing any longer is sacred to us—not virtue, not religion, nor any mystery of human nature or human deed—nothing except “diversity.” We have replaced the sacred with this wretched sense of obsequious slavishness in the face of our neighbor, this hankering fear of troubling his soul or upsetting his holy equilibrium. We codify this in our “political correctness,” that ubiquitous vague commandment to avoid stepping on toes, which replaces divine will with the whims of the weakest among us. Is it any wonder then when those most subjected to this code finally throw it off in an act of indignant liberation? For truly, one can build a culture and grow a people around the sanctity of the name of a god, and laws which punish the blasphemer and the impious; but around this silly urge to spare feelings alone, one cannot even form up a decent self-help group.
      And this leads me to the second question underlying Bill Maher’s gaffe. This word “nigger” does not exist in a kind of sealed verbal container, so that it and it alone of all the words in the lexicon causes such wrath and disease: on the contrary, it is but most salient exemplar of a trend. It summons forth the same angry instinct which brought Professors Bret Weinstein and Nicholas Christakis to grief when they dared defy the growing racial animus now infecting our universities. All of this is but sign of a growing hostility toward whites as whites, an emerging sense that whites are somehow given by virtue of their birth some kind of “privilege” which non-whites lack, and that they must therefore some way or another be brought to feel shame for this. Shame, we are made to understand, even if very few will ever say as much, is the only means by which we may dispossess ourselves of our cruel “privilege.” The new censorship is built almost exclusively upon this idea, and would crumble to dust without it. It really is, as I have called it elsewhere, the glue that binds.
      This censorship is all the more insidious insofar as it does not come from above, from government, but rather from “around,” from society. No court of law has come down on Maher’s head to tell him to retract his statements; HBO and various celebrities and journalists have done all the work. And it is HBO that has unilaterally decided that no future broadcast of this episode will contain Maher’s offensive remarks, but they will be expunged utterly from the record. Or take again Bret Weinstein, mentioned above, who had the gall to refuse to distance himself from campus on account of his white skin. The faculty of his own university are gathering against him now, calling for disciplinary action, accusing him of endangering the student body. Anyone who has seen the footage of him speaking with the students will witness in him the admirable embodiment of calm reason in the face of an angry mob, and will recognize that the only person in any danger that day was Weinstein himself. But our ability to confront the ludicrous accusations against him with the reality of what happened, depends decisively on the decision of private individuals: for the original video was most conveniently taken off of YouTube for reasons of “violating YouTube’s policy on harassment and bullying.” (One would like to know, harassment and bullying of whom precisely?) We are witness more and more to a creeping and purely social censorship, justified on the grounds of political correctness, everywhere accepted, no where challenged, except on the loose fringes of our society.
      The going ideology would have us build pluralistic societies. I wonder on what basis they hope to accomplish such egregious utopias? Taking but one of the most advanced examples of such a society—the blacks and the whites in the United States of America, who have lived together now a quarter millennium—one really must wonder: how are these two groups alone ever to form anything like a pluralistic union, if the one of them is forever harping about oppression, and the other is forever tiptoeing about in fear of reprisals for behaving in “racist” ways? The past is heavy, too heavy to cast off so lightly as that, and I tremble to think on the future. For in a spirit which is best characterized as vindictive, non-whites are quickly establishing a new taboo, forging a new sacred and untouchable ideal, something lodged deep in the non-white heart which they call their “identity” and which they permit no man to besmirch. It is an ideal in which whites have absolutely no part, but before which they are made to genuflect regardless. Any who defy this taboo will be cast out and spurned—and it would be ingenuous in the extreme to suppose that this tendency will diminish in coming years, as non-whites become the more numerous and more powerful, and as whites diminish in both numbers and in influence. Nay, but matters shall so proceed, and this taboo grow to monstrous proportions and potencies, until the one group is able to forego its resentment, or the other group its shame.

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