A Cure for Incivility

It’s hard to remember, or believe, that one of the things Bush promised when the Supreme Court finally elected him president oh so many years ago was to bring civility back to our national political culture. It was the usual sham Bush promise and it was forgotten long before Vice President Cheney told Senator Patrick Leahy to go f**k himself last year.

I’m thinking of the whole civility issue because it comes up in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book on Lincoln’s presidency, “Team of Rivals.” She relates how Edward Bates, who like Lincoln was a dark horse candidate for the Republican nomination in 1860, had gotten into a dispute with a fellow congressman while serving in the House in 1828. Things got personal enough that Bates challenged his opponent to a duel; the challenge prompted an apology, and the matter went no further.

Goodwin quotes one of Bates’s friends, Charles Gibson, about the beneficial effects of the code of dueling on polite political discourse:

” ‘The code preserrved a dignity, justice and decorum that have since been lost. to the great detriment of the professions, the public, and the government. The present generation will think me barbarous but I believe that some lives lost in protecting the tone of the bar and the press, on which the Republic so largely depends, are well spent.’ ”

Interesting to contemplate: You have to wonder who among the current generation of TV pundits might survive the bloodletting if dueling were the fashion nowadays; and of course the folks you’d be seeing on the air at this point would be a mix of the timid, the utterly polite, and the best shooters and fencers.

Things Aren’t Getting Worse

Odd and ends to keep in mind when you begin to feel like the idiots have taken control (of course, it’s just a partial list; consider it in progress):

The Wisdom of Crowds, 18th Century Style: An estimated one-third of the colonial population at the outset of the American Revolution supported the British. One-third were on the fence. One-third bought into the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” thing enough to actively support the rebellion.

Keep Your Damned Foreign Books: After the British burned the Library of Congress during the war of 1812, former President Thomas Jefferson offered to help re-establish it by selling his large personal library to the government. Representative Cyrus King of Massachusetts argued against the purchase because he objected to the ideas that might be found inside Jefferson’s collection: “It might be inferred, from the character of the man who collected it, and France, where the collection was made, that the library contained irreligious and immoral books, works of the French philosophers, who caused and influenced the volcano of the French Revolution. The bill would put $23,999 into Jefferson’s pocket for about 6,000 books, good, bad and indifferent, old, new and worthless, in languages which many cannot read and most ought not.”

Nice Phrase — Now Get Lost: In the Senate campaign of 1858, in which Lincoln memorably argued that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” he lost.

Evolution for the Hell of It: In the 1925 “Monkey Trial,” in which John Scopes was put in the dock for violating a Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution, Scopes was convicted. The law under which Scopes was prosecuted stayed on the books until 1967.

See? The idiots always been in control, or waiting in the wings.

Lincoln and Bush

Still thinking about Lincoln and the current Bush and whether they would have been on the same side during the current or former unpleasantness. I figured the White House must have had a Lincoln’s Birthday event that might shed some light on the question. Checking the White House site, sure enough: George and Laura hosted a performance of “Lincoln Seen and Heard,” a dramatic presentation of some of the 16th president’s speeches and writings. Sam Waterston, who was Lincoln’s voice for Ken Burns’s Civil War series, presented the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The latter was delivered about five weeks before Lee surrendered at Appomattox; it had finally become clear which way the way would go. Yet Lincoln’s words, which he knew would be read in the South, are entirely without a sense of triumph. Bush could have learned something from that before he put the flight suit on and flew out to that carrier. But of course, if he was liable to learn a lesson like that, he wouldn’t be our George.

At the end of the evening, Bush talked briefly about what he had heard. He said Lincoln was our greatest president. And he hinted, of course, that Lincoln’s words bolster his program to shock and awe the world’s evildoers out of existence with high explosives and the wonders of democracy:

“The Civil War was decided on the battlefield; the larger fight for America’s soul was waged with Lincoln’s words. In his own day, Lincoln set himself squarely against a culture that held that some human beings were not intended by their Maker for freedom. And as President, he acted in the conviction that holding the Union together was the only way to hold America true to the founding promise of freedom and equality for all. And that is why, in my judgment, he was America’s greatest President.

“We’re familiar with the words of the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural, so eloquently read by Sam. And this performance reminds us that Lincoln wrote his words to be spoken aloud — to persuade, to challenge, and to inspire. Abraham Lincoln was a master of the English language, but his true mother tongue was liberty.

“I hope that every American might have the experience we had here tonight, to hear Lincoln’s words delivered with Lincoln’s passion, and to leave with a greater appreciation for what these words of freedom mean in our own time.”

Abe Lincoln, Gay Republican

Gaylincoln Giving “Lincoln bedroom” a whole new meaning: The New York Times has a story this morning on a new book that says  Abraham Lincoln, our gloomiest president, was “gay.” The work, “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln” by the now-deceased psychologist and sex researcher C.A. Tripp, focuses on two men with whom Lincoln shared a bed: a four-year bunkmate in Illinois and a bodyguard who hunkered down with the chief executive for a time during the Civil War.

The Times quotes Larry Kramer, the AIDS activist, as saying, “… the most important president in the history of the United States was gay. Now maybe they’ll leave us alone, all those people in the party he founded.” (He’s got to be kidding: This is going to send the anti-gay conservatives into paroxysms of rage about the “home-a-sekshool conspiracy to turn America home-a-sekshool.”) One historian, Jean H. Baker, speculates in the article that Lincoln’s gayness could explain his willingness to break with popular opinion on slavery and issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

It turns out the stories about Lincoln bedding down with dudes are both true and well-worn (examples of past online posts here and here, and the discussion is said to go back to Lincoln’s lifetime; in my own sheltered experience I hadn’t encountered this idea before). But here’s the thing: Even if it’s true that, apart from sleeping under the same covers, he was sexually involved with these guys, isn’t there something false or forced in mapping the modern idea of gayness onto him, as the people reacting to this book are doing? As the Times notes, the word homosexual was coined only in the 1890s; ideas like gay consciousness and queer liberation have emerged much more recently. Just consider the world Lincoln emerged from: Homosexual sex was a criminal offense, and had been for centuries in Britain and America (the Wikipedia notes in its review of the history of sodomy law that the first such statute on the books was Henry VIII’s Buggery Act).

Not that we can’t interpret the past with our own knowledge and understanding of the world today: We really don’t have a choice. So in the case of Thomas Jefferson, we see something odious in the fact he couldn’t bring himself to free his slaves and had a prolonged conjugal relationship with one of them. But that doesn’t make him a member of the Jim Crow movement or the Klan. Likewise with Lincoln: If he did have a thing for guys, it’s a much more complicated matter than simply labeling him the Gay Emancipator to figure out what his homosexuality meant both to him and to history.