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Thursday, November 11th, 2010

New Orleans, Louisiana


Abraham Lincoln was elected President 150 years ago this week.  Civil War buffs are looking back to these war years for lessons learned in the current debate over the stagnation of the American political process today.  Historians have written over 26, 000 books on this time in history with the premise that there were two Americas-a house divided-back then. Do we find the same two Americas today?

The Tea Party movement has engulfed a Republican Party that now has an agenda of low expectations centered on whatever it takes to beat Obama in 2012. The Democrats, from the President on down, have lost control of the narrative with little vision of passion being offered to the American public.  Forty percent of American voters think it’s time for a third party alternative.

Historian Philip Kennicott tells us that “The Civil War taught us, as a nation, our patterns of argument, our impatience with hypocrisy, our sense that every election is an apocalypse.  It taught us how to be stupid, how to provoke our enemies, how to resist modernity, how to fight on after logic an argument have failed.”

I’m not all that big a Lincoln fan. Lincoln was the guy who micromanaged a war that took the lives of almost 1,000,000 Americans.  On one day alone, September 17, 1862, more American soldiers were killed in the Battle of Antietam than in all other wars fought by the United States in the 19th century put together.  How did Lincoln, this supposedly great compromiser, allow such devastation to take place?  And many Louisianans can never forgive Lincoln for his failure to stop notorious Union Gen. Benjamin Butler’s decree that any woman in New Orleans and surrounding areas who did not show respect for Union Troops should be considered and treated like a prostitute.

Having expressed this caveat, give Lincoln credit for believing that he had history on his side.  His appreciation of history was not free will, but a belief that deterministic forces gave his view of America as an upward spiral of progress.  Perhaps he did not read 18th century philosophers like Kant and Hegel, but he adopted their premise that, as Kennicott suggests, “There is a pattern and a progress to history, rather than endless cycles of growth, violence and decay.”Â Â  What Hegel viewed as a “grand process of the consciousness of Freedom.”

There is a special passion for those who want to be left alone, and in that effort, to resist progress in the world around us and the right to say “no, thank you” to modernity. Who would oppose the Quaker community in their belief of self subsistence and privacy? Retreating into private conviction is an important part of the American character.

If you listen to my radio shows, you know I use the “stay out of my face” mantra directed to our politicians not to impose their social views on me frequently.  Don’t want to wear a motorcycle helmet?  Fine, but don’t expect me to pay your health care expenses when your insurance payments run out (if you even bought insurance) because of your stupid decision.  Want to smoke?  Your choice, just don’t smoke anywhere around me, and don’t expect me to cover any of your medical costs in your final days of agony from your lung cancer.  Do your thing, but leave me alone,

Having said all this, we come back to Lincoln’s vision of history for America as being a special place on a historical path that transcends politics, economics and morality. For Lincoln, History for America had a capital H. He felt it imperative that political leaders of his time pass on to the next generation just w hat it means to be an American.  The weakness of both national parties is their failure to both grapple with and convey the premise that America cannot survive as the leader of the free world unless there is a “why “to survive.

Republicans and Democrats alike have not articulated what our country’s values are.  Just what is it that makes this country exceptional with a system of government unparalleled in human history?  I personally believe there is a uniqueness that gives or county a special place in the world today.  And I would disagree with President Obama, who said recently that America is exceptional to Americans in the same way Greece is exceptional to Greeks, and Germany is exceptional to Germans.

Lincoln’s vision of American exceptionalism can be found on any coin in your pocket.  Three basic concepts.  And no other country has these three.  In God we Trust, E Pluribus Unum, and Liberty.

In God we trust?  America was founded on the notion the God is the source of our values.  That’s why the Declaration of Independence says we have inalienable rights.  Not man given, not from humanism, not from great thinkers, but these rights have come from God.  No God, then rights can be taken away by government.  God is a central part of this country’s foundation.

E Pluribus Unum.  From the many, one.  We don’t care where you come from, or your color, creed, race or religion.  If you stand with us to build this country, then you are one of us.  From the many, one.

And finally, Liberty.  The French also endorse liberty as a basic right.  (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity).  But notice in the French version, freedom is adopted as a part of equality. Equality when you are born, and the right for government to give you equality as you grow old.  The difference in America is that we all agree we are born equal, but then we are on our own to make ourselves what we want.  Where you end up is your business.

Does anyone really feel that either national party has articulated a vision that makes America special?  The passion that drove the Obama election in 2008 has been bottled up and stored away over the past two years.  The President has let his narrative slip away, and his party leaders have failed to pick up the mantle and offer any independent hope that our country is on the right path to economic recovery.

Republicans certainly have little to gloat about despite their recent election victories.  The Republican leadership has missed the opportunity to offer any realistic diagnosis of where we are as a country and what it will take to reestablish sustainable growth. Doing no more than demanding tax cuts while we are still fighting two wars and mired in a recession seems to be a limp response from a dysfunctional political system.

Voters are hungry for leadership and someone or some party to define the “Why” of being an American.  If this mantle of leadership is not seized upon, than as night follows day, disappointment, vexation, and anger are sure to follow.


“America is much more than a geographical fact.  It is a political and moral fact – the first community in which men set out in principle to institutionalize freedom, responsible government, and human equality.” ~Adlai Stevenson

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South.  You can read all is past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownla.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownla.com. The show is televised at http://www.justin.tv/jimbrownusa.

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