I was reading this great article this morning on the real history of our country. It started off talking about how the “Revolutionaries” of the American Revolution were not part of the writing of the Constitution, i.e., the founding of a central government. Some of those who played a major role in the Revolution were fighting for the freedom to do whatever they wanted. Others engaged in it because they wanted to be the ruler, not George III. For some it was a struggle between liberty and tyranny (no, I’m not a Mark Levine fan, I find it annoying though that the phrase liberty and tyranny makes me think of his not-so-great “book”), and for others it was about who was going to rule. If that didn’t catch my attention, the article went on to “bash” the myth of Lincoln. So the author went on tearing down what I call the state myths. These ideas that are so well-trenched in our minds that we don’t recognize them as being carefully nurtured by the state.
Suffice to say, I thought it was an excellent article.
But then I read a comment someone left about it. That was interesting. They brought up the whole issue of “what good does it do to stand around bashing our Founding Fathers, tearing Lincoln down, destroying nearly every hero we ever believed in? That doesn’t do anything for our current situation.” They said something like, “we should focus on the practical and plausible, not the philosophical.”
And that made me stop and think about the whole issue of pragmatism and principles. The practical vs. the philosophical. And here’s my take on it.
Ideas are the most powerful thing in this world. More powerful than armies. More powerful than dictators. You can assassinate a dictator. You can burn all books and make certain things “thought-crime.” And yet that will not kill an idea. I’m a fan of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer who lived through years in a Siberian prison. If there were any conditions that would kill the idea of liberty, it would be those conditions under Stalin. And yet Solzhenitsyn did not despair. He did not give up. The idea of liberty was so firmly planted in his mind that years of hard labor and indoctrination could not remove it. We can argue about why ideas are powerful. I tend to think that the concept of liberty is directly related to the existence of God, and just as we cannot erase the idea of God from our hearts, no one can “kill” the idea of liberty.
In light of that, I think that the philosophy of who Lincoln was, what motivated our Founding Fathers, etc…will determine what we think about practical subjects. For instance…if we believe that a central government was absolutely necessary in the beginning of our country, if the Founding Fathers saw that we simply had to have some central authority, if we believe that the War of Northern Aggression (aka the Civil War) was about saving the Union and that this Union, united by the central government, was of paramount importance and was more important than individuals and individual liberty, then we will have a very centralized idea about the United States now. We will resist nullification, as this means that states are rebelling against and weakening the Union, and we cannot have that. If we think Lincoln was all good, we will think that some bad things are necessary for a good end. We will believe that the end justifies the means. And so we will not hesitate now to support something bad in order that something good come.
So, when we talk about historical events and people, it is more than just an intellectual exercise, more than just being entertained by these politically incorrect ideas. What we think about the past will determine what we do now, and of course, if we don’t understand the past, then we will repeat it.