Abraham Lincoln

Birnam Wood Comes to Dunsinane

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“Study for the Three Witches in Macbeth” by Henry Fuseli, oil on canvas. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The First Apparition (“an armed Head”) warned him to beware Macduff, Thane of Fife; the Second (“a bloody Child”) prophesied that none of woman born could harm him. The Third Apparition (“a Child crowned, with a tree in his hand”) counseled him to assume the mettle of a lion:

                                                 Take no care

Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.

Macbeth shall never vanquished be until

Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill

Shall come against him (4.1.90-94).

From then on, his purpose became firm and clear. He set to “crown my thoughts with acts” by seizing Macduff’s castle and the dominion of Fife. To ensure the end of Macduff’s issue, he resolved to kill “his wife, his babes and all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line” (4.1.148-153).[1]

“I think nothing equals Macbeth,wrote Abraham Lincoln. “It is wonderful.”

Lincoln’s praise has stood the test of time. Hamlet may be a better play and King Lear a greater tragedy, but a special power inhabits Macbeth, which has led superstitious theater people to talk about the great play in hushed tones and to refer to its title by euphemisms such as “the Scottish play.”

Is there any other play the name of which we fear to speak? (more…)

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The Exterminating Angel

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The Exterminating Angel, also known as Guardian Angel, is a sculpture by Josep Llimona dated in 1895. Built on the ruins of an ancient cemetery which in turn was built on the remains of an old church of the fifteenth century. The Exterminating Angel is the “Angel of the bottomless pit” who reign over locusts that devastate humanity “not marked on the forehead with the seal of God” (Revelation 9:11). (Credit: Andrés Suárez García)

My mother was a gifted psychic who never believed her talent was a big deal. She scoffed at poseurs and charlatans, was highly suspicious of the use of spirituality for profit, and reserved a deep respect for Catholic nuns and Catholic schooling. Never a churchgoing person, she had a profound faith in the power of her plaster image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (a gift from my father to her before their wedding), and an unswerving belief in the principle of Poetic Justice in the world. She never called it karma, but she maintained, to the end of her life, that eventually we all get our just deserts.

I have been thinking a great deal about my mother during this crisis of abduction and hostage taking of immigrant children by the US government. I remember distinctly the day at the Havana airport when we left Cuba in 1961. At the enclosed glass-area that led to the Pan American airplane, my mother and my aunt were taken away by female guards to be body-searched (Castro militias were looking for unauthorized money or jewels leaving the country). To this day, I remember the fear that engulfed me as I was left by myself with my young sister (I was 7, she was 6) in the departure area. (more…)

The Two Wars of U.S. Grant

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Battle of Churubusco during the Mexican-American War, painting by Carl Nebel, lithograph by Adolphe Jean-Baptiste Bayot, 1851. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Both wars, in the estimation of U.S. Grant, had been “unholy.”[1]

Details of the Mexican-American War of the 19th century have faded from public memory—except perhaps in Mexico. Still, the following judgment by Grant sets the harsh light of revelation upon the motives and measures of the event:

To this day [I] regard the war which resulted as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.[2]

In Grant’s view the war was not only a naked land-grab, but also a betrayal of the foundations of a democratic republic in the pursuit of the inclinations of an imperial monarchy. It was an unadorned attempt to expand the institution of slavery to new territories: (more…)

They’re Coming for You at Standing Rock

for Sam Lofland and Miranda Zent

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American Bison in North Dakota, 29 December 2013. (Credit: HalfGig / Wikimedia Commons)

Standing Rock is the reservation where Sitting Bull was killed by Tribal Police. At Standing Rock in the Dakotas, after the visit by the holy prophet Kicking Bear, Ghost Dancers prayed and danced for the regeneration of the earth and the return of the buffalo during the Ghost Dance movement of the 1890s.

In the aftermath of the Fetterman Massacre in 1866 (the Sioux called it the Battle of the Hundred Slain), General William Tecumseh Sherman argued an Indian policy of “peace within the reservation and war without.” The simplest way of bringing Plains Indians to confinement, Sherman wrote to Philip Sheridan, was “to invite all the sportsmen of England and America … for a Great Buffalo Hunt and make a grand sweep of them all.” The buffalo herds vanished from the Northern Plains between 1876 and 1882.

When Sitting Bull returned from Canada and surrendered in 1881, he addressed US military officers: “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last of my tribe to surrender my rifle. This boy [Sitting Bull’s son] has given it to you, and he now wants to know how he is going to make a living.” [i] (more…)

The Party of Abraham Lincoln

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United States Republican presidential ticket, 1864. Print shows a campaign banner for 1864 Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln and running mate Andrew Johnson. (Credit: Currier and Ives)

I don’t understand the modern Republican Party. Why conjure the ghost of Ronald Reagan rather than the living presence of Abraham Lincoln? Unless you have moved so far away from the spirit of Lincoln that his biblical language is no longer an inspiration, but rather an embarrassment.

In the mid-1850s, the appearance of the Know-Nothings in the US political scene threatened the integrity of the two-party electoral system. The Know-Nothings, according to James McPherson, “generally favored temperance and always opposed tax support for parochial schools. Their main goal was to reduce the power of foreign-born voters in politics.” In a letter to his friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln countered the threat of the Know-Nothings:

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.[i]

(more…)

The Chair of Abraham Lincoln

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Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, 9 February 1864, by Anthony Berger. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Assume for a moment that the present status of undocumented immigrants in the US is exactly what we want it to be: except for the criminals, we want them working in the country (in spite of our self-righteous talk about walls and mass deportations); but we don’t want to legalize their status—no amnesty and no path to US citizenship. In these times of deplorable political rhetoric, one does well to find guidance in the bosom of Abraham Lincoln, who was once branded “Abraham Africanus I” by a Copperhead political pamphlet.

Lincoln understood the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court as a cog (“piece of machinery so to speak”) in an effort by the Southern states to “declare the perfect freedom of the people, to be just no freedom at all.”

Here is Lincoln’s analysis of the decision: (more…)

Three-Dimensional Democracy

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“Stump Speaking,” oil on canvas, by George Caleb Bingham, 1853-54. (Credit: St. Louis Art Museum)

“. . . faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Hebrews 11.1 (Holy Bible NRSV)

Surely, faith in democracy is a steadfast hope for a condition of self-rule that so far remains unrealized—a belief in the unseen.   What passes for democracy these days is more akin to oligarchy than self-rule, with democracy reduced to the conceit of ritualized voting.

The political imagination, as Sheldon Wolin holds, is a function of vision, of “seeing” a phenomenon in political space from a particular angle or perspective. Such vision can be descriptive or, more to the point, imaginative. As an act of imagination, it expresses fundamental values and seeks to transcend history. It is a multidimensional image that projects “the political order into a time that is yet to be”—an aesthetic vision of “political society in its corrected fullness, not as it is but as it might be.”[i]

An image of the people engaged in self-rule is the essence of the democratic faith. Two of its three dimensions, as I indicated in “Democracy with Property,” are the twin populist principles of increased political decentralization and adequate distribution of personal wealth, enough to keep elites from dominating the citizenry.   (more…)

Myths and the Empire

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“Lincoln Speaks to Freedmen on the Steps of the Capital at Richmond,” oil on canvas, by Gus Nall, 1963. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Traditionally myths are considered stories about the gods. But more accurately, myths are stories from the gods. Perhaps it is more comfortable to consider them, according to the less beautiful terminology of our times, stories from the unconscious. In Jungian terms, myths are archetypal manifestations that take the form of narratives.

Ritual is the enactment of a myth (this is Joseph Campbell’s definition). Ritual performance brings myths into our reality, and according to Black Elk, spread their sacred power among the tribe, thus making the world “greener and happier.”

An angel can turn into a devil before our eyes: Lucifer becomes Satan. The reverse can also be true: Joan of Arc, burned as a witch, becomes saint. A myth can be perceived as containing a hero (George Armstrong Custer) engaged in mortal struggle with an antagonist (Sitting Bull), and a moral that legitimizes Custer as representing the forces of good and Sitting Bull as an evil avatar. But then times change, our hopes and fears transform, and reason—ever a servant to our formulations—re-casts Sitting Bull as a patriot warrior and Custer as a fool. (more…)

Abraham’s Angels

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Abraham Lincoln, 9 Feb. 1864. (Credit: Library of Congress)

After listening (a painful experience) to the Republican primary debate last week, I fled from its display of vanities, Orwellian language and outdated thinking to the words of Abraham Lincoln:

Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

(First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861)

Who is so small as to claim Ronald Reagan to be their model and exemplar when they have inherited the mantle of Abraham Lincoln? What do you say about people who prefer Reagan’s speeches to the poetry of Lincoln? Reagan was a B-movie Hollywood actor; Lincoln was a student of the King James Bible and a critic of Shakespearean texts. And yet in our unfortunate times, it is Reagan who is called the Great Communicator. (more…)

End of Empire

"Four Horsemen of Apocalypse," by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Four Horsemen of Apocalypse,” by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like Gabriel sounding the trumpet for the Final Judgment, or like an unwanted guest who names the rope in the hanged man’s house, Francis I stood before our Clown Congress and spoke the names of four American warrior saints. If our legislators would know them, or come to know more about them, they would realize that the Pope was urging upon us the consequences—in the course of time—of following the words of these Four Riders of the Apocalypse.   (more…)