One day we will all be long gone. That’s an existential observation elusive to day-to-day contemplation, and probably for good reason, but my contention is that an approaching election is precisely the moment for such reflections. The question is: What will be left of us; what will we leave behind?
I’ve talked to those who are feeling increasing anxiety over what’s been happening in this country: the polarization, the point of view that cannot forgive contradiction, the appeal to malice and hatred, violence that is both implicit and real. Just as worrisome is the perception that fealty to political party is overwhelming interest in what’s best for the country.
The term yellow journalism, which you could consider the precursor to “fake news” and which refers to accounts made for sensationalism’s sake, has been around for a long time. The only eyewitness account that survives of Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Meriden is by a partisan newspaper that trashed his speech. The Meriden Banner, a paper that didn’t last very long, said Lincoln’s speech at town hall in 1860 was a “tediously dull and uninteresting speech.”
What’s different today, of course, is television, the internet, social media and the around-the-clock news cycle that can never rest. Partisanship is now bolstered by major news organizations that make their way by reflecting back the bias of their viewers. When Shepard Smith, the news anchor, tried to reassure viewers recently about the caravan heading up from Mexico, saying that “there is no invasion — no one is coming to get you,” it was Fox News recalcitrance.
You could say that the nation, this great American experiment, has always been at odds with itself. Even the 1950s, regarded as an era of happiness and prosperity, had to endure ruinous McCarthyism.
Yet some of those who have been around for a while, including yours truly, will tell you something now feels different, more menacing to the future of the country.
Everyone knows that the democracy of Athens did not survive. In an intriguingly titled article, “What Thucydides Knew About the US Today,” Edward Mendelson writes about the great historian of the ancient world’s account of how during the Peloponnesian War “Athens was afflicted by the plague, and its democracy collapsed into ‘a state of unprecedented lawlessness.’”
The article, which appears in a recent New York Review of Books, is worth checking out in its entirety. It ends with a long segment from Thucydides that includes descriptions that seem disarmingly familiar. Here are a few snippets:
“Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils. To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had broken out.”
And: “Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion.”
I have been thinking lately of Lincoln. He is the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this column. When we are long gone, even more distant in time than the Athens Thucydides describes, Lincoln is the one likely to survive.
That contention is bolstered by an anecdote found in “Team of Rivals,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which tells of Leo Tolstoy’s visit to a “wild and remote area of the North Caucasus” in 1908. The great Russian author arrived with tales of Alexander, Caesar, Frederick the Great and Napoleon, but what the people, far removed from the world, wanted to hear about was Lincoln. Lincoln may not have been a general, Tolstoy wrote, “but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and the greatness of his character.”
Greatly admired is Lincoln’s first inaugural address, delivered as the nation was reeling from divisiveness that became the Civil War. His concluding appeal to “the better angels of our nature” was a revision of a draft by his secretary of state, William Seward, who had written “the guardian angel of the nation.”
Lincoln’s more poetic take put the angels as not to the nation from above, but from within us. If Thucydides carries a warning of impending darkness, Lincoln is our light.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or email@example.com