Good History

We all have ways of coping. Some have become compulsively obsessive about the news, network and cable, beginning every day with the 7:00 news to see if any new outrage has been committed overnight, any new allies insulted, any new payments made to hide yet another sexual dalliance, any new bullying insult leveled. These are the ones – and I confess that I have become one of them from time to time – who find themselves doing something they have never ever done before: turning the television on in the middle of the day to see what new threat to the nation we love, its laws, heritage and values, has occurred, even bouncing between cable news networks between innings and pitching changes during Cubs games.

Others, more wisely, have stopped watching television and the news altogether. Friends who have done it tell me that they feel better, sleep better, worry less and, all in all, experience a general improvement in quality of life. I am seriously considering doing it as well although it does seem slightly frivolous and irresponsible while the very foundations of democracy, freedom of expression, the rule of law, trust in the institutions of government are eroding under the unrelenting assault of the president himself and his supporters.

Some, and I have joined their ranks on occasion, take to the streets to protest.

The coping method I have chosen is to read intentionally in a way that recovers hope through a fresh look at history. In the introduction to a recently published book of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, Marilynne Robinson writes: “The country is in a state of bewilderment that cries out for good history.”

So – in The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels, Jon Meacham examines times of particular stress and danger to our nation and the political leaders, often presidents, who rose to the occasion and inspired the country “to come through a darkness which it has come through before.” Washington and Jefferson, Lincoln and Grant, FDR, HST and JFK. Along the way citizens, often members of oppressed minorities and others, rose up to inspire and demand freedom and justice: Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The nation has been vulnerable to the abuses of racism, sexism, nativism, bigotry. After the Civil War the KKK grew into a potent political force as well as a domestic terror organization, terrorizing newly freed African American slaves. In 1942, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the government incarcerated 112,000 Japanese Americans and in the 1950’s Senator Joseph McCarthy rose to dangerous prominence and precipitated a constitutional crisis by accusing of communist sympathy and treason respected, loyal Americans, cultural and religious leaders, even the United States Army and State Department. In each case, with wise and courageous political leadership, the nation righted itself.

In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression and all the unrest and fear it inspired, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “The presidency is not merely an administrative office. That’s the least of it. It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.” His successor, Harry S. Truman said: “You have to appeal to the people’s best interests, not their worst ones. You may win an election or so doing the other, but it does a lot of harm to the country.”

In his last chapter, “Keep History in Mind”, Jon Meacham remembers James Bryce’s prescience in The American Commonwealth: “Disaster would come at the hands of a demagogic president with an enthusiastic base…He might be a tyrant, not against the masses but with the masses.” Meacham writes: “The past and present tell us that demagogues can only thrive when a significant portion of the demos – the people- want them to.”

Meacham took his title for the book from Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address on the eve of the Civil war in 1861. It is surely one of the best paragraphs ever written and it sounds particularly relevant today.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may be strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield 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.”

Distinguished University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum teaches on the faculties of the Law School and the Divinity School as well as the Philosophy Department, and has written a fine and timely new book, The Monarchy of Fear. Nussbaum presents an historical review of the role fear has played in human history, culture, religion and politics all the way back to the ancient Greeks. She writes: “There is a lot of fear around in the US today, and this fear is often mixed with anger, blame, and envy. Fear all too often blocks rational deliberation, poisons hope and impedes constructive cooperation for a better future.” Her advice made me smile: “We all need, first, to take a deep breath and recall our history.”

Nussbaum proposes that hope is the antidote to fear and identifies hope as the major component of great political and cultural leadership. As examples she cites both John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King Jr. King, in spite of the hatred and venom hurled at him, never abandoned his hope that the nation would one day realize the promise of its founding Declaration and Constitution. She employs the popular current musical, Hamilton, to illustrate. Alexander Hamilton was essentially an advocate of hope. His nemesis, Arron Burr, was not. She concludes by offering Practices of Hope including Protest Movements and Accounts of Justice.

Marilynne Robinson’s essays in What Are We Doing Here? are beautifully written, dense, insightful and always reward careful reading. She too recognizes the fragile state of the current moment in our country. “A society is moving toward dangerous ground when loyalty to truth is seen as disloyalty to some supposedly higher interest. How many times has history taught us this?”

President Trump was advising an adoring crowd at an Iowa rally to disregard “the crap” it was seeing and hearing and, instead, to trust him. Robinson responds: “A great irony is at work in our historical moment. We are being encouraged to abandon our most distinctive heritage – in the name of self-preservation.”

Thanks be to God, beneath my very real concern for my country, for this precious experiment in Republican Democracy, its courts and institutions, and for my grandchildren’s future, still runs my deepest faith. Hope remains the essential message of scripture. From Moses during the Exodus to the prophet Isaiah during the exile to the Risen Christ at the empty tomb, more than 70 times, “Fear not. I am with you.” “Do not be afraid” the angels proclaimed at his birth. “Fear not” Jesus said. And so that is where I rest finally.

But I’ll probably still keep an eye on CNN and MSNBC now and then.

John M. Buchanan

 

Comments

  1. Kelly M Ward says:

    I am a school teacher. I have wasted a summer glued to the news. I became inconsolable after the Helsinki Summit. This is exactly what I needed to hear and reflect upon. Drop the remote.

  2. Jerold Shetler says:

    Right on John. I share your experience 100%.
    Jon Meacham is one of the most insightful thinkers and commentators on the current scene, all from the perspective of history.

  3. Terry price says:

    Thank you, John. I needed your words as Icontinually struggle with frustration and loss of hope for our current “Leadership.” Terry

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  4. John,
    “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may be strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield 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.”
    ‘There is a lot of fear around in the US today, and this fear is often mixed with anger, blame, and envy. Fear all too often blocks rational deliberation, poisons hope and impedes constructive cooperation for a better future.”
    I totally agree with the above. In looking at sparsity of bumper stickers this past election as compared with past, I think most people voted against a candidate and not for. I did. I thought Hillary would have made a very dangerous President and thought Trump could be 50:50. From friends overseas in academics and the military, the US lost its leadership over the past 12 years. Perhaps Trump can bring it back. As only Nixon could have gone to China, maybe Trump is the only one who can diffuse Korea. The economy is the best we have ever seen. I am in London now after having spent the summer in Paris. People do hate us – but not like during the Viet Nam war. They are afraid of the changes that Trump has made, but many feel some of the changes are good such as going to free trade. Such as Germany paying more for the UN and NATO. When I traveled during Viet Nam years, I hid the fact that I was an American. Now people stop and talk with (mostly) rational discussions.
    I pray that Americans give Trump the chance. That we remain friends and not enemies. The national antagonism can even be seen in the bickering in my plantation (Hilton Head Sea Pines) over what compromises the elected officials have done: “being on the take”, etc.

  5. Barry Mayo says:

    I’m smiling. I subscribed to Buchanan’s posts when you first turned me on to him. He apparently is not just a great pastor but a wonderful writer. And I feel him for where he’s coming from and I wish that every person in the masses…the “great unwashed” could read this post.

    I won’t much be taking his recommendations… although I think that most people should… If only for their emotional, physical health and well-being. Maybe it’s because I consider myself an “adjunct member” of the Fourth Estate that (along with my daily spiritual practice) I am not feeling the depression, worry and tension that I hear about from so many people who admittedly ‘just can’t handle the affairs of the day’.

    To tell you the truth, I am as excited and curious about today’s events as I was back during the 1972-1974 period of Watergate when I was a journalism student in Washington DC with one of the most amazing journalism professors ever, Samuel Yette. He had an expectation that we had read the entire Washington post BEFORE our 8 AM Monday Wednesday and Friday class.

    That habit has essentially stuck with me during the ensuing 45 years….and I ain’t about to give it up now 😉 Light, b. PS. Have no fear because you know that you can always call me at any time on any day to get either play-by-play or color commentary!!😂

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  6. Susan T. Redfield says:

    Insightful and inspiring, as usual. Thank you for your research, your analyses and your opinions. My televisions are on the blink, and part of me is enjoying the peace and quiet. I do still read the newspaper, turning quickly to the sports section and arts. Love to you and Sue.

  7. Thank you, Dr.Buchanan. Your insights and your reminder of our rich heritage have substantially lifted my spirits. In this context of our blessed fellowship, our promised peace divine, and God’s ever sustaining love, two passages come to mind:
    1. Psalm 94:12 “Blessed is the man whom thou dost chasten, O Lord, and whom thou dost teach out of thy law to give him respite from days of trouble, until a pit is dug for the wicked. For the Lord will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage; for justice will return to the righteous, and all the upright in heart will follow it. …Thy consolations cheer my soul.”
    2. As so powerfully quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr., Amos 5:24: “..Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

    Thank you again, Dr. Buchanan. I know that we’ll get through this.

  8. Milton winter says:

    A beautifully written reflection. I am a bit short on faith just now but I hold on to hope!

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