Tuesday 15 January 2013


"Government of the people, by the people, for the people." : Saviour of the Union; Emanicpator of the Slaves; and tutelary deity of the American Republic: Abraham Lincoln.

LINCOLN WILL BE HERE in eleven days. Already over twenty million Americans have seen Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed movie. Critics report audiences rendered mute by a combination of reverence and awe. Amidst all the tribulations occasioned by a faltering economy and an increasingly rancorous society, Americans are taking time out to be reminded that the American republic still stands as humanity’s most remarkable experiment.
The rest of the world may laugh at America’s excess and sneer at her lack of sophistication but the truth remains that the American republic is an enterprise imbued with the highest moral purpose. Abraham Lincoln understood this better than any other American President.
On his way to dedicate the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg on 19 November 1863, Lincoln jotted down the 271 words that still stand as not only his greatest speech but also the most succinct encapsulation of the democratic impulse ever penned. Resonant with the rhetorical power of Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Bible (large tracts of which Lincoln had committed to memory) his Gettysburg Address effortlessly mixes the universal and particular aspects of the struggle in which Americans were then engaged.
He begins by directly linking the conflict whose victims they had gathered to commemorate with the ideals of the American Revolution of 1776.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
With characteristic humility, Lincoln then turns to the men whose deaths have transformed that purely speculative test into something approaching a blood pact: not only with those who began the American enterprise, but also with those future generations of Americans whose task it would be to preserve and extend it.
In what must surely rank as one of the great perorations of American oratory, Lincoln then concluded his address with these simple, but unforgettable, words:
“[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
It is easy to forget that when Lincoln’s revolutionary formula was proclaimed over Gettysburg’s blood-soaked battlefield, the United States of America stood alone as the only nation among all the empires and kingdoms of the Earth that was even rhetorically committed to the democratic ideal. The aristocratic oligarchy which ruled Britain (and would have recognised the slave-owning Confederacy had the Battle of Gettysburg gone the other way) had, under great political pressure, consented to enfranchise its middle class in 1832. Full manhood suffrage would not be achieved in the United Kingdom until 1918. In Democracy’s second home, France, Napoleon’s nephew had proclaimed an authoritarian “Second Empire”.
Lincoln understood that a Confederate victory would re-admit British and French imperialism (Napoleon III was already eyeing Mexico) to the North American continent. How long a savagely truncated USA, hemmed in by unfriendly competitors to the north and south, could have preserved its democratic institutions is one of history’s imponderables. One cannot, however, escape the conclusion that the sentiments expressed by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address were those of a man who understood that what was a stake in the American Civil War was nothing less than the completion of the American Revolution or, if the Union’s arms failed, its eventual repudiation.

 Heroic Role: Daniel Day Lewis plays Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg's acclaimed movie.
Spielberg’s movie takes as its subject the final months of Lincoln’s presidency, during which he cajoles, inveigles and just plain threatens Congress into embracing a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. It’s a brutal but ultimately inspiring depiction of politics as it is played by politicians who still believe that great things are possible when men are encouraged to heed what Lincoln called “the better angels” of their nature.
Perhaps this explains the peculiarly serious mood in which Americans are viewing Spielberg’s vivid recreation of Lincoln’s presidency. As if the cinematic amplification of America’s revolutionary history and its revelation of the scale of the moral objectives pursued by its protagonists has provided welcome confirmation that human-beings, flawed though they be, may yet contrive to realise in their earthly institutions the uncompromising injunctions of Heaven.
Those revolutionary echoes were always going to be strengthened by Barack Obama’s presidency, and his re-election has only given them an additional boost in volume. Slavery and inequality were ever the serpent in America’s Eden. Lincoln knew it and by the sheer force of his will and the prodigious quality of his political talent he inspired his fellow Americans to ensure that neither would find permanent refuge in the garden of the Great Republic.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 January 2013.


Anonymous said...

America, the originator of the selfish evil Neoliberal affliction of greed and social cruelty. A society based on genocide of the native Indians and the cruel exploitation of slaves. A society only democratic in name. The South had the legal right to secede but was denied. A totally corrupt inhuman derelict Nation in the process of terminal collapse. All that Lincoln represents is the willingness is to use violence to expand the land Grabbing violence of a society fuelled by a constant influx of fit fighting males.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@5:48PM

Wrong on so many counts.

Neoliberalism was the work of European, not American, thinkers - most particularly of the Austrian, Friedrich von Hayek.

The genocide of Native Americans was begun by the Spanish while slavery and the slave trade was a fact of life in all civilised nations right up until the 19th Century.

To suggest that the United States Constitution (which begins with the three words: "We, the People") is not a democratic document is simply foolish - as is the notion that secession was ever a legal right under that document.

And the suggestion that Lincoln's presidency stands only for "land-grabbing" is the ultimate proof of historiographical imbecility.

If your only interest in history lies in locating its inevitable deposits of manure, all you will ever smell is shit.

Anonymous said...

"The genocide of the native Americans was begun by the Spanish." Oh, that makes it alright then.

Max Ritchie said...

Plain to see why s/he's called "anonymous" and well demolished by Chris. America has its faults but lack of democracy is not one of them. Even the dog catcher has to ask for votes. And if big money rules how does anonymous explain the current president's 2nd term? While far from perfect America has consistently shown that its people care and have values. That queue for admission is on America's border, not Russia's or China's.

Anonymous said...

"Full manhood suffrage would not be achieved in the United Kingdom until 1918."

And in the US not until the mid 1960s. I guess you forgot that little detail.

To call the US a democracy before that is to make the same mistake as people who now call Israel the only democracy in the Middle East.

Gaetano said...

The New York Times website is running an excellent series of essays called Disunion which is following the American Civil War more or less as it took place 150 years ago. You can download about five free articles a month from the site. They are really excellent.

Max Ritchie said...

But aren't we talking about the present? Go back far enough and we all look pretty bad. New Zealnd wasn't a lot of fun when Hongi Hicka was rampaging through what is now Panmure. But surely it is indisputable that America is a democracy and has been, even if an imperfect one, since it was founded.

Anonymous said...

You are right that Lincoln was a truly great man. And (mostly) a good one. Though his aim was to preserve the United States, without slavery if possible, with if not.
As he said:

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that"

Also, most US states in the 19th century had property qualifications on voting for men. In this, they were similar to Britain. Women , of course, could not vote.
Indians (Native Americans, in modern parlace) we not usually recognised as citizens until the 20th century.

The United States is a great (and mostly successful) experiment in democracy and social and economic freedom. However, it is important not to get too carried away with rhetoric or belief about its uniqueness. Most of The US's political culture (though not, of course it's republican model) are directly derived from British (usually English) roots.
Things like the expansion of the electorate, freedom of the press, and reduction in privilege of the ruling classes (which Americans often claim not to have) largely advanced in parallel in the US and Britain.

Ennui in Requiem said...

"the truth remains that the American republic is an enterprise imbued with the highest moral purpose." Thanks Chris, like many others I struggle with the delivery by the USA. Those who are critical however might wish to practice some counter-factual historic projections. No USA involvement, Nazi victory....US isolationism we might be talking Japanese etc.

I am hoping that any reminder of these ideals by the movie has an impact in countering the current corruption of those ideals. Awareness grows slowly but can reach critical mass, voice and action follow.

Jigsaw said...

Interests me that the left, especially in this country are so often so extreme in their anti-American views and express them in such strident terms. The USA has made huge mistakes - as has every other country, but their vision is clear in their constitution. Even the founding fathers who mostly kept slaves produced such an all inclusive constitution that their own words would eventually be able to be used to destroy slavery. The fact that at various times is has failed to live up to its own ideals doesn't belittle those ideals at all. America has far more democracy in the very worst of its institutions than the rest of the world usually shows. One reason of course that so many people want to get in.
Great article Chris-by the way, wasn't Lincoln a Republican? I think you forgot(?)to say.

Anonymous said...

"But surely it is indisputable that America is a democracy and has been, even if an imperfect one, since it was founded."

That isn't particularly controversial, or unqualifiedly admirable.

What is more controversial is the claim that the US long ago ceased to be the vanguard of democracy, or at least liberal democracy. I don't think that the US is a particularly free country, and one reason for that is its heavy dependence on law as the guarantor of rights. A liberal civic culture where citizens refrain from using the letter of the law to batter those they disagree with is preferable. The US has a very authoritarian civic culture.

That there is even a gun debate in the US shows it to be not a very sensible or modern country.

Anonymous said...

The aristocratic oligarchy which ruled Britain (and would have recognised the slave-owning Confederacy had the Battle of Gettysburg gone the other way)

Nonsense. The UK knew that recognising the Confederacy would have meant war with the Union, an attack on vulnerable Canada, and the cutting off of grain supplies (Britain needed American grain). With Egyptian cotton allowing the UK some leeway, and with popular opinion favouring the Union (both on the slavery question, and the fact the South started the war), Britain was never going to recognise the Confederacy.

Max Ritchie said...

I was taking issue with "A society only democratic in name". Indeed "free" depnds on what one is referring to. Not much freedom if you are unemplyed black in a DC suburb with a crack dealer on the corner or have a serious illness and no insurance but for most Americans, Jigsaw has it about right.

Jigsaw said...

That is your interptation of the word 'liberal' and it depends on what you call 'free' as well and as to their gun debate being sensible-it's the height of arrogance to suggest from outside what is good for any other country. Their history is quite different from many other countries -including New Zealand's and it's not really helpful to lump the whole 50 states into one basket on anything. If you travel there you realise the huge differences between various states and regions.

Spiffles said...

The US was and is the only Republic at a time when there was no other. Sadly they followed the British model of rule by an aristocracy. The referral to "We the People" was only those who were Protestant, White men (not women) of Property. Women didn't get to vote until the 1920's I think. Blacks didn't get to vote until 1964 and Native Indians until 1972. Hardly the land of the free.
Lincoln was a great man but no greater than any other of that time or before.
yes, he was anti-slavery but that was not the reason for the Civil War, it was about the control of Cotton. At that time cotton was as important as oil is today and the economies couldn't function without it.
The Brit Navy needed lots of it for their ships, sails and caulking as well as clothing, very important and the Union needed to get control of it.
The Brit. Navy blockaded the South's ports and eventually caused the South;s economy to collapse. Then the carpetbaggers moved in.
To raise Lincoln to an almost godlike figure does him no favours.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Spiffles

Go to the nearest library, Spiffles, and withdraw a couple of books on the American Civil War. Read them and them come back to this discussion.

To: Anonymous@3:34PM

Had Robert E. Lee won the Battle of Gettysburg the Army of the Potomac would presumably have been destroyed.

Lincoln's political position would then have become untenable.

A negotiated peace with the Confederacy - with the negotiations probably taking place in London - would have resulted in a treaty guaranteed by Great Britain.

World history would then have followed a very different course.

Anonymous said...

Had Robert E. Lee won the Battle of Gettysburg the Army of the Potomac would presumably have been destroyed.

Except that the South is still screwed logistically. Let's say Lee absolutely routs the Union forces at Gettysburg: the North can still raise more men, and Lee would still have to retreat before he gets cut off from Virginia. Meanwhile, Vicksburg still falls, and the North is still pressing its advantage in the western theatre.

Short of men, ammunition, and food, the Confederacy was always doomed militarily (they'd have had a better chance in the 1840s). Their only hope would be to sufficiently embarrass Lincoln that he suffers electoral defeat in 1864 - and even a crushing Confederate victory at Gettysburg wouldn't necessarily ruin Lincoln: fifteen or so months is a long time in war and politics.

Anonymous said...

Abolition of slavery turned out the be the easy part. It took another century to get rid of the KKK, Jim Crow, redlining and the other injustices that the white property owning class imposed over the turbulent years that followed the surrender of Lee's forces at Appomattox.

@ Jigsaw: While it is true that Lincoln was a Republican, it has to be pointed out that the Democratic and Republican parties of 1863 were very different beasts to the Democratic and Republican parties of 2013.

Anonymous said...

"Great article Chris-by the way, wasn't Lincoln a Republican? I think you forgot(?)to say."

Yes he was - back when they were democrats :-).

Anonymous said...

"Their only hope would be to sufficiently embarrass Lincoln that he suffers electoral defeat in 1864 - and even a crushing Confederate victory at Gettysburg wouldn't necessarily ruin Lincoln: fifteen or so months is a long time in war and politics."

Lee's plan IIRC was to cut the north in two and then destroy the Army of the Potomac. That would not have guaranteed a Lincoln loss, but would have made it much more likely due to war weariness. Of course even if Lee had won, subsequent events could have caused a reverse.

I certainly wouldn't want to be the Union general picking up the pieces after a rout at Gettysburg. Particularly in view of the fact that I would be facing the greatest general of his generation while he was on a roll.

Anonymous said...

"it's the height of arrogance to suggest from outside what is good for any other country"

Nah. Some countries are just moronic about some things. The Americans are dumb about guns, healthcare and religion. Afghans are dumb about female education, etc.

Victor said...

Of Lincoln's greatness I have no doubts. Nor do I have any truck with knee-jerk anti-Americanism.

But, Chris, I do think you're taking an unwarranted American Exceptionalist view of the early republic.

The fact is that chattel slavery was abolished in the British Empire thirty years prior to Lincoln's Emancipation Edict and the Royal Navy was extremely active in putting down the slave trade for at least 20 years before that.

True, bonded 'coolie' labour remained prevalent in much of the empire. But was this worse than the share cropping that became the norm for most of America's freed slaves after 1865?

Secondly, America's break with the far from tyrranical British Crown had been occasioned by a dispute over the tax needed to pay for the stationing of British soldiery in the 13 colonies following the defeat of the French in the Seven Years War.

Why were these troops necessary? Because the colonists kept provoking Native American unrest through their rapacious land seizures, which consistently violated the Crown's treaty obligations towards its tribal allies. That's how the young land surveyor, George Washington, made his dosh!

The destruction and dispossession of native peoples was hard-wired into the young republic at a very early stage. And, yes, the United States was rather worse than Canada in this regard, which is one of the reasons why Canada now has a larger First Nation population than its southern neighbour.

But let’s assume for a moment that the treatment of non-white peoples is of little significance to an assessment of the early United States and that what counts is the obviously greater freedom and equality of its settler inhabitants compared to the folks they’d left behind in Europe.

Even then, though, the question remains of whether the republic was more free and equal than other new societies of that period, be they right up close to it, in Ontario or New Brunswick, or scattered down here in the southwest Pacific.

.....more to come

Victor said...

....continuing previous post

As to the defeat of the Union leading to the re-imposition of European colonialism in North America, this would only have been true in the technical sense that Mexico was geographically, though not culturally, North American and (in lieu of a Union victory) might have remained a few year's longer under the control of Napoleon III’s puppet, Maximilian von Hapsburg.

But it’s unlikely that Britain would have had either the motive or the immediate means to invade the vanquished Union, although the latter (its armies still intact) might have been more tempted to launch yet another invasion of Canada, to avenge a perceived British stab in the back.

Nor is there any reason to assume that the North wouldn’t have achieved its protean rise to industrial supremacy in defeat, just as it did in victory. Nor, similarly, is there reason for doubting its continued allure to immigrants from all over Europe and beyond.

And that, I think, is America’s true claim to exceptionalism: not its freedom or its democracy, both of which it shares with many other countries, quite a few of which exceed it in these areas, but rather its unequalled record of providing hope, achievement and dignity to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, be they from Dublin or Frankfurt in the 1840s, from Vilna, Warsaw or Palermo in the 1890s or, right now, from Guadeloupe or Managua.

The Declaration of Independence is based on an essemntially pre-Darwinian concept of Man in the abstract; a wholly rational, sovereign individual freely contracting into a society. The efficacy of this concept lies not in its veracity (it has none) but in its universalism and the consequent comparative ease with which it turns immigrants into citizens.

Universalism is, of course, both America’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. At home, it ensures the recurrent triumph of the values Lincoln extolled at Gettysburg (even if they can drop from sight for decades at a time). But abroad, it leads all too often to cultural arrogance, self-righteousness, imperial overstretch and a too ready assumption that the American way is the only way.

May this great nation continue its return to prosperity with its virtues intact and its vices diminished.

Victor said...


I forgot to add how much I appreciated your sentence:

'If your only interest in history lies in locating its inevitable deposits of manure, all you will ever smell is shit.'

A profound truth, beautifully expressed. I look forward to quoting you.

Anonymous said...

"dignity to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free"

Ah yes - dignity. The dignity of being unemployed without income and sick without healthcare. A very right wing dignity. Like the right wing freedom to sleep under bridges.

Victor said...

And so, Anonymous@1.38pm, you think that starving to death from the Irish potato blight, being sabred by Tsar Nicholas's Cossacks or spending your short and normally hungry life kowtowing to quasi-feudal landlords was somehow a better fate than befell the millions who made their way to the New World, not to mention their children and grandchildren, some of whom actually made it from sweatshop to suburb.

Or do you believe that the only people who ever prospered in the US were WASPs of impeccable pre-revolutionary descent?

I think you rather neatly exemplify Chris's point that :
'If your only interest in history lies in locating its inevitable deposits of manure, all you will ever smell is shit.'

I didn't think I'd get round to quoting him so quickly. Thanks for the opportunity.

Anonymous said...

I was talking about today rather than the 19th century. The rest of the world moved on with proper social welfare and redistribution of wealth, some remnant of which survives inspite of the right wing trying to fuck with it. I'd make up a cute quote about ignoring shit - but I can't be arsed.

Victor said...

Fair enough, Anonymous@8.31am

But I was talking about a rather broader sweep of history, as should have been clear from my previous posts.

Yes, of course, most other mature industrialised democracies long ago trumped the US when it came to social welfare, wealth redistribution and the humane ordering of their affairs, even if (I would agree with you)most have gone badly backwards in recent decades.

But, even now, immigrants queue up to get to America, because, for many of them, the alternative would still be spending a short and normally hungry life kowtowing to quasi-feudal landlords (sometimes supported by formerly US-sponsored death squads).

And, yes, they queue up to get to other developed countries as well.
But the US has a longer experience of turning large numbers of immigrants into citizens and, on the whole, has done so with a success that other countries should envy.

Size, space and a century of huge economic growth have certainly contributed to this. But so has a civic myth based on a (rather hubristic)abstract universalism rather than race, ethnicity or historical prescription. It remains much easier to become American than to become German or Italian, let alone Chinese.

And, even today, not all immigrants end up sleeping under bridges.

Anonymous said...

Victor. Research shows that overwhelmingly people migrate to the US to make money, rather than yearnings for freedom. The US is actually quite unwelcoming of migrants, taking about 1/10 the number of Australia on a population basis.(Excluding illegals.)

Gnossienne said...

Scented flowers are nice but I wouldn't blame anyone who concluded that human history was largly a stench in the nostrils. It's interesting to remember what was experienced and commented upon in the past.
Quite early on in American history presidents expressed doubts about the ascendancy of corporations and the threat to the democratic base of the new society from financial power and influence.

Thomas Jefferson the third president from 1801- 1809 said “I hope that we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

Abraham Lincoln the sixteenth president from 1861-1809 and a Republican said, “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. …corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.” He said this in 1864 a year after he had delivered his famous speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg war cemetery in Pennsylvania at the end of the American civil war.

Theodore Roosevelt the twenty sixth president from 1901-1909 and a Republican said, “The citizens of the United States must control the mighty commercial forces which they themselves call into being.”

Woodrow Wilson the twenty eighth president from 1913- 1921 and a Democrat said, “Big business is not dangerous because it is big, but because its bigness is an unwholesome inflation created by privileges and exemptions which it ought not to enjoy.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt the thirty second president from 1933-1945 and a Democrat said “The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism—ownership of Government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.”

Dwight Eisenhower the thirty fourth president from 1953-1961 also a Republican said in his farewell address, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

The American novelist Theodore Dreiser (1871 -1945) dealt in his novels and articles with themes of social inequality. As early as 1891 he noted that “fortune hunting had become a disease” and began to realize that this resulted in particular criminal tendencies which he felt were peculiarly American. He wrote about these in his best known novel “An American Tragedy” which was published in 1925. Later in life he observed —“The government has ceased to function, the corporations are the government.”
Early last century a German writer called Oswald Spengler had other insights into financial power and democracy. In his once influential and rather extraordinary book “The Decline of the West” he proffers at the close, in his vision of world history, a view of democracy which is one we would prefer not to embrace. He saw democracy as the political weapon of the dictatorship of money. “The private powers of the economy want free paths for their acquisition of great resources. No legislation must stand in their way. They want to make the laws themselves, in their interests, and to that end they make use of the tool they have made for themselves, democracy, the subsidized party.”

Gnossienne said...

Spengler had some interesting things to say about money itself and about the unstoppable plundering of the earth for raw materials. “Nature becomes exhausted, the globe sacrificed to Faustian thinking in energies.” “The dictature of money marches on, tending to its material peak, in the Faustian civilization as in any other. And now something happens that is intelligible only to one who has penetrated to the essence of money. If it were anything tangible, then its existence would be forever—but, as it is a form of thought, it fades as soon as it has thought its economic world to a finality, and has no more material on which to feed.”

While the world struggles to recover from what the former banker and lawyer turned author, Charles Morris has labeled “The Trillion Dollar Meltdown” these voices from the past may well irritate but they cannot be denied or carelessly derided. As we watch the hapless Obama, as he concedes every hope for social and economic reform to the over riding might of financial interests, we might benefit from acknowledging as did Spengler, the cyclic nature of civilizations and history.
We might even pause long enough to consider the fall of the Roman Empire due to a variety of factors not excluding privatisation and the selling off of state assets and offices. When a civilization resorts to privatisation it does not herald a new beginning, rather this is a sign that the cohesive strength of something established or in the process of building up is giving way to disintegration and the fragmentation of that which once held meaning and promise. Global privatisation of all and everything as the ultimate democratic right, can be no more than global neo feudalism. The promoters of privatization seek to do away with government. Of course they do because the fight for representation and national government arose out of the lack of human rights under feudalism. Feudalism works with bonded labour, serfs (slaves) and a rigid class system. When a democracy is deliberately attacked and undermined and politicians become no more than the purchased lackeys of wealthy interests, democratic meaning disappears.
The exposed and vacant field of disintegration, fragmentation and meaninglessness will remain neither unfilled nor level for long. A new international feudalism may occur but only for a moment before the fight for territory and resources begins in earnest. Populations are scourged as the new robber barons seek advantage over each other.
George Wilhelm Hegel an influential German philosopher who lived from 1770 to 1831 wrote “What experience and history teach is this that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” George Santayana a Spanish philosopher and writer who lived from 1863 to 1952 said “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
George Bernard Shaw an Irish playwright, socialist and a charter member of the Fabian Society concluded “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”
Perhaps these thinkers and commentators on the human condition were expecting too much. The will to survive comes from existence in the present with expectations for the future. Understanding and learning from the past may well be alien to the tide of human generation and history. Alien also might be the concern for the environment and the sustainable future of life on earth. Rather it seems that humans are run by forces and influences which churn in endless cycles through generations and that the
belief in the power of free will and progress are but phantasms. The strength of various religions in the past was that they offered forms of redemption and consolation from what was so often experienced as a dead end situation.
It would be interesting though if human beings woke up and began to discern the cycles of history and their hypnotized existence within these cycles. From the acknowledgment of a trap may spring understanding of the way out.

Victor said...


Of course they go mainly for money! Why do you think I would dispute that?

And, yes, of course, Australia and New Zealand are both countries which currently take in far more immigrants per head of population than does the US. The same is true of Canada.

I can only repeat that I'm referring to a much longer time line than you.

My point is that the US has a huge historical experience of inbound migration from a very great variety of countries, that this has had an immense impact on its society over a very long period and that this phenomenon, rather than (as Chris argues)its early if partial devotion to liberty and democracy, is what makes America exceptional.

Of course, it doesn't make it unique. But I think it does make it unique amongst the great nations of the earth, which have generally found it harder to embrace a concept of nationality based (at least in part)on contract and chosen loyalty, rather than on race, ethnicity, culture or historical origins.

Of course, it's perfectly valid to compare the United States with considerably less important or populous settler countries such as Australia or, for that matter, Argentina.

But I think we can learn more about how the 21st century will unfold by comparing the US with its rival for hegemony (viz. China) or with the only other western country of huge economic significance (viz. Germany).

And please don't get fixated on my reference to the famous line about "huddled masses yearning to breathe free". As I'm sure you know, it's part of the long poem inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

I could equally have used the following line about the "wretched refuse of your teeming shore".

In either case, I would have been making a quasi-literary (but far from obscure) reference to the historical phenomenon of mass migration to the United States.

It's certainly not my view that America is, or probably ever was, uniquely free or democratic or that the American concept of freedom is laudable in all respects. Nor have I suggested this to be the case.