Monday, August 15, 2011

Pragmatism, the Presidency, and Activism

I have repeatedly read posts by others who argue with great passion that President Obama should follow in the examples of Abraham Lincoln in addressing slavery and FDR in addressing the Great Depression. I appreciate the beacons that both former presidents are in the history of this country; however, what we believe to be true and what is fact often are vastly different.

A recent article, Frederick Douglass, the activist who would not 'grow up' offers a frame for evaluating the repeated criticism of President Obama from many members of the left. This article deals with President Lincoln as assessed by Frederick Douglass, not as a historian many years after the facts but as a witness to those events.

One of the most common misrepresentations of history is the oft repeated mantra that Lincoln freed the slaves. He didn't. The Emancipation Proclamation only applied to slaves that lived within the borders of states that were in rebellion against the Union; it did not apply to any slaves in the border states that were still loyal to the Union nor Confederate states which had already come under Union control; President Lincoln did not wish to lose the support of those slave owning states. The goal was to preserve the Union. As the Confederacy was not under the President's control, it did not accept Lincoln's offer to agree to the emancipation of slaves in exchange for compensation. The reality is that the Emancipation Proclamation was a grand gesture and of great symbolic value but it didn't free any slaves. [see for ex. pbs.org, thinkquest, national archives] In the year prior to the EP, 1862, Congress had passed a law that freed any Confederate slaves who escaped to the Union states and added those slaves to the Union's military ranks. Slavery did not officially end in this country until 1865 with the passage of the 13th amendment. [Id.] 

The factual details don't lessen what Lincoln accomplished. I offer this history lesson because I think that the adherence to mythology is interfering with the ability of progressives to get on the same page and work at the business of re-electing Barack Obama. Lincoln was no cowboy riding in on a white horse. He compromised on  what Frederick Douglass and  the abolitionists saw as the most significant cause of the Civil War, ending slavery. He did so because the Union could not afford to lose the slave owning border states to the Confederacy.

In 1862, Horace Greely, editor of The New York Tribune addressed an editorial to Lincoln in which he suggested that Lincoln's administration lacked direction and resolve in its war efforts. Lincoln responded with a letter to Greely that few seem to accurately recall:
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. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. [Lincoln letter]
Frederick Douglass took issue with Lincoln's willingness to abide slavery if that was necessary to preserve the Union. However, Douglass was also pragmatic and eventually came to respect Lincoln's seemingly measured tread.  

In April 1876, in a speech delivered at the unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln,  Douglass said of Lincoln: 
...I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible...Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined. [emphasis added] [Douglass' Oration]
Frederick Douglass was an activist and activists do not have to answer to a constituency, nor do they have to play well with others. There are those who no doubt will dismiss my evaluations of activism vs. politics as narrow and cynical. I intend it as neither, but simply pragmatic. 

Activism is an essential part of political and societal change but the demand that such activism be regularly and blatantly engaged in by this President is to ask him to go beyond the bounds of his office. I chose to focus on Lincoln because of sheer laziness. Lincoln has been a hobby of mine for years and I didn't have to do a lot of research. However, similar issues can be raised with FDR's presidency.

Douglass' evaluation of Lincoln doesn't diminish the man at all but it does make it clear that no man walks on water and offers a prism that reflects how I believe history will also view Obama. Just as was Lincoln, Obama is the President, not an activist. His responsibilities are vastly different than those of an activist. I believe that far too many are demanding that Obama take on a mythical role that no president has ever exercised. 

Bachmann just won the straw vote election out of a field of Republicans, any of whom is saner than she. I find that frightening. Rather than contributing to the constant criticism of President Obama and the continual refusal to acknowledge all that has been accomplished (an extensive list) our common goal should be to ensure that the President has a second term to work towards our goals. Douglass voted for Lincoln in 1864 in spite of his concerns and supported Lincoln's campaign. We have a president who understands the system and who is working that system with every tool at his disposal. What we need are activists; the campaign slogan has always been, "Yes we can." What have you done lately?

8 comments:

unmitigated me said...

Beautifully said, Sheria. As an employee of a history museum, I frequently have the opportunity to set the myth to rest, even if I must do it one visitor at a time. I do not think the fact that both Lincoln and Obama chose to use the system to effect change makes them any less admirable than what myth would make of them.

Anonymous said...

This a beautiful, thoughtful and forceful discussion of the current sate of "Progressivism." I applaud you and appreciate what you have said, how you said it and all of the points you have covered. Too many of us are unhappy with our gifts and poutingly want more.

injaynesworld said...

Maybe, but look at the economic advisers he immediately appointed, especially Geithner. Wall street cronies that helped create the very mess we're in. He could have at least appointed someone like Krugman to balance things out. And I wish we'd see the Obama we saw in the impromtu press conference a few weeks ago where he was pissed off at Boehner and showed it. That's the guy we need to see. Now the guy feeding us pablum-filled speeches.

Mark said...

I heard Obama himself use the example that the Emancipation Proclamation didn't free the slaves in the border states--and I fail to see its applicability to much. There were far, far more slaves in the Confederacy than in the border states; and nothing Lincoln edicted had any effect in the Confederacy in any case. The effect of the Proclamation was almost entirely symbolic. It lent moral currency to a cause that was flagging--after so much death, it certainly seemed to many a northerner that maybe "preserving the union" wasn't worth the cost. I would argue that in the eyes of history, had Lincoln preserved the union but not freed the slaves, we would hold him in far less esteem; had he somehow freed the slaves but not preserved the Union, he would still be considered a great American hero. The truth is that both were inextricably related. Slavery caused the war, and winning the war meant ending slavery. Losing the war meant the continuation of slavery--it wouldn't have made any difference what the Proclamation said, its timing, coverage or rollout.
And why shouldn't we criticize Lincoln for not ending slavery in the border states as well? It might have been the pragmatic decision, but doesn't mean it was the right one, any more than Roosevelt was right for not bombing the trains leading to the concentration camps.
I think Obama's short-term "pragmatism" ends up being extremly unpragmatic in the long run. Republicans are now convinced he will always take the deal over not getting anything done at all, and as a result that don't believe no means no. I think this has us screwed when in comes to not repealing the Bush tax cuts, and if those are extended, I frankly don't think having Obama as President will make much difference one way or another. The economy will be doomed, period.
I criticize the President not because I want him to fail, but for precisely the opposite reason. I want him to succeed--dreadfully. Perhaps the solution is for him to take some of his critics'
suggestions instead of attacking us from making them.
I think you'll actually appreciate this take on it from EJ Dionne. http://www.truth-out.org/new-old-obama/1313412905 It brings up the possibility that the debt deal has "freed" Obama to get aggressive and progressive again. I sure hope he's right.

Sheria said...

My point is simple--our tendency to mythologize our leaders leads us to focus not on results but on feel good leadership. What Lincoln accomplished is amazing but rather than dealing with that reality, we've reduced the reality of what he accomplished to a series of outright lies and half-truths. Once we've set up this paradigm, then we reiterate it to make comparisons as to why our current leaders don't do what those mythologized leaders did when the reality is that all those mythic events, never happened.

I used Lincoln as example because the standard mythology cited in the present is that Lincoln freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation. My point is that Lincoln made a hard decision and by the way, it is an oversimplification to say that the Civil War was about slavery. The war was in the last quarter of its second year before the abolitionists made any real inroads with the ending of slavery. The EP was issued at the start of the 3rd year of the War. The original deal offered to the Confederacy was come back to the Union, free the slaves, and the Union will compensate you for your loss of property. When the Confederacy rejected the deal, Lincoln signed the EP. Lincoln also met with Black leaders at the close of the war and suggested that they move all the freed slaves to the Caribbean or back to Africa at the United States' expense. They refused, declaring themselves unwilling to leave the country where they had lived for 2 and 1/2 centuries.

I beliee that much of the judgment of Obama is filtered through unrealistic lenses and a historic use of the office of President that has never been true. Every president has worked within the constraints of the office and made huge compromises in order to advance his agenda. Never did Lincoln support the ending of slavery on purely moral grounds; indeed, he was very careful not to do so for fear of losing the support of the border states and there were those during his presidency who roundly criticized him for being weak and indecisive, the most public accusations being those of Greely in the Tribune.

Lincoln wasn't weak or indecisive and neither is Obama. There is a huge difference in critiquing policies and attacking the character of the man as weak and unable to lead.

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

Agreed, we need to ensure our president gets another term.

John Myste said...

Rather than contributing to the constant criticism of President Obama and the continual refusal to acknowledge all that has been accomplished (an extensive list) our common goal should be to ensure that the President has a second term to work towards our goals.

This is a growing sentiment I am finding all over the blogosphere.

During the debating of the fictitious debt crisis, everyone was saying it was Obama's last chance and they were very angry with him. Some still are. However, I keep seeing posts now, where is again respected and even those who don't like his performance are rallying behind him.

I know the evidence is merely anecdotal at this point, but I think he will regain the favor of his base.

I have been irritated at him myself, until I realize that I am not sure anyone could have done any better with the nation held hostage by the Tea Party, who was more than willing to execute the hostage to make a point.

FrankandMary said...

My political views(& views on many other things) are pretty far from yours, but what my issue with Obama ISN'T ABOUT is the color of his skin.

The problem I keep finding, just in every day conversation, is that so many people are somewhat "slightly underground" prejudice that it is scary. I mean they ARE prejudice but they don't want to SEEM prejudice in certain company.

The end result of that according to a black friend of mine(& I tend to agree) is: The black guy will always be blamed.

People need to look up mDNA. Our genetic progenitor, "mitochondrial Eve" was a black woman born in Africa. To that extent, we are all African. ~Mary