Grunting and Groaning

Dick the Bruiser. Public Domain.

In the 1950s we watched professional wrestlers of the day: Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Dick the Bruiser, and the unprecedented Gorgeous George. 

These TV wrestling matches were not sporting events; they were melodamas. Beefcakes with crafted personas played hero or heavy for the crowd. No villainy was too base, no gallantry too phony to be aped in the ring—or even outside the ring. 

Nothing about this spectacle was authentic or uplifting. Absolutely nothing. And we, the people, ate it up.

Which reminds me: The Presidential Debates are coming our way. 

Kennedy-Nixon debate, 1960. Public Domain.

The first Presidential Debates ever, between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, took place in 1960. Both men played serious adults seeking to guide our nation’s future. Since then, many such debates have been held, the seriousness and adulthood slipping a notch or two downward every four years.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Modern presidential debates were probably inspired by the seven three-hour, open-air arguments held between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, candidates for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 1858. 

The stakes could not have been greater. Slavery’s hour of reckoning was at hand. The nation paid close attention as the Railsplitter and the Little Giant spoke forth two divergent views on the great question of the day. 

No moderators fed questions to the candidates. There were no assigned topics, no short answers. Everybody knew what the topic was.

Each man spoke at length, without interruptions by the other. One candidate would speak for an hour. Then his opponent spoke for an hour and a half, after which the opening speaker got half an hour in rebuttal.

Lincoln and Douglas spoke for up to ninety minutes at a stretch, made themselves heard without amplification by vast crowds of farmers and townsmen. They spoke without notes or prompters, analyzed the issues in detail, used good grammar, and unleashed rhetoric that sometimes rose to the sublime. 

Commemorative postage stamp of Lincoln-Douglas debates. Public Domain.

Those who heard their speeches or read verbatim transcripts in their newspapers could know Lincoln’s and Douglas’s views and know exactly on what points they differed.

Here are two brief samples from their fifth debate, in Galesburg.

Stephen A. Douglas. Mathew Brady photograph. Public Domain.

DOUGLAS: I say to you, frankly, that in my opinion, this Government was made by our fathers on the white basis. It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and was intended to be administered by white men in all time to come. But while I hold that under our Constitution and political system the negro is not a citizen, cannot be a citizen, and ought not to be a citizen, it does not follow by any means that he should be a slave. On the contrary . . . [h]umanity requires, and Christianity commands, that you shall extend to every inferior being, and every dependent being, all the privileges, immunities and advantages which can be granted to them consistent with the safety of society. If you ask me the nature and extent of these privileges, I answer that that is a question which the people of each State must decide for themselves. 

Abraham Lincoln, 1858. Ambrotype by Abraham Byers. Public Domain.

LINCOLN: Every thing that emanates from [Judge Douglas] or his coadjutors in their course of policy, carefully excludes the thought that there is any thing wrong in slavery. . . If you will take the Judge’s speeches, and select the short and pointed sentences expressed by him—as his declaration that he “don’t care whether slavery is voted up or down”—you will see at once that this is perfectly logical, if you do not admit that slavery is wrong. . . . Now, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the Constitutional obligations which have been thrown about it; but, nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end.

These are small fragments of much longer speeches made on this occasion. I quote them only to show the candidates engaged in making complex arguments, drawing lawyerly distinctions with as much precision and power as possible. They supposed their hearers, no matter what their level of education, could follow their arguments.

What if I challenged you, Dear Reader, to read any one of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in its entirety? (Go ahead. It’s easy to Google them up. I’ll wait.) 

I predict you will find, as I do, that reading these speeches and comprehending them is a heavy intellectual workout. 

In so many ways, both physical and mental, we are not up to our ancestors.

Bull Elks

Leaving aside any elegance of expression, consider the Lincoln-Douglas debates for gravity alone. 

By comparison, one may confidently predict that Trump and Biden will appear as bull elks in rut, pawing the earth, shaking their antlers, banging heads with great thuds. 

The political world has no incentive to include rational content in these debates, because when the spectacle is over we will all go and vote as we had planned to vote all along.

Neither high rhetoric nor weighty arguments can sway us. Tribe is all that matters. We lay our bets on the fighter who punches the chords of our ancient tribal harmonies.

If we had a shred of honesty, we would admit this fact and stop fussing about debates.

Perhaps, instead, we could spend some of our energy tracing the sources of our tribalism, seeking to learn what unwholesomeness it is within ourselves that nurses our blithe, reflexive hatred of The Other Tribe. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

1620, or 1619—Which Will You Have?

WARNING: Your New Favorite Author is a 75-year-old, white, male Christian. I have been blessed many times over; from non-white, non-male, non-Christian perspectives, I am no doubt a person of privilege.

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What a difference one year makes.

The Good Pilgrims

When I was growing up, America was a good place. It had started being good in December 1620, when the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts. 

They brought with them a simple, heartfelt form of the Christian religion, a genuine desire to prosper, and a sincere intention to deal justly with the native inhabitants.

They were also rumored to have brought freedom, democracy, constitutional government, separation of church and state, the right to bear arms, and sundry other blessings.

The holy people who brought us all our blessings. “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) by Jennie A. Brownscombe. Public Domain.

Some of those attributions are far-fetched or at least asterisk-worthy, but the point is: Long before the official start of America in 1776, the Mayflower crowd of 1620 had already laid the keel of a “good America”—good in the sense of prosperous, and good in the sense of virtuous.

The Bad Slavers

Last August, the folks at the New York Times gave us a series of articles known collectively as “The 1619 Project,” challenging this venerable narrative; 1619 being the year when twenty or thirty African slaves were brought to the English colony in Virginia.

“Landing Negroes at Jamestown from Dutch man-of-war, 1619. Illustration by Howard Pyle. Public Domain.

The point of the Times’ project is to show that America is not so good after all, with a legacy of slavery that began even before the Mayflower set sail. 

Thus you might say that when the Pilgrims arrived, their adventure to America was already pre-stained, and no agent since—not the blood of 700,000 Union and Confederate soldiers nor the sweat and tears of thousands of Civil Rights Movement marchers and sitters-in—has been enough to scrub out the stain. 

America: Good or Bad?

Dear Reader, in case you are only just now arrived from a distant planet: There is a fierce battle raging at this moment between partisans of the Good America of 1620 and the Bad America of 1619. 

Far be it from me to wade into that donnybrook. I do not fight battles. I let others fight while I stand off to the side and observe. It’s what I do.

In this role, I shall merely note:

  • 1. It’s not remarkable that 246 years of slavery makes a blot on the scutcheon of us Mayflower folk. If the Pilgrims brought real freedom and democracy, why were those blessings not shared promptly with our darker-skinned brothers and sisters?
  • 2. The noble intentions of white Colonials—sentiments enshrined in the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Constitution (1789)—ring a bit hollow because of the big asterisk of slavery, which was not abolished until 1865, and the other big asterisk of post-Reconstructionism, which withdrew most of the promise of Emancipation after 1876.
  • 3. We will never get to enjoy our Good America of 1620 unless we face, and face down, the Bad America of 1619.

Point 3 reveals my agenda.

What is the Point?

I would dearly love to get beyond all this palaver. Get beyond all the guilt, the mutual recriminations, our slow national marination in the brine of our past sins. 

So, how can we do that? 

If we wait for all racial incidents to cease before we begin to do the difficult work of repairing the relations between white and black Americans, we will never start.

If, having started to repair our racial divide, we allow ourselves to be diverted from this work by new racist outrages, the nation’s healing will never gain momentum.

If we fail to recognize and condemn racial violence, that failure will undermine any attempts to build a successful multi-racial society.

How can we build that society in the face of continuing racially inspired violence? How can we do that when people of color have good reason to fear any dealings with those we pay to keep order in our society?

I do not have a clue.

I am pretty sure we won’t solve the problem by calling names; by issuing petitions and manifestoes of solidarity; or by shelling out money to make whole the scars of past generations’ brutal experience .

I think we will all have to get used to recognizing and confronting racial animus locally and in particular, wherever we encounter it.

I have no better answer. People tell me the problem is systemic; but how can you address it, except one person and one situation at a time?

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I expect to live another 75 years. By that time I will be 150. If race relations are still abysmal in the United States, I will die deeply disappointed. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author