In the last issue, I wrote a spoof on the historic revision of the voyages of Christopher Columbus, and I took a sideways swipe at Howard Zinn and his very popular book, A People's History of the United States.
It's a good book, a useful corrective to the unalloyed adulation of American heroes. But it seems that younger people take Zinn's book as a founding text and the basis for a new orthodoxy.
"New orthodoxy" is a most horrible concept. An old orthodoxy has at least the warmth of tradition, even if it's wrong. But a new orthodoxy, uncritically accepted, is a cold and barren tyranny.
Or, it could be an adolescent phase. It's like when you get to be 12 or 13 and you discover that your parents are complete frauds. Mom and Dad weren't telling you the whole truth. You see all the holes and discrepancies in the family story. This is a necessary disillusionment that causes anger and rebellion in the young. But hopefully, we continue to grow and develop a more measured appreciation of our ancestors and the people who made us what we are.
No, Christopher Columbus was not a very nice man. He did make it across the Atlantic Ocean and back again and kept a careful account of his voyage. That makes him a discoverer. As a result, half the human race found out there was another half -- quite a world-changing event.
When the human race re-united, the microbes wrecked havoc and millions died. No one expected this. Also, people failed to see the value of other cultures. You could say casually that they weren't impressed with each other or were horrified by exotic customs. Or maybe, because they were so far away from home, they were simply scared and acted the way people act when they are frightened -- with violence.
Well, greed, lust, and the other vices played a part as well.
In the new orthodoxy, there are no great men. We're all just people and things just happen. There are no individuals who drive events, and no makers of history. Sooner or later, somebody would have made a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, and there were surely a few who made it across before Columbus -- they just lacked a good PR machine to hype the journey.
Still, it was a good thing. Rivers, cities, provinces and one nation are named after Columbus. There's no need to change that.
Another great man, who, until recently, rated his own holiday, was Abraham Lincoln. His life has been subject to endless revision which does not seem to diminish his stature. We have him on the penny, the five dollar bill and Mount Rushmore. He doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.
This is the Gettysburg address, only 278 words. It's so short, even the attention span of the Internet can hold it:
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. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we 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 for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work"
Us, the living, you and I, all citizens, and the current President -- we are challenged to take up this unfinished work and face the great task remaining before us.
The speech was given in 1863, 146 years ago. The words humble any writer -- to say so much in only 278 words. The language is so clear. I read Garry Wills book, Lincoln at Gettysburg which explains the meaning and importance of this speech.
Old Abe calls down to us and says -- you think you have problems? I gave this speech on the grounds of a battlefield where thousands of men died, North and South, because of an argument that could only be settled by blood and the sword.
He says we can’t give up, and we can’t go our separate ways.
It's a good speech that, like a work of art, means just as much today as it did a long time ago. It's not old, it's fresh. It's not about the past, but it points to the future and what still needs to be done. We can't give up. We can't go our separate ways. The current turmoil gives no excuse for despair.
"That all men are created equal." I should explain this to younger people. Until around 1970, the word man had two proper usages, depending on the context. In one context, man meant a male person. In another context, man meant human being. In the Gettysburg address, it means human being. That's easy enough to understand.
But equal. That's a stumper. What does equal mean? Because President Lincoln said our nation was dedicated to this proposition -- that we are all created equal, and not just Americans. He said "all men."
We are all created equal. Is this an intention or a fact? Not meaning all the same in every way, as in mathematics .... because we can so easily distinguish one person from another ... we strive to be different ... we take pride in being unique ... so how can we be equal?
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