Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

Review of:

American Civil War

(Taught by Professor Gary Gallagher, The Teaching Company)

Professor Gallagher’s course represents, almost as a war unto itself (!), a massive, elegantly-presented and very worthwhile undertaking. He provides us with forty-eight inviting, in-depth and detailed lectures that focus on the nature, conditions, causes, political strategies, and military campaigns of the costly Civil War between the Northern and the Southern States; an internal war which marks the identity of the United States in a radically unique way. The very fact of this war’s permanent recounting, continual exploration and constant re-interpretation ——both at the academic and non-academic levels—– reveals to us the very strength of the United States as a modern democracy and the necessary conditions for the rise of a politically powerful republic in any historical moment. For it was then that the United States really moved from using the verb “are” to the verb “is” in reference to itself. Truly, it seems, a healthy —–though painful—-  memory may bring forth greatness. But, how can one see this uniqueness? Comparatively.

Canada —-country of which I am a citizen—- has really had no such internal war (it even boasts of a “Quiet Revolution” in the Province of Quebec). Little wonder the identities of these two modern liberal democracies can be so different even if there are obviously shared underlying realities and manners of self-understanding. No wonder how different at times is their population’s understanding of their role in armed conflict throughout the world. In contrast, as a citizen of Colombia one easily appreciates that  there is a much closer  possibility for an understanding of the dilemmas both past and present which both countries have had to face historically. Little wonder the USA and Colombia are currently well-intentioned allies (though at times the friendship seems quite one-sided). However, Colombia has not been able to win decisively the fundamental, if not perfect, unity that the USA won after the terribly disruptive Civil War. In this respect, courses such as these are of central concern for Colombian citizens in positions of leadership as we have gained much in securing our democratic liberties and freedoms via a costly bloody struggle primarily against narc-terrorists (also paramilitaries and drug cartels), but still have a long way to truly secure our greater happiness as a republican nation with a complex reality like few others. Examples of such resolutions may aid us even if ours is in no way a civil war in the accepted understanding of the term. This is the more so in that we are reaching the bicentennial of our first struggles for independence in 1810 against the Spanish Crown.

In other words, my not being a citizen of the USA  ——not really knowing in detail who was Lee or Grant or Davies, or what happened at Vicksburg or Antietam or Richmond (not to mention the lesser known names; can a well-formed US citizen really imagine/accept this?)—— can be immensely helpful in trying to gather the relevance of a such a study beyond the borders of the historical imagination of the United States. Perhaps an understanding such as the one provided by this course reveals, as Thucydides believed, the permanence of certain elements of the human condition regarding political conflict and the constraints of war. For surely, in the same manner, few —if any—- US citizens will know who was Rondón (to whom the much more famous Bolivar said “Coronel Rondón, salve usted la patria“), or Anzoátegui or Sucre or know much of the Battle of Boyacá or Carabobo or Pichincha. In this limited sense, maybe an understanding such as the one provided by this course reveals core elements of our political nature as human beings beyond the vicissitudes of this or that conflict, this or that epoch. As Thucydides writes in his powerful The Peloponnesian War and the Athenians —which in very important respects contrasts dramatically with Gallagher’s course as the acknowledged Greek historian focuses primordially on military and diplomatic history (with little mention of economics, or everyday life, or the life of prisoners, etc.)— his is a book for all times, a book which reveals what gathers permanence beyond endless historical variation:

“In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win applause for the moment, but as a possession for all time.” (my emphasis: TPW: Book I, 22, 4; Strassler edition)

But leaving this point aside, Professor Gallagher’s inspiring understanding of the dynamic of the war and all its complex and unique protagonists, its multiple causes and its harsh day-to-day realities is delivered in such a passionate and careful manner that, although of great length in itself, one finishes the course with a feeling that actually little has been said in contrast to the true dynamic of the war itself! Moreover, Professor Gallagher’s serious undertaking is broken at times by a very fine sense of humor which reminds us that a certain elegant kind of humor can never be overcome by the dramatic tragedy of events. This is particularly so in his recounting of the nature of some of the Generals and their absolutely unique personalities. Perhaps one can recall the unforgettable case of the General, seen as having an extremely difficult personality, and who is said to have denied his own letter for provisions! “You have picked a fight with yourself now”, he is supposed to have been told by a superior. Quite revealing indeed. (more…)

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Review of:

Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words

(Taught by David Zarefsky, The Teaching Company)

Professor Zarefsky’s course provides us with an incredible opportunity. He opens the doors to an in-depth encounter, not with what others thought about Lincoln, but rather a much more powerful and intimate encounter with what Lincoln himself actually said and, through his words, with what he did. He gives us the gold, not merely the bronze. Lincoln, “in his own words”; such is the adventure. And, if it is true that the greatest leaders in speechcraft are perhaps the greatest leaders in statecraft, then Professor Zarefsky provides an entrance into the nature of political greatness, of political insight and of political decision-making themselves. In this respect, to be able to follow the paths which bring forth the birth, development and death of a great leader, is precisely what is made available by the course to us. Professor Zarefsky’s detailed and erudite knowledge of Lincoln’s life and his famous speeches ——-as well as Zarefsky’s own personal rhetorical abilities (!)—— enhance the encounter in such a way that  the very silent words of the pages come into the proper realms of both dialogical argumentation and constrained action from whence they arose. We face the dilemmas Lincoln faced, we search for the possible solutions which Lincoln sought, we come to humbly appreciate his limitations, we can see much more clearly the decisions which Lincoln actually had to ponder and make in the solitude of the chambers of power. And to know that this unique experience is available to all of us via the internet is absolutely a welcome possibility.

More specifically; perhaps what is of the utmost value in the course is the very conscious recovery by Zarefsky  of the art of rhetoric which has come under very severe attack by “Modernity” (Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke) given its desire to contrast itself as far superior to the ideals of the classical Greek and Roman political philosophy and political practice in which the art of rhetoric itself was born, critically analyzed, and made an integral part of the political education of the best of citizens. Or to put it more fairly, by way of  this kind of course one could actually come to understand the very basis of what distinguishes modern from classical rhetoric in both its means and ends; for instance, the rise of a type of “revolutionary” rhetoric in modernity which knows of little-to-no moderation in its practice. In allowing us to better understand the value and political relevance of this art, Zarefsky allows us to gain a greater respect for the call of the statesmen and stateswomen of our time. To learn to develop the capacity to rightly persuade diverse audiences at diverse times and under varying circumstances, such an art has rarely been more developed by any leader than Lincoln. For surely the capacity to write transforms, clarifies and prepares the writer himself for the practical complexities of political life filled with a multiplicity of constraints which a potential, but careless leader, will instead eliminate as cumbersome and irrelevant. Such a path may lead not to greatness, but to the worst of tyrannies and their terrifying defense of silence. This difference between our modern relation to the art of rhetoric and that of previous times perhaps is nowhere better exemplified than in the recounting of the nature of the audience which heard the Lincoln-Douglas debates which lasted for hours on end. It seems nobody was bothered, but rather cheered along as if cognizant in some way of the very basis of our nature as political animals who seek to be actively involved in the discussion of those matters of great importance. Perhaps the debates in the presidential campaign Obama-McCain have brought back this desire in some citizens of the USA, but the return of the value of rhetoric in the political arena in modernity still has to be defended by courses such as this  which clearly show that the greatness of a leader is in part due to his love of argumentative language and style, in part due to the desire to be able to go into dialogical argumentation in defense of certain —in some cases—- flexible positions, and in part due to the nature of the type of self-understanding which the written words allows not only for the author himself but, even more importantly for us, centuries later. For the words left to us by Lincoln bespeak of the permanent transhistorical questions, not merely of this and that dilemma, in this or that epoch. Herein lies, as Zarefsky points out masterfully, the overwhelming permanence of Lincoln’s stunningly short “Gettysburg Address”: “it is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us”.

And, moreover, if this rhetoric is connected directly to a supervaluation of the virtue of political moderation   —seen very early on in Lincoln’s “Temperance Speech”—- then truly in his work  and life  one finds perhaps the avenue for an understanding of the dangers of “rhetorical” radicalism in its diverse immoderate-ridden, demagogic and incendiary  versions. Perhaps allowing myself a personal remark, it is this immoderation that characterizes the president of the neighboring country to my troubled Colombia and his continuous calls for war. For surely listening to the monologue of a leader for  hours, cannot be seen as comparable fundamentally to listening to Lincoln for 2 minutes. And it is without a doubt such moderation ——and particular the  desire to be moderate particularly after Victory (as Churchill likewise said, “In Victory: Magnanimity”) —— that makes Lincoln stand so high above us and above so many leaders of our age. The praise and cultivation of such a virtue in the political sphere under specific circumstances, stands as a permanent contrast with the punitive approaches developed in recent history. A crucial example is that of the excessive retributory decisions made in Paris 1919 against Germany which, in part, further developed the seeds for an even more tragic World War years later. (more…)

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Lincoln and Generals

Abraham Lincoln y la esclavitud, Response to “El Tiempo” columns 5: Comentario a Daniel Samper Pizano “Lincoln, un racista lleno de gloria”, enero 6 de 2009.

(Nota: Para otro texto sobre “Lincoln y su uso de la retórica  política” escrito en inglés ver aquí )

Sin duda el hecho de que su columna haya sido respondida a partir de citas textuales de la obra de Lincoln no es gratuito. Esa decisión revela en sí misma una posición radicalmente diferenciada de la suya. Se podría defender dicha posición de diferentes maneras. Una de ellas podría argumentar lo siguiente: “si Lincoln mismo con sus propias palabras no puede defenderse de sus acusaciones altamante incompletas y cuestionables, pues menos lo haremos aquellos que no hemos logrado la grandeza que Lincoln sí alcanzó no sólo en actos sino en su admirable manera de escribir sobre y enfrentar decididamente y con gran coraje los complejos dilemas políticos de su época.” Pero además, dicha postura puede invitar a una relectura mucho más cuidadosa y hermeneúticamente mucho más generosa de la obra de Lincoln que la suya; sobretodo teniendo en cuenta que su obra es admirada por su originalidad reflexiva, por su socrática capacidad de autocuestionamiento  —evidente en las citas que le envié—— y por su poderoso manejo retórico del lenguaje público siguiendo el modelo de los Griegos Antiguos. En este sentido es de absoluta importancia el que las citas que usted provee sean claramente identificadas en cuanto al punto preciso de su aparición dentro de la amplia obra de Lincoln (es decir, cuál discurso, qué  año, qué circunstancias, ante cuál audiencia, y otros.)

O podríamos poner la cuestión de una manera más personal. Si bien leo con frecuencia sus columnas, en verdad es raro que su dinámica logre penetrar los fundamentos político-filosóficos que están a la base de mi vida académica y práctica. En verdad en su caso debo decir que llegamos a implementar aquello a que la democracia invita,  a la tolerancia de la diferencia (¡y qué diferencia tan difícil de tolerar!) Y a diferencia de otras ocasiones, en esta oportunidad decidí responder y hacerlo de una manera específica, simplemente citando “como buen loro” las palabras de Lincoln referidas especificamente a los temas tratados en su columna, especialmente la problemática compleja de la esclavitud. Imagino su respuesta ante tal posición algo así como lo siguiente: “Bueno, si hermano, pero ahora dígame usted qué piensa, o es que acaso idolatra a Lincoln?” Si estoy —–así sea tan solo medianamente—– en lo correcto, entonces tal vez las citas hayan tenido el efecto deseado. ¿En qué sentido? En el sentido paralelo siguiente;  al leer la columna sobre Lincoln y su respuesta lo único que yo podía pensar era; “Bueno, hemano, pero ahora dígame que era lo que Lincoln decía, o es que acaso sólo caricaturiza a Lincoln?” Y claro ante un personaje como Lincoln prefiero pecar de idólatra antes que de caricaturizador.

Más positivamente, veo en su columna un deseo por darle una voz a las grandes y complejas comunidades negras que no sólo en la historia de los Estados Unidos sino en nuestra propia Colombia han sido tratadas de manera condenable, antes como propiedad sin alma, ahora como supuestos ciudadanos pero tan sólo de segunda clase. Su riqueza cultural, musical y  política silenciada por muchas décadas. Pueda ser que las leyes hayan prohibido la escalvitud, pero la dinámica racista perdura entre nosotros de manera preocupante. Basta pensar en Martin Luther King, y el caso de dramático de la realidad chocoana en nuestro país. No en vano las lágrimas de muchos afro-americanos al darse cuenta que Obama en realidad sí había sido elegido; era como si no lo creyeran. En este sentido su postura interpretativa, que busca un espacio real para la dignidad de la diferencia para ciertas minorías, es bienvenida y digna de defensa, aun cuando el tono y la argumentación en muchos casos deja muchas dudas acerca de la consecución de dicho objetivo. Y claro, realizar semejantes proezas en una corta columa periodística involucra ya de entrada una gran injusticia de mi parte.

Habiendo dejado eso en claro, surgen ——creo yo, y perdonará la excesiva extensión de esta respuesta—— al menos tres críticas de gran  importancia a los puntos de vista brevemente expuestos en su columna: 1) cuestiones generales metodológico-interpretativas a la base de su visión de mundo, 2) cuestiones más específicas, particularmente referidas al contraste realmente problemático entre lo que dice el propio  Lincoln, confrontado a su interpretación —basada en un grupo de historiadores, más no en el único grupo (piénsese en la obra de Jaffa sobre Lincoln)—– acerca de lo que se dice que dice Lincoln,  y 3) los dilemas práctico-políticos concretos frente a la cuestión de lo público en Colombia que generan su postura casi que orgullosa de destrozar todo mito político relevante, ingenuamente al mismo tiempo aparentando defender la posibilidad de una vida política en la que los mitos sean dejados de lado por completo.  A continuación cada una de estas críticas:

1) Lo cierto es que las diferencias metodológicas/interpretativas a la base de nuestras aproximaciones a la historia de lo político, y sobretodo de los grandes líderes políticos son abismales. Y estas diferencias metodológicas/interpretativas hacen inevitable que veamos dos mundos esencialmente opuestos. Envié la cita porque en cuanto a Lincoln y sus posturas frente a la igualdad racial es mejor leer lo que él mismo asevera.  Como hace mucho sigo sus columnas —es raro que este de acuerdo con alguna de ellas—- puedo decir que comprendo varios de sus puntos de partida como periodista. Interpretativamente existe la idea de que los llamados “hombres/mujeres de estado’ son: a) simples estrategas en búsqueda de aquello que conviene más a su deseo por poder que cualquier causa noble/honorable; b) sus palabras en general sólo reflejan aquellas motivaciones inconscientes que ellos no pueden nunca llegar a superar; c) recurren a cualquier medio para obtener su fin que esta lejos de la nobleza y honorabilidad de lo político. Ahora bien, un resumen de la postura radicalmente crítica de sus presuposiciones se  encuentra —entre otras—- en la obra de Thomas Pangle que argumenta que por el contrario hay una tradición que restaura el civismo ejemplar de los grandes “seres de estado” a su correcta posición. No en vano esta tradición mira atrás, a la filosofía politica clásica griega (sobretodo Aristóteles), como su guía. Disculpará que no la traduzca;

The rebirth of classical republican theory restores civic statesmanship to its princely throne as the highest subphilosophic human calling. And Strauss’s teaching instills a tempered appreciation for the nobility  of the political life within liberal democracy  as the best regime  possible in our epoch, in full awareness of this democracy’s and that epoch’s intensifying spiritual and civic conundrums. Strauss’s thought carries an implicit as well as explicit severe rebuke of those thoughtlessly egalitarian historians and social scientists who debunk, rather than make more intelligible and vivid, the greatness of statesmen. Strauss deplores and opposes the prevalent scholarly tendency to belittle or ignore political history  for the sake of subpolitical “social” history —to reduce the debates and deeds of active citizens and their leaders to merely “ideological” contests masking supposedly deeper economic or “social” forces. He argues that these fashionable scholarly and teaching trends not only undermine the already precarious respect for political debate and public spirit, but also falsify the empirical reality of man as the political animal.” (mi énfasis; Thomas Pangle, Leo Strauss: An Introduction to his Thought and Intellectual Legacy,  p. 82)

Tal vez reconociendo la diferencia –que es algo a lo que usted invita—- modere así sea un poco la manera en que se aproxima a los grandes líderes políticos que desde el ámbito de lo político son admirados por su nobleza y que desde el llamado “cuarto poder” (la prensa libre) son constantemente cuestionados utlizando un lenguaje foráneo, muchas veces indignado y sin duda interpretativamente limitado. ¿Acaso no está en el “cuarto poder”  el poder —–y sobretodo el DEBER—– de generar, o ayudar a generar las condiciones de estabilidad política y generación de líderes y de una ciudadanía fuerte que garantice que la democracia logre sus objetivos de la mejor manera posible?  O como lo dijo Bolívar, otro gran hombre de estado relevante para nuestra encrucijada colombiana:

“Un hombre como yo, es un ciudadano peligroso en un Gobierno popular; es una amenaza inmediata a la soberanía nacional. Yo quiero ser ciudadano, para ser libre y para que todos lo sean. Prefiero el título de ciudadano al de Libertador, porque este emana de la guerra, aquel emana de la leyes. Cambiadme, señor , todos mis dictados por el de buen ciudadano.
(Discurso al Juramentarse como Presidente de la República ante el Congreso, Cúcuta, 1821; Brevario del Libertador, Ramón de Zubiria p. 172)

Y por ende surgen muchas preguntas frente al sarcasmo de su columna, incluyendo: ¿cómo generar dichos ciudadanos si nos mofamos de los líderes que son precisamente los más ejemplares ciudadanos a nuestro alcance? (more…)

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