While I was relaxing last Thursday, trying to recover from the theatrical farce that passed for this year’s Presidential inauguration and trying to figure out how we’d become fictional characters in some weirdly dystopian photo-op that combined Lord of the Flies and Fahrenheit 451, my phone rang. Much to my pleasant surprise, it was Abraham Lincoln. I could tell he had a burr under his proverbial saddle because he got right to the point:
“Dude, I know you were just a kid in 1858, but you must have caught wind of my “House Divided” speech on the news or on social media or something, presuming you don’t live under a rock, of course. Along the same lines, I have a few questions. Do you have a minute?”
“Sure, Abe,” I said. “As I tell my wife, I’m busy. But I’ll make time for you. It’s been a while anyway.”
“Thanks,” he said.
Truth be told, his tone sounded a bit sardonic. But when it comes to a guy like Abe, you have to let a few things slide.
“Let me see if I got this straight,” Abe began: To one group of people, nothing that’s happened in the past has any value — cognitive, instructional, cautionary, or otherwise. Everything that happens in the future that one group of people purport to create will be perfect. Every moment lives in isolation, just another tick of the clock to be forgotten like the last, just another manifestation of the Utopian Ideal. And neither words nor deeds have any consequences because they can be forgotten, denied, or both. How am I doing so far?”
“Sounds right to me, Abe,” I said. “No pun intended.”
“Okay. And that would explain how the destruction of federal buildings in 2020 came to be characterized as an insurrection when it happened in 2021. It’s how burning, looting, and killing in 2020 were peaceful protests and myths in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Portland but became a deadly siege in Washington DC. It’s why the people who burned, looted, and killed in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Portland were patriots exercising their Constitutional right to dissent. But the people in Washington DC were terrorists. It’s how that one group of people makes us unwitnesses of our own reality. Yes?”
“So far, so good,” I said.
“It’s how a viral infection with a U.S. mortality rate of 1.32 percent became a reason to destroy the national economy. It’s why this man can advocate gun control and become President of the United States. It’s why the abdication of individual and national sovereignty can be a good thing … as long as you remain subservient and pay your ever-increasing taxes. It’s how our governmental superiors can legislate a Great Society, create a welfare state, ensure generations of dependence, then preach about White Privilege. Is that about right? No pun intended.”
“Yeah,” I said. You pretty much nailed it. It seems as if that one group of people has been trying to make one particular economic theorist seem prophetic.”
Collectivism means the end of truth. To make a totalitarian system function efficiently, it is not enough that everybody should be forced to work for the ends selected by those in control; it is essential that the people should come to regard these ends as their own. This is brought about by propaganda and by complete control of all sources of information … The most effective way of making people accept the validity of the values they are to serve is to persuade them that they are really the same as those they have always held, but which were not properly understood or recognized before. And the most efficient technique to this end is to use the words but change their meaning. Few traits of totalitarian regimes are at the same time so confusing to the superficial observer and yet so characteristic of the whole intellectual climate as this complete perversion of language … the minority who will retain an inclination to criticize must also be silenced. Public criticism or even expressions of doubt must be suppressed because they tend to weaken support of the regime. (Friedrich Hayek)
“It’s funny you should cite Hayek,” Abe said. “Everyone knows Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. Few people know I did, too. I must have forgotten to give a speech about it. Damn! I gotta get myself a project-management system or a Google Calendar or something. Anyway, in my dream, Friedrich Hayek and George Orwell were talking to me. They said, ‘Really? Two books? Is it too much to ask that they read just two books? Yeah, yeah, yeah. We know: Electronic media has given them the attention spans of gnats and fleas. Social media has created ideological echo chambers. But two books? Just two books? Come on. Wouldn’t it be worth reading two books to save just one federal republic? And not for nothin’, but they might want to read their own Constitution while they’re at it.’”
The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history … Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past … Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind … We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power … no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. (George Orwell)
“I know, Abe. I know,” I said. “These are dark days. Light seems harder and harder to come by. And since you mentioned Orwell, he also wrote this: ‘The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.’”
“Man, ain’t that the truth? Abe asked. I can’t figure out why that one group of people claims to be on the right side of history — but ignores it and refuses to study it. That’s why they tear down statues and things. Chris Columbus and Confederate generals are bad enough. But Teddy Roosevelt and me? What the hell did we do wrong?”
“Hmm … I don’t know,” I said. “It could be because both of you were proponents of law, order, and civility. Those things don’t sell very well anymore.”
“That’s what really mystifies me,” Abe said. “Those same folks, with their characteristic lack of irony, love to say they’re on the right side of history. But to them, there’s only one side: Their side. And that side is always just around the corner, always just one more vote, one more empty promise, one more power-grab away.”
“I wish that weren’t true,” I said. “But it’s starting to feel like it’s already too late. We seem to have reached a point at which it’s better to feel good than to do good. We continue to buy the baseless, chimerical promises of that one group of people. And it seems as if we’ll continue to look to others, particularly Uncle Sam, to save us before looking at and within ourselves.”
“That reminds me of something else,” Abe said. “That one group of people is quick to say everyone is entitled to his own truth, that everyone has his own truth. The bad news is you’re entitled to your own truth as long as it’s their truth. The good news is they give you bonus points if it happens to be a generally popular truth.”
“They do seem to frown on nuance and perspectives,” I said. “And they seem to have added a Selective Clause to the First Amendment.”
“I thought fighting a civil war to free people from each other was bad enough,” Abe said, sounding ruefully pensive. “I never imagined we’d have to fight another one to free ourselves from our own language.”
“Ouch!” I said. “That one really hurts.”
“Yeah,” Abe said. “It took 234 years, but it appears the dog finally caught the car. I hope we can get our umbrellas up before that mutt lifts its leg. Well, thanks for the ear, but I gotta run. Mary and I have tickets to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. Geez, I hope I can stay awake through the whole thing. Mary tells me I’m a party pooper.”
After my conversation with Abe, I found myself thinking about the fictional characters we’ve become. And I was sure we’ll continue to deceive ourselves, just as Jay Gatsby did:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
(F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)