Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as a tragedy, the second time as farce.
This very dialectical view of history can be seen wherever you look thanks in large part to its essential vagueness, but I’ve run across it recently in two very distinct places, and the first is in the early pages of Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy, where our shamelessly eloquent/elegant author writes that the first and only president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, largely saw himself as a reincarnation of America’s founding fathers.
Rising early, [Davis] worked at home until breakfast, then went to his office, where he often stayed past midnight. He had need for all this labor, founding like Washington a new government, a new nation, except that whereas the earlier patriot had worked in a time of peace, with his war for independence safely won, Davis worked in a flurry against time, with possibly a harder war ahead. Like Washington, too, he lived without ostentation or pomp…he made himself accessible to all callers, and even at his busiest he was gracious, much as [Thomas Jefferson] had been.
Shelby Foote is without a doubt the classiest man the American South has ever produced, a great historian, a model storyteller, and a brilliant artist. When you read this book you are not reading a work of history; you are there. And I think his position as a Southerner allows him to see the rebels, the bad guys of history, in a way that is not quite so demeaning as a Northerner like me would view them—Jefferson Davis is called the most philosophical man in the U.S. Congress when the Secession begins, a statement I think no Northerner could ever bring himself to make, regardless of its veracity. After all, how could a man dedicated to the enslavement of an entire people be called philosophical?
And it is that principle of enslavement, recently lampooned by Larry Wilmore on the Daily Show, which ensures in my mind that the South’s relentless comparison of itself to the Founding Fathers can only guarantee its position as “farce” in that famous quote from Karl Marx, who wrote it down ten years before the war started—
The Founding Fathers fought unabashedly for their own freedom from slavery, with a brilliant success that no one at the time ever could have imagined; the South fought unabashedly for the enslavement of others, and was crushed in the dust. There is certainly nothing comedic about their defeat and the deaths of half a million people, but it cannot be denied that their leadership’s claim of being the second incarnation of the Founding Fathers is laughable, ludicrous, and ridiculous.
Similarly, people like myself have been babbling for a month now about President Obama’s “drift to the center” after the recent debacle that handed the House of Representatives over to the Republicans, and how imitative this is of similar events that occurred around the same time in Bill Clinton’s presidency; and yet beyond this cursory similarity, absolutely everything is different.
Where Clinton’s political prowess saw him triumphing over his adversaries and outflanking them on every issue, in effect stealing their thunder, Obama’s awkward reconciliation with people who have sworn to defeat him at all costs will only result in their victory, so long as he pledges to continue holding the hands of his own assassins. I think at this point everyone still looks at Boehner and McConnell as the winners, and it seems as if the president’s entente is only further empowering them, and only further disappointing “the base”, which is totally fed up with his endless concessions to people whose political interests do not lie outside those of their corporate sponsors. It is one thing, after all, to compromise with people who believe that what they are doing is right; it is quite another to compromise with people who have been so obviously bribed.
Perhaps it’s too early to tell. Maybe Obama will win over these guys after all, even if everyone is disappointed that he is far from the liberal messiah so many of us were drooling over. But I believe the recent gossip saying that, lately, “Mr. Obama has been reading accounts of Mr. Clinton’s presidency” should be a cause of concern, and not elation, because I agree with Marx on this point and think people inevitably make themselves out to be clowns when they start trying to imitate these ideals from the past—which is not to in any way demean the virtuous desire to learn from the lessons of the past. But if Obama means to imitate Clinton, or, as the New York Times article says, just give him the damn podium, we can perhaps conclude that this is Marx’s 18th Brumaire at work, as well as Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence.
Perhaps politicians, like poets, cannot truly become great until they find some fault with their idols and decide to distance themselves from those whom they had hitherto worshiped as gods; perhaps we can only escape the latter half of Marx’s dialectic when we realize that we are powdering ourselves up as clowns.