Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, FDR discussed on Slate's Political Gabfest
You could not protect yourself. You could not protect the guy next to you. You had no control over your own fate. This becomes a shock to systems of thinking. systems of coping Ideas about the proper relationship of individuals to their society individuals to their governments. So it's it's it's a total. Social shock of a war became so large that it eventually would slaughter close to seven hundred fifty thousand people David in your Atlantic piece you wrote about Lincoln and his leadership and then you also write about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the way in which people's relationship and expectations of the government changed in the wake of the Depression has Roosevelt is pushing for the new deal. And there's a quote that used from an FDR fireside chat in nineteen thirty five the old reliance upon the free action of individual wills appears quite inadequate the intervention of that organized control. We call government seems necessary. So we're at another moment where we desperately need the government. We needed to lead. We need organization we need just like simple or not simple but centralized logistics to get all the equipment we need from one place to another and you know obviously. Donald trump is a very different kind of president. But we're at this moment where we really need the federal government to be playing this larger role and one thing. I've been struggling with as I've been watching. These press. Conferences is what it's like when you have such profound doubts about your central government in your leadership at this moment. I mean trump himself but then also the apparent failures of some parts of the government. I would single out the CDC perhaps Centers for Disease Control in preparing for this pandemic. And I just wonder as you look back on. Fdr On Lincoln how you think about those struggles that the country's going through love the question. I'm glad you're that quote. Let's take up. I that idea of the individual I mean is there a deeper idea deeper myths and the anthropoid logical sense in American culture than this faith we have and individual? You can't kill it. No matter what Whether it comes from Emerson the Romantics or whether it comes from cowboy legends or whatever you just can't kill it And we we still have this notion that somehow We can all be self made. We can We can all a save ourselves if we get into the right gated community or if we have enough wealth or if we have enough education turns out in a crisis like this were terrified is individuals. And that's exactly what Roosevelt was saying there and that nineteen thirty four. Thirty five fireside chat that in fact he even referred to it as the nineteenth century idea of of frontier. He says his idea of the American going out in conquering and solving dilemmas of the frontier on their own individuals. Hardy men just didn't fit the modern world anymore. In fact hadn't fit the age of industrialization and urban is Asian of for many many many decades and suddenly the depression through everybody back onto their own wits in their own wits. Were not adequate for anything. So where do you turn your turn to government? Well that's exactly what happened in the civil war in its right. The in fact one of Roosevelt's favorite quotes was the quote by Abraham Lincoln. Where he said that the purpose of government is to aid human beings in what they cannot do for themselves. That's a paraphrase. Lincoln said it better as usual and in the civil war suddenly people start capitalizing or government People started talking about the government is something that would help them. Save them preserve their society preserve their constitution act as a kind of a shield on most Americans until eighteen sixty sixty one had never experienced the federal government except largely through the post office. there was no of the federal taxation there really were no federal agencies that engaged in people's lives there certainly were overnight when the war came so he got here and then the reason. I wrote that pieces because I was like you Emily just struggling tap something to say in the midst of I guess. Those press conferences Or anywhere right now and it's just all over our discourse it's everywhere people are wondering what's the role of government. What CAN GOVERNMENT DO? What is government doing? Why isn't what it's doing adequate In desperate kind of language. Now we're asking what governments can do. Necessity always invokes government. Where do modern people turn when they cannot do for themselves? What they most desperately need for two centuries the have turned to government and as much as this society still has millions of people who don't trust government don't like government won't government out of their lives taxation Right now everyone is desperate to understand. How is government going to save us and picking up on that? David before revenue. We had you To talk to I was thinking about something. You said Last summer when I talked to you about Your book on Frederick Douglass and we expanded the conversation a little bit more and you base and you said we were talking about why you study history which is also one of the things you recommend while people are in lockdown and you said you know we forget good ideologue you said that we we forget about it and then every once in a while history reasserts itself and just sort of us in the back side and you talk about necessity of the moment but your larger case seems to me to be. You know what this keeps happening because this is the way the ball bounces in the human experience and maybe we should know from studying history. Either whether it's Lincoln or FDR that big existential surprise things that nobody knew. We're GONNA come that week. They might have known it was going to come someday. They happen and given that so. Can you pick up on that idea? Basically that One of the reasons that we read history is not just for the specific excitement of the moment but also because of that more enduring idea. That emergencies always happen. And Hey maybe we should do something more than a late night. Vote in the higgledy-piggledy of the moment Yeah well a beautifully put John You know. None of us should take any particular high ground in this. I mean who predicted the end of the Cold War in eighty nine when it suddenly happen Who predicted nine? Eleven while you know we can find that the CIA had been working on that and of course we know more now You Know Pearl Harbor happened in. Its shocked the country. But we knew something about with Javanese or doing in the Pacific too but the there many many cases of this in history and every time it happens we are shocked. For good reason you know even nine eleven was not unprecedented. Everybody kept saying that was unprecedented on president unprecedented. No it wasn't and we've been slaughtering civilians ever since the Trojan war. I mean so. I don't know. There's no silver bullet on any of this but history. Is that saying we have to draw on if we can take the time to read? It prepares us. It doesn't protect. Its but it does prepare us for the shocks to come in if we think somehow that history because we live in America is somehow on of course the progress in somehow always going to get better Than we're kidding us. Notice him These things are just going to keep happening. One of my favorite things ever written on this is is to. It's a little short section and a book by Mark Block Mark Block was the great French historian killed in the Holocaust by the Nazis. But while he was in hiding the French resistance and moving from farmhouse to farmhouse he managed to write most of the manuscript. This is so moving. I almost break up a guitar at tell. The story managed to write. Most of the manuscript of his book called the craft of history and in that book which has many many important elements. He makes a profound case of how the past and the present are always hand in glove. They're always inter related even when we don't know it even when we don't think so he calls it the solidarity of ages past and present are always mingle and the past is always waiting to come get you in the president. Who would who would know any better than mark? Block sitting in some farmhouse hiding from the Nazis. Trying to write about the meaning and uses of history. For God's sake No doubt it probably calmed him until they caught him and shot him with a firing squad. History shocks us in right now. This one frankly. We don't really know what the analogy is. Dewey analogies are flying around now like like air it probably more analogies in there are virus Bad Joke but everyone was looking for the right and as this Pearl Harbor. It's the same thing we did with nine eleven but in some ways nine eleven was a little easier. It was a military attack. We knew what to compare it to when you compare this to. I guess the nineteen eighteen epidemic. But we've never shut down the entire economy which never closed off all transportation. New York City's never had empty streets even in a blizzard. I mean it's just never happened so you know we don't know how to prepare for this about. We did not prepare for this and didn't in certain practical ways but how to prepare ourselves emotionally philosophically spiritually right. Now were Adrift David. The period politically that. We're in has been marked by incredible division just country. That's that's as divided as certainly any. It's ever been in my lifetime when you look at what's starting to happen. And the government response to the crisis. Do you think there's any reason to hope that we come out of this? Less divided or are the ways in which we're divided more likely to be reinforced. By what happens during this. Well God only knows but it depends on how long this lasts. It depends on how deep the suffering is. I think our models for this is what probably happened. The politics in the thirties and politics in the year of the civil war. I always tell my students. If you are really yearning for a political realignment in America I mean a fundamental realignment like new parties that actually work and develop new coalitions. And last you got two great models. The eighteen fifties in eighteen sixties the birth of the Republican Party which completely reshaped American politics with a whole new coalition. And you got the nineteenth thirds which completely reserves American politics and the Democratic Party not overnight because its roots are in progressivism but the Democratic Party becomes the party a new kind of liberalism. New Deal Policy on the Republican Party at that time increasingly becomes the Conservative Party of big business. Those are two really big realignments in American history. So take your pick. You can have it with a civil war you can have it with the Great Depression. That's pretty depressing when you think about it but who knows What this kind of crisis could do the irony here or the power of this is it. It has everybody talking about existential issues. How are we GONNA feed people? How are we gonNA save our our our medical people? The nurses and the doctors who are not risking their lives every day How are we gonNA ever revived the economy out of this all of those questions? Everybody has to ask. But it's GonNa be a turbulent road. David what are you you picked you talked about? Lincoln and FDR so do you have a template again given everything you've just said about politics today For how people got through I mean. Fdr comes in in thirty two. It's been since twenty six. They've had to endure lots of uncertainty and lots of and the the leaders and the people the leaders in particular. Both of those guys where you know. It was said that they had this great negative capability that they could live in the uncertainty and not go stabbing after solutions on the other hand. They took great actions. Amazing historic actions. Can you talk a little bit about that combination of attributes in the leader but then also in the people how do people live through and perhaps they just were used to it in a life where you didn't have instantaneous? Everything the way we do now but live through the uncertainty and the just existential Wednesdays ever and houses ever GonNa get better well on the ladder questions on a lot of them didn't well let's remember Civil civil or kill Lotta. People maimed many more left families. ruined We have to face that we need. We need a very strong sense of authentic tragedy. Understand that back the leadership. It's worth understanding here. And just a quick sense that link neither Lincoln or Roosevelt had it all figured out. Both of them had very crooked roads. Lincoln had a crooked road to his moment of greatness with immense patient and his various moments of greatness with this Hash to save the Union. No matter what the. Lincoln eighteen fifty eight debating. Stephen a Douglas on the question of slavery is not the same Lincoln of the summer of eighteen sixty three or certainly of sixty four when he is so concerned to free as many slaves as possible before the election. That fall in case. He doesn't win Roosevelt at a very crooked path to the ideas of the new deal he was spewing all kinds of contradictions. You know when he was governor of New York and when you even when he was running thirty two No one quite knew. Roosevelt meant and Kinda got it clear in the campaign and then in thirty three he kinda got it down that look. We've got a revolutionize the way we use government to save society to save employment to save the human spirit and we got to have a whole new imagination. He says we need A. We need a whole change in our.