Sunday, October 26, 2008

Fighting for Difficult Causes

I found some solace in this quote from Lincoln's journal where he's grappling with the thought of whether or not to keep fighting for the abolition of slavery, a fight which at times seemed utterly hopeless:
I have never professed an indifference to the honors of official station; and were I to do so now, I should only make myself ridiculous. Yet I have never failed -- do not fail now -- to remember that in the republican cause there is a higher aim than that of mere office. I have not allowed myself to forget that the abolition of the Slave-trade by Great Britain, was agitated a hundred years before it was a final success; that the measure had its open fire-eating opponents; its stealthy "don't care" opponents; its dollar and cent opponents; its inferior race opponents; its negro equality opponents; and its religion and good order opponents; that all these opponents got offices, and the adversaries none. But I have also remembered that though they blazed, like tallow-candles for a century, at last they flickered in the socket, died out, and were remembered no more, even by the smell.

6 Comments:

Blogger Tenure said...

Great quote. Thank you.

2:53 AM  
Blogger Burgess Laughlin said...

" . . . all these opponents got offices, and the adversaries none. . . . though they [the opponents of abolition] blazed, like tallow-candles for a century, at last they flickered in the socket, died out, and were remembered no more . . . ."

This is another instance of a problem that I am having trouble formulating, much less solving at this time. The problem is roughly this:

Changes for the better have happened, but seemingly out of nowhere. Out of the chaos of the 1600s, a time of terror and mass destruction because of religious wars and oppression, there emerged the Enlightenment. Out of the seeming dominance of statism, there emerged a liberal economy (using "liberal" in its best sense) and an industrial revolution. Out of centuries long support for slavery, there emerged abolition.

Seemingly there is an effect in history in which the forces for a better life operate out of the main arena until they reach a "critical mass" and then they sweep away the established corruption.

I sometimes wonder if we who fight for a revolution in reason, egoism, and capitalism are in the very early stages of that building of critical mass, but outside the spotlight of conventional reporting.

In the briefest terms, I wonder if there is a "tipping point" that is not evident--even to many of the participants--until it happens.

The explanation is that ideas cause changes, but ideas disseminate quietly, person by person, until they burst into the spotlight.

8:29 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes, a great quotation, and (purposefully) timely given the present election and political developments in Washington. How did you encounter it?

Burgess, perhaps I am revealing a significant naiveté, but your answer to your own question is the answer I always believed in. I am interested in why it was difficult to "formulate"? Consider:

The legislation abolishing slavery in England was very definitely a result of constant efforts amongst the abolitionists to garner support for its passage. The effort took two clear fronts. The first was among the general public, but the leaders of the movement also sought the support of a parliamentary representative. He (I forget his name) regaled parliament with arguments as to the truly human nature of the negro, e.g. that enslaving the negro was no different than enslaving one's neighbor.

Gradually enough parliamentarians came to the same conclusion, and after many tries the abolition was passed.

Another, different and in my view wonderful, sequence of events is also germane. As Galileo fought the Italian (religious) establishment, the English had developed the Magna Carta (1215). It specified that men should "have and enjoy all liberties and immunities of free and natural subjects.” Such an inspiring statement for the many less well 'connected', especially when applied to future decisions in law, both legislative and application in court, set a trend to greater freedom. The Magna Carta endured, as a preeminent charter, for several hundred years.

As a result, individual Britons, became less and less beholden to Kings and Noblemen, and were better able to work for their own benefit. By the sixteen hundreds I believe the average Briton was much freer, from the King, Nobility and Church, than the average Italian.

Galileo (1564–1642) is said to have observed that restrictions in his home region meant science would move to the Northwest. That meant England. By the time of his death, the earliest form of The British Royal Society may well have begun its meetings as "The Invisible College". Given the illustrious minds at that 'College', I would find it hard to believe that Galileo would not have known of it. Great minds of the time sought each other out.

Isaac Newton (1642–1727) was born on Dec 25th in the same year that Galileo died! When Isaac Newton moved to the church (meh!) his young secretary moved to The College of William & Mary. He became young Thomas Jefferson's (1743–1826) mentor. Imagine!

And so, what is a "tipping point"? I think it will not be a culture-wide acceptance of reason. Rather a core of individuals will progressively implement certain culturally-acceptable threshold-ideas derived by reason. Here and there, there will be an important politically powerful mind who is able to accept a threshold idea and stand for it. Each new success, will pave the way for more. The rest will follow.

This is why it was heartening for me to see that the Kelo vs. New London, eminent domain, property rights defense by TAFOL was considered by the Supreme Court. Too bad property rights lost, 5-4, but the challenge must be repeated as often as possible; no giving up.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Amit Ghate said...

Thanks for the comments Richard and Burgess. I don't really have a developed view on how history is made (I'm still in the midst of educating myself on historical events, ideas and how they shape cultures), but I like Richard's thoughts, particularly as they apply to today.

And to answer Richard's question, I ran across the quote in a book on "The American Dream". (As it turns out, it's not a book I'd recommend.)

6:36 PM  
Blogger Burgess Laughlin said...

1. > " . . . your answer to your own question is the answer I always believed in. I am interested in why it was difficult to "formulate"?"

I did not say the answer was difficult to formulate. I said the problem was difficult to formulate. I am still not satisfied with the formulation of the problem. I have an inkling that it is too metaphorical: "main arena," "tipping point," and "spotlight." I need more precise language.

2. > ". . . The legislation abolishing slavery in England was very definitely a result of constant efforts amongst the abolitionists to garner support . . . . // Gradually enough parliamentarians came to the same conclusion, and after many tries the abolition was passed." (Bold added)

Your account (which is about the final, political end of the anti-slavery movement's long history) suggests that the process was steady and gradual. I don't know. I haven't studied it.

What I was wondering about was the opposite: Some movements operate outside the "spotlight" and then seemingly burst into public in strength. The Objectivist movement may turn out to be like that.

If I understood him correctly, Onkar Ghate made a point similar to this when he spoke in Lecture 2 of "Cultural Movements: Creating Change." (In a 4-week study group, we recently reviewed it in Study Groups for Objectivists.) In particular he was speaking of the sudden appearance in national poilitics of evangelical Christian fundamentalists in the late 1970s, particularly with the nomination of Jimmy Carter for the presidency.

Of course, the fundamentalists had been around for decades slowly gathering strength, but the mainstream wasn't aware of them, partly because mainstream media had been looking elsewhere. (The classic instance is the New York Times bestseller list not picking up on the great rise in Christian books--because the NYT's list managers were biased in their data collection.)

The result was that the fundamentalists reached a point where they were suddenly in the spotlight as a serious cultural force. It is that point that I am interested in: the point at which a movement that was previously off the "radar scope" is suddenly seen to be a threat to an established institution (good or bad).

Richard, I am glad you raised your question. It has prompted me to think a little more about this problem. For me, learning is a long, slow process.

7:56 PM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

What a lovely quote...and a lovely idea--the flickering out of bad ideas. Thanks so much for the great blog.

6:54 PM  

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