Of All the Things to Forget

We are, as one old American said, a house divided. In his day, we were divided by the evil of slavery. In our day, we are divided by our memories of his day.

But memory is too strong a word, for none of us was there and few of us know much about those who were. Weakness in knowledge does not, apparently, diminish the strength of opinion and I hear mournful accusations to the effect that racism “is shamefully enshrined in our Constitution”.

Abraham Lincoln would understand our day better than we understand his. Not 75 years since the Constitution was written, some were already working to obscure our nation’s identity and history, defending slavery and setting us on the path to civil war. Lincoln responded as we should respond, by examining the facts.

In the Cooper Union speech Lincoln delivered as a presidential candidate in 1858, he carefully documented the voting records of “the thirty-nine framers of the original Constitution, and the seventy-six members of the Congress which framed the amendments thereto” in regards to slavery and demonstrated that “our fathers – the men who made the Constitution – decided this same Constitutional question in our favor, long ago – decided it without division among themselves”.

“We do,” he said, “in common with our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live, declare our belief that slavery is wrong”. He pleaded with his audience to “speak as they spoke, and act as they acted upon it. This is all Republicans ask – all Republicans desire – in relation to slavery. As those fathers marked it, so let it be again marked, as an evil not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because of and so far as its actual presence among us makes that toleration and protection a necessity.”

Slavery existed on this continent before there was an America and, as Lincoln said while debating Stephen Douglass, “The fathers of the Government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end. They expected and intended that it should be in the course of ultimate extinction.”

Lincoln appealed to the founders’ example to defend his own opposition to slavery – he never imagined they would be themselves accused of favoring that evil, but that is where we find ourselves today.

To those who would expand slavery, Lincoln complained “You will rule or ruin in all events” and “It was not we, but you, who discarded the old policy of the fathers”.

We, too, live among some who would “rule or ruin in all events”, those who – in Milton’s words – think it “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”. They use our fading memories against us and discard the old policy of the fathers, calling into question even our fundamental agreement that “all men are created equal”.

Please, let’s read some history (and Mr. Lincoln’s speeches are a great place to start) before we surrender our rightful pride in the founders’ vision for a free country.


The Experiment

As good experiments sometimes do, my experiment proved me wrong.

It’s only one experiment, but the results are spectacular, and you can easily run the test yourself. 

I got the idea a while ago, remembering this story I heard as a kid – a story that has haunted me ever since.  The story was so big, so crazy that I imagined it with a dramatic backdrop – earthquakes, signs in the sky, vast armies marching across the countryside.  Well, it’s been a strange year in America, but not that strange.  Still, I thought I would give it a try.

I began at a restaurant I’ve frequented for years and, yep, it worked.  Then I tried the bank.  And then the grocery store.  Finally, the church.

I’ve been running the experiment for weeks now and it works every time.  It works so well that I’m reconsidering that old bible story, which describes a massive social shift – a movement to unite behind an idea and bake that idea into the daily processes of life.  If you show support for the idea, your life is allowed to continue, much as before.  You don’t have to believe; you just have to go along.

Well, as good experiments sometimes do, my experiment proved me wrong.  I thought that story could not happen here, or that it would at least be accompanied by earthquakes and armies.  I thought it would take longer, or that we would think harder, or be more inclined to resist, or be more loyal to old neighbors than new rulers.

In fact, my experiment proved that the story I feared has already come true.  I have been turned away from the restaurant and the bank, the grocery store, and the church; turned away by old friends who doubt whether the idea behind the current story is even true.  I don’t blame them for turning me away.  That’s the way the story works.  You don’t have to believe, but if you want to participate in this society – to buy or sell or bank or worship – you do have to go along.

And go along, we do.  The book of Revelation tells of a “mark” that will be required by the government “to buy or sell”.  We’re not there yet, but if the story seems far-fetched to you, take off your mask and try.

Screwtape Explains a Crisis*

My dim-witted Wormwood, I write in haste. Stand down and – if you value your life – say no more of your proposal to anyone. For one thing, it has been tried (and how exquisitely that fool suffered for it – Satan digest his soul). For another, it shows how little you understand our program.

Yes, the fat is finally in the fire, but do not be intoxicated by the fumes. We have far to go and naturally our journey will end with a bonfire of churches, but for now we want them as they stand – bright white and innocuous.

I have not forgotten your inexperience, but can even you fail to see their importance? The humans have a term for changing bad resources into good – “money laundering”, I think it is – and this is our use for the Church. As you say, the Enemy’s words are heard there, and that is a risk, but less than you think. We have convinced many in the Church to set aside his words and promote our own views of sex and life and race and the rest – all under his flag! The laundering of our Father’s principles, the deprecation of the Enemy’s ideas, the marketing value of the Church marching alongside us, the embarrassment and suppression of those inside the Church who might have done us harm… All this, my short-sighted apprentice: THIS is the profitable enterprise you propose to burn down?!!

Now attend, and I will correct your thinking on the other project you mention.

Our hope for the virus is not to kill humans (they live briefly enough in any case), but to marinate them for our later enjoyment. The Enemy would have them prepare for their death by living bravely and well. We want them to consider death a surprising and preventable event. (I hear you laugh, but you know it works.) Give them terror of what they cannot avoid. Give them a sense of control that will always be frustrated. Set them at war against their own creaturely nature. That is the stuff that seasons their soul.

And there is a broader application. Your human’s nation, though substantially repaired in recent years, remains tainted. The little beasts are taught they were born to be free and they still speak openly of the Enemy and his ideas, even at state-sponsored events. I don’t need to tell you how this increases our workload. A decision has been made by the Lower Downs to deal with the country as a whole.

A task force is working to shift the nation to a new foundation, built upon the timeless and bracing themes of control and conflict, similar to our own organization’s constitution. Their current health crisis will advance this effort in several ways.

1. In times of peace, the creatures’ minds wander to beauty and the greater good, and we must prevent this. Keep them in a state of perplexity and fear through the next election – wearing face-masks wherever they go, separated from their friends and routines, hanging upon the “news” (delicious word!). We must, at all costs, preserve in their minds a state of emergency.

2. Like all good things, the virus will come to an end, but with care, we can draw it out a few more months. Of course, most humans are not physically affected and, if they once stop to think about this, they might go back to their lives, become immune, and our beautiful emergency would soon be over. By all means possible, we must flatten the recovery.

3. Our primary goal is to improve their elections, allowing us much greater influence in the process. The fear we nourish will obviously draw voters away from principle and toward perceived safety. Far more important, it will justify our plan to create wide-open spaces between voters and vote counters. We cannot yet control voters, but we will control their ballots, and that is enough for the moment.

I trust you now see, Wormwood, that your personal initiative is both unwanted and potentially harmful to our ongoing work. In the future, take care to do as you are told and lure your human patient along, or you may find yourself an entrée at the next quarterly barbecue.

Your voraciously affectionate uncle,


*Apologies to C. S. Lewis, author of the brilliant Screwtape Letters, from which the characters and concept are derived (https://www.amazon.com/…/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_GCTfFbB6G35…)

The Strange Tattoo

It’s a strange story, but it’s been told for thousands of years.  An irresistible crowd, following an irresistible leader, all wearing the same tattoo. 

It sounded sinister when I read the story as a kid, but I was missing the point.  There’s a lot to be said for irresistible force, as long as you’re moving with it.  And that tattoo – well, it doesn’t just get you into the crowd, it also gets you into the grocery store and the bank. 

I’m slow, but I think I finally get it.  The story is not about the leader.  It’s about us.

If this year has taught us anything, it’s this: America has become a wave pool of passion, and Americans are far more likely to dive in than ask where the waves are coming from.

And the waves are spectacular.  In just a few months we have all faced death, and then become systemically racist, and finally realized that our nation was always evil.  That’s quite a summer, and there’s more to come.

There’s more to come because waves don’t last very long.   They soar and smash and disappear.  They are big because they are big, and not because they are true.  They may be led by swimmers, but they are fed by floaters – by the much larger body of people who decide that resistance is futile, or at least too expensive.  Floaters are the real power behind every wave.  They magnify its force by bobbing along, adding their own weight to its influence.

Waves soar and smash and disappear, and all that remains is the damage… which makes you wonder where these waves are coming from because they all point at the same target.  In the old days of, say, six months ago, we called ourselves “a nation of laws and not of men”.  Today, we watch the lawless on TV, left free to destroy whatever they will.  Our leaders, too, are lawless, claiming for themselves new powers or standing quietly aside as others do, dismantling the system they were hired to protect.  We are quickly becoming a nation of men and not law.

I don’t think the beast of the Bible story is here, or that his mark is a mask or BLM t-shirt, but we begin to see how easy it will be.  The Antichrist will be a bum, of course, but he will have a few tricks up his sleeve, and that will be enough.  He will make waves, and many will dive in, and most of the rest will play it safe and bob along.  For the few who refuse, there will be fear and shame and a guy in front of the grocery store checking tattoos.

The Iconoclasts

It’s fun to be an iconoclast and it requires little training. You don’t need to understand what you’re smashing. You don’t need to be better than what you condemn. You don’t need to offer anything in exchange for what you destroy. If you seem angry enough, people will assume you have something to be angry about. They will assume that what you hate is evil.

It’s harder to take the other position. We’ve never met Lincoln, Grant, Washington, or the rest. There is a layer of dust on our memory of their lives. We didn’t build their statues or experience the problems they helped solve. We know they were real people, flawed as we are flawed, who nonetheless accomplished important things, but our loyalty to them is a dim, cobwebby, inherited thing.

And this is the battle of the moment. Our hazy memories against kids with ropes and spray paint. Our faded gratitude against their frantic rage. Our half-hearted defense of half-forgotten people against a frenzy of self-righteous indignation.

There are arguments to be made against every man, and history would have us make them, and then evaluate those arguments in the full light of day. But the iconoclast does not want light. His hour is darkness, hidden within an anonymous mob that honors no law and tolerates no debate.

He weaponizes history, ignoring his subjects’ culture and denying their suffering, reducing them to comic-book villains, representative of their villainous eras. He rejects his subjects’ limitations and humanity – makes them gods in order to make them devils. He makes them devils in order to discredit their gods.

But, of course, these famous men were not gods. They were humans born into a culture, just as we were born into a culture – humans who suffered and struggled and stood apart from their culture, often leaving it changed for the better. They were brave men, now being mocked by masked men. They were humble and dedicated men, now being judged by self-righteous and cowardly men. They were imperfect men, now being slandered by abysmal men.

It is our forgetting that makes us ripe for this revolution. We have forgotten the price that many paid for this freedom we were born into – our globally and historically unprecedented American privilege. We have forgotten the Creator who inspired our ancestors’ revolution and their painful journey toward equality. We have forgotten our own generation’s brutality to the aborted, even as we criticize their generation’s slow liberation of the enslaved.

It’s fun to be an iconoclast, until you have finally torn down everything you don’t understand. Then, at least, you may begin to understand.