Hawking Up Hairballs

Monday, February 16, 2009


It's Presidents' Day, so I thought I might make a few remarks about Abraham Lincoln. As is to be expected, over the last few days, there have been a lot of TV shows about the various presidents. I watched one of them last night, something called Looking For Lincoln on PBS. The gist of the show was that a certain mythology has grown up around Lincoln, and that the things that most of us were taught about him in school are false. For example, he is lauded as the great emancipator, but that is something less than the truth. Yes, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and he was personally opposed to slavery, but he believed that blacks were biologically inferior to whites, so that it was only natural that whites hold a superior position to blacks in society. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. It was a commonly held position at the time, even among those who were opposed to the institution of slavery.

Some people get upset when the warts on their historical icons are exposed. I've never understood that. Gods do not walk among us. We're all human beings with our foibles and weaknesses, so why should the historical figures who we admire be any different? If we're trying to hold these people up as examples, doesn't it make more sense to show them, warts and all? When we portray them as god-like, people are more likely to say something like this to themselves, well, I can't measure up to that, so why even bother trying. Portray them as flawed human beings like ourselves, and I hope that people would think, yeah, I may not be perfect but that doesn't mean I can't accomplish great things.

One person who seems to think that there are gods walking among us is Tony Kushner, the playwright who wrote Angels in America. Steven Spielberg is apparently planning to make a movie about Lincoln, and Kushner is writing the screenplay. He appeared briefly in Looking For Lincoln and he talked about how intimidating the task was because there was no way he could get into the mind of Lincoln. As he said, and I paraphrase, Lincoln was a genius and how can you get into the mind of a genius? He went on to mention a few others like Mozart and Einstein, saying that no one could hope to understand the way they thought. I was struck by his remarks. It seemed that he was conflating genius with divinity. To his way of thinking, geniuses are demigods. This is a common belief in America. For example, I remember reading about a poll. This was years ago, I can't recall exactly when. Anyway, people were asked what it takes to be good at mathematics. The majority of people in the USA said that it takes a certain knack or talent. The majority of people in Europe said that it takes hard work. Not exactly what one would expect.

I don't believe that there are geniuses. There are people who are possessed of certain abilities who are capable of works of genius, but that is not indicative of some essential quality of the person. Einstein published some papers early in his career on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, and the special theory of relativity. They were all works of genius. However, he rejected quantum mechanics, saying that God doesn't play at dice, and spent the latter half of his career in a failed attempt to come up with a theory of everything. His fellow physicists were of the opinion that time had passed him by. So, what happened to that essence called "genius"? Had it extinguished itself, or something like that? No, of course not. "Genius" is just a convenient label that we attach to people who have produced works of genius. It doesn't indicate anything that inheres in the person.

I've gotten off my point here. Einstein wasn't a president, nor is Tony Kushner, so I'll get back to Lincoln. One thing that many forget about the man is what a wonderful writer he was. The Gettysburg Address was a masterpiece, and he had a real talent for turning a phrase. "With malice toward none, with charity to all..." is a classic, as is his reference to "the better angels of our nature." Damn, but that's a phrase I wish I had come up with. Lincoln also had a knack for humorous one-liners. Here's one, "Tact is the ability to describe others as they see themselves." Hmm, tact. That's something no one can accuse me of.


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