A few more final words, for now, putting these earlier on Lincoln in sharper relief. There is the strange phenomenon today of Lincoln both disappearing generally and becoming ever-more-totemic specifically. As he ascends to uncriticizable heights among those who think at all well of him, and becomes all-too-easy to kick around for his dwindling detractors, he slips like a receding ghost out of the truly public eye. Why?
Those who criticize Lincoln sometimes have a difficult time countenancing his greatness of soul; they want him to be not just a tyrant but a petty tyrant, and then only a petty tyrant. The cognitive dissonance aspect of this is clear, but there is something more. Those who praise Lincoln most praise him politically, thereby, imaginatively, praising him best. It's uncomfortable enough a reckoning nowadays with the awesome depths of his Christianity, only in which context can we understand his fakir-like faith in America, and thus too the astonishing capacity of his soul to take up -- and set up others upon -- the political crosses of the suffering sovereign.
And this is what Lincoln's small-l liberal fans least want to acknowledge: the suffering of the scourge. War in the terms of the Lincoln myth acknowledges suffering only insofar as it is purified through the greatness of Lincoln's, the slaves', and the 'volunteered' Union Army's glorious political heroism. The movie's called Glory for a reason, Halleluja neatly repressed; the 'local flavor' of the Colored Regiments' hosannahs are clearly staged to give whiteys everywhere a satisfyingly vicarious experience of visceral communal rhythm. The solidarity that Christianity provided slaves and ex-slaves, thin gruel that it was among solid humans deprived of all other (the insinuation is fuller) tools to develop the capability of human solidarity, serves in this fashion as merely the motif of what really matters: political freedom, won by blood against its foes. O happy day.
But of course for Lincoln it was no happy day at the last moment of triumph he could politically enjoy -- his re-inauguration, and from beginning to end his administration brought horrible after horrible year, because Lincoln decided to act as he did. Only Providence could account for the particular horror that the horror played out as long and deep as it did, but Lincoln's courage of action, though he acted politically, was not political courage, at least not as someone who won't cheerlead both for Lincoln and Machiavelli (and a certain, unpopular kind of Machiavelli at that) can understand it. This is because Lincoln's courage to scourge was sacred, not political; that he was President when presented with an inescapable crisis of American legal, political, and moral epistemology meant that the vertical distance between the sacred and the political collapsed in the vacuum of power and authority, which stand in truth in a hierarchical relationship which can only be restored by its reassertion, this even if by force.
The complexities and uncompromising reckonings of this fact -- and, most, its inescapability, unchanged since Lincoln though diligently and ever-more-expertly repressed -- are offputting to moral pragmatists elite and common alike. What Alasdair MacIntyre called a pragmatism and a nominalism of the philosophers and a pragmatism and a nominalism of everyday life takes in the first case "the form of theories" and in the second case "the form of a socially powerful way of reimagining the self." The theory that we may become what we imagine is anti-Lincolnian in every sense -- the strongest in its parodic and lying appropriation of Lincoln's theology of redemption. So the strange complementary hardening of Lincoln worship and disappearance of the public Lincoln looks specifically like what I have started to discuss generally -- Constantian usurpation, which teaches itself that most modern lesson most useful to moderns: the best way to seize power away from those whose power is authorized and to seize the appearance of authority from authority itself in a single stroke is to invert the hierarchical relationship of authority to power. In short, make authority the slave of power, the flattering subject at your royal court, just one of several noble fops among the courtiers, indeed, one with a special little booster seat at the royal table, a special name, that is, conferred title. When authority becomes Polonius, the Claudine usurper has usurped. Lincoln-worship becomes a certain form of court etiquette within the salon society of (small-l) liberal Americanism meant to flatter the particular power of the American political creed.
This is not to be confused with the phrases 'meant to send a message about' or 'meant to send a strong signal about' the 'sense of respect' paid to the particular power of the American political creed. This is real fealty to real power, the political power of enforcing political freedom, the ass-kicking quality of progressive American perfectionism that sees its eternal and present common configuration among optimistic interventionist internationalist neoconservative-neoliberals and neoliberal-neoconservatives. How much do these people really have a repressed disgust for authority? Sometimes only the practical reasons are thought through -- look over there, some human beings just as human as you and I are suffering under the yoke of absurd, primitive, false, and crippling doctrines -- but sometimes it's more than that, a bedrock conviction that all authority external to human power is a fraud and a lie cooked up to keep people from learning and actualizing their full capabilities. All this is inimical to Lincoln, who set the terms of the good life not according to full human capacity but far beyond it and thus beneath it, at the Godly life. As President he could think but not act solely in those terms, and as politician he thought politically too anyway. But saving the union was a frankly Providential mission for Lincoln; he inherited an American political creed as much as through him it was born again. His sacred truths that have now been studiously half-translated (so as to encompass and domesticate the sacred as 'religious-ness', just one of many aspiration-based sets of attitudes about the choices we should make together on Earth) into political optimism, political interventionism, and so forth, and the result of this is that Lincoln is both necessary to have around in a token sense -- in a pinch the gimp of authority may always be trotted out -- and also necessary to keep locked up and gagged in the basement, where in 'normal life' he is of little use and some guilty embarrassment.
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All of this is a particularly pulpy factual exegesis of Philip Rieff's diagnosis of Lincoln as contemporary Polonius in My Life among the Deathworks (2006). "Lincoln suffers for being a scourge and minister of the American social order," he wrote.
[...] He knows that he must pay for the massive bloodletting he has released. Lincoln is still, 140 years after his death, being scourged. Lincoln is the last, and perhaps only, sacred messenger and figure of grace in U.S. history. His memory is a casualty of the war against sacred order and its embodiments. He has been wiped out, replaced by President's Day. The displacement of Lincoln by such a vaguery, meaningless to most Americans, is part of the kulturkampf.
Cultures without sacred messengers are in trouble. Lincoln himself rose from the lowest social classes -- his parents could not read. How is the population to understand the vertical, the rise that is always possible, without the supreme figure of Lincoln?
Lincoln's removal from American mythology -- the elimination of his birthday, the typical criticisms in contemporary documentaries -- is part of a scourge of Lincoln, the minister of highest authority. [...] ironically, this tragedy inverts the real tragedy of the Civil War. It is as a scourge that Lincoln is scourged by highest authority; he pays for the war he believed was just and necessary, as it may have been. Nevertheless, like Moses, he must be scourged. To unleash mass killing, whether just or not, is to be a scourge, which is inevitably transgressive because it is uncontrolled and allows human vanities and excesses to be expressed. But Lincoln's present scourging by [contemporary] elites is for his office of minister, not scourge (171-2).
So can a person rightly and truly mourn the murder of Lincoln in turn while also rightly and truly confessing "sic semper tyrannis." The crucial line between religion/authority and politics/power is kept intact -- not a horizontal Berlin Wall but a vertical chain link that separates in hierarchy. But this mode is entirely inimical to moral pragmatists of the town or gown variety.