When I was running for Congress, I often expressed my desire to be this era’s Harriet Beecher Stowe. By that I meant that I hoped that my message would do for the latent power of Liberal America what Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, did for the North in the first half of the 1850s.
The idea that slavery was a moral wrong had been getting an increasing foothold in the North in the decades before Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling book was published. But in the political realm, the the anti-slavery (and anti- Slave Power) force was still out-fought by the pro-slavery forces from the South abetted by many Northern politicians.
Then came Stowe’s book, dramatizing — or melo-dramatizing — the pernicious character of the institution of slavery. The book caught on like wildfire (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a runaway best-seller, selling 10,000 copies in the United States in its first week; 300,000 in the first year; and in Great Britain, 1.5 million copies in one year,” reports the Harriet Beecher Stowe center). And the fire that was lit in the North played a role in the stiffening of the Northern backbone among the people of the North, galvanized greater willingness in the region to stand and fight against the Slave Power which — in its persistent and overreaching efforts not just to protect but to expand the dominion of the economy based on human bondage– acted the bully in the American power system.
It was because of that fire that Lincoln, upon meeting Stowe during the Civil War, is said to have declared: ” “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”
Here we are once again in a situation with some important parallels with the North in the early 1850s.
Once again the side that, however imperfect, is tasked to defend Wholeness is being bullied, and is responding in a weak, ineffectual fashion. Once again, a destructive force is dividing the country into antagonistic elements, and thereby damaging the ability of our democracy to navigate its way through our challenges in a wise and constructive way.
And so I aspire to be the little man who helped rouse Liberal America to fight the same spirit against which Harriet Beecher Stowe kindled the fire with her book.
That’s the hope that drives my current campaign to use my message to change the national conversation in order to drain power away from this destructive force– the re-emergence of the force that, a century and a half ago, used the Slave Power to damage, and nearly destroy, this nation.
Could that aspiration be realistic? Is it possible that this Series — “Press the Battle” — could light a fire as Uncle Tom’s Cabin did?
A strong argument against that possibility rapidly comes to mind. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a novel, which means it worked by means of a narrative that brought its readers through a well-orchestrated set of experiences.
By contrast, “Press the Battle” is a series of pieces that present an interconnected set of ideas to explain the meaning of the facts before us.
Can the mode I’m using match the power of the medium Stowe used to carry her message?
The experiential dimension of a story (whether on the page, or in a film) has an elemental power to move people. Moreover, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in a sentimental and melodramatic fashion that was especially powerful, in that era, in generating an emotional impact. The death of Little Eva, the cruelties of Simon Legree, the nobility and Christ-like self-sacrifice of Uncle Tom– all these were indelible images and spoke directly in the powerful mode that mimics our lives as we live them.
When people are engaged at the intellectual level, the passions are not so readily evoked. The big role played by ideas in “Press the Battle,” it might be argued, make it an inappropriate match to light the fire.
There’s validity to that argument. But there is also an important counter-argument:
At the time that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, Stowe’s readers already knew a basic truth — that slavery was an immoral and unjust system — and what was needed was for them to feel the compassion, the outrage, the yearning for justice called for by the truth that they knew.
In America in our time, the situation is different.
Yes, we in Liberal America need to feel more of the outrage and the resolve to fight that our situation calls for. But what’s lacking in our times is an adequate understanding of the truth of our situation. And to change people’s understanding to embrace some important truth, it is good ideas that are called for.
The first half of truth of our situation is that we are up against an “evil force” which has made today’s Republican Party its instrument. I have sought in this series drive home this truth by doing two things: 1) showing that reality, and explaining how such a thing as an “evil force” can be a vital part of the dynamics of the human world.
The need to explain how an “evil force” can exist points to the second half of the truth of our situation: that the response from Liberal America has been woefully inadequate.
That “the response from Liberal America has been woefully inadequate” is beyond doubt. That much of Liberal America does not believe in the reality of anything that warrants being called an “evil force” I know from years of experience talking with liberals about evil. That the liberal worldview that excludes any important concept of “evil” and evil forces is an important source of the weakness and blindness of Liberal America in our present national crisis — that I believe on what looks to me like a sound basis.
So lighting a fire in the part of America that needs to stand up and fight against an evil force is a different task in this crisis than it was in the crisis over slavery in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s day.
She made people contact deep feelings about a truth they already knew– a task for which a tear-jerker of a novel was the perfect instrument.
I want to make people see a truth that will help people respond appropriately — WE ALL KNOW HOW TO RESPOND TO AN EVIL FORCE… — and for that task, particularly with people who think, a compelling argument embedded a plausible model of the workings of the world seem to me the right instrument.
Of course, the passions must be engaged. It’s essential that we change the dynamic of “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are filled with a passionate intensity.”
But, as I’ve said from the outset, that passionate intensity will come from contacting our moral and spiritual passions in response to a crisis that appears to be political, but is really more fundamentally moral and spiritual at its heart. And it seems to be necessary to adjust the worldview of much of liberal/intellectual America for the connection to that part of our humanity from which our deep moral and spiritual passions spring.
So “Press the Battle” makes an intellectually coherent argument intended to help people see that vital truth: we are up against an evil force, and “the battle between good and evil” is a dynamic that’s embedded at the core of the challenge facing the creature whose made the breakthrough into civilization.
Understanding this, I think, is key to winning the battle in America today, and key to creating a civilization in which the forces of wholeness, and not those of brokenness, govern our destiny.