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Lincoln: Clarity of Words and Thought

We continue our discussion of Lincoln at Gettysburg with the thoughts of Ben Furnas '06. Ben double-majored in Economics and Government in the College of Arts and Sciences, and is currently working at the Center for American Progress Action Fund (the 501c4 to CAP's 501c3 for all you election lawyers out there). He writes papers and blog posts dissecting John McCain's policies all day, helping to form the progressive policy critique of the man he refers to as the 'seven-housed-more-of-the-samey-faux-maverick.' You can check out more of his work here, if you're so inclined.

As I write this, another skinny "underqualified" Illinois politician is seeking to rouse the nation to a higher purpose with the power of his words (while getting himself elected President in the process). But I'd argue a clarity of words implies a clarity of thought, and to write properly is to think properly, act decisively and lead.

Walter asks whether analyzing words matters. I answer, of course, of course, of course it does.

Lincolns address was powerful not just because it re-cast American history as an ideal of an ever-perfectible nation dedicated to liberty that pre-dated any legal arrangement between the colonies. Rather, the dramatic decisions of his presidency were justified by these words, and they lay out a a framework for future action.

To the extent we understand history, we must understand the stories that people tell themselves that justify their own behavior, and the stories they receive from their leaders that define the collective (nation, race, civilization) that they are a part of. There is no division between "action" and "words" -- words are actions, and actions are understood in words.

This is something known well by professional political operatives when they talk about framing the debate, creating the mental structure in which all actions are understood. Lincoln, in the address, rejected the frame of North vs. South, a war between two political entities, instead, he recast the entire war as a rocky patch in the journey towards a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to...well, you know. This re-framing has tangible power: through the pains of Reconstruction, inspiring civil rights leaders almost a century later, and to justifying Bush's war on Iraq as an extension of America's timeless devotion to liberty. All are actions that derived their legitimacy (and thus the ability of political leaders to do things) from the words used to describe them.

One of the most fascinating pieces of the book was the discussion of Lincoln and the telegraph, a medium that privileges pithy language, rich with meaning but short on verbiage. It's a testament to Lincoln's clarity and carefulness of thought that he found communicating like this so appealing. I wonder whether the new communication media we've got today privilege any one type of thinking, and what types of leaders our 24-7 news cycle, blog-centric world will attract and spawn. (My prediction: editors and filterers, those who make sense of large amounts of information and recognize what's important and what's extraneous...those who get to the nub, not unlike Lincoln).

For further discussion::

--Has the ability of any leader to shape a coherent national political narrative gotten far more difficult with the explosion of media outlets and communication outlets? How is America's sense of itself shaped today? Is our American vision getting more coherent, or more incoherent, or has it always been a diverse mess?

--A clarity of words implies a clarity of thought, and to write properly is to think properly, act decisively and lead. Do you agree?

We have more thoughts from other alums in the queue, but for the time being, we'll point you to the Cornell Librarian's take on how the Gettysburg Address is similar to our favorite television show.

We also found the following blog post at CornellSun.com by Ross Brann, Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies and Dean of the Alice Cook House interesting:

But when I tuned in to observe the Book Project panel discussion, I saw students asleep, milling about, talking on their cell phones, texting, talking and laughing with others, and what seemed to be a precious few engaged by the presentations. I gather it was uncomfortably hot in Barton. Admittedly the speakers were not rock stars or celebrities, merely highly gifted and marvelously articulate thinkers. I grant that Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg might not have gripped everyone equally (no work could). But…this was the first intellectual experience Cornell offered its new students. Unless the camerapersons were dispatched from rival institutions to capture images of disinterested Cornell students we have a problem: what are you doing here at Cornell?

All students should take note of our humble little project -- for many young alumni, such activities as the summer reading project can have direct applications to their line of work. So it's obvious that they benefited from their time on the Hill. Will you?

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on August 30, 2008 (#)

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