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Sharing a bicentennial with Abraham Lincoln is a bit like celebrating one’s birthday on Christmas. Unless you’re Charles Darwin, that is, in which case the playing field is much more level. Sure, Newsweek gives Lincoln precedence—not entirely surprising for an American publication—but rankings like that are totally beside the point when you’re talking about giants.
Let’s hope President Obama set aside a few moments to think on Darwin today—he certainly shows Lincoln enough love.
When David Axelrod was dissatisfied with an early draft of Obama’s Grant Park victory speech, he sent back a simple directive to chief speechwriter John Favreau: “Figure out a good Lincoln quote to bring it all together.”
Favreau went with the money line: “We are not enemies, but friends.… Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Yes, we get it: Obama The Candidate was a guy who seemed to promise renewal not principally through policy, but through a rearticulation of the dream that, say, made our nation what it is—he gives America back to us. “In every work of genius,” Emerson writes in “Self-Reliance,” “we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” At his best, to the credulous, this is what Obama offered.
To be sure, there’s something sort of facile about the way Obama and his cohorts deal with the Lincoln thing. But Tom Hanks aside, they pull it off pretty convincingly.
Darwin’s still in the background for most of us—a figure delivered to us in trite, one-dimensional snippets. We see him, if at all, in the mind’s eye: A vague, serious man with a jutting forehead and a Solzhenitsyn beard, a floating head circumscribed with some hazy words about natural selection. In the public realm, his lot’s pretty dim: Most of the time he’s either hated or forgotten. Think about it! Most of us take for granted that apes are our forebears, and we titter when the New York Times covers “bonobos porn.” This is the dusty Darwin of the college library, legible through micro-fiche copies of the Linnaean Society’s minutes from 1858. On the other hand, our born-again brothers and sisters call his theory specious, his Descent of Man a heresy, the man himself a DREAD APOSTATE.
Indeed. Thanks to Darwin—as the New York Times observed in its awesome 4/21/1882 obituary of this “epoch-making man”—“school children intuitively understood that if man is descended from the ape, he cannot be descended from Adam.” So too may the Mikado’s Poo-Bah swell with pride at his ability to “trace my ancestry to a protoplasmic primordial globule.”
Obama, the progressive in me trusts, will put Darwin back in the foreground. In his Inaugural Address, Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place,” and not to spurn non-believers. And while the evangelical wackos cringe, Darwin, one hopes, would be proud. Here’s a president who goes to church and agrees with Poo-Bah.
As the Texas Board of Education—on which Republicans have gained serious footing—gears up for its big vote in March, the same battle’s being fought, at large and at small, all across the country.
“At a moment when we are far less divided than in Lincoln’s day but when we are once again debating the critical issues of our time—and debating them sometimes fiercely—let us remember that we are doing so as servants of the same flag, as representatives of the same people and as stakeholders in a common future,” Obama said in his speech at the Capitol today. That’s not so different from his “red states/blue states” line at the 2004 DNC.
The fallout of Darwin’s legacy, 200 years later, will put that proposition to the test.
Image above snagged from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch