Sunday, March 6, 2011


Rapid and efficient means of communication, especially coupled with sufficient leisure to use it, have increased what these days is known as “pressure.” The word occurs so often and so casually, it struck me that a closer look might be worthwhile. The thought floated into my mind while we listened to a reading of Lincoln first inaugural address. March 4th marked the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s swearing in. In that address the President gave an interesting tutorial on the meaning of “faithfully [to] execute the Office of President,” and this in the context of “pressure” on the government that soon after his oath had been rendered took the most extreme form of all: war. The Civil War began a mere thirty-nine days after Lincoln’s inauguration, on April 12, 1861.

The contrast between the nature of pressure and the President’s exposition of the meaning of constitutional government is interesting. What Lincoln said in essence was that no element of the Constitution had been violated by the government, hence any action that fell outside the constitutional rules represented a fundamental breach of law and of the union. The secession had commenced February 4 of that fateful year; thus the Constitution had been already been broken, de facto. But no violence had yet taken place. That happened with the attack at Fort Sumner.

Now my present intent is to examined the milder meanings of that concept, “pressure,” in order to examine how to understand that word in a political context. It certainly means something other than “providing information” or “engaging in debate.” When someone corrects my spelling or hands me the right tool when I’ve grabbed the wrong one, when someone reasons with me calmly to show me another way of seeing things—such things surely aren’t pressure—although they might produce annoyance. When people complain of “high pressure sales tactics,” the line has been crossed. Polite persuasion has descended a step and is now attempting to engage my emotions which (why else complain) I view as inappropriate in a selling situation.

Pressure tactics of whatever kind, therefore, involve a kind of force that, viewed soberly, falls outside the reasonable arrangement of a situation where restraint is required instead. President Lincoln argued for orderly behavior within the rules—while agreeing that, had the rules really been violated, revolution would be legitimate. He pointed out that that frequent elections give the people legitimate ways to change the government if the public is disappointed—especially under rules where minorities are protected.

Government under laws or government under pressure. Or, what the actual situation is today, government under laws but also under great pressure. The job of the President is not to lead but to execute the laws. The job of legislators is to make laws, not to drum up popular support, read generate pressure, to overcome legislators who would vote the other way. It was oddly refreshing to hear Lincoln's speech—attempting to persuade, without a threat in sight—in a day and age where the exertion of pressure through endless mechanisms of the Information Age is politics—by way of polls, pundits, press releases, talk shows, focus groups, conferences, demonstrations, and on. Very interesting. So pervasive is pressure, in our times, that those engaged in politics barely have time to remember what their actual job description is, never mind getting down to business. And the public, similarly, embraces pressure when it emanates from groups it favors—and only critiques it when it emanates from the opposite side. Can I think of recent demonstrations I don’t disapprove of? Yes, I can. No sooner have we elected representatives than we rally to undo the will of the majority. By pressure. But pressure is always the use of illegitimate force—at least as viewed from the highest human level. Yes. We’re all in this together, as it were. Force against reason. Not doing—once our representatives have been elected—is acutely painful after all.

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