Lowry On Lincoln: A Safe Whiggish Pep Talk For GOP Loyalists—Useless On The Real Issues
As the comfort and security of life in advanced societies have improved so sensationally this past half-century, the scope of topics considered respectable for public debate has narrowed, almost to the point where only a single set of ideas about the organization of society is now tolerated.
This process has had dire effects on party politics, which is now extremely boring, since there is so little to discuss.
To be interested in party politics nowadays, other than as a clash of personalities—which anyway happens much more within parties than between them—is a puzzling but harmless eccentricity, like stamp collecting.
But well within living memory—within my memory, darn it—there were mighty differences of political opinion. Thus the Labour Party politicians who came to power in Britain after WW2 were genuine socialists who believed in “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” Those very words were printed on your Labour Party membership card.
They meant it, too. Great swathes of British industry were put under state control by Labour. Healthcare became a government department. Sturdy, roomy houses with big gardens were built at public expense and rented to the poor. (I grew up in one of them.) The dismantling of the British Empire was begun.
Political parties embodied vast differences in outlook. Socialist firebrand Aneurin Bevan (Labour) nationalized healthcare and built all those houses, until—to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s handy expression—he ran out of other people’s money. The Marquess of Salisbury (in the following Conservative government) expelled an African prince from a British colony for marrying a white woman.
Nowadays Britain has three big social-democratic parties whose policies differ only in microscopic details. The current Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently laid aside all other parliamentary business—lackluster economy, floods of immigrant terrorists and criminals, a swelling entitlements crisis—to push through the legalization of homosexual marriage. This Prime Minister belongs to the Conservative Party!
In the U.S.A., where explicit socialism never had much purchase and politics was traditionally sectional, increasing geographical homogeneity has brought about a similar result. The stuff of inter-party contention now is tiny points of taxation policy and healthcare reform, and noisy but inconsequential (in the sense that everyone understands nothing will happen) differences on social issues.
A friend quipped to me recently that the GOP is just the Democratic Party with an anti-abortion plank. That’s depressingly close to the truth.
This increasing uniformity of political opinion is enforced by an ever more vigilant policing of the language, as foretold by, of course, George Orwell:
“Don’t you see [Winston Smith’s colleague explains to him] that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” [Nineteen Eighty-Four, Chapter V.]
The recent career of the phrase “self-deportation” illustrates Orwell’s point. A mere two or three years ago it described the mildest, least proactive style of immigration law enforcement. Now it is a “horrific” outrage against human rights, according to…the Chairman of the Republican National Committee! [CORRECTED: GOP CHIEF: Mitt Romney`s `Self-Deportation` Quote Was `Horrific`, by Brett LoGiurato, Business Insider, August16, 2013]
(I have tried to float the term “hate creep” for this general linguistic narrowing.)
It would be natural to expect that the less-enthusiastic half of the social-democratic stage donkey would be shedding membership. And this seems to be happening.
In Britain, the Conservative Party—the one that pushed homosexual marriage through parliament—has been “hemorrhaging” members, according to one report.
Here in the U.S.A., it is now widely understood that the GOP’s failure to capture the Presidency from a weak incumbent in 2012 was due to great numbers of conservative white voters having stayed at home, apparently seeing no point in voting for the donkey’s front legs rather than the back.
Of course, an important difference between the countries is that conservative British voters have a plausible new party to attach themselves to. America’s Dissident Right, by contrast, has yet to coalesce into any kind of political force, although the votes are certainly out there, if some figure of political genius could find a way to speak to them.
Given all of this, party-political literature is now unreadable. The poor hack reviewer who is confronted with a book plainly designed as a pep talk to one half or other of the stage donkey is bound to experience a strong gravitational pull from the direction of the liquor cabinet.
That was the situation I found myself in when the proprietor of this website urged me to review National Review Editor Rich Lowry’s book Lincoln Unbound I have, with my own ears, before my expulsion from NR, heard Lowry say that party politics is his main enthusiasm.
Lowry is a GOP supporter. Party members currently need cheering up. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. Hey!
So I expected the book to be a snoozer. In fact it’s not bad. This is mainly because the first eighty percent of it is a straightforward biography of Lincoln, an interesting man who lived in interesting times, about whom it’s hard to write anything dull.
People have, of course, different attitudes towards Lincoln. Look, I hang out on the Dissident Right. I know this. Please don’t write to tell me.
Some months ago in fact, following a column about my Civil War self-education project, a kind reader sent me Thomas DiLorenzo’s books on Lincoln (this one and this one), and I read them with keen attention. As a natural contrarian, I’m glad to have read the books, and DiLorenzo has a fine vigorous style; but I’m bound to say I don’t think he lays much of a glove on Lincoln.
Not, at any rate, on the Lincoln of the scholarly biographers. DiLorenzo’s “revelations”—Lincoln was a railroad booster! He suspended habeas corpus! The Emancipation Proclamation was a military-political chess move!—are all cheerfully admitted by the serious biographers I have read.
I don’t doubt they might be startling to someone who only knows the sage, saintly Lincoln of popular culture. But a great many things will be startling to you if you don’t read serious books.
Lincoln’s career and personality have now been so worked over by biographers that the main contours are not in doubt, minor scholarly quibbles aside.
That is not to say that the South had no case, that Lincoln handled secession wisely, or that the Civil War was necessary. I think the war could and should have been avoided. I further think that if the principals—including Lincoln—had been able, in 1860-61, to anticipate the destruction and massacres of those four years, they would have striven mightily to prevent them.
But alas, history doesn’t work like that. As Kierkegaard pointed out, it can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived through forwards.
Lowry mentions DiLorenzo’s work in passing, but dismisses that author’s principal book as “rancid”—displaying the horror that a conventional, unimaginative person feels towards strong opinions. For Lincoln’s life he seems to depend mainly on Allen Guelzo’s biography.
It’s not a bad choice, if you discount some for Guelzo’s Lincoln-groupie tendencies. (About which I had words to say in my review of Guelzo’s Gettysburg. And if you don’t want to read Guelzo’s 500-odd pages on Lincoln, you can get the essence of it by listening to his Great Courses lectures.)
Thus we get 200 pages of good-quality prose on this very interesting President, his life and times. There is nothing new in it; Lowry does some mild “spinning” here and there towards his ultimate goal; and there is some mean snideness towards the South. (“What kind of country would it be if people felt compelled to get right with Jefferson Davis or John C. Calhoun?” asks Lowry, as if these were not Americans of the highest principle and integrity.) That aside, I couldn’t find much to object to in this biographical eighty percent of Lincoln Unbound.
Then, in the final chapter, we get the GOP pep talk; and here, sure enough, the readability drops off like a coastal shelf.
The main thrust here: the U.S.A. in general, and the Republican Party in particular, needs to recapture the Whiggish spirit of personal and commercial striving, as exemplified by Abraham Lincoln.
There are some quick cheap ripostes you can make here. Lincoln’s career in commerce was brief and (to put it mildly) inglorious. He made his living from minor government jobs, then from lawyering. His ambition, which everyone who knew him remarked on, was all directed towards politics. He would likely have done well for himself in the U.S.S.R.
Lincoln’s heart was in the right place, though. He had a keen, well-earned sense of what one of his near-contemporaries called “the idiocy of rural life,” which any curious, reflective person in that time and place must surely have shared. The financial and infrastructure projects he favored improved the country greatly; and if—hat tip to Prof. DiLorenzo—they enriched Lincoln and his friends, I personally won’t complain. You may disagree with Lincoln’s reading of the Founders, but there is no doubt he revered them and interpreted them sincerely, to the best of his ability…and so on. I count myself pro-Lincoln.
Lincoln’s arguments are all pretty much won, though. Hardly any of us are farmers; and Jeffersonian agrarianism, if not quite dead, is not a political force, nor likely to become one. For better or worse, we are a single, very big country, under a strong central government.
More than that: We now have a clearer picture of the downsides of democratic capitalism—its destructive effects on culture and social life.
More, and worse, yet: The quantitative human sciences are bringing the human essence into ever-sharper focus, and casting doubt on the post-1965 ideological consensus about human group equality. Lowry urges us to a project of “recovery…of the American character and of bourgeois virtues.” It is highly probable that that character and those virtues cannot exist other than in a predominantly north-European population, which we shall soon no longer have.
Lowry’s prescriptions are good uplifting stuff—embrace innovation and consumer choice! reform entitlements! crack down on government unions! elevate the culture! But they leave the reader reflecting that there is something systemic, a level or two of organization above anything that existed in Lincoln’s time, that needs addressing first.
And the addressing of it is very severely hampered by the ideological narrowing I took as my starting point.
Immigration is a case in point.
I think the way to square a Lincolnian liberality with the national interest would be to secure the border and workplace so as to check any new flow [i.e. of illegals], then grant amnesty to illegal immigrants too embedded in their communities to leave the country.
All right, but we already did all that in 1986. We then discovered that powerful commercial and ideological forces can easily thwart the whole scheme, awarding Amnesty without any addition to security.
(In fairness I should say that Lowry also writes that: “We should stanch the flow of poorly educated immigrants, who compete for jobs with and suppress the wages of low-skilled workers.” On the other other hand, he wants to welcome “skilled workers,” who presumably he thinks—wrongly, says a mountain of evidence—do not compete for jobs with, and suppress the wages of, our own citizens.)
Personally I think Amnesty is a lousy idea; but whether it is or not, to pretend at this point that it can be dealt with in a trade for border and workplace security just sounds naïve. We are long past that possibility.
How to address those commercial and ideological forces, which are surely far more potent today than they were 27 years ago?
In particular, how to address them when they plainly have a firm, confident grip on both halves of the stage donkey?
These third- and fourth-level systemic problems, unknown to Abraham Lincoln’s much simpler time, are the one we need to work on. And the working-on cannot be done from within the narrow confines of Establishment ideology—itself a product and a tool of those same obstructive forces.
If we can’t address our systemic problems, nor even—see Orwell up above—talk about them rationally, nothing can get fixed. No quantity of Establishment-compliant Whiggish pep talk will arrest our slide into political and cultural decay.
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by VDARE.com com is FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.
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