National Review editor Rich Lowry’s two most notably unwise statements are defending the idea of nuking Mecca, and his odd reaction to a Sarah Palin speech. But his red-blooded sort of militarist nationalism has a pretty long paper trail. After cheering the war in Iraq, he said more troops wouldn’t make much of a difference, then changed his mind and called for escalation, even after the surge, criticized Obama for not being tough enough in Libya, and has been calling for Syrian intervention since 2003. And yet fisticuffs with Al Franken were a bridge too far.
Bear in mind Lowry’s—and there’s no other way to say this—callous disregard for American lives and unintended consequences as he defends the president in large part responsible for the war that took the most American lives. He’s written a new book about Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Unbound, and has been conducting promotional interviews this week in which he repeatedly refers to him as an “apostle of opportunity.”
Now that Lowry’s written the book, he’s a mind-reader:
“He certainly would have loved the constitutionalism of the Tea Party.” (with Ed Driscoll)
“I believe he would consider having a car company named after him a high honor.” (with Jamie Weinstein)
In contrast to today’s “debt-obsessed” GOP, Lincoln was “solutions-focused.” (on Morning Joe)
Being one of the most studied figures in history—there are literally dozens of new books on Lincoln every year—one might wonder what the purpose of writing this book was. He has a helpful explanation in this cover story in the National Review; it’s to claim him for the respectable conservatives like himself—“he is much more one of us than one of them”—and to exonerate Honest Abe from his critics on the right. And so the brave editor rides to the sound of the
guns Schlesinger polls.
He indicts them all: “The list of detractors includes left-over agrarians, southern romantics, and a species of libertarians — “people-owning libertarians,” as one of my colleagues archly calls them — who apparently hate federal power more than they abhor slavery.”
That’s a false choice and an outrageous smear, but writing off the critics is just a necessary step before conservatism can redeem itself, or something. The debate over Lincoln “can be seen, in part, as a proxy for the larger argument over whether conservatism should read itself out of the American mainstream or — in this hour of its discontent — dedicate itself to a Lincolnian program of opportunity and uplift consistent with its limited-government principles.”
So there you have it. Lincoln is to be our model for conservative reform, and if you don’t agree, you’re an apologist for slavery. Never mind that not a single Founding Father would have met Lowry’s moral standard of abolition as a categorical imperative justifying any cost in lives, treasure, or lost liberty. Nuanced argumentation isn’t his strong suit.
It seems to me that to be conservative is to be aware of costs and unintended consequences. Therefore, it’s possible to view the abolition of slavery as a glorious thing, while remaining ambivalent toward the man who ended it but also sent hundreds of thousands to their deaths, shuttered newspapers, and imprisoned critics. To Lowry, who is constantly agitating for intensifying wars or starting new ones without any regard to their costs, this is not possible.
The presumption of National Review has always been to think of itself, as Buckley put it in an interview with the New York Times when he stepped down as editor, as “a crucible through which conservative thought gets laundered and ventilated.” Lowrey assures us he’s working in this tradition by quoting one of Buckley’s letters to the editor calling National Review contributors’ criticisms of Lincoln a “Thing.” He doesn’t advance the analysis much. At least back then Lincoln’s record was a topic well-intentioned people could disagree about.
On two key matters, a more activist domestic policy and military intervention, Lowry’s perspective is similar to Michael Lind’s, the New America Foundation director who has been on a tear lately. Their tactics are also similar—Lind insinuated libertarians were racist in his last column. Robert Tracinski pushes back and accuses him of trying to “poison the well” in the face of growing sentiment against centralized government. And indeed, the debate today is less left-versus-right, but centralization versus self-government. With this piece, Lowry comes down strongly in the first camp, and is trying to poison the well against a libertarian populist opposition.
But let’s give the good editor the benefit of the doubt he wasn’t willing to extend, and look at the substance of his cover story.
Getting past more hilariously effusive epithets—Not just an “apostle of opportunity,” Lincoln is a “paladin of individual initiative” advancing a “gospel of discipline and self-improvement” (what president doesn’t play at these things?)—the kernel of his piece is a defense of Lincoln’s Declarationism, the belief that the Constitution exists to preserve the universal principles of 1776.
Lowry dings Lincoln for affirming that “The legal right of the Southern people to reclaim their fugitives I have constantly admitted,” but defends it as a deference to Constitutional principle. Isn’t this a contradiction?
He doesn’t mention that Lincoln mocked the idea of interracial sex in 1858, before reaffirming his stance that it should be illegal, or that he supported colonization for former slaves. You simply can’t defend Lincoln as a champion of equality without mentioning his own racism (in fact, the words “race,” “black,” or “African-American” don’t even appear). He calls the Emancipation Proclamation an “an inherently limited war measure,” but doesn’t mention that it didn’t emancipate anyone.
He points to the Fugitive Slave Act as an example of Southern hypocrisy on federal supremacy, which it is, but fails to mention Wisconsin and Vermont nullified it. That would undermine his point. If these strategic omissions are characteristic of his book, it isn’t worth your time.
Lowry writes, “Yet another favorite count against Lincoln on the Right is that he was the midwife for the birth of the modern welfare state — a false claim also made by progressives bent on appropriating him for their own purposes.” Okay.
It’s pretty well accepted among scholars that the Civil War paved the way for a centralized nation-state, and Lowry even admits that one of Lincoln’s goals was to speed that process along. Conveniently, given his pro-war views, he completely neglects how war contributes to it, preferring to focus on how the income tax was temporarily eliminated and the deficit reduced. Drew Gilpin Faust writes, in a book with which Lowry is apparently only familiar with the title:
The meaning of the war had come to inhere in its cost. The nation’s value and importance were both derived from and proved by the human price paid for its survival. This equation cast the nation in debt in ways that would be transformative, for executing its obligations to the dead and their mourners required a vast expansion of the federal budget and bureaucracy and a reconceptualization of the government’s role. National cemeteries, pensions, and records that preserved names and identities involved a dramatically new understanding of the relationship of the citizen and the state.
This is not Tom DiLorenzo, it’s the president of Harvard.
He quotes Walter Williams’ characterization of Lincoln as the Great Centralizer, then does nothing to rebut the fundamental charge, instead taking a cue from the New Republic and going on a fashionable rant about Calhoun. This is so beside the point today it’s maddening—the decentralist coalition goes far beyond Calhounite revanchists; it is on the left and the right, and includes Maine farmers nullifying FDA regulations, starry-eyed Second Vermont Republicans, New Hampshire libertarian colonists, Colorado and Washington voters interposing against the drug war, and many more.
These people, in their reservations about Lincoln, are said to employ “tendentious revisionism and blasphemy” as their “favorite tools.” Yet another religious term. Read Lowry’s essay for yourself and see who’s guilty of revisionism. I’m not even sure it counts as history or even serious thought, but rather a sort of ideological enforcement. What else are we to make of his insecure references to his mentor at the end—see, Buckley agrees with me!—while being vastly less charitable than he was? It’s embarrassing to watch.
Which is why I don’t plan to read Lowry’s book. I’m waiting on Alan Sked’s biography, which comes out this November and promises to be far more interesting. In the meantime, be sure to check out “Copperhead.”
*some context for the title of this post.
Update: Lowry compares the NSA snooping to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus.