Sunday, September 22, 2013

Book Review: LINCOLN UNBOUND by Rich Lowry (Broadside Books, 2013)

"Getting right with Lincoln" has long been a pastime of American politicians on both sides of the political spectrum.  More recently, progressives have expended much energy in reinterpreting "Honest Abe" as one of their own, someone who would have had no problem whatsoever with the growth of the welfare state and big government in general.  Lowry, the editor of NATIONAL REVIEW, doesn't contend the assertion that Lincoln was, in fact, a proponent of an activist federal government; indeed, a certain segment of conservative opinion regards Lincoln as a villain for some of the drastic actions he took during the Civil War to combat dissension and outright treason in the Northern states.  But he makes the compelling case that Lincoln's activism sought not to lock people into a cycle of dependency, but rather, to give them a chance to better themselves in a dynamic, ever-changing capitalist society.  At the same time, without being preachy, Lincoln, through his behavior and words, exemplified a "bourgeois morality" that would increase the chances for people to find and maintain success.

Lowry believes that today's Republican Party would do well to go back to "first Lincolnian principles" and emphasize the importance of rebuilding an "opportunity society," as opposed to simply opposing the growth of government.  The problem with this, as I see it, is that there is such a crying need for immediate governmental contraction that making simple progress on that front must necessarily precede any efforts towards making the government more efficient, less heavy-handed, and more capable of aiding citizens without trying to dominate their lives.  Still, it is refreshing to note Lowry's recognition that government can play its small part to encourage industry, education, and basic research and to improve infrastructure, provided that it imbibes a little Lincolnian common sense.  On the issue of cultural change, things are trickier, because popular culture is far more pervasive and easily disseminated today than in the 1850s and 1860s, and the "cultural elites" will need a change of heart (and, IMHO, stronger financial competition from cultural products with a friendlier view of traditional Judeo-Christian morality) before they are willing to play a more positive role in keeping the foundations of the culture strong.  Delivering messages of "uplift" imbued with a sense of humor and a clear recognition of human foibles, as Lincoln frequently did, would be a good start.

LINCOLN UNBOUND presents an unconventional view of our greatest President, but one that ought to be seriously considered and debated by all citizens in terms of how it might provide some guidance in our troubled times.

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