The name of Abraham Lincoln is used and abused a good deal these days. Despite his overt rejection of the principles Lincoln strove to preserve, Obama has tried to portray himself as Lincoln's heir (probably to make up for his lack of any real connection to the heritage that includes the struggle against slavery, so important in the background of the black Americans his media claque claims he represents.) On the other hand, conservatives who adhere to the mobocratic version of states' rights (some of whom I encountered among Ron Paul's supporters in the Constitution Party) practically demonize Lincoln as the original destroyer of American Federalism. In their different ways I think both Obama and the mob rule states' rights adherents simply ignore the aspect of Lincoln's statesmanship that has always impressed me the most. Though not educated in any formal sense, he was perhaps the most profound thinker ever to participate in American politics. Certainly he was the most thoughtful man to serve as President (with proper respect and apologies to Thomas Jefferson and J. Q. Adams.)
The key to my judgment in this regard is not just what he said, but the way he presented it. All of his memorable addresses bear the hallmark of true eloquence. They are not just moving phrases but each presents an argument that appeals to common sense, that moves and seeks to persuade the reasonable mind. As I recall his biography, the foundation of this characteristic in his speeches was probably his study of Euclid's geometry. Geometric reasoning develops the faculty of mind that retains a clear grasp of first principles through all the twists and turns of subsequent reflection. This faculty led to the insights on which republican, constitutional self-government is based and it is indispensable for the preservation of liberty.
Perhaps the clearest symptom of liberty's impending demise is the almost complete absence of such reasoning from the speeches, and apparently from the thinking, of contemporary American politicians. Controversies swirl over their declarations of support for this or that opinion, without regard to any reasoning that supports their declamations or relates them to the basic premises that make sense of our still assumed claim to unalienable rights and the form of government that limits its power on account of them.
I was reminded of this deficiency as I perused, and in some cases responded to, some of the reactions to my last posting about Michael Steele's abandonment of the pro-life cause. Some people simply can't understand how I dared to question his adamant declarations of pro-life conviction. They seemed to think that I was engaging in some kind of personal attack against him, questioning the honesty and sincerity of his commitment. It seems never to have occurred to them that it's possibleto say with sincerity things that make no sense. I presented reasoning in support of the view that Steele's often repeated views contradict his claim to be pro-life. But in their reaction to what I wrote these critics took no account of the reasoning. They made no attempt to deal with or respond to its logic.
But it might be said of logic what Leon Trotsky is supposed to have said of strategy (or was it war?) You may not be interested in it, but it is interested in you. Ignore it, and you will still suffer its consequences. In this case though Steele's defenders ignore it, the pro-life cause will suffer the consequences. Except as a matter of easily defused or circumvented sentiment, the stand against abortion makes no sense without an appeal to the principles of justice on which the United States of America was founded. Though in its most extreme forms (such as the live birth abortion procedure) it offends aesthetic sensibilities, its ugliness can be camouflaged without too much difficulty, and its ugliest consequences (connected with declining respect for the mysterious subjective worth of human life) may not appear in their truly most repugnant form for one or more generations. Thus even at the sentimental level, reasoning is required to argue the pro-life position. But at this level, since they must argue on behalf human life in it most rudimentary and least recognizable form, against the articulate fear, anguish and pride of fully developed people, pro-life proponents probably face a losing battle. It reminds me of the statement Tocqueville made about the difficulty of arguing justice for enslaved blacks when other Americans were accustomed to see their physical appearance as repulsive and barely human. However false, the perceptions of prejudice have real consequences.
In the American context the antidote to this prejudiced sensibility involved the mobilization of reason and common sense based on the appeal to just principles of liberty. The political effectiveness of this appeal depended on the respect people had for reasonable argument, and on their emotional attachment to what they rightly perceived as the blessings of liberty. Neither can simply be taken for granted. It's hard to imagine that Lincoln's statesmanship would have succeeded had the eloquence of someone like Daniel Webster (ironically arguing in apparent support of forbearance in dealing with the slave states) not roused and cemented the sense that liberty and union were wedded and bound together, one and inseparable.
If they bother to acknowledge that it has any place in politics at all, today's politicians generally treat the work of preserving our attachment to liberty and justice as a secondary matter. Yet when the emotional attachment to these real though abstract goods shrivels away, what is left to do battle against the strong passions of lust, greed and selfish interest which move people to trample on those whose appearance, unpopularity or material condition make them contemptible in the eyes of the majority, or of self-serving elites acting in its name? Many Republicans still claim that their Party's principles embrace the idea of limited government. But they blindly follow leaders like Steele who do not remember the limitation that ultimately matters most: the sense of justice and decency, grounded in reason, common sense and emotional conviction, that stands in the path of the mobocratic impulse, whether it seeks to despoil the rich or murder the poorly regarded.
I believe that there are times when the need to remember and articulate this limitation becomes the paramount task of American politics. Every aspect of the crisis we are in suggests that we are living through such a period. Some say our economic crisis is the greatest challenge we face. But isn't it rooted in our willingness to crush the welfare of our posterity with a burden of unlimited debt, in order to serve our own ambitions? Isn't this an aspect of the same ruthless selfishness that moves us to pretend that it's right physically to sacrifice our offspring everyday in the womb? In the past people died for the sake of offspring that had no life except in their heart's imagination. Today our living children die for the sake of a generation that seems to have no heart except to pursue its present vain imaginings. With the greatest chance any people ever had to secure a strong foundation for future human justice and dignity, we stand on the brink of losing all such hopes because we haven't the patience to think through and act upon the principles on which they depend.
Isn't this our greatest crisis? Do you really believe we can withstand it behind leaders who will not truly acknowledge its existence? Michael Steele says that his job is to work for his Party's victory. What good are Party victories if they are gained by casting aside the discipline, heart and spirit of our present and future liberty? I know that conservatives want to thwart Obama's marxist schemes. I share that goal. But I will not join with people who are seeking to defeat one false hope with another. Rather I think we should have the courage to understand and articulate the real hope, the moral hope that our nation is supposed to represent. Then, trusting in the strength that it bestows, we will be able to do what Americans have done before- against all odds we will conserve our freedom for new generations to come.