Monday, February 12, 2007

Lincoln and Darwin

It’s the anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday (and Darwin’s, as I’ll discuss later), in the first year since the party he started imploded.

Lincoln is a good example of how tricky it can be trying to shoehorn history into current ideological formulas — not that that’s something one should strive to do. He was the first president from the then-new Republican Party, and then as now the party was accused of representing a capitalist elite against poor, populist Democrats. Then again, most modern liberals would probably say Lincoln, who arguably did more than anyone else who has ever lived to improve race relations, fits better into their egalitarian tradition than into the Republicans’ hybrid capitalist-traditionalist lineage. I was inclined to agree — especially given some of Lincoln’s own egalitarian and even socialist-sounding labor-emancipation rhetoric, which had implications broader than just the ending of slavery — until Bush’s Second Inaugural.

Ironically, our current Republican president, who many modern liberals would probably regard as the least Lincolnesque (he is somewhat less articulate) and most monstrous entity ever to hold the office, may have done the best job of any modern Republican president of making the case for an ongoing link between Lincoln and the philosophy of the Republican Party, in Bush’s second inaugural address. In much the same way that Gov. Schwarzenegger had made the case, in his speech at the 2004 Republican convention, for an ongoing battle for freedom against a succession of foes including the Nazis, communists, and Islamic totalitarians, Bush’s second inaugural framed his push for democracy in the Middle East as a continuation of the eternal fight for liberty with which his party had been born, under Lincoln’s abolitionist leadership. Of course, post-Saddam Iraq hasn’t been quite as peaceful as the post-Civil War South (Or has it? I haven’t checked the stats on this and should be careful not to assume), so Bush’s days of framing grand narratives for world history and the future of politics may be over, and perhaps justifiably so (Bush’s post-re-election turn toward liberationist rhetoric and a fiscally-conservative agenda had me rooting for him a mere two years ago, but like a lot of other Americans, I’ve largely given up on him and the Republican Party generally).

For libertarians, who still sound like unreconstructed nineteenth-century anarchist/abolitionist types most of the time (thank goodness), Lincoln is still something of a controversial figure. He freed the slaves, the thinking goes, but he also waged a war — producing the highest U.S. body count from any war, approximately 600,000 people, and at a time when the total U.S. population was only something like 30 million — a war that perhaps could have been prevented, that was based on the dubious idea that no one should be allowed to secede from a central government, and that was characterized by censorship and the suspension of habeas corpus. Still, at the end of the day, I’m willing to overlook a lot in exchange for ending slavery, as great a triumph for liberty as the world has ever known.

But if you’re inclined — like some Southern partisans and Gore Vidal — to dislike Lincoln, you can instead spend today celebrating the birthday of another controversial figure, and a contemporary of Lincoln at that: Charles Darwin. A century and a half after he made it pretty clear that we can come up with very good non-supernatural explanations for how life got to be the way it is, he stills gets attacked. Indeed, some vague but negative allusions to Darwin were made by one of my fellow more-or-less-right-leaning writer-types (all fellows of the Phillips Foundation) after a tour of the Fox News and New York Post headquarters I went on this past Friday.

Another member of the group praised a recent essay by Sam Schulman from (for which I’ve written an article, luckily, perhaps, not one touching on Darwin or atheism) in which he argues that today’s atheists are simply not as charming as their more cautious, conflicted, almost ashamed nineteenth-century counterparts. I don’t know that lack of charm is much of a charge to throw at one’s foes in a philosophical argument, though. I’ll bet some of those abolitionists were mighty cantankerous, and understandably so.

Being feisty doesn’t make someone wrong, whether he’s an atheist or, say, a libertarian — like some of the crackpots and hotheads who populate Brian Doherty’s new book on the history of libertarianism, Radicals for Capitalism, which is both the March Book Selection of the Month and the topic of a reading by the author at our next Lolita Bar gathering, Wed., March 7 (at 8pm). We probably won’t get much of a chance to talk about Darwin that night, but I wouldn’t be surprised if abolitionists, Lincoln, slavery, Republicans, and Bush all get mentioned.

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