Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Pie-eyed and Prejudiced

Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Jobyna Ralston in Wings, 1929.
Shorter David Brooks, "What Candidates Need", April 7 2015:
Any presidential candidate worth our support should have at least in rudimentary form what Lincoln offered in full. He needs a profound vision formed by a thorough reading of no more than four books, all of them fiction; a double-minded temperament enabling one of his minds to check the other one when it gets dangerous; and the kind of strategic shrewdness with which Lincoln decided to end slavery not immediately but through unromantic, gradual economic means.
As you'll all remember, no doubt, from your history, when instead of issuing a showoffy emancipation proclamation, Lincoln devised his No Amnesty program permitting enslaved Americans to open tax-deferred Emancipation Accounts with their local stockbrokers so they would be poised to buy themselves when market forces drove their price low enough.

And with that, Brooks announces his intention to form an exploratory committee to help him decide whether or not to seek the Whig nomination in 2016. Just kidding. He clearly does feel he has a lot in common, though, with our greatest president.

Lincoln's four books were the works of Shakespeare, the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, and the 1800 History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington of Mason Locke Weems, generally known as Parson Weems, the continental liar who falsely claimed to have been the "rector of Mount Vernon parish" and who invented most of the most pernicious tall tales about our first president, including the story of his kneeling in prayer in the snow at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78. Brooks, as we know, doesn't in general finish books at all, but he's been working his way for decades through the vast and trackless paragraphs of Edmund Burke's incoherent Reflections on the Revolution in France, And on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event. In a Letter Intended to Have Been Sent to a Gentleman in Paris (1790).

Brooks's description of Lincoln's "Whiggish vision" suffers, I think, from a lack of clarity as to what American Whiggery was all about.
He saw America as a land where ambitious poor boys and girls like himself could transform themselves through hard, morally improving work. He believed in a government that built canals and railroads and banks to stoke the fires of industry. He believed slavery was wrong in part because people should be free to control their own labor. He believed in a providence that was active but unknowable.
He is repeating somebody else's description here rather than simply making it up, but messing the wording up as he tries to make it his own, and I don't think he quite gets that the Free Labor aspect of the Whigs was opposed to wage slavery in the North before it was opposed to chattel slavery in the South (some Whigs never made it to the latter position at all), and that their idea of how labor was to free itself had much more in common with Karl Marx than with Horatio Alger.
The most influential ideologue of Whigs and Republicans compiled impressive credentials as a socialist and critic of class interests. [Horace] Greeley embraced Fourierite associationism as a way to minimize crass individualism; he consistently sympathized with American and European workers’ plight; Karl Marx found his steadiest employment (for nearly a decade) as the Tribune’s European correspondent; Greeley’s paper “probably” gave the first English-language mention of Marxist socialism in America (p. 91); the Tribune displayed warm sympathies for the socialist European revolutions of 1848; it embraced land reform, homesteading laws, and limits on speculation as a way to democratize private property; along with other Radical Republicans Greeley pushed Lincoln to place emancipation at the center of the Civil War. Here was a vanguard for progressive change and social democracy.
And of course this socialism went hand in hand with the vision of a powerful dirigiste central government, spending its tariff collections on infrastructure, which was where all those trains and canals and banks were coming from.

Edmund Burke's post-Bastille version of Whiggery, in contrast, as Wikipedia defines it, is essentially Toryism, with its focus on government inaction and blindsiding the population with quietist lies, and fits better with the programs of today's Republicans:
he expressly repudiated the belief in divinely appointed monarchic authority and the idea that a people have no right to depose an oppressive government; however, he advocated central roles for private property, tradition, and "prejudice" (i.e., adherence to values regardless of their rational basis) to give citizens a stake in their nation's social order. He argued for gradual, constitutional reform, not revolution (in every case except the most qualified case), emphasizing that a political doctrine founded upon abstractions such as liberty and the rights of man could be easily abused to justify tyranny....
In the phrase, "[prejudice] renders a man's virtue his habit", he defends people's cherished, but untaught, irrational prejudices (the greater it behooved them, the more they cherished it). Because a person's moral estimation is limited, people are better off drawing from the "general bank and capital of nations and of ages" than from their own intellects.

Driftglass points out quite gently, I think, that if you believe Brooks is telling the truth about what kind of Lincoln-like president he longs for, the brilliant orator who gives inexplicably dry and technical speeches at key moments, the fervent idealist who can negotiate with the lowest cunning, and it's Barack Obama:
an exceptionally poor hater. He was deeply engaged, but also able to step back; a passionate advocate, but also able to see his enemy’s point of view; aware of his own power, but aware of when he was helpless in the hands of fate; extremely self-confident but extremely humble...
I'd say go home Brooks, you're drunk, but I guess you're home already.

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