Criticizing Lincoln

I have argued elsewhere that the groups who take it upon themselves to monitor “hate groups” are guilty of what they claim to condemn when they do not take care to separate groups with a history of criminal behavior from groups that merely advocate for wrong views.

The ADL includes in its rogues’ gallery a number of people who are accused of having or teaching wrong opinions on issues that actually divide the US far more than the ADL seems to want to acknowledge – for instance, affirmative action or gay marriage. As far as I can see, the affected groups are generally guilty of more than just a wrong opinion, but I don’t even see why wrong opinions are listed (as if having those opinions were somehow proof of something).

The SPLC has actually condemned groups to “hate group” status based on nothing more than their opinions on political issues.

But listing as “hate groups” those who attack Abraham Lincoln goes one step further than presuming a particular set of values are self-evidently hateful. It is actually accusing people of being guilty of “hate” for referring to documented facts in a way that signifies disapproval or contempt rather than approval or justification.

I have heard many arguments as to why Abraham Lincoln’s behaviors are justified or justifiable, but it’s not disputed that he did in fact break a number of rules that are not normally considered negotiable or optional. As a libertarian blogger puts it:

Lincoln held the view of protecting the union by any means necessary to an extreme that no other president has ever dared come close to topping.

Whether what he did is justified or not, surely we ought to be able to debate the point.

In a way that’s a hard thing to argue, because of what I think of as the “cootie factor”:  the majority of sites dedicated to bashing Abraham Lincoln are full of typos and hyperbole (much of which is just a little too passionate), and these are all – collectively – warning signs of a person who might just be a libertarian or a staunch states rights conservative, but could be someone most people don’t want to associate with – specifically, (a) racist and/or (b) too anti-government. (This is of course why the ADL and SPLC feel safe in stereotyping associating these sorts of arguments with hate groups in the first place.)

We are known by the company we keep, and we want to keep a distance from people who look like they might end up in a government shootout at any minute. And since it’s not clear where the dividing line is (I can tell you from personal experience how creepy it is to have the person you’re talking to suddenly start spouting racist talk right out of the 18th century) – and the penalty for getting it wrong is serious social punishment – we look for warning signs.

But this has contributed to a situation where people perceive criticizing Lincoln as stigmatized to the point where the taboo has the power to affect behavior:

The “Lincoln haters,” Lowry insists, are limited “mostly, but not entirely,” to a libertarian “fringe” whose members “apparently hate federal power more than they abhor slavery.”…

…His interlocutors are “haters,” on “the fringe,” and even, as in the case of DiLorenzo, “unhinged.” From the outset, Lowry tries to stack the deck in his favor by portraying his rivals as both irrational and disreputable.

“The debate over Lincoln on the Right is so important,” Lowry writes, “because it 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 … A conservatism that rejects Lincoln is a conservatism that wants to confine itself to an irritable irrelevance to 21st century America and neglect what should be the great project of reviving it as a country of aspiration.”

Now, being neither a Lincoln scholar nor even an historian, I am neither a “hater” nor a deifier of Lincoln. I am, however, a philosopher, a political philosopher, and a conservative political philosopher to boot. As such, I confess to being at a loss to account for how any self-avowed conservative, any proponent of “limited government,” could look to, of all people, Abraham Lincoln as a source of inspiration.

I went and looked up DiLorenzo, and I wan’t impressed. But on the other hand, I believe those sorts of taboos need to be challenged. Guilt by association has reasonable limits: there seems to be a genuine false dichotomy associating Lincoln supporters with “good guys” and. Lincoln detractors as reactionaries who want to go back to slavery, and Lowry himself seems to be intending to put Lincoln beyond criticism:

I took another swing at the Lincoln haters in the Daily Beast…

Such stereotyping needs to be challenged. We need to be able to evaluate – honestly – whether Abraham Lincoln’s behavior helped or hurt the situation. There are reasons for caring about this issue that have nothing to do with race or slavery or being a “fringe” libertarian or wanting to undo something that happened ~150 years ago.

*This is why I am harsh on those who claim the right to label and ostracize. With power comes responsibility, as Spider-Man might say. To the extent that the ADL is capable of proving Westboro Baptists’ motives, I am equally capable of proving ADL has motives to be just as hate-based, if we are going to use what I think of as “dirty rules”. But whereas I am offering only an argument – meant to be food for thought – the ADL is actually presenting itself as an authority, and people rely on the ADL to give them accurate information about groups who are so criminally violent that they deserve to be shunned by both sides of the political aisle. Those who would genuinely dedicate themselves to greater harmony should recognize they are not entitled to use dirty rules; they are obliged to give others the benefit of the doubt when wielding powerful labels that are meant to ostracize.