Vs. Hippy-Punching


My last contribution to New York Times weighs Obama, Lincoln, and the art of political compromise, with some history of the Professional Left.

The column springs from this video discusses the nature of politics, and implies that today's left-wing activists would have been apoplectic over the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Rendering the hallowed Proclamation as a seminal act of hippy-punching is understandably attractive to the Very Serious People of Washington. But, in Mr. Obama's case, it also evinces a narrow politicocentric view of democracy that holds that the first duty of a loyal opposition is to stay on message and fall in line. 

In fact, many of Lincoln's most vociferous critics welcomed the Proclamation. Wendell Phillips, who once derided Lincoln as "the slave-hound of Illinois," claimed the Proclamation as "the people's triumph." Frederick Douglass, who helped wage a primary campaign against the president in 1864 and once charged that Lincoln was "a genuine representative of American prejudice and negro hatred," hailed the Proclamation as "the greatest event of our nation's history." 

Douglass was not delusional. With a wave of his pen, Lincoln freed tens of thousands of slaves and opened the Army to blacks, an act that Lincoln himself once derided. "Never before had so large a number of slaves been declared free," writes historian Eric Foner in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history, "The Fiery Trial." "

The proclamation altered the nature of the Civil War, the relationship of the federal government to slavery, and the course of American history. It liquidated the largest concentration of property in the United States. ... Henceforth, freedom would follow the American flag." In sum, it's true that the Proclamation was a compromise. But hailing it merely as such is akin to hailing "Moby-Dick" for being a book -- technically correct, if painfully thickwitted.

You can find someone who disagrees with virtually any piece of public policy. But my point here, which I'll expound on later, is that the Proclamation actually garnered significant praise from the Professional Left of Lincoln's time. 

As an aside, it's been a blast writing this column. It's been a serious challenge will likely color any future criticism I make of columnists. It will not eliminate it. But trying to be fair, nuanced, informative, all while staying aggressive, within 800 words, is really hard. It felt like I had to write four sonnets, or better yet, four battle raps. It has to be violent. But it has to be a studied, controlled kind of violent.

I'm obviously not saying that columnists are above criticism. But as someone who's done a lot of that criticizing, I'm saying that it was good to see it from the inside.