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Monday, Jul 28, 2014
Commentary

Rachel Abrams and the constant need to confront amnesia


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Earlier this month, Rachel Abrams passed away in Washington at 62, succumbing to cancer. Her friends describe an inspiring woman of many talents, "a brilliant editor, writer, painter, carver, potter, mask-maker, poet and wit," as The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin wrote, and a grateful soul fiercely devoted to friends, family and country. As Rubin noted, she brought people together, often under the same roof, literally her own.

Indeed, the home of Rachel Abrams and her husband Elliott, a U.S. diplomat and national security expert, was a place where like-minded children of the Reagan Revolution debated ideas and discussed policy.

With her passing, it may be time to reflect on that revolution, how it brought uninterrupted progress for nearly a quarter century, and how America seems to have forgotten that era as it repeats key mistakes of the late 1960s and the 1970s that led to Reagan's ascendance.

Recent years bear a haunting resemblance to that troubled time. At home, deficits have soared as Washington has expanded its reach. Once again, the left is considered "hip," and dissenters' antiquated scolds terminally clueless about young people. Coupled with a renewed rise in government dependency, the politics of race, gender and class are challenging an ethic of personal responsibility.

The White House has accelerated spending, and the Fed has been gunning the money supply, yet unemployment stubbornly resists such Keynesian prescriptions for growth.

Across America's inner cities, sky-high teenage unemployment is a national tragedy. Abroad, the United States is perceived to be in retreat while pundits wonder whether its best days are over.

Faced with similar circumstances nearly four decades ago, public intellectuals like Irving Kristol and Rachel Abrams' parents, Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz, refused to give up on America. They reaffirmed its time-tested values of hard work and personal initiative, self-reliance and delayed gratification, and a return to making unabashed moral judgments by rewarding good and penalizing bad behavior. Economically, they favored incentives for work, savings and investment through lower taxes and regulations, and welfare reform.

In response to frightening rises in crime, they urged society to stop making excuses for the violent and to demand accountability at every stage, from apprehension to conviction and sentencing. Responding to permissiveness toward drugs, teen sex, unwed pregnancies and other ills, they sought to stigmatize these behaviors or outcomes as unworthy of public tolerance or support.

And facing an aggressive Soviet enemy embarked on the greatest military buildup in history, they sought the strengthening of America's defenses, greater support for her friends, and replacing the appeasement of detente with demands for freedom and democracy behind the Iron Curtain.

By the late 1970s, an entire generation of activists was proclaiming that America was headed the wrong way and needed a change of mind and a reversal in course. There is an old-fashioned word for what was required - repentance. On issue after issue, America needed to repent; that is, change its thinking and direction, before its decline became irreversible.

To an astonishing extent, this message was heard and heeded. The 1980s and 1990s brought a remarkable renewal and vindication of American civilization. Overseas, it saw the freeing of hundreds of millions of people from political tyranny through the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the rending of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It witnessed the liberation of hundreds of millions more from economic destitution as capitalism spread to developing countries like India.

At home, that era saw not just our economy's revival but its transformation through a spectacular technology revolution, producing low unemployment, plunging poverty, rising productivity, and stable prices. It featured tremendous declines in violent crime, welfare dependency, poverty, and drug abuse. Part of the reason, of course, was Ronald Reagan and later on, grassroots leaders like Rudy Giuliani. But behind these leaders was the formidable intellectual influence of conservatism.

Intellectuals like Podhoretz and Decter, Kristol and the Himmelfarbs, Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus shaped not only leaders but the nation itself. And that included the baby boom generation.

Forty years ago, few would have predicted that by the turn of the century a critical mass of that generation would abandon the ways of Woodstock for full-throated defense of the culture. Part of the reason was a religious revival in the 1970s and early 1980s. Simply put, after millions of formerly radicalized boomers had "found Jesus," many of them also experienced a political conversion.

In other words, Rachel Abrams' parents and like-minded intellectuals influenced not just their own generation, but hers as well. And it was Rachel's generation that elected and re-elected Reagan in 1980s, and then brought change to Congress through the historic landslide of 1994, leading to balanced budgets.

In 2008, when Barack Obama was running for president, he conspicuously avoided the entire era of the 1980s and 1990s. It was as if he had fallen asleep in 1979 and had just awakened. Now, nearly five years later, the country, not just its president, is gripped by a similar amnesia.

In her final years, Rachel Abrams never stopped confronting that amnesia - and neither should we.

Richard Kelly is a writer based in Tampa.

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