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Ed Driscoll

Antithought: Barack Obama’s Whig History

March 25th, 2014 - 12:08 pm

“The pathetic ‘wrong side of history’ plea,” as explored by Jonah Goldberg in the New York Post:

The right side of history is bunk.

In domestic politics, people (mostly liberals) tend to say, “You’re on the wrong side of history” about social issues that are breaking their way. It’s a handy phrase, loosely translated as, “You’re going to lose eventually, so why don’t you give up now?”

Philosophically, the expression is abhorrent because of its “Marxist twang” (to borrow historian Robert Conquest’s phrase). Marx popularized the idea that opposition to the inevitability of socialism was anti-intellectual and anti-scientific. The progression of history is scientifically knowable, quoth the Marxists, and so we need not listen to those who object to our program.

Later, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and others would use this reasoning to justify murdering millions of inconvenient people. It was a “God is on our side” argument, minus God.

In fairness, I doubt President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have Marx on the brain when they prattle on about the right and wrong sides of history. They more properly belong in what some call the “Whig school” of history, coined in 1931 by historian Herbert Butterfield. The Whiggish tendency in history says that the world progresses toward the inevitable victory of liberal democracy and social enlightenment.

Again, I doubt Obama and Kerry have ever cracked the spine of Butterfield’s book. Still, this administration has used the “wrong side of history” phrase more than any I can remember.

They particularly like to use it in foreign policy. In his first inaugural, Obama declared, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Which seems distinctly non-postmodern — and un-multicultural, to boot. After all, as Mr. Obama said in a very Clintonian, “it depends on the meaning of ‘is’” phrasing shortly upon taking office, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

A decade ago, when Obama’s fellow Democrat, former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevy resigned in disgrace, he went out on quite a similarly postmodern note, as Mark Steyn noted back then:

“My truth is that I am a gay American,” announced Gov. James McGreevey to the people of New Jersey last Thursday.

That’s such an exquisitely contemporary formulation: ”my” truth. Once upon a time, there was only ”the” truth. Now everyone gets his own — or, as the governor put it, ”One has to look deeply into the mirror of one’s soul and decide one’s unique truth in the world.” For Jim McGreevey, his truth is that he’s a gay American; for others in the Garden State, the truth about McGreevey is that he’s a corrupt sexual harasser who put his lover on the state payroll in a critical homeland security post, and whose I-am-what-I-am confessional is a tactical feint that distracts the media sob sisters from the fact that, as his final service to the Democratic Party, he’s resigned in such a way as to deny the people an early vote on his successor.

We’ll see whose truth prevails in the fullness of time.

The Middle East, Vladimir Putin, as Jonah goes on to note, and even the EU don’t share the same sense of “the right side of history” with Mr. Obama, and it seems awfully reactionary of him, all of a sudden, to deny their multicultural viewpoints in favor of his own, rather suddenly unilateral worldview. But then, “the right side of history” is a perfect example, of what Kevin D. Williamson described yesterday at NRO, of what he calls “Antithought:”

George Orwell gave us some invaluable words: Newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime. Given the generosity of his gift to us, it is probably ungrateful to desire that he had given us a little more, but we could use a term for what he described as the use of “language as an instrument for concealing or preventing thought.” For lack of a genuine Orwellian coinage, I’ll use the word “antithought,” by which I mean a phrase or expression that is intended to prevent understanding rather than to enable it. Antithought includes elements of the linguistic meme, question-begging, and attempts to change the subject.

The great example of our time is the phrase “voting against their own interests,” popularized by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas? Those words, or nearly identical ones, turn up everywhere: the beef-witted columns of Robert Reich, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, the Daily Kos, the Bangor Daily News, Alternet, the BBC, The New York Review of Books. Robert Schenkkan even put the phrase into the mouth of Bryan Cranston’s Lyndon Baines Johnson in his new play, All the Way.

As a phrase, “voting against their own interests” clearly has taken on a contagious life of its own, a genuine linguistic meme. But what is its function? Its ostensible function is to communicate the idea that conservative people of modest means, particularly in relatively poor Republican-leaning states, vote for candidates who are in fact hostile to their economic interests, having been beguiled into voting thus by the so-called social issues, by religion, by racism, by Fox News, or by whatever attendant boogeyman will do to swell progressivism, start a tweet or two. But its ostensible function is not its authentic function, nor can it be, because the antithought is engineered to foreclose discussion of the facts that it assumes, those being: (1) that conservative economic policies ill serve lower-income people, notably those in rural and agrarian areas; (2) that economic concerns should, as a matter of self-evident rationality, supersede non-economic concerns; and (3) that people in “Kansas” — that greater Kansas whose borders are not contiguous with those of the 34th state — would concede No. 1 and No. 2 if not for the nefarious operations of certain wicked social and political forces.

Have yourself an enjoyable little thoughtcrime, and read both articles.

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If I recall correctly, Ayn Rand coined the term anti-concept back in the 1960s in order to express roughly the same idea.

Smart woman, she. Too bad her guilt over that illegal abortion she'd procured for herself as a very young woman and its resulting sterility for her had so badly corrupted her reasoning about natural rights. Sigh.
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