Beware of Tyrants Bearing Clichés

A New York Times column posits that the Gray Lady’s ideological enemies are on the “Wrong Side of History:”

It’s too late. They flunked hostage-taking. About 30 or so Republicans in the House, bunkered in gerrymandered districts while breathing the oxygen of delusion, are now part of a cast of miscreants who have stood firmly on the wrong side of history. The headline, today and 50 years from now, will be the same: Republicans closed the government to keep millions of their fellow Americans from getting affordable health care.

They are not righteous rebels or principled provocateurs. They are not constitutionalists, using the ruling framework built by the founders. Just the opposite: they are a militant fringe of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government trying to nullify an established law by extortion. This is not the design of the Constitution.

Nor are they Martin Luther King Jr., or Rosa Parks or Winston Churchill — preposterous comparisons made on the floor of Congress by those whose only real fight is with progress.


The idea that history “has a side” — a notion that should be anathema to such a rococo redoubt of multi-culti thinking as the New York Times — is a leftwing trope debunked in last year’s The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, in which Jonah Goldberg queried:

How often do we hear people say we must “get on the right side of history,” as if they know their own history? “When they say it, what do people mean?” asks my National Review colleague Jay Nordlinger.

They may mean “my side,” or “the good side,” or “the side that posterity will smile on.” People may be alluding to the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy. Or they may be alluding to the ultimate triumph of socialism, or a stricter form of collectivism. For generations, the Left has assumed that history marches with them: Get out of the way, or be crushed.

The phrase has what British historian Robert Conquest calls a “Marxist twang.” The Marxists believed that history was predictable and unidirectional, so of course there must be a right side and a wrong side to it. The candle makers were on the wrong side, the lightbulb makers the right side. But history doesn’t work like that. There were times when it was obvious that technology aided tyrants and there have been times — much like our own — when it seemed equally obvious that technology must liberate the individual. The truth is, it must do neither. As Richard Pipes tells Nordlinger, “The whole notion is nonsensical.” To which Nordlinger adds, “History does not have sides, although historians do.”

* * * * * *

The Whiggish assumption in contemporary politics that today must be better than yesterday, this year more advanced than last year, this century wiser than the one that preceded it is held most dogmatically by so-called progressives. For them history is a vehicle with no reverse gear, and the engine that powers it is nothing more or less than the State. This is the hardened, metaphysical, dogmatic cliché that makes it possible for journalists to glibly describe any expansion of the government into our lives as a “step forward” or an “advancement” and any retrenchment of government as a step “backward.” A Republican proposal of market-based reform always amounts to “turning back the clock.” As discussed at length in a subsequent chapter, this is the core assumption behind the idea of the “living Constitution”— an idea that assumes with Hegelian orthodoxy that expansions of the State are the sine qua non of progress (see Chapter 14, Living Constitution).


Of course, Jonah’s book was published a few months before the Times ended 2012 by openly announcing “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution;” giving up on it further nullifies the Gray Lady’s bluster today that Congress is violating “the design of the Constitution.” But if the Times want to return to the original reasoning of the Founding Fathers (or the “Founding Founders,” to use a little Obamalingo), I doubt they’d think very highly of the coercive mid-20th century “Progressive” notion of socialized medicine.

Oh, and for my interview last year with Jonah discussing The Tyranny of Clichés, click here.

Related: Jesse Walker of Reason on “Thomas Friedman’s Evolving Relationship With Democracy.” Like most Timesmen, he’s foregainst the idea. And like most Timesmen, he’s definitely leaning towards the latter half of that equation.

Update: Related thoughts on “Progressives” and power from Jonah at the Corner today. As he writes, “The key issue for progressives has never been the form power takes, but power itself…They always go where the field is open:”

When the public was on their side the progressives relied on the public. That’s why we have the direct election of senators. That’s why women got the franchise. Etc. In his early years as an academic Woodrow Wilson wanted Congress to run the country — the way parliament runs England — and relegate the president to a glorified clerk. When the public became unreliable and Congress was no longer a viable vehicle, progressives suddenly fell in love with a Caesarian presidency. Indeed, Wilson himself, the former champion of Congress, became an unapologetic voluptuary of presidential power the moment it suited him — and nary a progressive complained (save poor Randolph Bourne, of course). The progressives rode the presidency like it was a horse they never expected to return to a stable. And when that started to hit the point of diminishing returns, they moved on to the courts (even as they bleated and caterwauled about Nixon’s “abuses” of powers that were created and exploited by Wilson, FDR, and Johnson). After the courts, they relied on the bureaucracy. Like water seeking the shortest path, progressives have always championed the shortest route to social-justice victories.


Read the whole thing.



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