Belmont Club

Pre-Time

Congressman Paul Ryan, describing the Democratic Party’s distress at their falling November polling numbers, explains that they still plan to array themselves in the armor of inevitability and therefore make the case for re-election.  Ryan says they’ll argue “there is no other path for America than what progressives have mapped out for the country, and that any other talk, of any other idea, is just fanciful.”  Anyone who bothers to vote against the true path is merely delaying the inevitable.  The NRO quotes Ryan extensively:

“The Left sees their agenda being rebuked by the voters this fall,” Ryan tells us. As their electoral worries mount, he says, Democrats are scurrying to “nullify any notion that there is an alternative path for America. They want to delegitimize an alternative plan and win the argument by default, making the case that there is no other path for America than what progressives have mapped out for the country, and that any other talk, of any other idea, is just fanciful.”

The catch-all term for this type of argument is the invocation of “the historical imperative”.  From a historical materialist point of view the future is already mapped out. It’s been determined by the past. All the world has to do is get there.  And that attitude imbues every step of the progressive march. The NY Times reported “Obama Hails Vote on Health Care as Answering ‘the Call of History’”. The appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court was ‘historic’ as was the addition of Elena Kagan. ‘Historic’ in the progressive sense doesn’t refer to the past. It really refers to a pre-ordained future.

Getting there is easy. Just make the vision come true. Obscure normative goals are revealed to be — and to always have been — imperative. For example, President Obama said he aimed at “restoring the United States as the world’s leader in college-degree attainment.” Not education, mind you, but “college-degree attainment”. It’s one more detail in a blueprint that is perfect in some minds. Once the world is remade to that template then all will be well. The existence of all these specific markers in the progressive mind is suggestive of Richard Feynman’s remarks on “cargo cult science”. Feynman believed that a certain kind of superstitious mind confused signage with cause and effect.

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

This exactly describes the problem with the “historical imperative” theory of policy policy. The cargo cults, like the historical materialists, work backwards from a presumed vision. Everyone “knew” what an airport looked like with the same clarity that progressives could see the future. To make it all happen they just had to accumulate all these details they saw in the past. This certainty masked an almost complete ignorance of the actual problem they were trying to solve. Yet the false certainty ensured that whenever they encountered results that were contrary to their preconceptions, they simply threw them away. Failure was not a legitimate experience because it was contrary to the true vision.

That is fatal to actual progress. The important thing about real science is to assume that we don’t know but we’re going to find out. Feynman put it this way:

We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. … The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

The practitioners of cargo cult science — and politics — only have one response to any failure: double down. The adjustments are always in the direction of altering the present to resemble the imagined perfect state. Higher graduation rates; high percentages of ideal types; higher government payments; higher taxes. What could go wrong? Lincoln Steffens famously wrote “I have been over into the future, and it works.” An entire generation of progressives believed his vision was gospel and worked tirelessly towards its attainment. Perhaps it’s not impertinent to point out that Steffens was talking about the Soviet Union, a state that no longer even exists. There is something tragic in the fact that the Gulags were built, the show trials were held and the Atom Bomb spies stole for a state that is gone.

Perhaps it is not coincidental that Fouad Ajami’s recent Wall Street Journal article on the political decline of Barack Obama described the phenomenon in terms of the obsolescence of magic.  In “The Obsolescence of Barack Obama” he says “the magic of 2008 can’t be recreated, and good riddance to it.”

It is in the nature of charisma that it rises out of thin air, out of need and distress, and then dissipates when the magic fails. The country has had its fill with a scapegoating that knows no end from a president who had vowed to break with recriminations and partisanship. The magic of 2008 can’t be recreated, and good riddance to it. Slowly, the nation has recovered its poise. There is a widespread sense of unstated embarrassment that a political majority, if only for a moment, fell for the promise of an untested redeemer—a belief alien to the temperament of this so practical and sober a nation.

In that Ajami is wrong. The Left firmly believes in magic. If Barack Obama fails, they’ll find another magician. One younger, handsomer, smarter, more charismatic. Because however abjectly a magician fails, the magic itself must be true. And so, with better music perhaps, in cooler cadences maybe, but in meanings as old as Babylon the same old spells will be incanted.  For those who are convinced — the beliefs of progressives notwithstanding — that the future has not yet happened the door of 2008 can only have opened on a scene that nobody has yet the clearest idea of. It may be one of immense tragedy. Or it may be one of great hope. What is fairly certain is that it is not the one envisioned by the great magicians of the left. Nor is it anything that conservatives can predict. Maybe it is even one where the Left finally gives up its attachment to sorcery. As a survivalist woman almost put it,  “the unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn that it is not yet written, maybe the Left can too.”


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