Entry from December 16, 2010

Looks like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is on the way folks, though a traffic jam in the Senate may yet prevent it during the time of the lame duck Congress — than which the measure is never likely to find a better chance of passage. As yesterday’s New York Times editorial  headlined, it is “A Last Chance to Make History.” Yet this was a curious way of putting it when you think about it. In fact, I would argue that the more historical eventuality would be the rejection of repeal. The tide of unlimited tolerance for every “lifestyle” choice has been running at the full for a good 40 years now. Repeal would simply be one more lap upon the sand — hardly worth noticing except by those most affected by it. But the defeat of repeal could well be a sign that the tide had at last turned, which would arguably be a datum of much greater historical significance.

What I suspect the Times editorialists and others of their persuasion mean is that “history” is only made when their preferred measures are enacted. When they are not, it is only “history” delayed or temporarily foiled in its inevitable onward march to the progressive utopia they believe in so devoutly. You can see this assumption at work in the same day’s paper in an article by David Leonhardt on the constitutional travails of Obamacare headed “Opposition to Health Law Is Steeped in Tradition.” Oh, tradition. Is that all? “Nearly every time this country has expanded its social safety net or tried to guarantee civil rights, passionate opposition has followed,” writes Mr Leonhardt.

The unspoken premiss here is that, just as now everyone (or almost everyone) agrees that such “passionate opposition” (like that of Ronald Reagan to Medicare, back in the 1960s) was wrong-headed, so will the opposition to Obamacare seem in a few years. The assumption once again is that argument on the merits is unnecessary because government-run health care is a historical inevitability. Therefore, any argument against it must be mere stick-in-the-mud-ism, which we conservatives dignify with the name of tradition. This sort of thinking on the part of Marxists, who have a similar theory of the inevitability of historical dynamics, gave birth to that very useful but little-understood word “reactionary.”

Nor, of course, is it only the New York Times that thinks this way. The great James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal points out that the op ed in the Washington Post by our attorney general, Eric Holder, and secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, has no more than this to offer in opposition to the ruling by federal district judge Henry Hudson against Obamacare the other day. “It”s not surprising that opponents, having lost in Congress, have taken to the courts,” they write. “We saw similar challenges to laws that created Social Security and established new civil rights protections. Those challenges ultimately failed, and so will this one.”

As Mr Taranto observes, “For Holder to predict that the Supreme Court will uphold ObamaCare because it upheld the Social Security Act and the Civil Rights Act is rather like predicting that the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns will face off in Super Bowl XLV because they were the NFL champions in 1937 and 1964, respectively.” So, indeed, it might seem. But health care is somehow, don’t ask me how, something that belongs to that special class of phenomena known as “historical” and so, naturally, the legal Super Bowl soon to come before the Supreme Court can only turn out one way.

Coincidentally, later in James Taranto’s piece, there is another example of the same kind of thinking in what he calls a “great little encapsulation of prog smugness” by Michael Tomasky in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas:

If you’re like us, two years ago you were probably imagining an America in which we were debating how best to fight climate change, reduce radical inequality, and address the various other problems that plague our nation. Instead, we”re still fighting about whether global warming exists and whether inequality is indeed a bad thing in the first place. And perhaps most of all, we”re fighting a fight that many progressives hoped had been settled long ago—about whether government has any role to play at all in changing these conditions.

Mr Taranto notices Mr Tomasky’s “disappointment that all the great questions weren’t ‘settled long ago,’” which must come from his prior assumption that “the left’s answers are so obviously right” as not to be open to debate. That’s the benefit of being on the side of “history”: you get the confidence of being right without the trouble of having to argue about it.

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