Politics & Policy

Progress, Liberally Defined; The Sweatiest Pic, Round II


I was reading the (excellent, though Jonah-free) new issue of National Review this morning. In it, Robert Novak reviews Michael “Spikey” Isikoff’s new book Clinton Uncovered, and, as you might have guessed, it’s about All the President’s Pants. Novak likes the book, which I have not read yet (though word in the prison yard is that Spikey writes that I am a “quiet, intelligent young man.” Aw, shucks, Mr. Isikoff.). But what caught my attention was a casual comment by Novak, who is probably the best reportorial columnist working today, as well as a solid conservative. Spikey describes himself in his book as a non-ideological reporter. About this Novak writes, “Still, he is quick to bestow a ‘right-wing’ label on anybody who may dissent from liberal Washington orthodoxy.”

Now, my guess is that anybody who regularly sneaks off to the National Review website, doesn’t need a tutorial about the liberal press. It’s not that it isn’t true — of course, it is – it’s just that it is so true nobody wants to hear about it anymore — sort of like the accusations against the president.

So why was Novak’s aside so interesting (other than the fact that I’m going to hang this column on it, regardless)? Well, because he’s right and so is Spikey. When you talk to Michael Isikoff — just as when you talk to hundreds of other journalists — you don’t get even the slightest whiff of Left or Right ideology. But at the same time, I sincerely doubt that Isikoff, or his professional kin, would dream of calling Jesse Jackson, the American Bar Association, or even People for the American Way, “Left-Wing” as glibly as they would label Jesse Helms, the Federalist Society, or the Christian Coalition, “Right Wing.”

Why is that? Well, aside for the easy answer that they’re all libs, I think it’s because liberalism has become so thoroughly institutionalized and part of the status quo. Remember the old story about the frog and the pot of water? If you throw a frog in a pot of boiling water, he’ll jump straight out. But if you put him in a pot of cold water and slowly turn up the heat, he’ll stay there till you’ve got frog soup (excellent stuff to surrender by, on a cold day). It’s much the same with liberalism in elite circles.

During debate on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Hubert Humphrey — known as “Mr. Liberal” at the time — assured his colleagues that nothing in the bill could lead to quotas. “Title VII does not require an employer to achieve any sort of racial balance in his work force by giving preferential treatment to any individual or group.” He then said that if anyone could find language in the legislation that suggested an endorsement of racial preferences, “I will start eating the pages, one after the other, because it is not in there.” Well, today, because of that legislation, we live in the hot water of racial quotas — even though even Hubert Humphrey thought we shouldn’t.

And yet.

Anyone today who argues that we should simply go back to Hubert Humphrey’s vision is immediately called a radical right-winger. Isn’t that odd? If, in 1935, I said Social Security will turn into the biggest entitlement in American history, absorbing massive fractions of the total U.S. budget, I would have been a laughingstock. But more to the point, if I could have convinced them I was right, nobody would have supported Social Security in the first place — not even the Communists, because they hated democratic-socialist half-measures that alleviated the appeal of real Communism.

What is amazing is that activists on both the Left and the Right understand this phenomenon better than the American people. That is why Washington gets into these crazy fights over seemingly little things. The Left wants to enact tiny little programs, because once a tiny program is born, the word tiny disappears and is replaced by “under-funded.” The Right knows this and gets caught looking like a bunch of mean-spirited jerks for trying to block the free-puppies-for-dying-blind-kids program — or some such — because they know, given enough time, there will be a free puppy in every home.

Programs do not die, and their growth is considered progress. Social Security, remember, was started as a pension plan for the widows of West Virginian coal miners. Just look at Headstart, a program just now growing out of infancy. The efficacy of what it does — teach really young kids to boost their IQs their self-esteem, whatever — has never been really corroborated by an unrefuted study. Gains from Headstart tend to evaporate after a few years. And yet, if you could buy stock in Headstart, I’d take out a second mortgage to corner the market, because it’s gonna grow forever, like almost all federal programs. Indeed, conservatives are still hitting the mohair subsidy with a rake, trying to make sure that thing is dead.

It has been argued that the essence of America is the “tradition of the new” (Harold Rosenberg’s phrase). This is problematic for conservatives because we like the old philosophy of individual liberty moderated with cultural restraint, not “group liberties” exacerbated by cultural leveling. Indeed, in the early 90s, the euphoria over Gingrich and conservatism was particularly ironic because conservatism itself seemed new. The mission of the Right is to preserve that which is worth preserving. The mission of the Left is to ensure that clunky stuff in the attic of our culture doesn’t slow us down on the path to the perfect society.

So, we Wing-Nuts are called “radical” because we want to restore a regime that seemed awfully ahead of its time just a few years ago.

Bill Buckley characterized conservatism as the willingness to stand athwart history and yell stop — not slow down, not let’s take a breather. Unfortunately, in Washington, that is radicalism. That gets you the label “right wing.” That is why Washington journalists break their jaws before they say left wing, because they work under the same assumptions about “progress.” They are deeply invested in a cultural status quo which always says “forward,” “more,” and “continue.”

Remember, Ronald Reagan challenged that trend in foreign policy and the entire elite culture rebelled. Academia scoffed, the news networks fear-mongered, and the entertainment media helped with propaganda like The Day After. But now the Soviet Union is gone, and all those who supported the nuclear freeze movement are saying they were with us all along. Nothing astounds more than the Left’s ability to claim self-negating news as an argument supporting its own wisdom.

C. S. Lewis once noted that if you took the wrong fork in the road, it is not progress to keep marching forward after you realized your mistake. Real progress, argued Lewis, is to head back to the fork. But I have a word of caution for anyone heading back to the crossroads. Don’t be surprised that when you turn around, you will be marching straight into a tide of important people who call you a right-winger, a radical, or simply a fool.


Okay, yesterday there were some complications. I misidentified some wacko Lefties at the Oscars (please, stop telling me about it). It’s not like they’re not guilty of something. And because of a communication mix-up with the control tower in New York, we started the sweatiest movie polling a little early. So, here’s what we’re going to do. We are going to run a series of trial heats every day. At the end of the week, I will come up with the top five and let you people pick the winner, or at least pick who you think I should decide is the winner. Because of the inherently unscientific nature of this poll, I think it is important that everyone keep in mind that you shouldn’t point out the inherently unscientific nature of this poll to me. Remember, this isn’t a democracy. It’s you guys encouraging the eccentricity of a guy who spends most of the day talking to his furniture.

So here are the nominees for today:

The Jonah Poll What is the sweatiest movie ever made? Round II

Das Boot

Angel Heart


Bridge on the River Kwai



As for the results of the Lincoln poll — we passed the 1,600 mark quite nicely. Lincoln remains a hero with 86% of the vote and a tyrant with 14%. I think we’ll just leave it there for now, without any more Lincoln talk. It generates too much thoughtful e-mail and my lips are pretty tired from reading it all.

Besides, I think that’s about right: He was 86% hero and 14% tyrant.


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