Drawing on their boundless linguistic ingenuity, the British have worked out a neat little trick to take the edge off when endorsing restrictions on individual liberty. “I believe in freedom of speech,” members of parliament or representatives of advocacy groups will say with real poise. And then they will add the word “but” and explain disjointedly why they don’t. For some inexplicable reason, this is startlingly effective. Human ears, it seems, couch the truthful second statement in the more people-pleasing first. The preamble to the “but” makes what follows all the more persuasive, even when the statements are contradictory. It’s quite brilliant.
In practicing this nasty little maneuver, a distant cousin of the false dilemma, speakers drape themselves in the politically desirable cloak of moderation. And faux moderation is better than none at all. Even in the Britain of 2013, one can’t come straight out and say, “I think people should be imprisoned for saying things that I consider unacceptable.” Instead, one must display at least cosmetic fealty to the principles of liberty before one promises to undermine them entirely in practice.
Apparently, The Trick has now found its way across the Atlantic. Witness yesterday’s inaugural speech, in which President Obama regularly lionized the Republic’s axiological philosophical principles just moments before articulating his own, antithetical, ideology. A lovely example:
Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.
“These are constants in our character” seems a pretty straightforward proposition. Yet then, as if by clockwork, came the “but”:
But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.
Those “constants” in our character, then, “must change.” And our “individual freedoms” require “collective actions.” In other words, black is white, up is down, and left is right. Individualism is collectivism if you’ll only use the magic word “but.” Likewise:
Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life. It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time . . .
First, those founding documents rather do mean that we must “define liberty in exactly the same way,” not least because they represent the highest laws in the land. But this doesn’t really matter, because there is a “but” coming:
But it does require us to act in our time.
Well, have at it then.
Speaking of “acting in our time,” a phrase that bears an unpropitious resemblance to Neville Chamberlain’s insistence that there was no threat from Germany in 1938 (as, of course, does “peace in our time,” another phrase Obama deployed on Monday), apparently The Trick works against economic gravity, too. Faced with a national debt that has increased 55 percent on his watch, with endless trillion-dollar deficits, and with the prospect of entitlements that balloon into the future, one might expect the president would be concerned. Worry not. “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit,” he said in his inaugural speech.
Maybe a few hearts leapt at this. If so, they were beating in the bodies of those unfamiliar with the etiquette of progressive theatre. “But,” continued the president immediately, “we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.” I’m not sure what this sentence means — I imagine that nobody does, including the person who wrote it — but that doesn’t matter, because it is wrapped in a cocoon of declared concern about the deficit and is thus inured from its own vacuousness.
In the sense that both presidents outlined a vision, the comparisons of Obama’s second inaugural to Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural are apt. But there is a material difference: Ronald Reagan sketched out the American ideal and then promised to renew it; Obama held up the blueprints of the American ideal, and then promised something completely different. And a wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf.
Perhaps the greatest performance of The Trick in American history was Woodrow Wilson’s couching of his progressive agenda in terms of constitutional liberty:
The history of liberty is a history of limitations of governmental powers, not the increase of it. When we resist, therefore, the concentration of power, we are resisting the processes of death, because concentration of power is what always precedes the destruction of human liberties.
These words were spoken by a man who was openly hostile to the Constitution, who wished a parliamentary system on the country, advocated a federal income tax and the shifting of the election of senators away from the states, happily imprisoned his opponents, censored the press, demonized various ethnic groups, controlled newspaper outlets, and allowed warrantless searches. These words were spoken by a man who, as my colleague Jonah Goldberg has noted, argued that American government “does now whatever experience permits or the times demand” and who contended that “a lot of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle.”
That’s one hell of a “but.”
Within reason, the president is entitled to advocate for whatever philosophy he chooses. But “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” as the Declaration puts it, would dictate that he do so honestly and without confusion. However one couches it, individualism is not collectivism; guaranteeing free speech is not restricting speech; constants cannot be changed to suit the times. Were progressivism popular enough on its own, it would not need to be swaddled in the idioms of liberty. But it is not, and, for now at least, that means we’ll likely be stuck with that dastardly little conjunction whenever progressive salesmen are at work.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.