National Review / Digital
Progressively Profane


Let us consider one of those progress-thwarting morons: Rutherford B. Hayes. One of those boring bulky sacks of white privilege best remembered now as the recipient of our current president’s stinging rebuke. In a speech painting everyone who didn’t want to blow the rent money on solar-cell charlatans as troglodytes, he cited Hayes’s supposed reaction to the telephone. Obama said: “‘It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?’ That’s why he’s not on Mount Rushmore. He’s explaining why we can’t do something instead of why we can do something.”

Apparently the president’s speechwriters do their research on Yahoo! Answers. You’re surprised Obama didn’t go on to praise men like Walt Disney, who believed in the future so much he had his head removed and cryogenically frozen. In fact, Hayes had the first telephone installed in the White House, and the apocryphal quote should strike any thinking person as prima facie nonsense. Say you’re Hayes. You live in an age of technological marvels. You are presented with a device that transmits the human voice across great distance, thereby alerting you to disasters, wars, weevil smut, a spasmodic fiscal panic, perfidious Spanish plots, and all the rest of the 19th-century problems that concern a chief executive. Naturally you’d stare at it and think: Instantaneous two-way communications. I can’t see where this would come in handy.

Sure, that makes sense. But it is important to trot out old flat-earthers like Hayes to cosset modern sensibilities. For a tribe that prides itself on its preternatural sensitivity to nuance — dog-whistle racial appeals, the hidden message of crosshairs on a map — the Left seems remarkably unwilling to admit that its philosophical adversaries have objections that can’t be boiled down to “Ogg see fire! Ogg scared! Ogg hit with rock!” We’re idiots to them. If you object to the specifics of “progressive” proposals, you object to civilization itself. If you scoff at a particular “clean-energy” subsidy, you would have opposed Columbus. Doesn’t matter that you’re actually objecting to hawking the Queen’s jewels to fund Columbus’s plan to go to Mars via catapult.

Perhaps the Hayes quote was just rhetoric for the faithful, eager to be reassured that the other side consists of Biblical literalists whose ears glow red when they hear naughty phonemes. Or perhaps the president scans the lines about dumb old Hayes and thinks, “Typical.” Which would mean he has no BS detector.

Which would seem like a BFD.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

April 16, 2012    |     Volume LXIV, No. 7

Books, Arts & Manners
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .