The Laziest Liberal Argument: “The Side of History”

In his lamentable speech last night, President Obama concluded that we could be confident of defeating ISIS because we are “on the right side of history.” As though “history” cares about us, and has something tangible like the force of gravity to bring to someone’s side. It’s what substitutes for gravitas among liberals. As the Wall Street Journal commented this morning, “History is made, not delivered as a birthright, and victory against killers has to be won.”

“The right side of history” is perhaps the laziest trope in the liberal lexicon, but it has a serious intellectual pedigree. By coincidence, this morning I was rereading Leo Strauss’s lecture “Progress or Return?” and came across this long passage that explores not the depths, but the total abyss, behind this commonplace cliché:

What has taken place in the modern period has been the gradual corrosion and destruction of the heritage of Western civilization. The soul of modern development, one may say, is a peculiar realism, consisting of the notion that moral principles and the appeal to moral principles—preaching, sermonizing—are ineffectual, and therefore that one has to seek a substitute for moral principles which could be more efficacious that ineffectual preaching. Such substitutes were found, for example, in institutions are economics, and perhaps the most important substitute was called “the historical process,” meaning that the historical process is, in a way, a much more important guarantee for the actualization of the good life that what the individual could or would do through his own efforts. This change shows itself, as already noted, in the change of general language, namely, in the substitution of the distinction between progressive and reactionary for the distinction between good and bad—the implication being that we have to choose and to do what is conducive to progress, what is in agreement with historical trends, and that it is indecent or immoral to be squeamish in such adaptations. Once it became clear, however, that historical trends are absolutely ambiguous and therefore cannot serve as a standard, or, in other words, that to jump on the bandwagon or the wave of the future is not more reasonable than to resist those trends, no standard whatever was left. The facts, understood as historical processes, indeed do not teach us anything regarding values, and the consequence of the abandonment of moral principle proper was that value judgments came to have no objective support whatsoever. To spell this out with necessary clarity—although one knows this from the study of the social sciences—the values of barbarism and cannibalism are as defensible as those of civilization. [Emphasis added.]

A long passage, to be sure, but the concluding bit explains also why liberals simply can’t bring themselves to criticize the moral character of our enemy (or even to call them an “enemy”).

P.S. If you think Strauss is being hyperbolic in that last sentence, consider something Albert Einstein wrote in 1940: “If someone approves, as a goal, the extirpation of the human race from the earth, one cannot refute such a viewpoint on rational grounds.”