Do Liberals Know The History Of Their Own Ideas?

Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., center; sits with comedian Bill Cosby, left, and Harry Belafonte on the set of NBC's "Late Night" with Johnny Carson TV show on Feb. 5, 1968 in New York. Belafonte is sitting in the host chair. (AP Photo)

Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., center; sits with comedian Bill Cosby, left, and Harry Belafonte on the set of NBC's "Late Night" with Johnny Carson TV show on Feb. 5, 1968 in New York.  Belafonte is sitting in the host chair.   (AP Photo)

Given liberal-progressive movement’s obsession with youth and the minds of the young and its disdain for tradition, it should not surprise us that American progressives often treat history as an afterthought – a topic to be consulted only when one needs usable examples to advance a particular point for the duration of a particular argument. Remarks by Justice Scalia over the weekend offer just one further neat example of this dynamic.


The Serpent’s Dream

As Rod Dreher recounts, one of Scalia’s topics was that favorite fault line between liberals and conservatives – the extent to which social changes should be dictated by courts on the basis of “abstract principle” rather than allowing social customs to be changed over time by the people in light of “the lived experiences and customs of the American people.” Dreher’s whole summary of the talk is worth reading, but focus on this part:

Scalia began by quoting Robert F. Kennedy, who said, “Some men see things as they are and say, why. I dream things that never were, and say, why not.”…

He concluded his talk by recalling RFK’s quote, saying it originally came from Shaw’s relatively obscure play, Back to Methuselah — and RFK misinterpreted its meaning. Said Scalia:

“Shaw’s line … goes as follows: “You see things and you say, ‘Why; but I dream things that never were and say, Why not?” Shaw had the good sense to know that this motto is tempting, but not really a sound guide to human action. You see, in the play, the lines are attributed to a serpent, and addressed to a woman named Eve.”

Of course, that quote – with or usually without attribution to Shaw – is one of the most famous and oft-quoted things that Bobby Kennedy ever said, and it’s especially popular with campus liberals. If you Google Robert Kennedy quotes, it shows up at the top of the page, and it’s not hard to find it as a meme online. I’ve criticized the sentiment myself, contrasting it to Chesterton’s famous aphorism about not removing a fence until you’ve figured out why it was put there – and I confess that I, too, had just read the quote and criticized it on its face without bothering to look up its history. But if you read it in the fuller context of Shaw’s scene, it is quite clear that it forms the core of the serpent’s temptation of Eve, and for exactly the reasons conservatives would predict: he is tempting her to try something she doesn’t understand and hasn’t considered the implications of doing – despite her better instinct to say simply “It does not happen: that is why” – with terrible results for her and others:


THE SERPENT. Death is not an unhappy thing when you have learnt how to conquer it.

EVE. How can I conquer it?

THE SERPENT. By another thing, called birth.

EVE. What? B-birth?

THE SERPENT. Yes, birth.

EVE. What is birth?

THE SERPENT. The serpent never dies. Some day you shall see me come out of this beautiful skin, a new snake with a new and lovelier skin. That is birth.

EVE. I have seen that. It is wonderful.

THE SERPENT. If I can do that, what can I not do? I tell you I am very subtle. When you and Adam talk, I hear you say ‘Why?’ Always ‘Why?’ You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’ I made the word dead to describe my old skin that I cast when I am renewed. I call that renewal being born.

EVE. Born is a beautiful word.

THE SERPENT. Why not be born again and again as I am, new and beautiful every time?

EVE. I! It does not happen: that is why.

THE SERPENT. That is how; but it is not why. Why not?

EVE. But I should not like it. It would be nice to be new again; but my old skin would lie on the ground looking just like me; and Adam would see it shrivel up and–

THE SERPENT. No. He need not. There is a second birth.

EVE. A second birth?

THE SERPENT. Listen. I will tell you a great secret. I am very subtle; and I have thought and thought and thought. And I am very wilful, and must have what I want; and I have willed and willed and willed. And I have eaten strange things: stones and apples that you are afraid to eat.

EVE. You dared!

THE SERPENT. I dared everything.


Professing a lovely-sounding quote that, in its proper context, is actually a perfect damnation of the progressive mindset is par for the course.

Disconnected From Reality

Another favorite example of mine is the “reality-based community,” which anyone who was in the blogosphere in the Bush years will remember as a motto widely adopted by liberal/progressive bloggers. People like Matt Yglesias, Oliver Willis and Mark Kleiman once had it on their blog mastheads – Kleiman still does, and other high-profile left-leaning blogs still love it – Josh Marshall in 2010 called it “one of the Democrats’ great touchstone phrases of the Bush years.”

The genesis of this line came from an anonymous partial quotation in an October 2004 article (published at the peak of campaign season) by Ron Suskind in the New York Times magazine:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”


There were two great ironies in the adoption of this slogan purportedly to signal the liberals’ superior fidelity to empirical evidence. First, of course, the quotation was anonymous – to this day we have nothing but speculation as to who may have said it, and only Suskind’s say-so that it was said and in what context. Liberals loved Suskind’s framing of the quote, so they just ran with it, and for good measure widely assumed it came from Karl Rove, whom they hated.

Second, if you’ve studied any military strategy (a hot topic in the Executive Branch in mid-2002) and in particular the work of John Boyd (about whose theories I wrote a rather long piece at The Federalist on the 2016 campaign not long ago), you will recognize the “reality-based community” line as a rough paraphrasing of one of Boyd’s central strategic concepts – that an enemy can become increasingly detached from reality precisely by trying to study it too slowly to keep up with the ways in which you are already changing it on the ground. In other words, the liberal bloggers embracing this slogan were taking as a point of pride their belief in a static and unchanging world, and their ignorance of the whole concept of strategy.

The Eugenicist

Or let us consider Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Now, lots of modern organizations can trace their roots back to people with ideas that no longer seem appropriate to us, but Sanger herself is widely revered today on the liberal side of the aisle. Planned Parenthood still embraces Sanger, and gives out annual awards in her name; accepting one such award, Hillary Clinton in 2009 paid unqualified tribute to Sanger as a role model, and at least implied that she shared Sanger’s vision after having read her biography:


Now, I have to tell you that it was a great privilege when I was told that I would receive this award. I admire Margaret Sanger enormously, her courage, her tenacity, her vision. Another of my great friends, Ellen Chesler, is here, who wrote a magnificent biography of Margaret Sanger called Woman of Valor. And when I think about what she did all those years ago in Brooklyn, taking on archetypes, taking on attitudes and accusations flowing from all directions, I am really in awe of her.

And there are a lot of lessons that we can learn from her life and from the cause she launched and fought for and sacrificed so bravely.

Nancy Pelosi has also accepted the same award. President Obama recently bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Gloria Steinem, who used the occasion to stump for treating it as an honor of Sanger.

In fact, Sanger herself was a dedicated believer in the racist eugenics movement, which sought – along lines drawn directly from Darwinian theories of evolution – to improve humanity by encouraging and/or compelling “unfit” groups of people to reproduce less than the “fit” groups. While some of the eugenicists’ efforts were aimed at criminals and the mentally handicapped or mentally ill, virtually all eugenic thinking was tied up to one extent or another in theories of racial superiority. Sanger was no exception to this, and given Planned Parenthood’s focus on population control, it was not incidental but central to her life’s work. There is extensive literature on Sanger’s racial and eugenic attitudes, which – being a product of the 1920s and 1930s – she did not much try to hide (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). Sanger spoke of “human weeds” that needed to be exterminated, founded a “Negro Project” to push population control on African-Americans, and even delivered her message to a KKK rally.


Know The History Of Your Own Ideas

Jonah Goldberg’s books have spent a lot more detail on these topics – his first, Liberal Fascism, explored in historical depth the interconnections between the ideas of American progressives and the use of the same ideas, themes, proposals and slogans in European fascism and other incidences at home and abroad of governmental oppression, atrocity and corruption. His second book, The Tyranny of Cliches, explored a bunch of examples like the RFK quote of things that liberals and progressives commonly say that turn out, on closer inspection of their history and/or their premises, to be nonsensical or dangerous. Of course, guilt by association, by itself, does not turn a good idea into a bad one. But you are a lot less likely to bite into a bad apple if you already know what’s inside it.


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