Monday, January 2, 2012

Schlesinger on the Professional 1949

I was not the only one to think about Reinhold Niebuhr in response to Glenn Greenwald's latest article. Luke Brinker made the same connection over at "Politics Not as Usual" in a post titled Manicheanism and the American Left.

But in addition to Niebuhr, Brinker uses a fascinating quote from Arthur Schlesinger.
The weakness of impotence is related to a fear of responsibility – a fear, that is, of making concrete decisions and being held to account for concrete consequences. Problems are much simpler when viewed from the office of a liberal weekly than when viewed in terms of what will actually happen when certain ideologically attractive steps are taken.

Too often the Doughface really does not want power or responsibility. For him the more subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where lie can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world.

Politics becomes, not a means of getting things done, but an outlet for private grievances and frustrations. The progressive once disciplined by the responsibilities of power is often the most useful of all public servants; but he, alas, ceases to be a progressive and is regarded by all true Doughfaces as a cynical New Dealer or a tired Social Democrat.

Having renounced power, the Doughface seeks compensation in emotion. The pretext for progressive rhetoric is, of course, the idea that man, the creature of reason and benevolence, has only to understand the truth in order to act upon it.

But the function of progressive rhetoric is another matter; it is, in Dwight MacDonald’s phrase, to accomplish “in fantasy what cannot be accomplished in reality.” Because politics is for the Doughface a means of accommodating himself to a world he does not like but does not really want to change, he can find ample gratification in words. They appease his twinges of guilt without committing him to very drastic action.

Thus the expiatory role of resolutions in progressive meetings. A telegram of protest to a foreign chancellery gives the satisfaction of a job well done and a night’s rest well earned. The Doughfaces differ from Mr. Churchill: dreams, they find, are better than facts.

Progressive dreams are tinged with a brave purity, a rich sentiment and a noble defiance. But, like most dreams, they are notable for the distortion of facts by desire.

I have nothing to add. But given the fact that Schlesinger wrote this in 1949, it makes me think of this quote from the magnificent Molly Ivins.

Things are not getting worse; things have always been this bad. Nothing is more consoling than the long perspective of history. It will perk you up no end to go back and read the works of progressives past. You will learn therein that things back then were also terrible, and what's more, they were always getting worse. This is most inspiriting.


  1. Smartypants-- you rock! Anybody who quotes Arthur Schlesinger and Molly Ivans in the same blogpost is my kind of blogger-- adding you to my Political Packrat blogroll pronto and am your newest fan.

  2. pinkpackrat - Thanks. And welcome aboard!

  3. Another great post. I never read much Ivins back in the day but, in hindsight, I've come to realize she was one of the most incisive thinkers of the past couple of decades.

    She could make both compelling arguments against excessive middle-of-the-roadism while also crying "whoa-whoa-whoa" when the purity police got themselves going.

  4. Chris,

    ...and give you a chuckle while she does it.

  5. Now can we ignore the likes of Greenwald (who I don't believe is really a progressive), Hamsher, Olbermann et al, and get on with the business of ensuring Barack Obama gets reelected? That is where our energy is needed, people.

  6. "...dreams are better than facts." That's the takeaway line from this for me. It's a great rebuttal line when speaking with the terminally disillusioned. Thanks for this, Smartypants. I am in awe.

  7. God I miss Molly Ivins. I remember her during Shrub's run for the presidency. She was one funny, intelligent woman. If you get a chance to read her books, you should.

    I ignore GG, Olbermann, Cenk, Schultz, Hamsher et al period. They aren't good for my health. They thrive on controversy and I have decided not to participate.


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