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Friday, April 21, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: Rainbow Unicorns and Cosmic Heat Death

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

I’m hearing this all the time now: Just a couple of days ago, our Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Russia has a chance to get on the “right side of history” and help negotiate a political end to the reign of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. Former president Obama loved the expression, and Bill Clinton used it more than 20 times in his speeches. Writer Ben Yagoda says the phrase — whether it’s “right side” or “wrong side” — has been in use for over a century.

Tom: I can vaguely understand what a Christian might intend by the use of the expression, Immanuel Can. But what on earth does “the right side of history” mean in a post-religious, thoroughly secular context?

That Multifarious Upward Force

Immanuel Can: A bunch of things, I think. But people who use it are usually trying to imply that “progress” — that multifarious, upward force they assume to be automatic for the human race as a whole — is leading in a particular direction they can foresee (more multiculturalism, more technology, more space travel, more medical interventions, more gender variations, whatever), and that you are being regressive, trying to hold back that unstoppable historical force. Thus, when future historians write the chronicles of progress, and note your role, you will be shown to have been foolish and backward — and you wouldn’t like that, so you’d best smarten up right now.

Of course, this idea has special a resonance for today’s neo-Marxist Left.

Tom: Yes. Now of course we have to distinguish between people who use a phrase like this unthinkingly (because it happens to be in current circulation) or manipulatively (because it makes for persuasive rhetoric) and people for whom it is an ideological ‘tell’. People in the latter group genuinely believe it when they say it, and I suspect there are quite a few of those.

And that’s the group I’m really interested in. It astounds me how many modern assumptions and systems are actually without any intellectual or factual foundation. This one requires a baseless faith in some sort of benevolent force (not God, naturally) directing the course of human development, a force for which there is no evidence at all.

Inevitably Upward and Onward

IC: Absolutely. The biggest of these is the idea of evolution, from which ideologues take for granted, with absolutely no historical or scientific evidence (and turning into false prophets as they do) that the path of the future must inevitably be onward and upward. This, they say, means that on many fronts — physicality, medicine, technology, social development and morality — things are getting better, and any problems are but temporary setbacks in the inevitable climb from the slime. Moreover, proponents of “progress” will signal to you that they think they know (at least opaquely) what this “progressive” direction is, and that it’s the one they personally hope for; but you do not, and you are headed in the wrong direction, they will tell you. You are a Luddite, a regressive, a blind traditionalist, a moron or a thug … and so we can mistreat you in any way we wish, since it is bad people like you who are all that is holding back Utopia.

Tom: Whew! Well, at least I know why they hate us now. But I am astounded how little “there” there is there. The lack of substance is appalling. They can’t even come up with their own ways to articulate what they believe to be truth. They just keep nicking turns of phrase from conservatives that are based on assumptions about the universe that they claim to reject. There’s the “right side of history”, which only works if you believe there is something bigger than you and me at work in determining the course of events. Then there’s “nature’s wisdom” and those sorts of expressions. You find them everywhere. They’re cashing in on someone else’s truth.

The Right Side of Cosmic Heat Death

How much of this is an inability to even begin to conceive a truly random universe? I don’t think they really believe anything they say they believe. Otherwise, they’d find new ways to phrase things.

IC: Oh yes, that’s a good question. Of course, a universe that came into existence by accident, continues unguided by any intelligent force, and will conclude in cosmic heat death can have no history with a “right side”. What’s the “right side” of cosmic heat death?

Tom: Precisely. It’s like we’ve got the best of both outlooks here: an entirely “random” universe so that we can safely discard any unpleasant concerns about judgment and accountability, but combined with an unexplained and utterly impossible Benevolent Oversight moving us toward bliss all the same. It’s like believing in rainbow unicorns. I’m starting to think there are no real atheists: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

I mean, if you’re going to pretend there is no God and you want to be taken seriously, you could at bare minimum coin some jargon consistent with your claims. At least the Inner Party in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four took the trouble to invent Newspeak.

Language in Transition

Is this sort of cognitive dissonance an ongoing problem for progressives, IC, or do you figure we’re just in a transitional stage in which some of the terminology that flows out of a Christianized culture is still referenced here and there by accident?

IC: A bit of both, I imagine. On the one hand, we do have a Christian past, from which we have gotten used to having a kind of optimism about the future — which was warranted when we could look to God to bring about justice and peace. But on the other hand, the alternative that rationalizes with atheism — meaninglessness, progressive pain and a race toward ultimate oblivion — is so unhappy a consequence to most people that even a perversely false hope seems better to them than the logic of their own view.

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