Is the use of a date ever a substitute for a rational argument?

Be wary of politicians making claims on the basis of the date

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CALGARY, Alta. Dec. 31, 2015/ Troy Media/ Certain politicians have grown fond of invoking the date – the year, or the century – as a substitute, or surrogate, for rational argument. The present moment, they seem to infer, carries great weight in and of itself.

When addressing the Russian invasion of Ukraine in March, 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry [popup url=”http://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-usa-kerry-idUSBREA210DG20140302″ height=”600″ width=”600″ scrollbars=”0″]responded by proclaiming[/popup] that Russia was acting “in a 19th century fashion” and that nations “just don’t in the 21st century behave” in such a way. It remains to be seen (and few of us will see) whether the 21st century will actually be more peaceful than the 19th.

Kerry’s presumption, however, overshadows concrete criticisms and thoughtful reasons against Putin’s actions – for example, in defense of Ukrainian sovereignty, [popup url=”https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/russia-great-forgetting/” height=”600″ width=”600″ scrollbars=”0″]concerns[/popup] regarding Russian geopolitical ambitions, an increasing threat to neighbouring NATO countries, and so on. It is certainly conceivable that the 19th and 21st centuries have much more in common than Kerry would have us believe.

Closer to home, Canadians are now well familiar with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s quip in response to questions about the equal number of men and women he selected for his cabinet, to wit: “Because it’s 2015.” What might not have been obvious or necessary in previous years seems to have become both in the year Two Thousand Fifteen. What more need be said?, the statement implied. In fact, one Huffington Post [popup url=”http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/11/04/justin-trudeau-gender-parity-because-it-s-2015_n_8474386.html” height=”600″ width=”600″ scrollbars=”0″]commentator[/popup] wrote that Trudeau’s pithy phrase “takes the wind out of recent debates about quotas and merit-based appointments.” As good as gender parity may be, is it better than talent and experience, or excellence and ability, irrespective of gender? Has the arrival of our present year closed debate on the matter for good? One cannot help but wonder at the gravitas these calendrical invocations seem to bear.

A general assumption inherent in all such remarks is that history is not merely the passage of time and a series of events. For those fond of aggrandizing the present, history is unfolding according to a particular logic, imbuing our moment with greater significance than previous ones. History, they believe, is not merely a series of more or less recurring patterns, as historians find in the life cycles of civilizations or peoples. Instead, history in and of itself is a moral force with a greater meaning.

To speak of the meaning of history is very different than speaking about meaning in history. We can all attest to meaningful events in our lives; some of us to significant moments in history. We sometimes speak of “turning points” – an event so momentous that it changed the course of things, though there may be many such twists and turns. But this understanding differs categorically from those who believe history has an inexorable direction, that its course is fixed, and that the unfolding logic of history is progressing towards a more envisioned end such as perpetual peace, or greater equality, or an alternate ideal.

What follows from this progressive view of history is the establishment of history – or, better give it its proper honours: History – as the judge of right and wrong. History itself becomes the high court of good and evil, regarding opinion and action. Consequently, progressive historians pronounce with assurance that others are with them on “the right side of history,” or against them on “the wrong side of history.”

Both phrases have been used in abundance by U.S. President [popup url=”http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/12/obama-right-side-of-history/420462/” height=”600″ width=”600″ scrollbars=”0″]Barack Obama[/popup], and Trudeau has been known to criticize his opponents [popup url=”http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/harper-on-wrong-side-of-history-by-refusing-to-launch-inquiry-into-murdered-aboriginal-women-trudeau” height=”600″ width=”600″ scrollbars=”0″]proclaiming[/popup] them to be on “the wrong side of history.” Rather than make rational arguments appealing to common sense and the lived experience of citizens, the politician – as prophet of History – can deprecate others for their historical incorrectness or backwardness. It represents yet another way our public figures contribute to a growing political correctness that otherwise stifles thoughtful debate.

Whatever evidence one can muster of moral progress in history, one can definitely find ample evidence of regress. Assessing progress as such is a complex undertaking; however, the course of human affairs is more than sufficiently complex to deny any simple or singular logic working itself out in history. Best to be wary in the coming new year of politicians making claims on the basis of the date.

Troy Media Columnist Trevor Shelley completed his PhD in political science at Louisiana State University. His book, “Liberalism and Globalization,” will be published in 2016 with St. Augustine Press. Trevor is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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