The title for this post is a quote often attributed to Leonid Brezhnev or sometimes to Stalin, but like many pithy quotes, its origins are unknown. It was most likely a quick shorthand for the view of the Soviets, during the Brezhnev era, that their sacrifices in the war entitled them to hold the satellite countries of Eastern Europe. The rhetoric of the Soviets, particularly with regards to the third world, could never be squared with the fact that they held a sizable chunk of Europe captive, but they somehow found a way to justify it.
It is also a useful way of understanding the psychology of Progressive groups. They operate a lot like car thieves in the ghetto. A guy boosts a car and immediately buys an air freshener for it, puts some of his clothes in the backseat and always, always litters it with some of his mail. Anyone who has repossessed cars knows this, which is why it is such a great line in this movie. At some level, the thief knows it is not his car, but he makes it his car in the same way a dog marks his territory. It’s his as long as it has his stuff in it.
That’s the mindset of the Progressive. The political ground they acquire, no matter how they acquire it, is theirs. They own it and they intend to keep it. It is not open for debate. It is why Obama, for example, was fond of saying he would not “re-litigate” ObamaCare with the Republicans. As far as he was concerned, he won that ground and he was entitled to keep it. The next debate would have to be over your stuff and how much of it he could take from you and how much you would be allowed to hold, for now.
It is a mistake, I think, to assume it is a conscious strategy they think about before executing. Obama was not sitting around with his advisers coming up with a clever way to close off debate about his health care bill. It’s a natural instinct, resulting from their obsession with the future. Their singular obsession is what they imagine to be the promised land that is just beyond the horizon. Any reconsideration of the past is the same in their mind as turning away from the future and marching backwards.
This impulse is so powerful, it has warped public debate for as long as anyone reading this has been alive. You see here in this New York Times piece by a fanatic at NYU.
At one of the premieres of his landmark Holocaust documentary, “Shoah” (1985), the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann was challenged by a member of the audience, a woman who identified herself as a Holocaust survivor. Lanzmann listened politely as the woman recounted her harrowing personal account of the Holocaust to make the point that the film failed to fully represent the recollections of survivors. When she finished, Lanzmann waited a bit, and then said, “Madame, you are an experience, but not an argument.”
This exchange, conveyed to me by the Russian literature scholar Victor Erlich some years ago, has stayed with me, and it has taken on renewed significance as the struggles on American campuses to negotiate issues of free speech have intensified — most recently in protests at Auburn University against a visit by the white nationalist Richard Spencer.
Lanzmann’s blunt reply favored reasoned analysis over personal memory. In light of his painstaking research into the Holocaust, his comment must have seemed insensitive but necessary at the time. Ironically, “Shoah” eventually helped usher in an era of testimony that elevated stories of trauma to a new level of importance, especially in cultural production and universities.
During the 1980s and ’90s, a shift occurred in American culture; personal experience and testimony, especially of suffering and oppression, began to challenge the primacy of argument. Freedom of expression became a flash point in this shift. Then as now, both liberals and conservatives were wary of the privileging of personal experience, with its powerful emotional impact, over reason and argument, which some fear will bring an end to civilization, or at least to freedom of speech.
My view is that we should resist the temptation to rehash these debates. Doing so would overlook the fact that a thorough generational shift has occurred. Widespread caricatures of students as overly sensitive, vulnerable and entitled “snowflakes” fail to acknowledge the philosophical work that was carried out, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, to legitimate experience — especially traumatic experience — which had been dismissed for decades as unreliable, untrustworthy and inaccessible to understanding.
And there it is, the debate is over, as Al Gore would say. There’s no need to rehash those old debates about feelings counting for more than facts. To do so is to fall prey to temptation in the same way a drunkard or drug addict falls off the wagon. No, the pure of heart and mind will resist temptation and honor all the hard work it took to capture that ground for the Progs. “There’s no going back to the dark ages, comrade. What we have, we hold. Now it is time to debate how you will adjust to this new reality.”
This rhetorical slight of hand is so natural and relentless, that it tends to wear down all opposition. Normal people get weary of constantly pushing back against the Progs and then “click” the ratchet snaps forward. It’s how we went so quickly from “Hey maybe we need an accommodation for same sex couples” to “the Founders always wanted homosexual marriage. It is right there in the Constitution.” The Progs lost fight after fight, but once they won one, the debate was over and it has been over ever since.
This is a lesson and a warning for the growing revolt against the gathering Progressive darkness. The game is to always put the other side on defense. Make them defend every inch, while offering them a chance to buy you off, for now. That’s the path to victory, but it will never be easy. Beating back the Progs will make invading Russia in winter look like a walk in the park. The Progs do not yield an inch. They will burn everything before surrendering anything. What they have, they keep.