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[Easy Chair]

Broken English


The radio was tuned to NPR, the subject was austerity, and the great observers of our political moment were speaking with their customary authority. The conversation wandered to and fro, and then I heard David Leonhardt, the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, declare that when it came to cutbacks in federal spending, “history just argues incredibly strongly against it.”

I knew what Leonhardt meant: Austerity is a bad idea. And I agreed with him. Still, somehow his statement annoyed me. What grated, I soon realized, was his image of history “arguing” for or against something. There are, of course, lots of illustrious metaphors for the sweep of events: History is like a train, bearing us relentlessly down its tracks; history is like a nightmare from which we cannot awaken. Or you could make up your own: History is like a comfortable warm bath in received wisdom, or like a thousand-plane bombing raid on idealism.

One thing that history isn’t, however, is a pundit, arguing for this course of action or that. History doesn’t come chirping about its bright ideas; history doesn’t put on a solid midtone tie and appear on CNN; history doesn’t really give a damn what becomes of us.

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