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Kristol Complicates Napoleon Metaphors

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Kristol Complicates Napoleon Metaphors"

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Due to a set of improbable contingencies, the main subject I have actual factual knowledge of is the history of France in the 1789-1871 period. Consequently, I’ve been confused by the tangled web of Napoleon metaphors that have been spun around health care.

So for example, first we were told that the right’s goal was to turn health care into Obama’s Waterloo. This never made a great deal of sense as an analogy, as Napoleon first conquered all of Europe, then invaded Russia, then was forced to retreat, then with his army battered was defeated by a broad anti-French alliance, then was thrown into prison on the island of Elba. Only later did he escape from Elba, briefly regain power as Emperor of France, and lose to the Seventh Coalition at Waterloo.

Bill Kristol, in an editorial in the current issue of The Weekly Standard, reformulated the metaphor so as to cast Obama not as Napoleon, but as Napoleon III, Emperor of France from 1851-71. Napoleon III was actually in many ways an effective and far-sighted ruler (you know how Paris is really beautiful? thank Napoleon III) but he’s the subject of Karl Marx’s most readable essay, the cutting “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” which features a famous line that people like to quote. Hence:

After his 1851 coup d’état, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the real Napoleon, pronounced himself Napoleon III. It was the rise to power of this great-man-wannabe that prompted the famous opening of Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis-Bonaparte: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

The decade of the 1960s—the first appearance in full flower of modern American liberalism—was in many respects a tragedy. It was certainly a tragedy for American liberalism, which liberated itself from its previous (at least partial) mooring in common sense and the American tradition. It was to some degree also a tragedy for America. It took conservative politicians and policies decades to undo the damage of Great Society hubris, post-Vietnam weakness, and ’60s cultural foolishness. Much wreckage still remains.

Now we have the second appearance of ’60s liberalism in the policies and personages of the Obama administration. Marx noted that in the France of his time, “only the ghost of the old revolution circulated,” producing an “adventurer” who claimed to be heir to the great Napoleon, but who was “only a caricature of the old Napoleon.” Similarly, in the America of our time, we have a ghostly version of the liberalism of the 1960s, led by a man who is only a caricature of the vigorous if often mistaken liberals who once sought to reshape the nation.

The conceit there was that Obama is foolish and ineffective. But he won! So now Kristol is re-reformulating the analogy by positing that health care was not Obama’s Waterloo but his Battle of Borodino. Napoleon won at Borodino, near Moscow in Russia, but Borodino set the stage for his disastrous retreat from Russia and ultimate downfall: “Obama’s Waterloo will be November 6, 2012.”

Frankly, I doubt it. But the fact remains that Napoleon reshaped Europe in fundamental ways—the metric system, the abolition of the Holy Roman Empire, etc.—that far outlasted his relatively brief time in office. Average people know who Napoleon was. Nobody trying to make a Czar Alexander I analogy would be understood.

Last, there’s an important point in Kristol’s essay. Like most conservatives, he won’t come out and say that the signature achievements of 1960s liberalism were mistakes and should be done away with, but it’s integral to his theory of history that they were mistakes. This “tragic” episode in American history is what brought us Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act. The conservative movement of the era, led by Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, William F Buckley Jr and others stood foresequare against it, in defense of the principles of white supremacy and mass poverty for the elderly.

Update

Alex Massie says the Republicans are Napoleon and health care was the Peninsular War.

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