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Before NPR scandal, a warning about 'elite' liberals: compassion turns to coercion

Long before the NPR scandal underscored liberal condescension toward conservatives, Lionel Trilling saw the hidden hope of power that lies in the heart of those who seek to improve society. President Obama has renewed this progressive impulse, limiting our freedom and prosperity.

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The past three years have witnessed a renewal of faith in progressive social policy, a faith embodied in President Obama's pledge to lead an administration dedicated to "change we can believe in." It is a faith that, in an earlier incarnation, made one liberal, the Columbia teacher and literary critic Lionel Trilling, uncomfortable.

In his book "The Liberal Imagination," published in 1950, Trilling pointed to the "dangers which lie in our most generous wishes." Progressives, Trilling observed, believe that through the "rational direction of human life" they can alleviate misery. But the reformers, Trilling showed, are too often oblivious of the truth of their own motives.

In his 1947 novel "The Middle of the Journey," Trilling probes this hidden impulse in his portrayal of Gifford Maxim, a character modeled on his Columbia schoolmate and legendary Soviet spy-turned-anti-Communist Whittaker Chambers. "And in the most secret heart of every intellectual ... there lies hidden ... the hope of power, the desire to bring his ideas to reality by imposing them on his fellow man," Maxim says. This hope tempts the progressive to embrace coercive policies in the name of social equity. "The more we talk of welfare, the crueler we become," Maxim says. "How can we possibly be guilty when we have in mind the welfare of others, and of others?"

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