Conservatism is a bit dull these days. Like a bunch of kids who’ve found a carcass over by the railroad tracks, we keep poking at the body of liberalism with sharp sticks, but it just won’t do anything interesting. There are a lot of great fights to be had with the libertarian kids, but in the real world there’s not much friction there. Our united opposition to about 98 percent of the things that the federal government does renders almost all of our arguments theoretical rather than political. It’s as if we both hate the high-school principal so much there’s no time for anything else.
But all that might change, and soon. As longtime readers know, my favorite definition of conservatism is the idea that “human nature has no history.” In other words, it is only through the power of our institutions, traditions, and ideas that we are not barbarians. If men were angels, we’d have started as angels and there would never have been a need for all that trial and error we call human history. But, men are not angels, men are disgusting; we need thousands of years of cultural evolution and constant reminders even today that we shouldn’t pee in the kitchen sink.
This may be obvious to you and me. But it strikes many “progressives” as odd. They think humans have somehow “improved” since the days when they needed to be taught a lot of that dead-white-guy crap. Many on the Left would gladly take a pill that made us forget the Canon. They don’t realize that if we did that, within days we’d probably start eating grubs and fighting over who gets the choicest cuts of rat. When you hear arguments against tradition or Western civilization you are essentially watching someone take a sledgehammer to the very soapbox they are standing on.
Anyway, for a long time almost all of the really good theoretical conservative arguments, virtue, values, everything from the Cold War with Communism to the Hot War in Bill Clinton’s pants, has hinged in some way on the our view that human nature has no history and that rules are therefore very important. Many of these arguments have died (though there are still plenty of conservatives with sharp sticks poking at them) or have grown stale. This is partly because we won the Cold War argument (the Soviet Union replaced the French Revolution as the greatest failed experiment ever in the idea that human nature has no history). But it’s also because science has pretty much settled the fact that human nature is very real and very, very difficult to change.
Anyway, I could prove all of this to you — and at some point I will — but instead let’s keep trudging on to the point of this column:
This is all changing.
Remember that scene in The Graduate when Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, comes home from college and the martini-breath guy wants to give him some career advice?
Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you…just one word.
Benjamin Braddock: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin Braddock: Yes, sir, I am.
Mr. McGuire: “Plastics.”
Well, in a couple weeks I will be going to the annual and invaluable C-PAC conference, and if some kid wants to know where the future of good conservative arguments will be (or where to make a pile of cash in the private sector) our conversation will go something like this:
Kid: Mr. Goldberg, you’re not quite as fat as I thought you’d be.
Me: You have a question?
Kid: Yeah, sorry. It’s kinda dull being a conservative these days. Could you tell me where are all the good new arguments going to come from?
Me: Genetics, kid, genetics. Now, lemme ask you a question: Is there an open bar?
It has become abundantly clear that genetics are about to change everything — even, possibly, my pursuit of open bars. Human nature may have had no history until now, but we’re definitely starting a new chapter.
Human beings are very close to being different than they used to be. We are isolating genes for this, that, and the other thing. All of a sudden, pointy-heads are writing essays about “what it means to be human.” Liberal philosophers, like Ronald Dworkin, are writing in favor of mandatory eugenics programs to make people more equal. Some conservatives are turning into technophobes and others are turning into — eek — libertarians! It’s all very exciting.
And very troubling. Conservatism has always had a problem with technology. We can argue with new political ideas very, very, well. Because most new political ideas — as a matter of pure mathematics — are incredibly stupid. But new technology is another matter. Technology shatters necessary habits (communal cooking, for example), which are the acorns of tradition and the mortar of institutions. Cars certainly upset traditional communities more than any idea that escaped from some lab in a French philosophy department. But I can argue with deconstructionism; I can’t argue with a Buick.
Of course, the merits of eugenics and the question of what makes us human transcends what is good or bad for a specific political movement. Who cares if conservatism is having trouble when the whole of humanity is being transformed into those aliens with the giant buttock-heads from the first Star Trek (you know, the ones who messed with Captain Pike)? But that’s not the purpose of today’s column because I don’t have the room to answer such weighty questions. More importantly, I don’t have the answers to such weighty questions. The point of today’s column is to talk about the future of conservatism and where the excitement is going to be.
Which brings us to Saint Augustine. Augustine of Hippo was the leading scholar of the Catholic Church when Rome was sacked by the Barbarians in AD 410. Many blamed Christianity for the fall because it made the Romans weak. It was also widely believed that not only did human nature have no history, but history has no history. The wheel of history spun round and round and nothing ever changed, there was literally nothing new under the sun. Pointy-heads like Tertullian believed that Rome, the “Eternal City,” was the eternal axis that held the wheel of history in place. Everything that ever happened would happen again. Plato and Aristotle had said so. Christianity with its new view of human nature weakened the axis, broke the wheel, and hence brought about the end of the world.
In order to defend Christianity, Augustine needed to defeat this idea. Yes, Christianity had weakened Rome but it did so by shattering the idea that history repeats itself. Jesus came once and once only, Augustine declared. He made a history trek, not a Ferris wheel.
Augustine, a man of reason as much as faith, needed to prove this in terms understandable to those not disposed to his faith. So he pointed out how much technology had changed over the course of the Roman Empire’s tenure. “What millions of inventions has he…in poisons, arms, engines, stratagems, and such like!” he declared.
The City of Man — the realm of government, politics, etc. — was always changing to cope with the imperfect nature of humans, but the City of God was eternal. Because men are not angels, we keep trying to invent things to clean up our messes, sewer systems and toilet paper, for example. Technology may change, but it never changes what it will take for man to do right by God. These inventions, he wrote, were merely evidence of “the nature of man’s soul in general as man is mortal, without any reference to the way of truth whereby he comes to life eternal.”
The point is, Augustine introduced the idea that history moves forward and it moves backward, but man himself stays the same and so does the kingdom of God. He made the fall of Rome into a great reminder that people screw things up and such screw-ups can take mankind to strange places. The Dark Ages — certain conservatives’ pet theories notwithstanding — sucked. And it proved that history doesn’t always get better. (To be honest, it’s a lot of work for me to write about Augustine, especially when I gotta file this thing in time for the gang at NRO to cut out early, when I think I could make the same point much more easily by using the Dune novels by Frank Herbert. Maybe another time).
There’s been a lot of scholarship lately showing that the Roman Empire fell with a lot less bang and a lot more whimper (which is what sickos ask for at certain role-playing sex dungeons). It turns out the Barbarians just wanted to be Romans — they even had Roman names — and the day-to-day lives of many normal people didn’t change appreciably after the “fall” of Rome. It’s only with the distance of time that we can see how totally the world changed after Rome, after the wheel of history had been broken.
I honestly believe that’s what’s going on right now. We are watching the fall of the Roman Empire right now. Our own lives might not seem to change that much, but centuries from now — or even decades — it will be very clear how much things will change. Things may turn out great, or they may suck. But one thing is clear: We will be going to some very strange places and nothing, least of all conservatism, will ever be the same again.
If you’d like to read more about genetics, I highly recommend the book Genome by Matt Ridley, which I am reading now. If you want to read more about various conservative responses to genetics, there are a bunch of places to go. Charles Murray wrote a great essay in NR a while back, but it’s not online and neither is Dinesh D’Souza’s recent piece against eugenics, also in NR. What is on the web is my friend Adam Wolfson’s brilliant essay “Politics in a Brave New World,” in the latest issue of The Public Interest. In response is Ronald Bailey’s piece for Reason Online, “Right-Wing Technological Dread.” (Ron’s actually one of my best buddies, even though he’s a libertoid). In fact, Reason is the leading exponent of the “if we can do it, we should do it” school, and if you are of that bent, that’s where you should hang out (sorta like Macy’s recommending Gimbels!). NR Online has not shied away from this stuff either; why even today we have Wesley J. Smith on Britain’s decision to start cloning humans . While you’re working on all that, I will come up with a bigger reading list, and I may even figure out what I think about all of this.