HISTORY & DNA
When you read history books — at least the interesting ones — you sometimes feel like people must have known how important the times they lived in were. It’s as if people in the 1930s knew they were living in the “1930s.”
I am beginning to wonder if we live in such an age. I’m not trying to make one of these “the end is nigh” arguments. I’m a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist. I’m not even sure why I think it. But there does seem to be something in the air.
Ten years ago, Francis Fukuyama wrote a big article in The National Interest which turned into a smaller book called The End of History. It is a complicated argument that for some odd reason I’ve been fascinated by ever since. Fukuyama’s analysis and phrasing is consciously borrowed from the German philosopher Hegel and a French philosopher named Kojeve. But you don’t need to know any of that. The essence of his case is this. The big H history of mankind has been an unraveling series of arguments, wars, debates, coups and so on about how human beings should live with each other. Liberal democracy, according to Fukuyama, represents the end of that argument. Liberal democracy is the system which most effectively allows human beings to determine their own future to the extent any of us can, and because of its regime of rights and liberty it allows people to feel self-respect.
The idea was ridiculed and hailed around the globe as naïve, ignorant, brilliant, stupid, etc. But Fukuyama argued in effect “look around, what system competes with liberal democracy? Even totalitarian and authoritarian nations feel the need to use words like democracy and competition and rights.” Systems that are confident in their staying power don’t borrow concepts from other systems for P.R. purposes. It wasn’t a question of whether other systems could compete in the realm of economic output or “doing good” in the world (although they really can’t compete); the issue was whether the people living in monarchies, dictatorships, or peoples’ republics believed their own system was legitimate.
Now Fukuyama has partially changed his mind. He thinks history may not be over after all. He thinks bio-tech may change everything. The constant in Fukuyama’s analysis was that human nature remains constant. My favorite short definition of conservatism was offered by Boston University Professor Glenn Loury, who seems to be wondering whether he’s still a conservative. He said that the essence of conservatism was that human nature has no history.
I love that. What he’s saying is that if Al Gore were born to an ancient Viking family he’d grow up a Viking. If I were born to a clan of whirling dervishes, I’d be a whirler. Remember my favorite Hannah Arendt quote: Western civilization is invaded by barbarians every generation. We call these barbarians “children.” That is what conservatism properly understood is about. That’s what Russell Kirk and others meant by “the wisdom of the ancients.” That’s why we need to protect our institutions and not presume out of the arrogance of our own intellects to remake society in one fell swoop. That is the villainy of the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions in this century. Our institutions have been very carefully crafted by trial-and-error to improve the human condition.
Well, now Fukuyama fears that those institutions which make up liberal democracy may be threatened by the fact that we can “fix” our genes. If we can really alter human nature, than the constant of The End of History equation has suddenly become a variable. I think he’s probably right. History is on the move again. (Remember how the always prescient original Star Trek predicted that the Third World War would be between genetically engineered supermen and the rabble?)
I don’t think, however, it’s just the biotech thing. The Pentagon has just conducted a monumental study on the divergent attitudes of civilian and military leaders. The study picked leading figures at random from the pages of Who’s Who? What they discovered was that American elite opinion and military opinion are very, very different. This shouldn’t shock anybody, but the numbers are pretty startling: 64% of military officers are Republicans, while only 8% are Democrats. But 30% of civilian non-veterans are Republicans and 43% are Democrats. 67% of military officers self-ID themselves as conservatives and only 4% of them called themselves liberals. Civilian non-vets are only 32% conservative and 37% liberal. The study didn’t survey enlisted men, but my guess is that they’re even more conservative. Indeed, I think the military is increasingly perceived as a cultural sanctuary from the decadence of the larger society.
Now the thumbsuckers think this is a terrible sign for the health of the military. And, of course, it is bad when a military becomes partisan. But the reality is different from the way the thumbsuckers are painting it. The reality is that the military as an institution took the road less traveled and is now better than the society as a whole. Elite types think the armed forces are a “sick” institution. But my gut says the military is more immune to the sicknesses afflicting the society.
But it’s not America’s moral health alone which has me feeling this way about the future. And it’s not the perpetual boom of the stock market, either. Technological changes are certainly a part of it. It was what, 60 years from the Wright brothers to putting men on the moon? Today, the web and communication gadgets are changing the world to the point where it’s almost forgivable to utter such clichés. The web fundamentally changes our understanding of civil liberties and winning the war for libertarianism. Witness the intransigence of the American Library Association to allow porn blockers in public libraries. They say people who are in favor of keeping goat porn away from little kids are ignorant, fascist, prudish censors. But I’d bet you my last TV remote that there’s not a library in the country that subscribes to Jugs, Hustler, Oui, Penthouse, etc., and then puts those magazines near the kids. And I bet virtually no library maintains a vast collection of porn movies on hand. Ask one of these First Amendment librarians, “Where can I find ‘Edward Penis-hands 7′ or ‘Sperms of Endearment’ ” and they’d be horrified. Ask them how you could download the same thing and they’d say, “Come with me.”
But I don’t know if it’s that either. The disintegration of Russia and what I think is the imminent turmoil in China are part of it, too. And there are a hundred other things too (but my Webmaster has to make a plane so I’ll quit with the examples).
In the end, I think it is because the world today is boring in a way it hasn’t been for over a hundred years. Sure there are wars over territory and what not, but there always have been. But there are no ideas that capture the imagination and make men want to sacrifice for a larger cause. Maybe the world isn’t boring and it’s just the men who are bored. I don’t know. Maybe that’s what The End of History really means — the beginning of boredom. Again I don’t know. But I do know that nature abhors a vacuum and history is insulted by boredom. So get ready for something.
Unfortunately, due to technical reasons, we cannot begin our poll on the most overrated people of the last thirty years. But I would like to congratulate you on the literally hundreds of nominations. Very inspired suggestions. Expect that to start Monday and maybe go all week.
But I would like to answer the quote quiz from yesterday (and encourage you to keep participating in our “What’s That From?” feature.
So here is the paragraph from yesterday:
So this got me thinking: If so many G-File readers love the movie and TV quote stuff — why shouldn’t we give the people what they want? I can show some leadership. I can be that big toe.(1) Yes, of course, people on ‘ludes should not drive (2) — or run websites. But life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. (3) Of course, I’ve missed so much life watching TV that at this point no beer and no TV make Jonah something something. (4) But my job is such that my couch can often overhear me yelling, “I’m whizzing with the door open and I love it!”(5) So I can’t really complain. Besides it’s not like the little lady has written me any letters beginning, “Dear Baby: Welcome to Dumpsville. Population: You!” (6) Because I’m rude, crude, and obnoxious (7). But sometimes I get the menstrual cramps real bad (8) and I say to my couch, never mind, just bring me a cup of hot fat. And the head of Alfredo Garcia. (9) Providing movie quotes to entertain the dregs of our American education system is not exactly what William F. Buckley Jr. had in mind when he launched NR. But then I say you know what, We’re all very different people. We’re not Watusi, we’re not Spartans, we’re Americans! With a capital “A,” huh? And you know what that means? Do you? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world! (10)
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High
- Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
- Fast Times
- Raising Arizona
And the bonus question was from Good Will Hunting.