Politics & Policy

Blinded by Science

The real challenge to conservatism.

Yesterday I gave a speech to the Young Americans Foundation (also known as YAF, but not the YAF of yore). I was asked to speak on any topic I wanted, or so I was told. But my first three suggestions — “Why Do Most Star Trek Aliens Look Totally Human Except for their Foreheads?”; “If Life Begins at Conception, Why Can’t We Drink When We’re Twenty?”; and “Speaking Truth to Power: In Defense of Keeping the Toilet-Paper Roll Off the Wall-Doohickey” — were all rejected. I concluded that since all the other speakers were likely to be Very Serious Conservatives talking about “superfluous men” and the “Nockian Remnant,” that I would talk about something these kids today could relate to. So I picked the title, “Conservatism in the Digital Age.”

It was a great idea for a speech, if I do say so myself. And I had dreams of using it to ignite a firestorm of corporate speaking gigs which would elevate my material status to the point where I could write the Goldberg File from the beach or, even better, Chuck E. Cheese’s. But there was a problem. These kids, who I must say were pretty impressive and surprisingly attractive (for some reason I always expect college kids, liberal or conservative, who are really into this sort of stuff to look like they’ve been chained to a basement radiator reading Howard Zinn or Russell Kirk), were looking at me like I was the boring fat guy I was trying not to be. In short, I sounded like I was the chained-to-a-radiator-reading-Russell-Kirk guy.

Being a read-and-react kind of guy, I quickly deduced that the only thing guaranteed to get a laugh would be for me to drop my pants. But, knowing all too well that that kind of laughter can grow into horror very quickly, I thought better of it. Instead, I just told a bunch of jokes, did my best to explain what the hell I was talking about, and moved quickly into the Q&A session which was great fun for everybody, except for one or two serious paste-eaters who seemed like they were disappointed I wasn’t speaking in Latin.

Still, I would still like to make at least one of the points I was trying to make, if only because I can’t afford to think hard about things without writing about them somewhere.

There is a split in the ranks of conservative intellectuals about how much ideas affect culture versus how much impersonal events affect it. Did society become secular, self-indulgent, morally subjective, etc., because Nietszche & Co. introduced a bunch of bad ideas? Or did society become all of those things because material prosperity, education, birth control, the automobile, etc., made such changes inevitable? To some extent it’s a bit of a nature-versus-nurture argument, in that everybody agrees there’s at least some of both going on.

But most of the time, conservatives ignore the fact that the automobile did as much to destabilize communities as rock and roll or Allen Ginsberg. The problem is that it’s very difficult to argue with the car — but it is not only easy, it’s fun to argue with hippy-dippy beatniks. This is a bigger problem, I confess, for neoconservatives and mainstream conservatives than it is for paleoconservatives. The paleos still pound their spoons on their high-chairs about the interstate highway system because they recognized long ago the “damage” interstate mobility does to small traditional communities. But the point remains that intellectuals like to fight ideas, not gadgets. This is especially true of conservatives, since we favor individual liberty and economic freedom; in a free-enterprise system, there’s no acceptable policy position against the walkman or the cellular phone. There are plenty of people on the Left who want to ban cigarettes, certain foods, even the automobile. On the Right, we may entertain censorship of ideas (as does the Left; the difference is, we’re just too dumb to lie about it) but censoring innovation is strictly and rightly verboten.

Unfortunately, we can focus so much on the perfidy of ideas we convince ourselves that if we can just prove to the world why these ideas are bad, everything will be fine. It’s like the guy who looks for his lost car keys under the street lamp because the light is better there; academic nihilism may not be the chief cause of moral decay, but we can see things clearly there, so that’s where we do the fighting.

Leaving aside the well-documented stubborn refusal of millions of people to let go of their bad ideas, culture is not just a collection of ideas. Almost every custom and tradition anywhere in the world — from the use of cutlery to burying our dead to the languages we speak — was begun out of some practical necessity. (Go read Hayek if you want a smart person to explain all that.)

On the Right, one champion of the “it’s the ideas, stupid” school of thought is Wendy Shalit. In her book A Return to Modesty she essentially argues that it’s possible to return to Victorian times — if people choose to be Victorians (for my full review click here.) This sort of thinking is very dangerous for conservatives, because public policy based upon nostalgia is guaranteed to fail.

Anyway, the point I was trying to get across to these YAF kids about the digital age — without repeating myself — is that technology changes the times we live in but it doesn’t change human nature (at least not yet). One of the challenges for conservatives, today more than ever, is the need to recognize the problems which come from convenience. For example, many college kids today — and maybe even more journalists — think that if something isn’t on the web, it doesn’t exist. The truth is that the web excludes vastly more information than it includes. But because it is easy to use, we rely on it. This may be the greatest instance of socially imposed amnesia since the Russian Revolution, or the revolts of the iconoclasts or the Luddites. It is certainly the most successful one. At the same time, we think that simply because the web makes something easier to do, it means we should do it. The worst case of this kind is online voting, which is an American tragedy in the making.

Eventually, we will have replicators a la Star Trek that will make any dish we want by punching in a few numbers. Such conveniences will make it more difficult to get the family together to make meals, and it will make it more difficult to find chores for kids — cutting the carrots, taking out the garbage, washing the dishes, etc. This may sound like a boon and in many ways it is, but chores are essential to teaching kids about responsibility and obligation. Convenience will eliminate the necessity of the chores, but not the necessity of the lessons learned from completing them.

Think of it this way: Hard work leads to character. There isn’t a person in the world who’s written on the topic who doesn’t say something like that. Now imagine if you could take a pill that would automatically make you very smart and in perfect physical shape overnight. Intelligence and physical strength used to be well-recognized by-products of character building. With the pill, there’s no building — just the final product. That pill would be more dangerous to a virtuous society than any “if it feels good do it” doctrine coming out of Brown University.

The challenge for the conservative in the digital age is to recognize that sometimes your car keys aren’t where the street light is, and we’d better come up with some good ideas about how to deal with that fact.


1) National Review Online is looking for a few good mottoes. Actually we’re only looking for one. One we like is “Standing Athwart History, 24 Hours a Day Seven Days a Week.” If you can think of a better one, send your suggestions to me at votegfile@aol.com. I can’t handle much more e-mail at my normal address. If you are the winner you will not only get credit for all the world to see, you will receive the “National Review Cool Stuff Package” which contains, among other things, a swank polo shirt, an NR clock, autographs, magazines, an NR coffee mug, the red pencil Mike Potemra uses to eviscerate my articles…lord I can’t go on….the cornucopia of NR arcana is so bounteous…losing consciousness.

The NRO empire is growing faster than we ever dreamed. We recently told you about Howard Kurtz’s piece in the Washington Post. But we didn’t tell you that:

  • The Columbia Journalism Review wrote “Among political journals of opinion, National Review has developed an excellent site…”
  • The Christian Science Monitor said, “National Review’s Web site tries to be the Internet’s smart, hip, conservative voice, and it often pulls off this complicated task with great verve.”
  • Even Vanity Fair managed to be only partially snide. “Most on-line versions of print magazines are place mats — a logo stamped over a table of contents,” writes James Wolcott, “A busy-bee exception is NationalReview.com, the bratty cyber-twin of the conservative biweekly founded by William F. Buckley Jr.…”

3. With all that in mind, we would like to have a word with our sponsors — except we really don’t have any. If you would like to sponsor, say, The Washington Bulletin or The Goldberg File let us know. We have become so successful so quickly we want to do even more stuff than we budgeted for; that means we need frogskins, cashish, schmundo, greenbacks, filthy lucre, mammon, coin, etc., to fulfil our outsized ambitions (though less than you might think).

And, just so you know, not only will sponsors see their names up in pixels; enjoy a level of sycophancy not seen since the last Red Chinese with a check book walked into Al Gore’s office; be associated with the coolest conservative venture in Christendom; and get a deluxe “National Review Cool Stuff Package,” but I will — if at all possible — come to your house and clean your bathroom and cook you dinner — though not in that order.

Seriously, if you want to help the web’s best conservative magazine (and by extension that paper thing by the same name, which happens to be the best conservative magazine in any medium) become even better we’d love to hear from you. Contact Scott Budd. Please, serious inquiries only — the suits are going to read this e-mail.

4) If you missed my piece on the New York Times editorial on “Hillary’s Slur,” click here.

5) And in case you guys didn’t know, NRO will be getting jiggy with it at the Republican and Democratic Conventions.

6) And, finally, I gotta apologize. In the “On Deck” teaser for this column I hinted I would be talking about my couch today. I forgot entirely until just now. I think I’ll just leave that for Friday.


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