One day in third grade, our teacher’s lesson plan called for us to figure out how old we would be in 2001. It wasn’t a math test so much as a technology lesson: how to use a pocket calculator — a new technology for kids our age. The class had a couple — that’s all we could afford — of those Texas Instrument calculators with the red displays, where the numbers are made out of little vertical and horizontal lines. You know, the same ones as on Speak & Spells and the first handheld football games put out by Mattel. My friends and I were especially excited when we discovered that if you punched “1134″ into the calculator and turned it upside down, it would spell “hell.” We were convinced this was a profoundly important and dangerous discovery.
Anyway, when we discovered we’d be 31 or 32 in 2001, we all tittered and rolled our eyes. First of all, we would never be that old. And second, everyone knew that in 2001 there would be huge rolling space stations, and talking computers named HAL. For kids my age, 2001 represented the future the way “1984″ did for lots of folks in my parents’ generation. But for me personally, I didn’t like the exercise. Even when I was a kid, I suffered from serious nostalgia for the “Good Old Days,” and was terrified of a sanitized techno-future. For me, the calculators only reinforced the fact that the future was coming too fast.
Well, it’s funny — 2001 finally arrived and, yes, I turned out to be that old — and I’ve gotten over my technophobia. We don’t have intelligent computers, though we do have talking ones, and space stations are white elephants rather than marvels. Nonetheless, if you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey today (something I do not recommend), you can’t help but feel that we are technologically more advanced than the society depicted in the film.
In fact, prior to September 11, the most interesting and vexing questions in the West were technological. It appeared that the debates over stem cells, cloning, the economic and political impact of biotechnology — rich countries “improving” on humanity and its food while poor societies die from disease and hunger, or live in comparative deprivation — would dominate the 21st century, and rightly so.
Well, with little more than a hundred days left until the year 2002, that all changed.
Bringing the Past Alive
As we all remember, 2001 opens on a scene of proto-human ape-men fiddling with some bones. A foreign object arrives from space and somehow enables the apes to use the bones as tools. Exposing the humanity’s barbaric core, the first use they find for the tool is as a weapon. One ape kills another (though unlike Planet of the Apes, they do not start chanting “Ape killed Ape.”). After the killing, an ape throws the bone-tool high into the air, with the camera following as it spirals upwards in slow motion. The director, Stanley Kubrick, cuts from the spiraling bone to the image of a space station orbiting Earth, tens of thousands of years later, in the year 2001. The message: that man is still a primitive creature, just with better tools. (Or at least that’s what a lot of people think; 2001 was deliberately incomprehensible. Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the novel at the same time that Kubrick wrote the screenplay, once remarked, “If you understand 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.” Mission accomplished, AC.)
Of course, this isn’t a particularly troubling message for conservatives, since the whole point of conservatism is the recognition that human nature holds constant even as societies change, sometimes for the worse and sometimes for the better. Remember: The world doesn’t automatically improve just because you rip pages from a calendar — just as you don’t always get closer to your destination simply by virtue of the fact you’re walking forward.
But while conservatives rightly understand that the world doesn’t inevitably move forward with the clock, they have a hard time understanding that the world wouldn’t necessarily get better if we could run it backwards, either. Nostalgia, wrote the sainted Robert Nisbet, is even at best the rust of memory; at worst, a disease. It forces us to draw from history only the prettiest baubles in our faulty memories, and shine them up with wishful thinking. There are too many conservatives today who think we can bring back, say, the Victorian Era, while simultaneously enjoying all of the conveniences of modern life. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Technology changes society as much as ideas do, and it’s a lot harder to argue with technology (for more see “Conservatism without History“).
The trick is to change with the times, while clinging to those principles that are timeless. Benjamin Disraeli, that sometimes-great modernizer of conservatism, called this simply “muddling through.” Calvin Coolidge had a similar philosophy, which he called “minding my own business” — a philosophically rich position which takes into account that a free society is better at adapting to change while maintaining norms than is a meaty-pawed federal government (see “Being and Nothingness” ).
Also Sprach bin Laden
I’ll tell you, in all honesty, THE REASON I keep writing about this point: because I keep forgetting it myself. Just like when I was a kid, my instincts are still nostalgic ones. I like to kick it old school, in old neighborhoods, cherishing old ideas, comfortable with my old ways as though they were good old shoes. I tend to think that the past is a treasure trove of forgotten good ideas. And it is.
But you can’t go back. “I tell you,” Carl Sandburg insisted, “the past is a bucket of ashes.”
Today, the leading spokesman for the alternative point of view is Osama bin Laden. “He lives in the past,” people say. The Taliban is a medieval society. Well, he doesn’t live in the past — if he did, we wouldn’t be seeing him on CNN all the time. And people in medieval societies don’t drive around in Suzuki Sidekicks.
What bin Ladenites have done is to turn nostalgia for the past into an ideology. They look at the glories of Islamic civilization half a millennia ago (or more) and think that if they adopt its forms and ideas, they’ll be able to transport themselves to the past — or, better, the past to them. This was a trick of other fanatical ideologues as well — including Hitler, who conjured an entirely mythical Aryan history.
Perhaps the best example of this comes in a wonderful piece for National Review Online by Thomas Madden. He points out that Osama bin Laden doesn’t even know the history he wallows in. Bin Laden believes that the United States is launching a “crusade” against Islam. “It is a certain fact that Bush has held the cross high,” bin Laden said Saturday. This, of course, is idiotic, and shows how ideologically blinkered the man is. After all, nobody in the United States thinks this is a war for the cross, or has even said this a war for the cross. Warriors fighting in the name of God don’t usually keep it a secret (see my syndicated column for more on this point).
But bin Laden and his followers aren’t just ignorant of our intentions, they’re ignorant about the crusades themselves. As Madden illustrates, the crusades were A) defensive, retaliatory wars on the part of the West, and B) wars that the West lost at the hands of Muslims. An Islamist jingoist might be forgiven for disputing the first point — but why not brag about the second? Well, it’s because bin Laden has bought into the Western ideas of American Leftists, who claim that the crusades were the product of Western colonialism — that the cruel white Europeans exploited the poor, backward brown people of the Middle East.
If someone from the golden age of the Ottoman Empire were to be transported to this day and age, he would respond to this proposition with: “Hell no! We kicked their ass!”
Before they got chips implanted on their shoulders by Western academics, Muslims used to brag about the crusades, not whine about them. But bin Laden’s ideology is built on a foundation of victimhood. The West is not an equal or inferior civilization — which is how Muslims saw it for centuries — but a cruel oppressor. Bin Laden is not extending the past to today, he’s imposing today on the past. “The poor old Past,” wrote Melville, “The Future’s slave.”
Now, it is true that bin Ladenism or Talibanism or Islamic fundamentalism — whatever you want to call it — contributes to the stagnation of Middle Eastern societies. I recently read that the Pakistani Institute for Policy Studies wants children to be taught that cause and effect do not exist. Cause and effect! (For example, students should be informed that when you mix oxygen and hydrogen, “Allah wills” water to be created. I would think this would be blasphemy, since it means I can command Allah to do my bidding every time I mix oxygen and hydrogen.) And it also true that there are millions of people who do live outside history. There are tribal communities, impoverished cultures, and the like, which are missing out on modernity (and need to be dragged into it). In a brilliant essay in The New Statesman, intellectual historian Peter Watson illustrates how there has not been a single important new idea conceived outside the West in over a century.
But, all that aside, Osama bin Laden — with his satellite phones, his Postcolonial Studies Cliff Notes, and his hunger for nuclear weapons — is not a creature from the past, he is a creature of today. He is not dangerous because (like the Obelisk in 2001) he brings tools, in the form of money or guns or anthrax — but because he encourages the worst attributes of human nature: cruelty, ignorance, and envy. He arrives in these stagnant or even Hobbesian societies and offers an ideology which makes social failure a badge of honor and which, in a jealous rage, rejects the accumulated wisdom of the West — as if the pursuit of happiness were simply the heresy of an alien culture, rather than the universal birthright of all humanity. He wants to insist that the West took the wrong fork in the road centuries ago, as if bad dentistry and disease were something to be proud of. He suggests that between Afghanistan and Switzerland — two landlocked, mountainous nations in which every home has a gun — Afghanistan has taken the better path (stop laughing).
Bin Laden has rewritten the story of 2001, but not the moral of that story. Bin Laden — and the fact that it is even conceivable he could win — proves that the world doesn’t automatically improve with age. And, more to the point, he proves that the real challenge remains human nature, which — fitted with the wrong ideology or culture — is still the biggest threat we will ever face.