The Private Intellectual
Ecclesiastes-Based Real Estate Advice

Thursday, July 21, 2011  

Appealing to the Future

There are common views about history that are not very helpful to understanding our present circumstances. One is the conservative refrain that everything sucks more and more as time goes on. The family is getting worse, the government is getting worse, men are getting worse, women are getting worse, education is getting worse, the law is getting worse; we hear a lot of this. And it's perhaps a defensible view, were it not almost invariably paired with a conviction that America is still by such a wide measure the greatest country on earth that even proposing to learn something from another country's policies or culture is tantamount to hating one's own. It's been five minutes until midnight for conservatives since at least 1933, and yet no anti-nationalist conclusions may be drawn from this fact. Despairing chauvinism has some use as a way to galvanize cultural resentment, but if you think about it rationally it leads to quietism. Everything will keep getting worse, and yet twenty years from now Republican politicians will insist that learning from the Swiss model of health insurance will lead us down the path to tyranny and destruction.

There is a left-wing version of this, too, which is equally trivial--a long history of betrayals of the Movement so comprehensive as to get one to wonder what point there is in hoping for something better. But the dominant mood on the left is something happier: the idea that the future will be much like the present, except without the stuff we don't like about it. You hear versions of this quite a lot, but it's summed up rather pithily in an unusually leaden Onion article about how schoolkids will view the same-sex marriage debate in 2083.

Now I fully expect same-sex marriage to become uncontroversial in the coming decades, and I've long made the same case myself about how strange it will seem to my kids and grandkids that it was such a big deal (or that it was so mind-blowing to elect a black president). But it's highly unlikely that any future cohort of humans will simply ratify the progressive side of this or that cultural issue while leaving the rest of our moral and philosophical furniture in place. The schoolkids of 2083 will probably also wonder why we had such hangups about genetically modifying humans in utero to create a genetic super-elite, or about android gladiators or whatever. Or perhaps a human remnant will be wondering, as they roast pigeons under the ruin of the Kennedy Expressway, why we were worrying about whether a man could share health benefits with another man when we could have been staving off the death of the oceans, the irreversible loss of arable land, or the encroachment of drug-resistant epidemics. Surely same-sex marriage is a matter of urgent need for some and a matter of justice for the rest of us, but to imagine that it will figure prominently in Future America's worldview is to be a little narcissistic, and credulous of our own apocalyptic claims about the importance of configuring bourgeois fundamental human rights in this way or the other.

If we're going to orient our political musings toward the future, in other words, we should probably think a little less about how it will ratify our own despair or hope and a little more about how it is likely to exist at all. It won't be just like us but worse, or better. It will be its own reality, enduring or enjoying the big and often unconsidered decisions we've made for it.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:51 PM
"It's been five minutes until midnight for conservatives since at least 1933, and yet no anti-nationalist conclusions may be drawn from this fact."

There are movements of "conservatives" who counsel despair plus lessons from other countries. Unfortunately those oter countries are often Nazi Germany and Putin's Russia.
Post a Comment