Magazine article The American Conservative

Future Cons

Magazine article The American Conservative

Future Cons

Article excerpt

There's much to admire in a piece that summons Americans back to "prudential values," based on "customs, traditions, and habits." But at the same time, since our lives are, as the authors correctly assert, the products of our experiences, plenty of room must be allowed for new experiences.

To put it politely, there's a bit of contradiction between the authors' clarion call for a "Next Conservatism" and their lyrical urging to "restore the old ways of life, the ways in which the vast majority of Americans lived up through the 1950s." Either you go forward, or you go backward. You can't do both. And more to the point, going backward isn't truly an option-you can't go home again.

As the wise Edmund Burke reminded us, the task for the statesman is to channel the tides of change through the canals of custom. That's why Burke supported modest and incremental change. He defended the conservatism of the American Revolution, even as he abhorred the radicalism of the French Revolution. Yes, the past must be venerated, but the future must be accommodated.

So the authors' hymn to "retroculture" is not going to be heard by many. If they wish to see "men's and ladies' hats" restored, that's quite all right. Reactionary cultural flourishes are harmless enough. Today's hipsters, after all, seem to adore octogenarian Tony Bennett. And it will always be thus; in Neal Stephenson's 1995 sci-fi novel, The Diamond Age, the "Neo-Victorians" favor handmade garments in their own little niche realm, even as they revel in the worldwide economic potential of the latest nanotechnology.

And that's the point: technology is here to stay. The authors can admire Russell Kirk for pushing a TV set off the roof, but George Gilder is a better guide for conservatives wishing to use computerized and networked TVs to navigate safely the inevitably Mumfordian future.

Indeed, the authors might wish to reflect on the dolorous reality that throughout human history avowed conservatives have opposed technology, seeing it as the dangerous handmaiden of a force they fear even more: progress. Yet since the end of the Dark Ages, technology has been unstoppable.

In the last thousand years or so, conservatives have often kneejerkily opposed technology, thereby forcing technophiles to conclude that they have to embrace a worldview other than conservatism. Communists, fascists, and mere liberals, on the other hand, have been happy to endorse technology and growth-especially if they could use technology as a substitute, or hoped-for substitute, for freedom. …

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