We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive."
That is exactly the kind of progressive approach we need now, more than ever before.
In this blog entry, Thorsby diagnoses what is wrong with our system, in the context of the present political situation.
One of our biggest challenges is we recognize symptoms of a problem but not the systemic issues that cause them. We have a sense we are overtaxed/over-regulated yet ill-served by government, but we don’t ask how we got here. Frustrated, people tend to fall into two camps. One shrugs, says we live in the best of all possible worlds, and accepts the flaws and flubs as the price of doing business. The other rages against the machine, wanting to tear down the system and start fresh (ah, the tonic of youth known as revolution!).
There is another way, however. We are so indoctrinated with the idea of “progress” we have a bias against the past. If yesterday’s gadgets and gizmos were inferior, and people harbored silly ideas like segregation, the past has nothing to teach us, right? This arrogance-of-the-now cuts us off from generations of lessons learned through hard knocks, as we throw out babies with the bathwater.''
These two paragraphs cut right to the heart of it, especially the second one, above. Thorsby is making a point that I have often tried to make here: the 'arrogance-of-the-now', the idea which seems to pervade our society, the idea that the past is worse than irrelevant. The past is one long dark age, only redeemed by the liberal revolution of the 1960s. The implication is always that our forefathers were benighted, backward, moral deficients. We are the first people, we post-moderns, to have seen the light. "Nothing like us ever was."
In a series delineating the history of conservatism, Fred Hutchison wrote an article called 'What went wrong? The bad seeds sowed from Bacon to Kant'. In it, Hutchison describes this mindset, tracing it back some centuries.
He is mostly discussing science in this piece, but the attitude he describes permeates Western culture generally.
Francis Bacon (1561–1626) laid the indispensable empirical foundations of Western science, enabling science to become the glory of European culture. He also introduced a handful of logical fallacies in which many Western scientists still believe.
Bacon was the father of Western skepticism. He greatly damaged Western culture by providing philosophical grounds for brushing aside the cultural and intellectual heritage of the West.
Bacon proposed that we should cancel all the knowledge of the past and start from scratch, using a method for acquiring knowledge that he would teach us. We should expunge from our minds of all preconceptions, prejudices, assumptions, theories, and old knowledge. He claimed that all knowledge brought forward from the past is tainted and should be expurgated.
This alone should have made Francis Bacon public enemy number one to all conservatives from that day forward. However, Bacon's contribution to the empirical foundation of modern science was so great that he has generally escaped the censure of future generations. Yet, even Bacon's most important contributions were laced with fallacies. The man who would cure all our old fallacies was a great sower of new fallacies and new myths.
Western culture after 1800 A.D. declined in direct proportion to the extent to which Western man cut himself off from his cultural past. Those who were most persuaded by Bacon and his philosophical heirs went the furthest in cutting themselves off from the Western cultural heritage. Great thinkers such as Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, Diderot, and Hume were among Bacon's heirs and gave weight and momentum to his program of cutting us off from the past and building a new world on the ashes.''
In another article in the series, Hutchison elaborates on how the traditionalism that led to the Renaissance is at odds with progressivism, historicism, and multiculturalism:
a) Progressivism looks upon the cultural past with contempt, lionizes the mediocrities of our present day, and idealizes an unknown future.
b) Historicism values only the present culture and finds cultural history and traditional morality irrelevant to the needs and values of the present moment.
c) Multiculturalism demeans the works of "dead white European males," and exalts contemporary works that are chosen for praise with no regard for innate merit, but valued solely on whether the works are authentic expressions of favored cultures.''
And in this piece, relating the history of the 'five kinds of conservatism', Hutchison names those five kinds as:
1) Traditionalism, 2) Christian Conservatism, 3) Natural Law Conservatism, 4) Neoconservatism, and 5) Libertarianism.
And he says:
Looking back is the way forward
The seminal ideal of Western Traditionalism in the ancient world was the belief in a golden age of the mythical past. Societies that had glorious visions of their cultural past tried to recover and preserve as much of it as possible. They wanted to conserve precious old cultural treasures and hence were called conservatives. Tradition was valued as a means of embracing the wisdom and blessings of the past and preserving the culture from decay.
Liberals have long argued that looking back to the past blocks "progress." This essay's walk through history indicates that where culture is concerned, almost the opposite is true. Every cultural renaissance we shall encounter in Part 1, was inspired by "backward-looking" conservative ideals. My counterintuitive hypothesis is that for the cultural improvement of a society, looking back is often the way forward.''
I think this is a crucial point. We are so accustomed to hearing that 'we can never go backward', 'you can't turn the clock back' and 'people who look to the past are reactionaries' -- that last being considered a slur rather than a neutral descriptive word.
But what is the good of conserving when there is little left, after the liberal demolitionists have had their way, that is worth conserving? We have to be able to acknowledge that we are on the wrong road, and that it is necessary to correct our course, and seemingly 'go backward' if we want to truly go forward. It's either backward or downward.
Conservatives these days are rather like the comic figure of the man who is hopelessly lost on an unfamiliar road, but who is too proud or arrogant to stop and ask for directions, or better yet, to consult a map and follow the known way home. There are some men who are more afraid of looking inept or admitting to being lost than they are of finding themselves out of gas on a remote road, far from their destination.
And we do have the maps provided by our forebears; they left us a wonderful set of maps to guide us through life; a whole set of traditions, a record of experiences, a body of knowledge and wisdom, that is Western culture. We in America are doubly blessed in that we have our own set of maps in our Founding documents. And we are too proud or too obtuse to rely on those maps, preferring to blunder down dangerous side-roads toward our doom on our own foolish initiative.
This arrogance and self-willed stubbornness is a profoundly un-conservative attitude; it doesn't get much more un-conservative than this. As long as we continue to disregard and look down our noses at our forefathers, at all those who went before us, we will never be able to get ourselves back on the right track; we will continue to wander off into uncharted territory without a compass. To be really 'conservative', to conserve the republic our Founding Fathers created for their posterity (that's us), we have to find our way back to the trail they blazed for us. Trying to be 'conservative' while disregarding the past and treating this present order of thing as not only inevitable but worth preserving, will only lead us further astray. We've got to find our way back before night falls.
To return to Jemison Thorsby's post,
The quote from which this blog draws its name refers to “progressive” as sometimes being the person who backtracks to the point he began down the wrong road. To me, America started down that road almost immediately after its birth.''
Thorsby describes how the original desire of the Founders to minimize and distribute power in a balanced way has been thwarted by those who destroyed the barriers between the branches of government. Now there is little to impede the will of those who have got control of this hypertrophied state power, and the people have been shut out of the process. Many of us wonder why 'our government' seems to have gone rogue and to be operating not only independently of our will, but in direct violation of our will.
We need to be the kind of 'progressives' who are willing to recognize that we are lost and heading in the wrong direction, who are then willing to turn back and find the good paths, as in Jeremiah's words:
Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where [is] the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.''
Conservatism should be synonymous with 'asking for the old paths, the good way', but unfortunately for us and for our Republic, it no longer is. The very name 'conservatism' has been so corrupted as to be devoid of meaning these days; maybe we who really are seeking the old paths, the known, tried-and-true ways, should name ourselves something more meaningful.
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