I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
Thomas Jefferson, as quoted by James Pinkerton in Tech Central Station. Thanks to Paul Cella for the pointer.
This quote, apparently inscribed into the Jefferson Memorial, is the glory and the tragedy of the United States rolled into one. The whole American project is the world's most (only?) successful radical revolution. Almost the entirety of our history as a nation, from colonization through revolution through industrialization through the civil war through manifest destiny through the World Wars through the civil rights movement, has cemented in our souls a theory of inevitable Progress and a belief that Inevitable Progress is Good.
And progress has been good, as who can deny. (Hi, Orrin)
Nevertheless, the theory of Inevitable Progress is pernicious and we are, right now, suffering from it. One cannot read Goodridge, the Massachusetts gay marriage case, without coming away with the sense that the Court believes that this change is inevitable. In the past marriage was closed and in the future it will be open, and Progress requires that we move it along, doing our small part in a vast historical enterprise.
Once we recognize this thought, we see it every where. How many changes are urged upon us on the grounds that some institution has been changed in the past and Progress demands that we continue the process? We must open up marriage, we must further reduce discrimination, we must widen the scope of our civil rights, we must broaden Medicaid to include prescription drugs, etc. Much of our politics has now come down to "our parents did X and our children will do Z, so we are obliged to do Y." Doesn't this explain the relatively muted reaction to Goodridge? We all knew it was inevitable, so why not get it over with.
More recently, we've started to work the theory backward. If some trend can be seen to have increased over time, we call it Progress. The seemingly inevitable loosening of television standards, to take a miner example, is Progress, with each new televised transgression applauded by the critics as "cutting edge" entertainment. Increasing sexual promiscuity is Progress. The increasing number of instances in which human life can be taken, is Progress. Swing is progress from Jazz; Rock is progress from Swing; and Rap is progress from Rock. (The process does have its limits. No one thinks that Disco was Progress.)
We hear this theory propounded all the time. Whenever a President says that our greatness is just beginning, he is speaking of Inevitable Progress. When people speak about the coming American century, both now and 100 years ago, they are speaking of Inevitable Progress. When people speak of lifespans of 140 years, or living on the Moon, or transferring our consciousness to computers, they are really saying that our ancesters lived 35 years if they were lucky, our parents will live 70 years unless they're unlucky and so our kids should live for ever.
In some ways, our belief in Inevitable Progress is human. Humans always believe that a trend, once identified, will continue undisturbed. We're always drawing lines through past events and projecting them confidently into the future. People in stagnant societies draw their line and assume nothing will change. Americans are among the few that can look at their entire history and say, "things have always gotten better, so they will always get better."
We have now taken this human trait, however, and made it uniquely American. Because our government is more thought experiment than historical tradition, we feel free to change the thought behind it. We have now taken our observation of improvement over time (a debatable observation, but one common to both conservatives and liberals), developed a theory of Inevitable Progress and made it our governing principle. What else does it mean to say that our centuries old founding document is a "living Constitution"?
And thus the definition of an American conservative as someone who stands athwart History yelling stop. The very definition embodies the idea of doomed opposition to Inevitable Progress and by doing so implies that true conservatism is unAmerican. And yet, I still believe. Not all movement is progress. Trends don't continue on forever, life without measure. We are not simply a bridge between the glorious past and an even more glorious future. The future is not always better than the past. If a little is good, it doesn't follow that more is better. Americans can no more foresee the future than could the Romans or the Greeks or the Goths.
I see the train a'comin, but all I can do is stand on the tracks yelling stop.
Posted by David Cohen at December 4, 2003 11:59 AM