Saturday, December 01, 2018

Crying out for a great conservative

As an acolyte in the Anglican tradition during my youth, I often had occasion to read the last edition of Archbishop Cramner's great work, the Book of Common Prayer. In it, quite separately from the main burial service, was a specific service for the burial of a child. In my naivety, I regarded that as an acute and kind response to the trauma the death of a child must be to any family. Only much later did I come to realize the truth: for most of the nearly half millennium Anglicans have used Cramner's work, the death of a child was not an infrequent horror but a routine grief. Through the four centuries preceding antibiotics and other effective disease control methods, the burial of children was something relatively few families escaped. Family histories routinely chronicle births and then provide the number of children who lived.
Baby with adult hand
All of the history of the human species as we know it has taken place in the shadow of routine child and infant mortality. Family traditions, religious rituals, and state policies revolved around that single fact. Then, in a historical blink, everything changed. Vaccinations, antibiotics, indoor plumbing, antiseptic surgery and food safety all sprang from the discoveries of the late nineteenth century, and in barely more than one generation, they transformed a routine misfortune into a rare catastrophe.If we no longer lose half our children, more or  less, before they reach adulthood, what does that mean? If the number of humans doubles in one generation, our population will grow over thirty-fold in a century. Unless someone has a large supply of Minshara-class planets available, we will have to change our approach to bringing the next generation into the world.

Francis Montague Holl RA, I am the resurection and the lifeThat's not a small change. It means changing who we are as men and women; because most of us experience our humanity as members of one sex or the other, that eventually affects everything about us. It's a wrenching change, one we have to negotiate at the same time as we thread the narrow path between technological progress and mutual annihilation, and find a way to cope with the promise of automation that offers us wonders as it leaves more and more members of society with no place in the productive economy. But it isn't optional.

The phenomenon many of us call the "sexual revolution" did not begin with hormonal contraception. If I had to pick one representative pharmaceutical product to award the role of herald of the sexual revolution, I would pick diphtheria vaccine. 

Which brings us to Ross Douthat and the latest in the long, long line of laments for the state of sexuality, gender relations, and human connection that manage to miss the fundamental point. Mr. Douthat manages to spend an entire column about the supposed propensity of humans of this generation for sitting in front of computer terminals wanking, while missing the reality in front of him: a century ago, the human population had just passed a billion. When I was born, I was one of about three billion people. Today, seven billion people share our world, and we are heading for eight billion. Call me crazy, but I think someone's having sex.

One thing Ross Douthat gets right: he understands we have a problem. We live in a time of great change. We live in a time when we have to change; we cannot avoid it. And we can have no assurances about the limits of the change required of us. We cannot say for certain our cultures, religions, nations, even our very sense of self will escape the oncoming change. The times cry out for someone able to see we can only preserve what we most value by discarding what we do not need. We need someone who understands we can only preserve what we need by giving up some of the things we want. We need, in other words, a conservative.

Where the times cried out for the equivalent of an Edmund Burke and William Wilberforce to answer Hugh Hefner, we got Jerry Falwell and Newt Gingrich. Falwell was not a mountebank like Gingrich, but both these defining voices of American conservatism utterly lacked the ability to grapple with the need for change, much less articulate a persuasive standard for separating the important things worth preserving from the things necessary to discard. Perhaps if he had lived, Martin Luther King could have called forth a conservative voice worthy of him; a conservative capable of facing the need for change and able to define clearly what we as humans most need to preserve, or at least to effectively debate the question.

We badly need such a conservative voice to emerge; someone who understands the necessity of accepting change as part of keeping important things permanent. Perhaps someone like Caitlin Flanagan will find a way to approach the conversation. It is even possible the fractious voices of twitter or some yet to be coded social medium will pull themselves into a coherent position.

I do know we are not hearing a conservative voice in the mold of Burke or Wilberforce, and I believe that makes us poorer. Running away from the changes we need to make, or simply lamenting the current state of affairs, which is another way of running away, will not serve us well. As C. S. Lewis, another great and humane conservative, put the question of dealing with the inevitable: it's better to "meet them face to face than be caught by the tail".

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