Early this month, Don Murray, a long-time reporter from the subsidized Canadian broadcaster whose name we shall not utter here, wrote an article on the Polish government’s recent unsuccessful push to eliminate all abortions in that country.
To this social conservative, the subject matter alone was enough to pique my interest. However, as I soon found out, embedded within this article was a subtle form of contempt for conservatism that also bears close scrutiny. Indeed, I’m rather indebted to author Mary Eberstadt for helping me to perceive and articulate this issue.
Here are two quotes from Murray’s recent article: when referencing the critics of the Polish government’s abortion policy, he wrote, “They see it as a part of a broad government offensive to turn back history”.
On the other hand, in describing Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the government party leader, Murray wrote, “He set out, not so much to create a new Poland as to re-create an old Poland.”
In political columns and debate, conservatives see this all too frequently— an uncharitable reference to the clock. More to the point, we see time being used as a kind of social truncheon.
Just one day before Don Murray posted his article on Poland, Christian political scientist and author Dr. Michael Wagner, was advised by a radio-show caller in Calgary, “This is 2016, not 1916” — words very reminiscent of our progressivist Prime Minister’s proud explanation of his cabinet choices last year.
It doesn’t have to be an obvious time-based analogy either; it could be as simple as describing toothpaste that cannot retreat to the tube.
Either way, embattled conservatives are supposed to come to terms with their own futility— with ideas that “the enlightened” have already abandoned to the past.
Social media is full of this kind of ridicule. In just the last few days, I have read commentary invoking the following phrases in debates with liberals: “The Cons trek backwards continues”; “if only these guys could move back to 1950”; or this rather amusing version, “Flintstones was a documentary, wasn’t it?” This last one is particularly telling— it emphasizes the prehistoric, while also attempting to turn conservatives into ignorant buffoons.
Mary Eberhardt draws from philosopher Karl Popper in naming all of this “historicism”— a form of political determinism where time itself is the totalitarian master and all humans its hapless subjects. Once time has moved on, we must move on— in unrepentant lock-step.
Eberhardt argues that historicism is heavily “incubated by Plato, and developed in full by Hegel and Marx.”
She encourages conservatives to recognize its presence — even in everyday discussion whenever one’s opposition assumes that “religious people stand on the ‘wrong side of history”; that society can’t “turn back the clock,” or that “the genie can’t be put back in the bottle”.
For Eberhardt, these are no mere “trigger” words. Rather, this is false dogma— a denial of the free agency of humans.
She calls all these catch phrases “retail expressions” of historicism.
And then adds, “They’re used as ideological weapons to shut down free debate.”
However, relegating conservative moral claims by assigning them to a supposed “by-gone era” can only be accomplished if conservatives allow it. Whenever the term “old-fashioned” goes unchallenged, for instance, it represents a rhetorical failure on our part. The reduction of morally important assertions to some dusty crack between the cobblestones of a Roman (or Victorian) public square is not accomplished except by conservative complicity— or cowardice. There is also a secondary issue: do conservatives still believe in defining “the good”? We should.
How convenient it is for the storm-troopers of progress to dispense with all definitions of “progress”! One might think humans would all start with some basic definition— like: “achieving more of what is good”.
However, so long as conservatives are inarticulate about what precisely constitutes the “good”, we will forever be made victims of what, supposedly, validates the new.
C.S. Lewis made a very incisive observation about such trends in "Mere Christianity":
“We all want progress. But… if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in the case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when doing arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pig headed and refusing to admit a mistake.”
Therein lies the point of real friction. True progress means having to admit to our own mistakes. Perhaps this is why cozying up to a mere timeline is so much easier. We don’t like judgements that interrupt our “forward” motion. Why bother with such unsettling binaries as “good” and “evil”? Why ask whether an abortion-free Poland might be a better Poland, when we can just boringly agree with Mr. Murray, and dismiss the whole prospect as “old news”.
As conservatives, consider this:
When was the last time you recall any of your liberal friends having an unsolicited discussion about social decay? What conservatives know from history, progressives believe to be confined to history. Hence, the latter are both naive and vulnerable.
Of what “progressive” use is being proud of forward momentum if it simply means stepping off a cliff? In the interest of charity— even to liberals— social conservatives must not become the unwitting accomplices of our opposition’s tragic historical determinism.
We must claim our freedom, and act now for the sake of the good.