The great conservative manifesto that one must stand athwart history yelling “stop!” is ultimately corrosive. That screed will drift away from reality and become a rigid, abstract ideology that enforces a systematically false picture of how the world works. This is what has happened to conservatism. Change happens no matter how hard you resist it. If you’re not prepared to adapt, then corrosion is inevitable. The conservative view assumes there is some unchanging core to the self, to a tradition, or to human nature, and that most of what we call change is superficial and something that can be halted at will. But there is no such unchanging core to anything; only a flux of similarities and differences over time, some more stable than others, but all subject to erosion and drift with no teleology than can persistently capture these changes.
We now know that nature, which we had assumed was eternal, not only has a history but a contingent character continuously threatened by human activity. The comforting story of a human world of increasing freedom, rationality, and moral progress (whether dressed in the coat of science or the robe of Christianity) is not only questionable but if anything seems manifestly implausible. Few could honestly look at the 20th and 21st centuries without questioning the foundation of those beliefs—the basic goodness of human beings or God’s will. The promise of globalization and the information revolution to carry on human progress looks increasingly empty if not an active threat as both seem to weaken the social contexts needed to solve problems.
The world shifts under our feet but there is no going back to halcyon days before the crisis. The guiding threads of the past are precisely what has been severed.
Meanwhile our political debates are mired in old assumptions carried over from the past rendering them obsolete when facing current crises. The invisible bonds of habit, convention, and time-tested institutions that conservatism invokes as stabilizing factors are no match for the contingencies and happenstance of human existence. Of course, we repeat ourselves, our actions today bearing similarities to our actions yesterday. But that repetition is never exact and in that space of difference, a thousand possibilities bloom.
To go off the rails is the human condition.
The forces of change operate inexorably and often invisibly until they appear to sprout fully formed. An ideology that assumes stasis will miss all of this until it is too late. It’s not merely mistaken but pathetic that someone thinks hanging on to some original text from the birth of Christianity or the birth of a nation could somehow provide the stability required for an intelligible human life in a world of rapid change.
There are no easy answers to how civilization should proceed. But the first step is acknowledging that to walk on shifting ground one must be nimble rather than anchored.