June 18, 2002

Old but good stuff from Jonah Goldberg of NRO fame:

There is a split in the ranks of intellectuals about how much ideas affect culture versus how much impersonal events affect it. Did society become secular, self-indulgent, morally subjective, etc., because Nietszche & Co. introduced a bunch of bad ideas? Or did society become all of those things because material prosperity, education, birth control, the automobile, etc., made such changes inevitable? To some extent it's a bit of a nature-versus-nurture argument, in that everybody agrees there's at least some of both going on.

But most of the time, conservatives ignore the fact that the automobile did as much to destabilize communities as rock and roll or Allen Ginsberg. The problem is that it's very difficult to argue with the car — but it is not only easy, it's fun to argue with hippy-dippy beatniks. Intellectuals like to fight ideas, not gadgets. This is especially true of conservatives, since we favor individual liberty and economic freedom; in a free-enterprise system, there's no acceptable policy position against the walkman or the cellular phone. There are plenty of people on the Left who want to ban cigarettes, certain foods, even the automobile. On the Right, we may entertain censorship of ideas (as does the Left; the difference is, we're just too dumb to lie about it) but censoring innovation is strictly and rightly verboten.

Unfortunately, we can focus so much on the perfidy of ideas we convince ourselves that if we can just prove to the world why these ideas are bad, everything will be fine. It's like the guy who looks for his lost car keys under the street lamp because the light is better there; academic nihilism may not be the chief cause of moral decay, but we can see things clearly there, so that's where we do the fighting.

Leaving aside the well-documented stubborn refusal of millions of people to let go of their bad ideas, culture is not just a collection of ideas. Almost every custom and tradition anywhere in the world — from the use of cutlery to burying our dead to the languages we speak — was begun out of some practical necessity. (Go read Hayek if you want a smart person to explain all that.)

Anyway, the point is that technology changes the times we live in but it doesn't change human nature (at least not yet). One of the challenges, today more than ever, is the need to recognize the problems which come from convenience. For example, many college kids today — and maybe even more journalists — think that if something isn't on the web, it doesn't exist. The truth is that the web excludes vastly more information than it includes. But because it is easy to use, we rely on it. This may be the greatest instance of socially imposed amnesia since the Russian Revolution, or the revolts of the iconoclasts or the Luddites. It is certainly the most successful one. At the same time, we think that simply because the web makes something easier to do, it means we should do it.

Think of it this way: Hard work leads to character. There isn't a person in the world who's written on the topic who doesn't say something like that. Now imagine if you could take a pill that would automatically make you very smart and in perfect physical shape overnight. Intelligence and physical strength used to be well-recognized by-products of character building. With the pill, there's no building — just the final product. That pill would be more dangerous to a virtuous society than any "if it feels good do it" doctrine coming out of Brown University.

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