[Paleopsych] Jonah Goldberg: Technology Changes Things: Chesterton and Terri Schiavo.

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Jonah Goldberg: Technology Changes Things: Chesterton and Terri Schiavo.

[This mentions the Maine politician who tried to pass a law limiting 
parental eugenic choice. I have not heard any further developments since 
James Hughes alerted us to it on February 24.]

    March 25, 2005, 12:02 p.m.

    "Progress," G.K. Chesterton proclaimed, "is the mother of problems."

    Whatever side you come down on regarding the tragic case of Terri
    Schiavo, this is an important observation to keep in mind.

    Not too long ago I wrote a column about how technology changes the
    ideological landscape. To illustrate the point, I mentioned the
    attempt by a Maine politician to pass a law that would bar aborting
    fetuses that tested positive for the "gay gene." The effort was a
    lark, of course. But I thought taking it seriously, in a hypothetical
    way, would illuminate some of the ways in which technology can
    transform our ideological categories.

    Many, many readers from across the country disagreed. "I don't know
    about you, Mr. Goldberg, but I try to be consistent in my principles,
    no matter how the circumstances change," was the general response from
    most of the dissenters.

    This kind of objection is well intended but fundamentally flawed, as
    the Schiavo case makes clear. It is now likely that Ms. Schiavo will
    starve to death. While I think there are major problems with
    Congress's intrusion into this case, I also think her death is
    certainly tragic, and the Florida courts probably got this one wrong.
    But we would not be having this debate if medical science had not
    advanced beyond where it was, say, 100 years ago. Ms. Schiavo would
    have died before the argument was born.

    Those who advocate keeping Schiavo alive like to draw an analogy
    between the feeding tube that sustains her and normal food. The
    analogy obviously has a lot of power. But analogies always leave out
    important differences. If Schiavo could eat normal food in a normal
    fashion, this debate wouldn't exist. The courts cannot deny a person
    the right to eat food or drink water on their own. And, of course, if
    Schiavo could do these things, it would be powerful evidence that her
    brain damage is not as extensive as some claim. In other words, it is
    only thanks -- for want of a better word -- to the very wonderful
    advances in medical technology that we are having this argument at

    Progress and its consequences also has some bearing on the great
    debate Americans were conducting before the Schiavo story crowded out
    all else: Social Security reform. Whatever you think about the merits
    of this proposal or that, few would disagree that Social Security
    faces funding problems essentially because society has changed. Few
    Americans lived to 65, let alone much past it, when the New Dealers
    created their Ponzi, er, pension scheme. Today the ratio of workers to
    oldsters is dropping like a stone because technology allows us to live
    so much longer. The most obvious credit goes to medical progress. But
    technology has also made jobs less life-threatening and food safer and
    more bountiful.

    Technology has also helped transform children from economic
    necessities to glorious luxuries. In agricultural societies, kids are
    the best source of cheap labor. Indeed, not long ago, having a lot of
    children was your smartest retirement plan. Today, by contrast, in
    advanced, industrialized societies kids are people you invest in with
    little anticipated material return.

    All of these developments bring new problems to the surface, most of
    them unanticipated. Even many of the pro-life protesters on the
    courthouse steps hold up signs saying, in effect, that if Terri
    Schiavo had a living will, they'd have nothing to protest. Well, the
    whole idea of a living will would have seemed batty before we came up
    with the technologies that can keep hearts beating long after it's
    certain that their brains work at all.

    None of this is to say that principled people change their principles
    when the wind changes. Rather, new events make us rethink how our
    principles should be applied. Everyone is for free speech and everyone
    is, eventually, pro-life. But new circumstances test where we will
    draw the lines for this or that principle. This is how ideological
    coalitions arise and, often, disappear.

    Whittaker Chambers, that great hero of modern conservatism, actually
    refused to call himself a "conservative" for largely these reasons (he
    preferred to call himself a "man of the right"). A former Communist
    (like so many of modern conservatism's founding fathers), he couldn't
    abandon a certain attachment to Marxist dialectical materialism.
    Without rummaging through the dustbin of history to explain what that
    means, suffice it to say that Chambers believed that the tides of
    change -- technological, economic, political -- were too powerful for
    mere individuals to stop. Rather, the best that self-described
    conservatives could do was work within those currents for the best
    possible outcome. He called his stance the Beaconsfield position,
    after the British prime minister credited with reconciling
    conservatism to modern realities.

    I don't agree entirely with Chambers, but he and Chesterton were
    obviously correct on the basic insight that modernity often crashes
    down on us faster than we can adapt. New events create new stresses on
    ideological pillars once considered adamantine while they render old
    conflicts irrelevant. The Schiavo case split many people along
    principled lines. Is it so unimaginable that tomorrow they may be
    reunited by some new and unforeseen crisis that progress brings?

    -- (c) 2005 Tribune Media Services
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