[Paleopsych] Jonah Goldberg: Technology Changes Things: Chesterton and Terri Schiavo.
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Sat Apr 2 15:59:43 UTC 2005
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
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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