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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Then and Now

Friday, September 24, 2004

Ringing the changes on 'Change' -- again

The alltime best-received column in this series appeared, appropriately enough in another election year, under the title "Change is Good? Not Always."

Predictably they're at it again, those folks so unchanging in their devotion to "change." John Kerry sanguinely put the bite on a cashless friend with the cheery assurance, "We're sending a powerful message: Change is coming!" I'm sure Caesar said much the same thing to a Rome already punchdrunk from "change," over 2,000 years ago.

Personal memories went back merely to 1948 and the Republican campaign slogan, "It's time for a change!" The change they thought it was time for, of course, was Dewey-for-Truman. The voters, perversely, concluded it wasn't "time for a change" after all.

Kerry's "change" is simpler still. Dewey-for-Truman at least implied a policy change: a repudiation of the New Deal. Kerry, like every Democrat back to Gary Hart, seems hard put to tell us "Where's the beef?" (i.e. the policy). His one-plank platform seems to be a Clintonesque chant for "change," its one detectable specific being "me-for-Bush." Clinton, I wrote before, took the alltime prize for ringing the changes on "change." But Kerry seems to be trying hard to lay claim to this bit of the Clinton legacy, if it can be separated from the sleazier bits, the perjury and the oral sex and so forth.

Why, in a world already "changing" at breakneck pace, hurtling into an uncharted future, why, oh why, one puzzles, would anybody actually make a policy of "more, sooner?" Can't they see the problems they'd cure by "change" are the consequences of "change?" Whether "change" is the cure is debatable. Unquestionably it's the disease. Homeopathy (e.g. treating arsenic poisoning with arsenic) is as illogical and deadly in politics as in medicine.

"Change" has been the arsenic poisoning of the world for centuries. The industrial revolution; political and religious upheavals; the computer or information revolution. The only new thing is simply that the process has accelerated. "Change" crowds on us faster than mere mortal minds can cope. Civilization's become a juggernaut, a runaway train. And it would go right on, unstoppable, even if every John Kerry turned arch-reactionary overnight.

In view of which, to cry for undefined "change" as a panacea, to make it a political slogan or platform plank, is passing strange indeed. It makes about as much sense as "I'm all in favor of time passing" or "I'm foursquare behind growing older" or "Unlike my stodgy opponent, I boldly call for the sun to rise tomorrow, and in the east, too!"

Change isn't something we're called on to take a stand on, either for or against. But with so many mindlessly pronouncing "for," said William Buckley, the sensible man's duty is to try to compensate by coming out "against." His aim, he declared, was to stand in the path of history's onrushing, runaway train and cry "Stop!" There's no danger whatever of its really being stopped, of course; but surely a timid touch on the brakes wouldn't be amiss.

The "change-ringers" of course are only being true to the cultural climate, and politicians are hardly the only offenders. The MacArthur Foundation, for one, bills itself as "A Catalyst for Change." Even Cottey College, in a self-promotional piece a few years ago, boasted of "A Tradition for Change." Which sounds rather like trying to have the best of both worlds.

Americans unthinkingly subscribe to "the Whig interpretation of history," as Herbert Butterfield called it: the conviction that change, by very definition, is for the better; that everything's improving, and will go on doing so, presumably till perfection is reached. They'd find it incredible that most peoples, in all times except the past few hundred years, have believed rather that, if things are changing at all, they're steadily getting worse!

The American adulation of "change" would seem to be a sign of our culture's immaturity. It's a characteristic of impatient youth to see deplorable stagnation all about. The idea prevailed most noticeably in the 1960s, when any outrage committed in the name of change was applauded, and vast areas of cultural life were violently "liberated" from "stagnation." Such staid things as manners, self-discipline, stable family life, language, learning, etc. ad inf.

One can't live a lifetime without coming to see through the puerile illusion. Growing up is in large part the recognition that the only unchanging thing is change itself, that our hours and years, far from dragging by maddeningly or not moving at all, as it seems to the young, in fact are whizzing by, and sweeping away the seemingly surest, solidest things along with them. Look around at middle life and ask yourself: Are things changing too little or too much, too slowly or too fast? Do I feel less a stranger in the world than I used to, or more?
The "change-ringers" see life as so many problems crying to be solved by "change." But these are simply details of the overall problem which is the human condition itself. As such, they can never be really solved, only rearranged. Life's a matter of tradeoffs. Fixing one thing inevitably means breaking something else. Many a "change" invoked to solve a "problem" (one thinks of countless government crash-programs) merely spectacularly validates once again the "law of unintended consequences," if not the still grimmer "Howard's Law:" "Every change achieves the opposite of what was intended."
Nor must we, in our zeal for the moment, lose sight of that great, final "change" awaiting us all. How odd we should want to hurry to meet it! The youth who sighs "If only I were grown up!" doesn't seem to dream he's saying, "If only I were nearer my grave!" Liberals and conservatives perhaps most basically part company over "change." Liberals see a crisis at every hand, a problem to be "changed" by a crash-program. Conservatives, having remembered Howard's Law, counsel patience, caution. They try to see the long view through the sound and fury of the moment. Faced with the worst that life can throw at us, they recall that one great blessing "change" affords us: "And even this shall pass away."

"Change is coming!" crows Kerry, as if change were something new or strange. As if we hadn't been riding the bucking-horse of "change," barely clinging to the saddle, since the beginning. And as if he has in mind "changing" anything other than the crew of the gravy train. As if he honestly imagines the rescue of the runaway train lies in speeding it up.

If there were a "Stagnation Party" on the ballot, I think I'd vote it straight!