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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Ringing the changes on 'change'-- yet again

Thursday, October 16, 2008

They're at it again. What else should I expect? It's an election year, isn't it? You'd know it even if you didn't know it, when you heard all the ringing of the changes on "change." (To ring the changes: to keep varying how one says something, alluding to the ancient art of change-ringing, which it's said only a few English can understand or appreciate, where a series of church bells are rung in as many sequences, or "changes," as possible.)

I guess it behooves me to be at it again too, then. I first did so in 1996, another election year, under the title "Change is Good? Not Always." Which earned me more fan mail than any other effort in this series, all of it friendly. But the villains of the piece, those folks so unchanging in their zeal for "change," paid me no heed. Four more years, and they were at it again.

"We're sending a powerful message," the candidate cheerily assured as he sanguinely put the bite on my most conspicuously cashless friend: "Change is coming!" I'm sure Julius Caesar said much the same thing in the Forum a couple of millennia ago.

He could have anyhow, and truthfully. Change is always coming. In 2,000 years it's never once failed! Is it any wonder politicians rely on it so religiously and monotonously?

But it turns out not necessarily true that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." They get worse. Not only are we assured, this time, that change is coming, it's, "change we can believe in!" The opposition counters, insult-on-injury, by falling back on its old slogan, "Me too!" Challenged to believe in change, it cries "I believe!" It's become a contest over who can swear more convincingly Credo quia absurdum: I believe because it's absurd.

Personal memories go back merely to 1948, where (as half a century later) we find proof that not only Democrats can be absurd. Back then it was Tom Dewey who reckoned it was time for a change. The country, perversely, concluded it wasn't. Not his kind.

But the Democrats with their one-plank platform have been more unchanging. Every four years the standard-bearer stands up changelessly for change. And every four years I conclude the depths of credible absurdity have at last been plumbed, surely. Wrong yet again! The next guy always manages to ring more and awfuller changes. Or does it only seem so?

This plank in the one-plank platform is a kind of sentence without a predicate. "Where's the beef?" as they once asked, though never answered. The only predicate I can find to their call for change is "the occupant of the White House." Them out, us in. Inspiring!

There can't be any sincerity in it. For in a world already "changing" at breakneck pace, hurtling into an uncharted future, only a hypocrite or a nutcase would make a policy of "more, sooner." Surely any sane person can see that the problems supposedly to be cured by "change" are themselves the consequences of change. Change is questionable as a cure. Unquestionably it's the disease. All modernity has been called "The Big Change." Homeopathy (e.g. treating arsenic poisoning with arsenic) is as illogical and deadly in politics as in medicine.

To cry for undefined "change" as a panacea, to make it a political doctrine, 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, in the east yet!" Change isn't something we're called upon to take a stand on, either for or against.

Politicians aren't the only offenders, of course, and they're only being true to the culture. The MacArthur Foundation, one of the zanier big charitable outfits, bills itself as "A Catalyst for Change." Even our Cottey College, in a self-promotional piece a few years ago, boasted of "A Tradition of Change," which sounds rather like trying to have the best of both worlds.

American culture is indelibly dyed with "the Whig interpretation of history," as Herbert Butterfield called it: The conviction that change, by its' very definition, is for the better; that everything's improving, and will go on doing so, presumably to perfection. Most of our ancestors, by contrast, put the Golden Age in the past, and were sure it had been all downhill ever since!

Nothing separates liberals and conservatives like their ideas about change. The former see the flaws and inadequacies of the human condition as disparate little problems crying to be resolved by "change" in the form of crash programs (which often as not earn that name). The conservative isn't against action, he just prefers to go at it cautiously, always remembering that the human condition itself is the problem, one that can never be truly resolved, only rearranged. Life's a matter of tradeoffs. Fixing one thing too often means breaking another. A law-abiding fellow, the conservative respects "the law of unintended consequences," and the even 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 that we should want to rush to meet it! The youth who sighs "Oh, if only I were grown up!" doesn't seem to dream he's saying "If only I were nearer my grave!" "We shall all be changed," Scripture promises us (1 Corinthians). I don't think it refers to politics.

In the sound and fury of the moment, we should strive to see the longer view. Faced with the worst life can throw at us, we can take comfort in that one great blessing "change" affords us: "And even this shall pass away." I fall back on it at times like these, when the great quadrennial competitive clamor for change is doing its best, or worst, to rob me of my peace.

"Change!" rants and harps the candidate (like the Hindu mystic intoning "Om"). As if it were something new and strange, ye gods! As if we all haven't been riding the bucking-horse of change, and barely clinging to the saddle, for as long as we can remember. And as if he had 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.