Culture

The Snare Of Progress

June 10, 2008

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The Snare Of Progress

Grant Havers’ post on a number of prominent learned Tories included a brief mention of one of my favorite modern philosophers, the Canadian George Grant, whose criticisms of the American right and American empire anticipated many of the objections that we have been making in recent years.  It also reminded me of Grant’s deeper criticism of the American empire as a technological empire.  This came back to me as I was reading Jim Pinkerton’s recent column in TAC (sorry, not online) and then listening to him during his diavlog with David Corn.  The glorification of technology in the column and the criticism of conservation in the diavlog, in which he said that environmentalists wanted to make us all into “Hobbits,” struck me as strange and remarkable, especially in light of Mr. Pinkerton’s memorable cover article from last year in which he developed an elaborate vision of a revived Christendom on the model of…the Shire!  So we are apparently supposed to become spiritual, but not material, Hobbits. 

This cuts to the heart of what Grant saw as the main conflict between proper conservatism and the American political movement that has taken up that name for itself, or viewed another way it is a perfect example of the division that runs down the middle of American conservatism and through the hearts of many conservatives, and it is expressed in warring responses to our relationship with nature.  Grant said in his In Defence of North America, part of his Technology and Empire collection of essays:

That conquering relation to place has left its mark within us.  When we go into the Rockies we may have the sense that gods are there.  But if so, they cannot manifest themselves to us as ours.  They are the gods of another race, and we cannot know them because of what we are, and what we did.  There can be nothing immemorial for us except the environment as object.  Even our cities have been encampments on the road to economic mastery.

Within many conservatives, there can be responses to this statement that range from “So what?” to “Something must be done,” but at the heart of the Grant and Lukacs criticism of American conservatism is the correct observation that the former response typically wins out.  From At The End of An Age Prof. Lukacs states an important, if obvious, truth:

“Conservatives,” especially in the United States, are some of the most strident proponents of “Progress”; their views of the present and the future are not merely shortsighted but laden with a bellowing optimism that is imbecile rather than naive.

And again:

“Conservatives,” who had once stood for the defense of traditions, have become chief advocates of technology and of militarization and even of populism, all in the name of “Progress.”

The objectification of nature into the “environment” as something apart and against man is something that many environmentalists on the left and their critics on the right share equally; their disagreement is over the proper response to or use of the objectified environment.  This calls to mind Lukacs’ important point that man should be understood as part of nature, and instead of “environment” the proper human relationship to nature is one in which man is integrated into nature and also shapes nature into landscape, and it reminds us of another one of his critiques of the progressivism on the American right in “The Problem of American Conservatism”:

For at least two hundred years, beginning with Burke and Dr. Johnson, the commonsense argument against abstract reasoning has been the strongest and the best intellectual weapon of conservative thinkers against the celebration of modernism.  Yet the admiration of the mechanical and the abstract, in the age of computerization and of nuclear international relations, seems to have had a strange and particular appeal to many American conservatives.

So within many American conservatives and among different groups of conservatives, there is a struggle to recognize that Progress is fiction and the pursuit of it wrecks much that we have that is of enduring value.  At its core, this is a struggle between natural conservative pessimism and the optimism that imagines that every problem, every evil circumstance, can be “fixed” or “solved” with the right use of power and knowledge, which is the same as a disavowal of limits and an abandonment of self-restraint in favor of endless consumption, boundless “growth” and a reckless disregard for preserving our patrimony for our posterity. 

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