Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Fossilization of Thought

A frequent, shrill refrain from opponents of health care reform is that it is radical. Obama is a radical. Nancy Pelosi is a radical. Harry Reid is a radical. Progressives are radical. They're all socialists. Our founding fathers would be aghast at how radical these people are. And on and on and on.

Good grief. As if the founding fathers were such intellectual gods of mythical proportions that they would be appalled at any attempt to change or improve upon their ideas. They themselves were radicals in every sense of the term, particularly in their proposed constitutional structure for the nascent republic. This "novel" idea so disturbed those that advocated a much looser, confederate alliance of sovereign states, that some of the founders felt compelled to write a series of public letters which became known as the Federalist Papers. Here's what James Madison wrote in Federalist #14 in 1787 (emphasis mine):
But why is the experiment of an extended republic to be rejected, merely because it may comprise what is new? Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience? To this manly spirit, posterity will be indebted for the possession, and the world for the example, of the numerous innovations displayed on the American theatre, in favor of private rights and public happiness. Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might, at this moment have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate. If their works betray imperfections, we wonder at the fewness of them.
Blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names...It is our duty to improve on what was handed down to us. How aggressively we do that is a matter for debate. Conservatism used to mean that we tread cautiously, to avoid unintended side-effects from hasty change. That I used to believe. Now, conservatism has become the movement of "over my dead body." It has become the movement of secession. Challenges to the sanctity of the Union have become commonplace, all because of those "radicals."

Maybe these folks are not really all that serious about secessionism, but the fact that they mindlessly throw around these words without consequence marks how far conservatism has fallen. Again, I give you Madison in Federalist #14 at his most impassioned plea for union:
I submit to you, my fellow-citizens, these considerations, in full confidence that the good sense which has so often marked your decisions will allow them their due weight and effect; and that you will never suffer difficulties, however formidable in appearance, or however fashionable the error on which they may be founded, to drive you into the gloomy and perilous scene into which the advocates for disunion would conduct you. Hearken not to the unnatural voice which tells you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many cords of affection, can no longer live together as members of the same family; can no longer continue the mutual guardians of their mutual happiness; can no longer be fellow citizens of one great, respectable, and flourishing empire. Hearken not to the voice which petulantly tells you that the form of government recommended for your adoption is a novelty in the political world; that it has never yet had a place in the theories of the wildest projectors; that it rashly attempts what it is impossible to accomplish. No, my countrymen, shut your ears against this unhallowed language. Shut your hearts against the poison which it conveys; the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their Union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies. And if novelties are to be shunned, believe me, the most alarming of all novelties, the most wild of all projects, the most rash of all attempts, is that of rendering us in pieces, in order to preserve our liberties and promote our happiness.