Saturday, September 28, 2013

Inevitability -- The Keyword for Our Age

Nevertheless, I think that with us the keyword is "inevitability," or, as I should be inclined to call it, "impenitence." We are subconsciously dominated in all departments by the notion that there is no turning back, and it is rooted in materialism and the denial of free-will. Take any handful of modern facts and compare them with the corresponding facts a few hundred years ago. Compare the modern Party System with the political factions of the seventeenth century. The difference is that in the older time the party leaders not only really cut off each other's heads, but (what is much more alarming) really repealed each other's laws. With us it has become traditional for one party to inherit and leave untouched the acts of the other when made, however bitterly they were attacked in the making. -- G.K. Chesterton
I have no real feeling for the underlying political attitudes at the time when Chesterton wrote this, but "inevitability" certainly has oppressed political thinking in America for the past several decades.  When I was a child, for example, everyone took it as inevitable that either the Cold War would end in a nuclear holocaust, or at best we would have a bipolar standoff that would last for centuries.  When that turned out to be wrong and America was (according to many) the "last superpower", it became inevitable that American-style democracy would be embraced everywhere; this was the thesis of Francis Fukuyama's 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man.  During the late 1990's, it became inevitable that the stock market would only go up -- the dot-coms had brought about a "new paradigm" of economics.  

We all know how those predictions fared.  Other "inevitable" outcomes have also failed to materialize.  A century ago, Prohibition was going to put a permanent end to alcohol abuse in the USA.  It has been "inevitable" on several occasions that Islam would conquer all of Christendom; we hear that it is again "inevitable".   Yet Chesterton was right in another place to describe a Christian hero as, "It is he that saith not 'Kismet'; it is he that knows not Fate."

Today, of course, it is inevitable that "gay marriage" will become a permanent fixture of American life.  The military has been required by their current commander-in-chief to embrace and celebrate homosexuality.  Many ecclesial communities now simulate marriage ceremonies for homosexual couples.  The Republican Party is backing away from support for "traditional" marriage, and a former editor of First Things says the Church should give up on marriage.

Well, maybe it will become a permanent fixture -- not because "gay marriage" will endure forever, but because America is highly unlikely to endure to the end of time.  Regardless, the future comes from two main sources:  the choices we make  each day, and realities that exist without regard for our choices.  The nature of the human being and the nature of marriage belong to the second category, which is why "gay marriage" is not truly marriage, and any legal or popular acceptance is only the acceptance of a fiction.   Whether we choose to accept it, either on a legal or a popular level, is of course a choice, but it is not a choice that will make it impossible for future generations to make a different choice, probably a choice that more accurately represents reality.

So what is behind all this conviction of inevitability, particularly among politicians?  It's easy to come up with several possibilities, and each probably makes some contribution.

  • If the future is inevitable, the politician cannot be held responsible for it.
  • Politicians are only faking their commitment to the moral well-being of America.  (The moral well-being of a country is a temporal good, and the government does have a responsibility to promote it.)  Frankly, they are probably faking their commitment to the other temporal goods as well.
  • The politicians have no moral courage.
Another possibility is suggested by a story by Hans Christian Andersen: 
"But he has nothing at all on!" at last cried out all the people. The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.
Page 234 of Andersen's fairy tales (Robinson)

Andersen was right about this.  How often have we stuck with a policy that was manifestly stupid and obviously not working, yet a president decided we must "stay the course" because we would lose face if we admitted that he was wrong?  The whole world sees that he has made a mistake, but in his pride he hopes that if he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge it, no one will notice.  Foolish pride removes his freedom to reverse course and makes it "inevitable" that he will persist in stupidity.

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