Jewish World Review March 25, 2005 / 14 Adar II 5765
The mixed blessing of progress
"Progress," G.K. Chesterton proclaimed, "is the mother of problems."
Whatever side you come down on regarding the tragic case of Terri Schiavo, this is an important observation to keep in mind.
Not too long ago I wrote a column about how technology changes the ideological landscape. To illustrate the point, I mentioned the attempt by a Maine politician to pass a law that would bar aborting fetuses that tested positive for the "gay gene." The effort was a lark, of course. But I thought taking it seriously, in a hypothetical way, would illuminate some of the ways in which technology can transform our ideological categories.
Many, many readers from across the country disagreed. "I don't know about you, Mr. Goldberg, but I try to be consistent in my principles, no matter how the circumstances change," was the general response from most of the dissenters.
This kind of objection is well intended but fundamentally flawed, as the Schiavo case makes clear. It is now likely that Ms. Schiavo will starve to death. While I think there are major problems with Congress's intrusion into this case, I also think her death is certainly tragic, and the Florida courts probably got this one wrong. But we would not be having this debate if medical science had not advanced beyond where it was, say, 100 years ago. Ms. Schiavo would have died before the argument was born.
Those who advocate keeping Ms. Schiavo alive like to draw an analogy between the feeding tube that sustains her and normal food. The analogy obviously has a lot of power. But analogies always leave out important differences. If Ms. Schiavo could eat normal food in a normal fashion, this debate wouldn't exist. The courts cannot deny a person the right to eat food or drink water on their own. And, of course, if Ms. Schiavo could do these things, it would be powerful evidence that her brain damage is not as extensive as some claim. In other words, it is only thanks for want of a better word to the very wonderful advances in medical technology that we are having this argument at all.
Progress and its consequences also has some bearing on the great debate Americans were conducting before the Schiavo story crowded out all else: Social Security reform. Whatever you think about the merits of this proposal or that, few would disagree that Social Security faces funding problems essentially because society has changed. Few Americans lived to 65, let alone much past it, when the New Dealers created their Ponzi, er, pension scheme. Today the ratio of workers to oldsters is dropping like a stone because technology allows us to live so much longer. The most obvious credit goes to medical progress. But technology has also made jobs less life-threatening and food safer and more bountiful.
Technology has also helped transform children from economic necessities to glorious luxuries. In agricultural societies, kids are the best source of cheap labor. Indeed, not long ago, having a lot of children was your smartest retirement plan. Today, by contrast, in advanced, industrialized societies kids are people you invest in with little anticipated material return.
All of these developments bring new problems to the surface, most of them unanticipated. Even many of the pro-life protesters on the courthouse steps hold up signs saying, in effect, that if Terri Schiavo had a living will, they'd have nothing to protest. Well, the whole idea of a living will would have seemed batty before we came up with the technologies that can keep hearts beating long after it's certain that their brains work at all.
None of this is to say that principled people change their principles when the wind changes. Rather, new events make us rethink how our principles should be applied. Everyone is for free speech and everyone is, eventually, pro-life. But new circumstances test where we will draw the lines for this or that principle. This is how ideological coalitions arise and, often, disappear.
Whittaker Chambers, that great hero of modern conservatism, actually refused to call himself a "conservative" for largely these reasons (he preferred to call himself a "man of the right"). A former Communist (like so many of modern conservatism's founding fathers), he couldn't abandon a certain attachment to Marxist dialectical materialism. Without rummaging through the dustbin of history to explain what that means, suffice it to say that Chambers believed that the tides of change technological, economic, political were too powerful for mere individuals to stop. Rather, the best that self-described conservatives could do was work within those currents for the best possible outcome. He called his stance the Beaconsfield position, after the British prime minister credited with reconciling conservatism to modern realities.
I don't agree entirely with Chambers, but he and Chesterton were obviously correct on the basic insight that modernity often crashes down on us faster than we can adapt. New events create new stresses on ideological pillars once considered adamantine while they render old conflicts irrelevant. The Schiavo case split many people along principled lines. Is it so unimaginable that tomorrow they may be reunited by some new and unforeseen crisis that progress brings?
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