Thursday, October 14, 2010

Progress and Its Critics: Conservatives and the Culture of More

The other day, my wife was telling me a story (sorry for the lack of attribution – I think it might have been in one of Laura Berquist’s books) about a boy walking along the beach with his parents. Looking at all the litter, he said, “It looks like the orcs were here.” Smart kid.

If you’re asking yourself, “who are the orcs, and should they form a Constitutionally protected class?” then you are either: 1)an attorney for the ACLU, or 2)certainly not a conservative Catholic. But I repeat myself. Orcs, my patient reader, are creatures serving in the armies of one of the evil wizards in JRR Tolkien’s Ring trilogy. They leave behind them a trail of slaughter and destruction, and hate everything good, true, pure and free. Wherever they go, trees are uprooted, people displaced, farms destroyed, and machinery and factories belch out their pollution. These same images and themes occur in the writings of CS Lewis, especially in Prince Caspian and The Last Battle, as well as the first and third books of Lewis’ Space Trilogy. The enslavement of men and the destruction of nature are represented as going hand in hand. Forests destroyed, villages leveled, mountains blasted, roads paved, rivers dammed. Rules are enforced, liberties curtailed, rural regressives are relocated and reprogrammed. A literal and figurative smog descends on the land, blotting out everything. Lewis and Tolkien are not describing a futuristic dystopia. They are describing the here and now.

What I think they both saw, and what is critical for us to keep foremost in our minds, was the very real war between the “theoretical more” and the “real less.” We are in very real danger, as Catholics, of being seduced by the Theoretical More – the Siren Song of “Progress.” We must take a stand, and demand an accounting. More for whom? At what cost? Will we be better off in the end? What, and whom, must we sacrifice to achieve this “progress?”

My concern is that we, as a community, may have forgotten the identity of our true enemy – or at least we are allowing ourselves to choose in a false dichotomy. On the one side is the despair of Pantheism: sterilization of the masses, euthanasia, and a desire for the conscious mind to dissolve in the animal pulse of desire and the rhythmic flow of sap. We rightly protest, saying, “but the human soul is unique in creation, and the world is intended for man’s use and benefit.” And so we flee into the camp of the orcs, burning, tearing, fuming, digging, without restraint or conscience. We forget that conservatives were the original conservationists. We have never been willing to accept this vague notion of Progress as any sort of self-evident good. Wider asphalt roads? Hurts my horseflesh and tears down my hedges. Motorboats? Damned things scare off the fish. Digging up half of Africa to find some diamonds? Perfect – you democratize diamonds and my wife will just want something more elusive – fairy tears, or some such nonsense. Can’t be bothered. Now leave me alone. THAT is conservative, my friends.

The slavish devotion to industry, productivity, and the “march of Progress” is, in its own right, a religion – the religion of Materialism. More, further, faster! Shinier, louder, bigger, higher! See the work of man and the grandeur of his creation! So, question for you: in rejecting the “enviro-Nazi’s,” have we fallen into the trap of the Breathless Boosters of Modernity? Are either of those legitimate options? Do we have to cast our lot with one or the other? Conservatives are almost gleefully indulging in industrial and consumerist excess. The sprawl of development for 10,000 square foot McMansions. The gas guzzling SUV for the trophy wife and 1.5 children. The invasion of natural solitude with the whine of the jet-ski. Anytime someone voices concern over leach-mining, clear-cut logging, pesticides, or carbon emissions, suddenly they’re the enemy? “Drill baby, drill!”

When did this change happen? When did we go from being “a pint and a pipe” people to “a martini in the penthouse” glitterati? When did we abandon modesty and restraint? When did we abandon our posts as caretakers, and take up the banner of conquerors?

Sometimes, less is more.

The Egotists’ Club is one of the most genial places in London . . . the club is not specially exclusive. Nobody is ineligible per se, except strong, silent men. Nominees are, however, required to pass certain tests, whose nature is sufficiently indicated by the fact that a certain distinguished explorer came to grief through accepting, and smoking, a powerful Trichinopoly cigar as an accompaniment to a ’63 port. On the other hand, dear old Sir Roger Bunt (the coster millionaire who won the 20,000 pound ballot offered by the Sunday Shriek, and used it to found his immense catering business in the Midlands) was highly commended and unanimously elected after declaring frankly that beer and a pipe were all he really cared for in that way. As Lord Peter said again: “Nobody minds coarseness, but one must draw the line at cruelty.”

–Dorothy Sayers, “The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers”

Now that’s hide-bound. It’s tasteful and restrained. It’s conservative. If nothing else, it shows a proper respect for an 1863 port.

P.S. Fun reading, when you have the time: The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, by Christopher Lasch.