Good Friday Morning, and a special hello to all the new readers from Arc Digital. This week, Arc Digital published my debut piece with them, Fixed Forward on a Star: Conservatism and the promise to black Americans, and it received a good reception. If you haven’t yet, go give it a read, share it, and let me know what you think. It was a labor of love getting that piece published. Stay tuned for more!
This week I’m going to talk about the importance of institutions and some thoughts I’ve had on them while watching the protests in major cities that call for burning everything down. There’s a reason most conservatives are reflexively against that notion, and it’s worth exploring. Links to follow.
Where you can find me this week
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The woke indoctrination of students and family – The Conservative Institute.
The upcoming fight over vaccinations will make masks seem quaint – The Conservative Institute.
The importance of institutions, featuring Star Trek and Edmund Burke.
I have a confession. My name is Daniel, and I’m awful at binge-watching any show streaming. The last time I successfully binge-watched anything was probably back in law school. And that was *mumble* years ago. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve tried to watch most of what people call great television. But it doesn’t stick. I typically end up going back and watching something like Cheers, or, as I just started doing, rewatching Star Trek – The Next Generation (a perfect television show, even if Gene Roddenberry was wrong about, well, … everything).
Anyway, one of my favorite parts of ST: TNG (and Voyager) is the character Q, played by the brilliant John de Lancie. And they kick off the show with Q in both of the first episodes of the first season. The Enterprise is getting ready to head out to a deeper part of space for the first time. They have to pick up First Commander William Riker at a planet — aptly named “Farpoint.”
Q appears to tell the Enterprise to turn back, not to enter deep space, or face imminent death. According to Q, humanity is evil, and Q tells Captain Picard, “you can’t deny Captain, that you’re still a dangerous, savage child-race.” Q continues:
[Y]ou slaughtered millions in silly arguments about how to divide the resources of your little world. And four hundred years before that you were murdering each other in quarrels over tribal god-images. And since there have been no indications that humans will ever change
After some back and forth, we get this back and forth:
Q: Then later, on finally reaching deep space, humans of course found enemies to fight out there too. And to broaden those struggles… (indicating Worf and Tasha) …you again found allies to permit still more murdering and all over again the same old story.
Picard: (interrupting; angry) No! The most dangerous ‘same old story’ is the one we’re meeting now! Those who go on misinformation, half-information, self-righteous life forms who are eager not to learn but to prosecute, to judge anything they don’t understand or can’t tolerate.
What struck me was how similar Q’s indictment of humanity was to the progressive left and how close Picard’s defense of the present era was to that of the modern conservative movement. There’s also something else here: Q’s argument is determinative; that is, he says humanity is incapable of change or free will. All humankind is preprogrammed to be savage and has no place in the broader universe.
Picard is arguing in favor of free will, and that humanity has chosen to become better. Gene Roddenberry’s influence here is that permanent change takes place in all humankind, preventing a certain backsliding. Star Fleet is the socialist, utopian idea come to life.
Human nature and institutions
I disagree with Rodenberry that human nature can be changed. I do believe it can get improved or checked via institutions. It’s the same insight the Founders had in setting up the nation. The ancients’ wisdom through to the founding generation was that human nature was unchanging. But if through proper institutions and cultural channeling, the worst parts of human nature could get ameliorated.
The institutions are essential. In turn, the study of those institutions has to consider what happened when those institutions are weakened. Edmund Burke, the British MP who wrote his observations of the French Revolution, was insightful on this point. Burke mostly supported the American Revolution but opposed the French. Part of that opposition was this lack of understanding, on the French side, of what it meant when you tore down these institutions. Burke says (pg 61 of the Oxford World’s Classics edition):
The science of government being therefore so practical in itself, and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which ha answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.
Burke’s chief point is that you can’t tear down or build something without considering why the thing was there in the first place. The American Revolution wasn’t about tearing something down — it was about establishing and gaining achievement of full English rights. The French Revolution wanted to remake the world.
The French revolutionaries castigated the government and nobility of their day. They wanted to tear every person and everything down and build something new in their image. They used flowery language, comparable in some ways to the Americans, but the foundations were radically different. Because the French ripped everything down, they completely unmoored their nation. So much so, that when the riots turned deadly, they had no way of delineating between good and bad kinds of revolutions. They destroyed truth and all the institutions responsible for upholding those ideals — from the family, church, and to the state.
Burke later said:
When ancient opinions and rules of life get taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us; nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer.
Our institutions guide us, steer us, and help provide a check against human nature’s inner evils. We cannot depend on reason alone to check human nature because we can rationalize any behavior. There must be absolutes, truths that ground us, and institutions that halt us and our change.
The Founder’s views on institutional importance
It’s not just Burke, however, who had this view. It was that of the Founding generation too. In his farewell address, George Washington warned the people not to be rash in changing the US Constitution:
Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution, alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown.
In all the changes to which you may be invited, remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments as of other human institutions; that experience is the surest standard by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country; that facility in changes, upon the credit of mere hypothesis and opinion, exposes to perpetual change, from the endless variety of hypothesis and opinion; and remember, especially, that for the efficient management of your common interests, in a country so extensive as ours, a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable. Liberty itself will find in such a government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian. It is, indeed, little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to confine each member of the society within the limits prescribed by the laws, and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.
We must remember that which creates the benefits of a good society based on liberty. If we tear down those things too carelessly — and mind you, Washington watched the French Revolution unfold — we risk losing the entire project.
Institutions and the modern progressive left
This reasoning is why I look with such skepticism on the projects in Seattle, Portland, and elsewhere. The true believers of these movements, the anarchists, and those who would tear down everything. When you got into CHAZ/CHOP and all the other related concepts, they tried to reinvent government from the ground up — but they failed. They failed because the only contribution they could come up with was renaming the role, but not altering the overall function.
Let’s return to Burke because he made this same point of the French revolutionaries. They couldn’t overcome this point, either. Burke:
You would not cure the evil by resolving, that there should be no more monarchs, no ministers of state, nor of the gospels; no interpreters of the law; no general officers; no public councils. You might change the names. The things in some shape must remain. A certain quantum of power must always exist in the community, in some hands, and under some appellation.
We cannot remove the need for functions like a police officer in our society. That’s impossible. And the CHAZ/CHOP crowd never seemed conscious of this reality. They had special security forces walking around, with unique names; but, those people had to fill that same function as police. Otherwise, no justice or rule could ever get enforced.
Which brings us back to the Q/Picard disagreement, and our moment. Q and Picard disagree on the issue of free will, on some level. The contemporary far-left levels accusations against the American system, much like Q points his at humanity. They both castigate historical wrongs as proof that the modern version is an utter failure, worthy of being torn down. In Q’s case, all of humanity gets condemned. In the progressive left’s case, American and her institutions are evil. But in tearing those things down, they’d rid the US of the very things keeping our very worst at bay.
It’s not that we’ve changed so considerably from our past. It’s that we’ve set up institutions to channel human nature in better ways, check the worst impulses, and amplify the good. History has shown this to be a good and working system. Reforming and improving it are certainly possibilities, and I proposed some reforms early on in the protest movement. But that’s a far cry from tearing the entire project down.
What’s more annoying is that if you level the same historical accusations at progressivism — which it deserves, having built many of the modern edifices of scientific racism and eugenics — you’d see that the contemporary left doesn’t withstand up to its own scrutiny. Instead of the 1619 project, they should go back to the beginning of the modern progressive movement and see the darkness.
They won’t do that — though we get plenty of empty paeans to changing the names of old institutions. If the American system is corrupt to its core because of the past, then so is progressivism, socialism, and Marxism. They refuse to acknowledge this point or claim the contemporary iterations of these worldviews have purified themselves. It’s all hogwash. The American system has proven itself more than capable of adapting and bringing more liberty and justice to all than any system proposed by the progressive left or right. It’s survived world wars and rebellion. History has not been kind to progressivism or its cousins of socialism and Marxism.
And to that, I say to progressivism as Picard did to Q: GET OFF MY SHIP!
Links of the week
Grant Imahara Remembered by Kari Byron, Tory Belleci: ‘We Shared a Long, Wild Adventure’ – Tory Belleci, Kari Byron, Variety
How Long Does COVID-19 Immunity Last? – A new study from King’s College London inspired a raft of headlines suggesting that immunity might vanish in months. The truth is a lot more complicated—and, thankfully, less dire. – Derek Thompson, The Atlantic
A new intelligentsia is pushing back against wokeness – Batya Ungar-Sargon, The Forward
The Lincoln Project and John Kasich Lack the Credibility to Lead Never-Trump Republicans – Dan McLaughlin, National Review
Did Reagan Say Dems Would ‘Restrict Your Freedoms … in the Name of Professional Victims’? No. – Alec Dent, The Dispatch Factcheck
The Left is Now the Right: We laughed at the Republican busybody who couldn’t joke, declared war on dirty paintings, and peered through your bedroom window. Now that person has switched sides, and nobody’s laughing – Matt Taibbi
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
Many Churches Handing Out Free Pants Ahead Of Sunday Service – The Babylon Bee
Thanks for reading!