The Time Travellers
I have been struck by the way that ideologues insist on living in a time different from the one inhabited by the rest of us. By a different time, I don't mean an eccentric part of the world, like the Newfoundland Time Zone. I mean a time different from the present.

Once upon a time, this was most evident on the old Left, which pretended to speak to us from the future. In the USSR, official propaganda endlessly celebrated the march toward a Radiant Future, made inevitable through Marxist-Leninist revelation. Kim Jong Il of Peoples' North Korea expressed this outlook prettily in a dithyramb celebrating his father (from whom the younger Kim inherited the progressive office of absolute dictator): "The slogan 'love the future' was the revolutionary creed of Comrade Kim Il Sung, who, with firm belief in the prospect of the revolution and in the future, devoted all his life to the future." Nicolae Ceaucescu, the last dictator of Socialist Romania, was incessantly acclaimed in state propaganda as "the visionary architect of the nation's future." In Peoples' China, one of the most destructive of Chairman Mao's follies was termed "the Great Leap Forward".

In the old days, the more soft-headed Western visitors to these paradises were always led around by the nose, so that they would return to the West gushing that they had "seen the future, and it works." More sophisticated apologists for "the Communist experiment" were careful to explain that there may be difficulties and "distortions," but from the perspective of the distant future, let's say from the year 2011, nobody would notice that a certain number of eggs had been broken (perhaps a mere few million) to make the omelette of the perfect society. To this day, Leftists continue to refer to their proposals for social reform as "progressive," implying a movement into the future.

On the other side of the political spectrum in the USA, we now see a symmetrical phenomenon: as the term "conservative" is co-opted more and more by true reactionaries, the whole supposedly "conservative" outlook is rooting itself more and more in the past, and an increasingly distant past at that. This substitution has become perfectly open. For example, most of the outspoken "conservatives" of the Republican Party today make clear their opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency, introduced by the Republican president Nixon in 1970, over 40 years ago. They express if not the same violent antipathy at least major doubts about Medicare, enacted in 1965. Governor Rick Perry, one of the leading candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, has also denounced Social Security (1935), on the same grounds argued by opponents of the New Deal in the 1930s. He has also opposed the 16th amendment to the constitution, which established the federal income tax, and the 17th amendment, for direct election of Senators; both of these amendments were ratified in 1913.

Moreover, virtually all Republican politicians compete with each other to attack any federal regulation of commerce, and essentially all anti-trust actions, thus repeating the ancient objections to the Clayton Anti-Trust Act (1914), the Sherman anti-trust Act (1890), and the Interstate Commerce Act (1887). It appears that the contemporary Republican Party favors a return, not merely to the halcyon days of the 1920s, but to the even more blessed period of the early 1880s.

But wait. What are the arguments offered against these governmental measures of the last 120 years? The basic argument, proclaimed by the Tea Partiers, Governor Perry, and Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court, is "originalism:" the view that all these reforms appear to be inconsistent with the thinking of the Framers as expressed in the Constitution, and in the intellectual context of their deliberations in 1787. In short, the time travel recommended by Republican thinkers is not merely back to 1928, or to 1880, but to the late 18th century.

Or, in some cases, even earlier. The backward vision of people who claim to be "conservatives" can be nothing short of breathtaking. Representative Michelle Bachmann, one of the Republican presidential aspirants, has recalled that she was profoundly influenced by Francis August Schaeffer, a fundamentalist Christian writer. Mr. Schaeffer's writings denounced not only such relatively recent heresies as Darwinian evolution and secular humanism, but also the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries) and, in fact, the Italian Renaissance (ca. 14th to 16th centuries). This is perfectly consistent with Mr. Schaeffer's biblical literalism, an attitude that is presumably shared by Representative Bachmann and her admirers in the Republican Party. Thus, these worthies are recommending time travel back to the period before the Renaissance, to the happy age of faith that flourished in, say, the early 1200s.

But our admirers of the distant past exhibit a glaring logical inconsistency all the time. There is no sign that Justice Thomas insists on travelling by horse-and-buggy, like his 18th century mentors. On the contrary, he travels about the country to lecture on the superiority of 18th century social thought in automobiles (including his own RV) and even in airplanes, modes of travel which the writers of the Constitution did not even imagine in 1787. When Governor Perry goes to a dentist to have a cavity filled, I very much doubt that he turns down the use of novocaine (1904). If Representative Bachmann has ever suffered an infection or treated a minor cut, we can doubt that she rejects the use of antibacterial agents (1910) or antibiotics (1932, 1939).

And her guru, Francis August Schaeffer himself, moved his operation to Rochester, Minnesota in 1978 in order to be near the Mayo Clinic. At the clinic, he wasn't lecturing on biblical medicine, such as balm of Gilead or raising Lazarus from the dead; no, he was there to receive modern medical treatment for lymphoma. He eventually died of this disease in 1984. But the chemotherapy he received at Mayo evidently kept the malignancy at bay for six years, which provided Mr. Schaeffer with that much more time to campaign against the evils of modern science's offspring, the Enlightenment.

--- Jon Gallant
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH