Time may change me but I can’t change time

Roger Scruton writes, in How to be a Conservative:

Whatever our religion and our private convictions, we are the collective inheritors of things both excellent and rare, and political life, for us, ought to have one overriding goal, which is to hold fast to those things, in order to pass them on to our children

A fair and elegant summation of a true conservative view. And one that increasingly I hold dear. In the task of governing, which Oakeshott compared to steering a ship across a shoreless ocean, this guide is more reliable than any substantial aim, any goal of an enterprise, and any hollow rhetoric about change.

Change is the moral imperative of the consultocratic courtier. It is the restless impatience to make a difference, and then to move onto the next lucrative contract, that is entombing real life in so-called system reforms. Change is touted to conceal the empty slogans, the ignorance of even the quite recent past, and the hussling, bullying promotion of fellow courtiers. Speeches are ornamented, after a search of a quote book, with Benjamin Franklin’s “when you are finished changing, then you are finished!” And this piece of all-American bunkum is really meant as a threat. In the same way, Malcolm Turnbull’s evocation of the pentecost in an Armani suit – “there has never been a more exciting time to be alive” – is an advertisement of profound neglect of the human heritage, wrapped in recycled McKinsey powerpoints, and concealing the true and insolent threat to  ceaselessly redesign free and responsible lives into agile agitprop. You wonder if the only constant is change, whether the changes that mesmerise the courtiers are really change at all.

It is all a far cry from the deeper argument about change set out in Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s A foot in the river: why our lives change and the limits of evolution. Humans, Fernandez-Armesto explains with vivacity and wit, are cultural animals; not by any means the only cultural animals, but surely the most splendidly and chaotically various in our ever-shifting cultures. Our faculties of imperfect memory and exceptional anticipation give us gifts greater than hunting in packs, or farming, or the modern curse of the project plan. They give us imagination; and when imagination sets to work on human culture it creates, fissures, imitates, errs, develops: it makes lives change. Driving all this cultural change is a reworking of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and the simple observation that the more opportunities for exchange of errant, new and traditional ideas, the more cultures change. So in today’s circumstances of exceptional ease of exchanging ideas, good and bad, there has never been a sustained time of more rapid cultural change.

But unlike the consultocrat courtiers, Fernandez-Armesto does not mistake all change for good. Some changes bring blessings; some birth rare and excellent things. But some change brings burdens, losses and a dark tide of sorrow. Change brings excitement, and it brings deep unsettling threats to loved lives and cherished institutions. The quickened pace and chaotic form of change in our times stands opposed to most of human experience, and perhaps frays the edges of our evolved brains and instinctual hearts. So A foot in the river helps us move beyond the cheap tricks of the courtiers and Malcolm’s civic religion of investors.

The excitement of innovation is but one emotion evoked by this annual collapse of the Tower of Babel. “Within living memory the world seems to have transformed over and over again, inducing ‘future shock’, fear, bewilderment, and resentment. Meanwhile the increasing urgency of the accelerations of change and the ever more disturbing effects on people’s sense of security, well-being, and confidence in the future have glared through the headlines.” So among us all the restless search for some new kind of kick fights an instinct in favour of the familiar.

When people feel the threat of change, they reach for security, like a child clenching its grip on a comforter. When they do not understand what is happening to them, they panic. Grandes peurs lash society like a flagellant’s scourge. Intellectuals take refuge in ‘postmodern’ strategies: indifference, anomie, moral relativism and scientific indeterminacy, the embrace of chaos, je m’enfoutisme.

Being done with change, in this more subtle view, is never finished with; but more like the moon following the sun. These words from a true sage are not a counsel of despair, nor a retreat to the mysterious, as in Heraclitus’ runic phrase, all things change. Fernandez-Armesto’s book helps us to understand change; not to stop fearing it – in characteristically wise words, he says, after all, there is plenty to fear – but to begin to respond intelligently, with the faculty that is the source of the change itself, our imaginations.

So this history of change, and of how time changes me, but I can’t change time, might guide those of us who want to govern our communities with those rare and excellent things in our culture that are cherished by those with affection for civic life, but despised by reformers, consultocrats and courtiers. Those things can be destroyed in a day, and are worth fighting to preserve against the depredations of folly. Of the callow champions of change, Heraclitus also spoke: “People dull their wits with gibberish, and cannot use their ears and eyes.”

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