Conservatism

John W. Campbell, Jr., was a racist, a sexist, a fascist, and a purveyor of crackpot ideas; in other words he would have felt right at home in today’s Republican Party. I wrote about him in earlier posts here and here.

So I was surprised when I came across this editorial that he wrote for the May 1951 issue of his magazine Astounding Science Fiction.

In many ways, it is as timely now as it was back then. I quote it without any further comment.

Conservatism

There is considerable evidence that the general mass of mankind has the firmly fixed opinion that opinions should be firmly fixed. Somehow there is a general idea that it shows weakness of intellect to change one’s opinions—an unstable character, or something, if you admit that possibly you have learned something new, and have, in consequence, got a new orientation on things.

Conservatives lead an uncertain life, these days. Now it used to be, back around 1200 A .D . that a man could get an opinion when he was ten years old, and when he died of old age twenty-five or thirty years later, that opinion would be just as good as ever. (Of course, since old age came a lot earlier in the days before doctors changed some of their opinions, there was somewhat less stress on ideas.)Astounding  May 1951 p4

In those days a man could learn to plow, with pointed stick and ox, and he could plow happily in the manner of his great-great grandfather, and be sure he was doing things right. It was a sound, solid, dependable world. A man could be born a serf, and spend his life without any uncertainties or worries; he knew his exact place in the scheme of things, and knew beyond doubting that he was going to stay right there. A nobleman, tenth class, knew his exact place, too. It was a safe, orderly existence, back in the good old days. You learned a few hundred stock answers to a few hundred stock problems, you knew all any man had to know. From there on out, you could let your mind relax, stop learning, stop thinking, and follow happily in a well laid-out pattern.

This was a far more comfortable thing than our present unreliable hodgepodge. Social customs change; beliefs change. The right way to run a farm used to be pretty stable for a half millennium at a time. Now these danged scientists come out with something new every ten years, and if the farmer doesn’t want to use it, he gets swamped by his neighbors who are growing hybrid corn on well-fertilized fields. The days when a man could spend five years as an apprentice to a trade, and know that the next two centuries would see no marked changes are gone. A man trying to be a five-year apprentice these days is apt to find the industry he’s gone into wiped out in three years.

There’s change and shifting, and an uncertainty of fog and shapes that loom up dissolve in smoke. There’s instability of the whole pattern. A man learns a pattern of behavior—and in five years it doesn’t work. The comfortable certainty that he’s finished his schooling, and can now sit back mentally and vegetate the rest of his life is gone.


Seemingly, most people resent the need for continuing thought. Things shouldn’t be that way; when you’ve learned a trade, it oughta stay lernt—not always be shiftin’ the dern thing.

Technological unemployment is a polysyllabic term meaning “the employee insists on sticking to his old training pattern. He refuses to learn a new one.” Occasionally, of course, the need for thinking is brought home rather firmly; buggy whip makers found that objecting to changing public interests had very little influence.

The more important form of refusal to learn new training patterns, however, is not at the worker level; it’s at management level. The man who runs a machine is expected to think in terms of the operation of that machine. The man who runs a company, however, or the man who runs a state—a nation—is supposed to think in somewhat broader terms.

It is astonishing, and regrettable, to what extent the men who run states and nations feel that they, too, are running machines, and seek only to maintain the old thought-patterns that they used when they first learned to work the machine.

For those patterns are, generally, twenty-five to fifty years old. They are patterns formed when the automobile was young, and radio was barely beginning, before every eight-year-old comic-book reader was expected to understand what an atomic bomb was, and why uranium mines are more valuable prizes than gold mines.

It seems such a nice, safe, comfortable idea, too, to set up a good, solid authoritarian rule. Totalitarianism is a wonderful condition for the man with a rutted mind; it establishes a pattern, and maintains that pattern. It’s like the good old days, when a man could learn how to plow with a wooden stick, and die watching his grandson plowing the same seigneur’s land in the same way. It’s so safe and dependable; it requires so little hard thinking, so few difficult personal choices. It’s all laid out for you. It has the safe, steady, reliable, lack of change every man eventually achieves. Only under the glorious totalitarian state a man can be dead while he’s still alive.

 

Astounding  May 1951 Cover

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