Can a Country Be Too Conservative?

I mentioned in my review of Guns, Germs and Steel that I saw a blog entry in my future because of some thoughts that triggered as I was reading it. Today appears to be the day for those thoughts to find expression in ones and zeros.

One of the questions that occurred to me was why some societies suddenly flourish and then appear to either stagnate and are then surpassed by other societies. Of course, to have this discussion at all, we have to agree on what it means to flourish and stagnate and how we measure or rank societies.

I’m not smart enough to answer that, but it doesn’t look like I’m going to let that stop me since I’m already into my third paragraph. So, I guess I’ll have to wing it. To my mind, flourishing, in a societal sense, means that a society is open to innovation and that it becomes a model to other societies. It is a society that is more inclusive that those which surround it.

I don’t know if historically I have a leg to stand on, but let’s look at some history. Any historians out there can tell me how badly I failed to pay attention in social studies class.

China, according to Jarred, author of GG&S, was quite technologically advanced compared to Europe until approximately 1400. However, China turned its back on technological innovation and was ultimately exceeded in technological advancement by Europe. China was choked by a rigid bureaucracy that stifled change.

America, from around 1880-1960 was admired by much of the world. Much technical and social innovation flowed from the
US to the rest of the world.

In the last 20 years however, the open nature of America has begun to close itself. Many in our society resist technical innovation. And many others seek to close off our society and define rigid boundaries.

I’m not drawing any conclusions but it sure sounds like there are at least some major parallels to 15th century China.

Note that I’m not saying one society is necessarily superior to another simply that one flourishes relative to another in influence or power or wealth.

America is certainly at the height of its military power but our moral leadership seems suspect. We seem to be trying to turn the clock back to a rigid right vs. wrong outlook that, in reality, never existed in the past.

America is so full of diverse ethnic groups and is so young, historically speaking, that the concept of an ethnic American doesn’t really exist. We certainly have cultural Americans but those Americans come from many different ethnic backgrounds. We don’t all share the same religion. We have Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindi, Buddhists, atheists and probably many others within our boundaries. Vast numbers of Americans speak English as a second language.

It seems to me that we benefit more from this diversity than we do from trying to discourage or prevent it.

Social conservatism seem to me to really be a dislike and mistrust of differentness. We don’t want Gays here. We don’t want that Mosque in our neighborhood. You can’t marry that Jew. Those Catholics are no good. Irish can’t live in this part of town. Blacks can’t ride in the front of the bus.

We’ve worked so hard as a culture to overcome that and yet some would not only stop that progress but turn it back.

I’m not suggesting that we all have to like each other though really there isn’t any reason why we couldn’t so long as we all agree that the others have a right to be here and to live their lives as they desire.

What happens if this wave of social conservatism achieves so much power that it can’t be stopped?

Civil rights will slowly be eroded for every group that is not part of the group in power. Think I’m wrong? Look at the last election. Eleven more states amended their state constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage. Affirmative action programs have come under attack. These programs aren’t perfect but they do attempt to fix a problem that our own close-mindedness created. Until we can replace it with something better we shouldn’t try to dismantle it.

Once that happens, those capable of leaving the country will. Those seeking to leave their own countries for a better life will look elsewhere. American will bleed it’s talent away because it was too short sighted to realize what it had.

Those seeking to innovate will find places where innovation is admired and not censured. We are already in danger of leading edge medical research moving out of the country because social conservatives call it wrong.

Not to suggest that there aren’t ethical questions to be answered in all of this. But it’s sheer hubris to assume that you have all the answers when there are at least as many people who disagree.

Many have predicted the decline of America before and so far they’ve all been wrong. I hope they continue to be. But, if we continue this turn to the right, we are going to isolate ourselves diplomatically and socially from the rest of the world. And while military might can certainly destroy, it is not very good at holding (just look at Iraq or the Soviets in Afghanistan).

Wow, I sound pretty pessimistic, don’t i? I’m not, truly, but I see that as a worst case scenario. There is a myth that things tend to change slowly and gradually but most times, major changes happen suddenly and they tend to be traumatic. We may be seeing this conservative backlash because so much change has happened. Change can be hard to take. But if we don’t change then we stagnate. And history is full of the corpses of societies that turned their back on progress.

Ok, enough pomposity for one day.

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