After causing scandal to family and state while serving as governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford is going to Washington as a newly elected member of Congress. But that story is far from the worst news story speaking to the character of a nation. As a matter of federal policy, thanks to a judge in New York and so-called women’s groups, girls too young to have a driver’s license can now obtain “morning after” pills without the knowledge of either a parent or a doctor. Next door to an undergraduate dorm at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., a doctor admits he’s willing to let a baby who survives a late-term abortion die. He later stands by his remarks while insisting that the undercover reporter who made his views public is a terrorist. Kermit Gosnell is alleged to be responsible not only for the death of a woman in his care but also, according to a grand-jury report, the deaths of perhaps hundreds of babies. Many of these babies were killed in abortions that our current law permits, but some were born alive, with their spinal chords then “snipped” to ensure their death. This should set off alarms about what 40 years of Roev. Wade have desensitized us to.
It feels as if The End Is Near.
And that just could be awesome. “Figuring out how to make the world better is hard,” my National Review colleague Kevin D. Williamson writes in his new book, very seriously titled The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.
“What works in theory often does not work in practice,” Kevin notes, “and angrily insisting that it should work does not make it work.” Oh, but how we do insist! In politics, we tend to adopt an ideology and stick with it. We insist, for example, that government take on responsibilities it can’t plausibly handle. But while it is trying, it fails to carry out its original, fundamental responsibilities: protecting the inherent dignity of all human life, for example.
While Kevin has respect for the many good people in politics, he is quite down on “politics as an institution,” which, he writes, “fails first and foremost because it cannot manage the complex processes of modern life, because doing so would require politicians to be able to gather and process amounts of information so vast that they are literally incalculable.” Politicians make promises government can’t possibly keep, and we get swept up in the demand for comprehensive legislative answers to all our problems.
The polarized noise tends to reinforce lots of our worst instincts. “Our political landscape has constrained our political thinking,” Kevin observes, “and too often we argue as though our only choices were to be found in one of two dark imaginations: that of Thomas Hobbes or that of Ayn Rand, the all-powerful Leviathan or an atomistic individualism that denies the social nature of Homo sapiens. Neither of those two visions is consistent with twenty-first-century life: Neither Hobbes’s false choice between utter chaos and utter servitude nor Rand’s romantic egoism accounts for the complexity of human life.”
The infatuation with Rand might have been cute in high-school civics class, and the fascination with Hobbes might have been fashionable in grad school, but it’s time for our politics to grow up already.
In the public square, we all too often cling to the government or the market as the answer to everything, ignoring the reality that when mediating institutions — families, religious communities, charitable organizations — flourish, individuals can soar, illuminating our national soul and validating the claims of American exceptionalism. The individuals who make up society’s “little platoons,” as Edmund Burke called them, are the ones who will be picking up the pieces when the end comes.
And therein lies part of the coming awesomeness that Kevin sees, the “good news” that “the centrality of politics is a condition that is going to change, whether the political authorities are willing to accept the fact or not.” He argues that our current trajectory can’t possibly continue and that we’ll soon have to start over. We’ll have no choice in the matter: “The U.S government has, for example, promised its citizens certain health-care and retirement benefits, the unfunded liabilities of which at present amount to a little more than twice the annual economic output of human civilization.”
Needless to say, those are promises we can’t keep. Kevin’s key insight is that “our problem is not only how we govern, but how we live.” Politics and popular culture will never be better until we ourselves seek to be better as individuals.
Conservatives claim to be a “family values” crowd, and yet no one managed to talk Mark Sanford out of returning to politics. (And I got too many e-mails, for my taste, celebrating his victory in last week’s South Carolina congressional election.) We pray to God when a terrorist strikes, but as a matter of federal policy we relegate Him to Sunday church services. We talk about women’s health and freedom, but the euphemisms mask the horrific realities of late-term abortion, numbing us to the sexual-revolutionary values that we have institutionalized, as with the Obama administration’s mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for abortion pills, contraception, and sterilization.
“The historic challenge of our time,” Kevin writes, “is to anticipate as best we can the coming changes and to begin developing alternative institutions and social practices to ensure the continuation of a society that is humane, secure, free, and prosperous.”
Kevin has another important insight, about humility and its rarity in politics: “Humility is not only a private virtue — it is a social technology. By keeping in mind that we may be wrong — that we are in fact very likely to be wrong in important ways — we help each other and ourselves to become less wrong over time.” At its best, life — whether on the political and cultural fronts or in the personal sphere — is about learning from mistakes: Encourage the good, help with healing, pick up, and start again. Note that some of those who model this approach to life best are motivated by a sense of purpose that’s rooted not in temporal power or merely personal gain but in an eternal summons.
The end is actually a beginning. The current chaos of our public debates about family life and fertility, about relationships and foundational vocabulary, is an opportunity to rebuild a culture that understands hard work, suffering, and sacrifice, including self-sacrifice, to be at the heart of what makes society work and work well. In humility, we can all admit to having made contributions to the oversimplifications and intractability of our current debates, and we must do better. That’s not an impossible promise. That’s the audacity to hope that there is awesomeness yet to come and that each of us can play a role in helping ourselves and others get things less wrong.