Ask yourself an odd question: “How conservative is my refrigerator?” Or, ask this of your car, your television, your tablet. Ask this of any number of things around the house. At first pass, this might sound unusual, if not ridiculous, because we generally don’t think of things as having behaviors or expressing particular ideas or ideals. The question here is not whether a technology expresses a worldview, but how it embodies one. We might be fooling ourselves if we think the things we use on a daily basis, indeed the literal furniture of contemporary life, are merely tools whose influence on our world-views ends when we put them down.
Our technologies are products of the industrial and post-industrial age; they dominate the landscape and the livingroom. Those of us who would call ourselves conservatives live in a world shaped by the machine and ideologies derived from it.
Conservatism is not a product of the digital age. However one wishes to define it, and there are numerous definitions, as well as arguments almost against definition, conservatism has its roots in much older, and much different, times. It still exists within the contemporary world, of course, but to what extent? How much is our post-industrial world antithetical to a conservative worldview?
To answer this, first we need a working a definition of conservatism. Let’s consider three principles on which most conservatives agree: the importance of tradition, the sanctity of the human person, and recognition of a transcendent moral order. It is possible that modernity considered against a different set of principles would yield an importantly distinct conclusion, but it seems these three principles, to some degree self-explanatory, are crucial.
From these concepts derive certain ways of behaving, certain ways of doing things. This must be seen as a given, if the concepts are to have any merit whatsoever. They must inform how we think and act. At the same time, these principles are not merely constructs. They arose out of their being recognized in the world at large, not inventions that simply seemed to make evolutionary sense. From hunter-gatherer societies and ancient civilizations, right through the Middle-Ages and up until the age of industry, the experiences of pre-industrial people led over time to these and other conservative principles. Or, perhaps more closely stated, pre-industrial life gave rise to conservative principles.
Which is why we should wonder about what comes from post-industrial life.
First, we need to realize how our lives involve the use of things, many things, and that much of what we use is taken for granted; technologies like the refrigerator are now so widespread that their influence is anything but obvious. Though the refrigerator’s creation was world-changing, how many of us stand before it and marvel at all it does? Who of us has spent much time contemplating its beneficences? People have long been known to take things for granted, but the devices contemporary humans take for granted are, in many ways, unlike any things previous humans have ever known. Our tools and technologies are far more powerful, more distinct in their effects and, ahem, applications. But because they do so much in so many different ways, we dare not take these things for granted. We cannot afford to.
To consider influences we may be overlooking in the technological landscapes of our lives, let us look through the lens of a conservative worldview at a technology that doesn’t usually spring to the mind of technology critics: that ubiquitous, seemingly innocent, fridge.
First, consider how it was made. The objects we used in the past originated in very different ways from the objects we use today. Traditionally, many were made with our own hands, or perhaps by the hands of others in town, such as a blacksmith or a cobbler. In keeping with tradition, we may have handed down such objects to our children, along with the know how in making and maintaining them. Or we obtained these things from someone nearby, a shopkeeper whose name and family we may have known. The purchasing of such goods would have perpetuated a centuries-old communal interdependence.
But your refrigerator was not made by anyone in the house, nor was it made anywhere nearby probably, and it was not made by anyone you know. It was made of materials that do not grow on trees, which were processed in numerous places you don’t know, and by means you most likely do not understand. The functioning of the object itself is largely a mystery, and when it breaks down, since you have no working knowledge of the thing, you either purchase a new one or pay someone to come fix it. There is a good chance you don’t know this person, either. You aren’t likely to hand down your refrigerator to someone, as they are hell to move, and there are plenty of new ones are out there, anyway. What you do know, but this only casually, is that your fridge keeps things cold or frozen and convenient. Stock it up, and don’t think about food for the next week, a modern luxury.
Which brings us to how the food gets into the fridge, and another step further away from tradition, since how the food occurs there is not so traditional.
The refrigerator does not grow the food. (Anything growing in a refrigerator is actually a bad sign.) Until civilization and agriculture began, people hunted and gathered. For most of human existence, we did this. Handed down from one generation to the next is the genetic and cultural memory of the hunt. It is a force present in more of our behaviors than we probably realize. And so, we still react to the sight of berries on the bush, or even strip steaks in the meat aisle. They seem to beckon, these gifts from nature.
It cannot be that these ancient practices would quickly be extinguished, and it is true that they have not been, either in our minds or the world. Though not as widespread among the general population as it once was, farming is clearly still a reality. It is not the same as gathering, but it starts there, with recognizing how things grow and then working with the land to make it happen. Likewise, sport hunting is not subsistence hunting, though the principles are very similar, and most who hunt for sport eat the meat and share it. The city dwellers who scoff at the seeming backwardness of those who kill their own table fare will not be laughing when the system fails. All it takes is one good hurricane and urbanites will raid dumpsters for food.
My fellow New Yorkers should know what I mean.
Food is now obtained in very different ways from how it had been for tens of thousands of years. For most, it is obtained at the supermarket, which does resemble in some ways the markets of old, but less and less so as time marches on. The food in both fridge and supermarket (or megamarket might be the better word now) is not typically from nearby. It was not grown on a local farm, probably, and you do not know the farmer. Nor do you know the owner of the megamarket. You might know some of the kids at the cash register, unless of course you use the self-checkout machine, in which case you can hopefully be said to know who is checking out your groceries. (It is worth stopping briefly to note that we are seeing a pattern here.)
You are also likely to be doing your shopping in almost any kind of weather and needn’t worry about seasons, which are distinct advantages held over previous generations, who could only eat strawberries when they were in season. And not only do we not have to pray for enough food to get through the winter or find ingenious ways to preserve it, we also don’t have to do like the Lenape of old, and move to “winter quarters” and hunker down until life returns and we can hunt again.
We can also shop at all times of day, every day of the week. This is important for those who work most of their waking lives, as it may only be possible to shop at ten o’clock at night, which may only seem like an advantage over our ancestors, who would most likely have been in bed by that time.
Once you bring back these groceries, you will realize by the lists of ingredients, the sophisticated ways things are packaged, or the fact of some being frozen, that much about our food is very modern, indeed. Oh, and, of course, it is already dead. You didn’t have to raise and slaughter, hunt and kill, or grow or pick anything yourself. Again, that was all done somewhere else, you don’t actually know where. For most of human history we had a much, much better idea where our food came from. The holidays and songs giving thanks for the harvest, the spells and prayers meant to ensure a successful hunt, the seriousness with which these rituals were enacted is all gone now, and you can thank your refrigerator for that, in part. One West African coastal tribe has a “bringing home the fish” song when the men return to the village successful from the sea. The men start it as they return, and the whole place picks it up as they near. We do not have a “bringing home the Stop n Shop” song, though perhaps we should.
So much for refrigerators and tradition.
With regards to the sanctity of the person, it might seem that the refrigerator supports at least both the autonomy as well as the survival of the individual. You can go into it any time you like, and, provided there is food in it, you can satisfy your appetite. But are we really autonomous, or simply making limited choices within a firmly delineated system, one much larger than ourselves and on which we depend? The answer to that is clear. Our refrigerator is filled through our efforts, of course, but indirectly; it is linked to the supermarket, which, like our refrigerator, uses technology and industry to obtain and maintain the food, systems that are quite beyond our direct influence and, to some extent, again, our understanding. Vastly complex systems tend to minimize the person as they also bind him to them. Though forests may be far more vast than any agri-giant, it is remarkable how ancient peoples could have felt so at one with them. Religions have started this way.
And though humans live longer, generally healthier lives because of the refrigerator, seeming proof of its role in our survival, this is contingent on our working, not our skills in hunting, foraging, or farming. As mentioned before, without the system, we are hard-pressed to survive. Previous means of obtaining food relied more on individual, as well as communal, effort. There was the real autonomy, as one could sustain oneself through one’s own effort, both physical and mental. There doesn’t seem much of either needed in shopping, which is easily performed in a state of relative thoughtlessness. Not so the hunter, for whom the world is alive to his alive senses and who must know what it is to take life to sustain life, or the farmer, who learns to listen deeply to the ways of the Earth. There is no such pulse of life in the supermarket. For all the food and means to perpetuate our lives that it contains, it can feel quite lifeless.
In being able to provide for one’s family and self, the American pioneer was freer than the modern urbanite. Certainly more self-reliant. This kind of freedom honors the individual; the freedom of choosing one cereal over another is of a lesser order.
It shouldn’t be overlooked that whether we joined in the hunt with others or in the ploughing of the fields, we also learned cooperation and strengthened the bonds of fellowship, a relationship grounded in and augmenting the inherent worth of each individual, for there can be no true fellowship without this. And as there were things to be handed down, like spears and seed and the wisdom to use both, so was the next generation honored and loved.
As it fails in these tests, it may be said our refrigerators do not honor the human person and are not conservative.
Lastly, we might consider the great kitchen appliance in light of its stand on a transcendent moral order. If this seems silly, is it because we still think it ridiculous to consider how objects project values, attitudes, and principles? Or is it silly because we know, now, that there is nothing godly about a refrigerator?
I suspect the latter. After all, there is no real life within refrigerators except the cold life of the machine, which is really only activity, set in motion by a power source, and one of a very terrestrial origin. Or, let us say, that while electricity is indeed a very natural source of power and one of the most striking pieces of evidence for the existence of divine beings, we have so channeled and focused that power that none of us thinks for a moment of the miracle of a light switch. The lightning has been disenchanted, as it is everywhere running our machines.
Back to our refrigerator. It is not reflective of a higher order for another reason: unlike the field or the farm, it does not change and grow, and prayers to it will not move it to give us more food. To find here any reflection of a higher power we might say that it is at least a work of human hands, and that as conservatives generally believe in a Power that created all, the fact that we humans also create has been said is a reflection of the Creation itself. Of course, this could more easily be applied to the refrigerator if we built it with our hands, rather than bought it from a store, after it had been mass-produced by other machines and large numbers of people, few of whom were thinking about gods when they screwed down the bolts. But farmers may think of God when the rains finally come, and get down on their knees in thanks. We offer no such thing to our refrigerators.
On the other hand, contemporary humans do offer something to the system upon which we all depend. This system is so vast and outside our knowledge, it must surely seem omnipotent and omnipresent, and thus worthy of our obeisance. One might say this system seems transcendent. Is this why cities tend to be progressive and liberal, while rural folk seem more conservative? The urbanite gives himself over to the state to manage the necessities he once managed, while he worships the corporate giant to give him this day his daily pleasure.
Created and sustained by large organizations both public and private, the refrigerator keeps safe the food we need and the food we don’t. It works because of our bills, not our supplications.
As such, it can be said there is no recognition of a transcendent moral order in a refrigerator.
It is clear that running through the refrigerator are realities counter to, or which are simply distinct from, those which run through the foundation of conservatism. Nor is it alone in this. After all, it is not the only piece of technology we use. And this is the broader point: There are more actively engaging technologies in our lives than the refrigerator, which has been long embedded into the currents of everyday life, where it sits softly humming in our kitchens, changing so much about how humans once used to live. It does this though it hardly attracts our attention.
What can be said of technologies that do attract our attention? We did not even consider the smartphone. We said nothing of television and the internet. Think you can easily find conservatism on-line, where hierarchy and tradition are almost non-existent, where more and more ‘goes,’ where pleasure, stimulation, novelty, and superficiality reign? And even on the sites that clearly do endorse a conservative outlook, what happens when the article is over? Do you skip to another one? Did you print the article, or read it on-screen while there were other sites and programs open and running, but minimized for your convenience? If the refrigerator seems unfriendly to conservatism, how friendly do you think your iPad is, whose very title is an affront to forms and traditions of language?
Considering these things albeit briefly, it should be apparent that much we use is not traditional, says little of the inherent worth of the human person, and knows nothing of the transcendent.
In what kind of world do we conservatives live, then? How conservative can one be if so much in that world is at odds with a conservative worldview? Those who call themselves conservative may be expressing more of a yearning than a reality. If it is merely yearning, it is an understandable one. The older world had its problems, but it was slower, more thoughtful. When things were hard, there was family, there was faith. When things were good, oh, were they savored! Praise was given on high for the blessing, and songs were made in honor.
Where are the great expressions of sorrow and joy now to be found?
Alas, they are passing, and it should make us sad, as sad as Tolkien in his great lament on the ending of ancient and beautiful things:
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing? Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow; The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning, Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
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