John Maynard Keynes once observed that: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”
The master in this master-slave relationship need not actually be an economist. It was only that Keynes was writing about economics when the thought occurred to him. That defunct theoretician might be a philosopher, a theologian, or an intellectual of the unclassifiable kind — a Freud, a Marx.
Furthermore, since practical men are not, by definition, much given to studying and thinking, the transmission of ideas is generally indirect: from defunct thinker, to the conventional wisdom of some later age, thence to the practical men of that age. The relationship is not so much master-slave as master-overseer-slave, with the conventional wisdom of an age — the set of ideas held by all the respectable people of that age — as the overseer, wielding the whip..
The interesting question, then, in trying to figure out why practical men do the things that they do, is: Why does this set of ideas, rather than that one, become the conventional wisdom of an age, to be breathed in by the practical men of that age? Why do we see practical men following the commands — transmitted via the conventional wisdom — of this defunct thinker rather than that one?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. I suppose that each age has its own collective emotional hungers and spiritual thirsts, and that certain ideas satisfy those needs, while others don’t. Each nation likewise: the U.S.A., a busy and optimistic nation founded in the love of liberty, is naturally attracted to cheerful doctrines that promise the widest range of possibilities to free people.
Having little else to say about the theoretical side of this topic, let me pass to the practical. To a practical man, in fact: our current President, George W. Bush.
There is a widespread opinion that President Bush is an intellectually lazy man. I don’t know enough about the President to say whether that is true. It’s clear, though, from his speeches and news conferences — from the small number of unchanging ideas continually returned to, from the forthright boldness of his actions as President, and from the obvious pleasure he takes in physical activity — that he is well on the practical side of the theoretical/practical divide. He therefore falls within the scope of Keynes’s apothegm. This is a man who has taken his ideas from the air around him — from the conventional wisdom — and has not submitted those ideas to much critical reflection.
The conventional wisdom of our age, so far as human nature is concerned, is nurturism. The human person, nurturism tells us, emerges from the womb — or at any rate from the early stages of ontogeny — as a blank slate, on which subsequent manipulators of that person’s environment can write anything at all.
Of course there is something to be said for nurturism. I speak English for preference, not Turkish; and that is because I grew up among people who spoke English, not Turkish. Nurture determined my preference. Pure nurturism, though — the notion that the individual human personality is infinitely malleable, and in particular infinitely improvable — is scientifically untenable. It is contradicted by every solid, replicable result out of the human sciences, and confirmed by none. The general trend of discovery over the past decade or two, in fact, has been to shrink the zone in which nurture is known to be determinative. I prefer to use English, and nurture determined that preference. How well I use English, though, and to what purposes, is determined in part — and by no means a small part — by my innate nature, as much as by any shaping influences from my parents, teachers, or peer groups, or by my free choice.
As awareness of this rather depressing science seeps out into society at large, the reign of pure nurturism will come to an end, and the conventional wisdom will adjust to something more in accordance with the actual facts of the world. This is starting to happen already. Among bestselling books on the human sciences, the megahits are still mostly nurturist. Naturist books are coming on thick and fast, though, like tiny mammals snapping at the dinosaurs’ heels. The grand crisis of nurturism is only a few years away.
The transformation of popular thinking is a gradual process. Ordinary unintellectual people went on believing that the sky was a crystal dome long after careful inquiry had shown that this was not the case. So it will be with nurturism — more so, in fact, since theories about human nature, on account of their emotional appeal and religious affiliations, have a “stickiness” that theories about astronomy do not have. Hardly anyone really cares what the sky is made of; we all care very much what we are made of.
Hence the prominence and persistence of nurturism, in defiance of the swelling tsunami of research results that contradict it. It is all-pervasive in popular culture, from the dieting cult to Pursuit of Happyness. Its appeal is obvious, even to me. Heck, which of us would not like to be something better than what we are? And there are encouraging examples: 300-lb lardbutts do become trim joggers, and Pursuit of Happyness is based on a true story. It is, of course, something of a leap from one person attaining a transformation in one set of circumstances to a doctrine of infinite malleability applicable to the mass of humanity, but that’s a leap most of us can make, at least in imagination, powered by the tremendous force of wishful thinking.
Nurturism is now a sort of state cult in the U.S.A. Contradict it too loudly and persistently, or from too prominent a perch, and you will be shut out of polite society. This is just as true on the political right as on the left. Tell a lefty friend that Head Start has, after 40 years, produced hardly any detectable permanent results, and watch the top of his head blow off. Now go tell your best conservative pal that kids adopted and raised by middle-class homosexual couples do no worse in life than those adopted by similar heterosexual couples. Stand back for another cranial detonation.
A state cult must of course have a pontifex maximus to supervise and enforce it. Who better to fill this role than the head of state himself? So here we are back with George W. Bush.
It is to the current President’s great advantage in performing his pontifical duties that he is himself a fervent believer in the state cult. (This was not always the case among the Romans.) George W. Bush grew up at a time when pure nurturism was what every respectable person believed. He breathed in that conventional wisdom, absorbed it into his very tissues, and he will take pure nurturism to the grave with him.
This is a pity. Worse than a pity, in fact: A wrong-headed theory in the hands of a vigorously practical man can do great harm. It can destroy a U.S. presidency. It might even destroy a country. We are watching the first of those things happen right now, before our eyes. God forbid we should see the second, but I don’t think the danger is a negligible one.
Here are three spheres in which George W. Bush’s dogged, fervent nurturism has dragged him down into foolish or potentially disastrous policies. I’ll call them the Three Millstones of George W. Bush.
- Millstone 1. Any nation at all, with any kind of population, history, or culture, can be transformed into a consensual, constitutional democracy.
- Millstone 2. Any number of people, from any place, can be permitted to settle in the U.S.A. without any negative present or future consequences for our society and culture.
- Millstone 3. Any child can acquire the intellectual skills necessary for sedentary middle-class employment of a useful kind.
Each of these millstones has words painted on it for easy identification. The first millstone of course bears the words AFGHANISTAN, IRAQ. The second reads COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM; though if you look very closely, you will see that this legend has been painted over an earlier one, imperfectly erased: OPEN BORDERS. The third millstone reads NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND.
All three millstones come from the nurturist quarry. To get to Millstone 1, however, you have to take a blind logical leap: a leap from the pure-individualist nurturism that we, in this individualist country, have raised into a state cult, to a sort of collectivist nurturism.. The individual human being might indeed be infinitely malleable, but it doesn’t follow that entire societies are likewise. “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” instructs the individualist nurturist. Even if that is true, a nation does not consist of newborn children to be trained up, but mostly of adults, already trained. A tremendous psychic shock, such as the one the people of Japan suffered in the summer of 1945, might reorder their collective ways. Nothing less is likely to. Our passionate-nurturist president brushes such quibbles aside. If one person can be transformed, why not twenty million?
Millstone 2 is less obviously false, as the nurturist can always say: “Yes, to be sure, the tens of millions settling here are mostly adults, set in their ways, but their children will be molded into righteous little Americans!” How does he know this? “Because the experiment has been done! The Great Wave of immigrants that ended in 1924 all became Americans, didn’t they?” The numerous counter-arguments will be familiar to anyone who follows immigration discussions. Samples (and these are only samples): (1) The Great Wave did not come ashore in a welfare state. When less capable Great Wave immigrants failed, they went back home. (2) The Great Wave’s components were culturally heterogeneous enough that no one group could form a nation-within-a-nation, while (3) yet being homogeneous in other, helpful ways — homogeneously Judeo-Christian, for instance. (4) The Great Wave did end in 1924, to be followed by a 40-year spell of undisturbed assimilation, with the bonding experience of a total war halfway through. (5) Least tangible but likely most important, that was then and this is now.
Millstone 3 is the least destructive of presidency and nation, but its inevitable failure — so far considerably disguised by some skillful book-cooking on the part of schools, municipalities, and states — will be a further blot on George W. Bush’s presidency. Being founded on false ideas, the promises of No Child Left Behind cannot possibly be kept; and voters don’t like promises that are not kept, especially promises made to their children, and financed by wads of tax money torn from their pockets.
Conservatives are, generally speaking, suspicious of grand political projects. (Boswell : “So, Sir, you laugh at schemes of political improvement?” Johnson: “Why, Sir, most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things.”) If we must endure grand political projects, they should at least be founded on correct premises, on actual facts about the world.
It is the tragedy of George W. Bush, a decent and well-intentioned man, that all his grand political projects are founded in falsehoods.
You might say that the fact that he is fond of such projects at all demonstrates that he is no real conservative. Well, that’s all right. You can be decent and well-intentioned without being conservative. Bush is not a devious man. He didn’t pretend to be something he is not. The catch-phrases he offered in the 2000 campaign — “affirmative access,” “compassionate conservatism,” and the rest — told us clearly enough what we were getting. If some conservatives succumbed to wishful thinking about Bush’s political philosophy, they have only themselves to blame.
And if Bush can’t be accused of deceiving us about his inclination for grand liberal projects, he can’t really be judged guilty for the falsehoods from which those products proceeded, either. He took those falsehoods from the air around him, from the conventional wisdom of our age — the Age of Bad Ideas. Those falsehoods have been cherished by all right-thinking people all through George W. Bush’s adult life, and are still cherished today by key factions among our dominant elites. Who was he to gainsay them?
Good intentions acting on bad ideas: that is the tragedy of George W. Bush’s presidency. It’s not really fair to blame the guy; but that, of course, will not get him off the historical hook. Catastrophes must be blamed on somebody. They can’t be our fault, can they?
 “Rhymes with ‘brains’,” as beginning students of economics are taught.
 In The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.
 “Theory and practice are the same, in theory. It doesn’t always work out that way in practice, though.” — Attributed to Yogi Berra.
 In the large sense of “environment during upbringing.” In the narrower sense of “parenting style,” nurture is not very relevant to language acquisition. If my parents had been Hungarian immigrants speaking Hungarian around the house, I would still have grown up with English as my language of preference.