Mu Yi Cheng Zhou (木已成舟), say the Chinese: “The wood has been made into a boat.” This idiom is applied to any situation brought about by an irreversible change. Once the wood has been made into a boat, there is no un-making it back into twigs and branches. The English language has some expressions in the same zone: “You can’t re-heat a soufflé,” we say, or: “The toothpaste is out of the tube.”
That Chinese idiom came to mind when I was reading Jeff Hart’s Opinion Journal article on the current state of conservatism. The precise point at which it came to mind was in the passage, much chewed over by conservative commentators since the article appeared, headed “Abortion.” Said Prof. Hart:
This has been a focus of conservative, and national, attention since Roe v. Wade. Yet abortion as an issue, its availability indeed as a widespread demand, did not arrive from nowhere. Burke had a sense of the great power and complexity of forces driving important social processes and changes. Nevertheless, most conservatives defend the “right to life,” even of a single-cell embryo, and call for a total ban on abortion. To put it flatly, this is not going to happen. Too many powerful social forces are aligned against it, and it is therefore a utopian notion … The women’s revolution … has been the result of many accumulating social facts, and its results already have been largely assimilated. Roe reflected, and reflects, a relentlessly changing social actuality.
In other words, so far as the place of abortion in American society is concerned, Prof. Hart believes the wood has been made into a boat.
Setting aside for a moment the particular case of abortion, I got to wondering how you can tell, even if you can tell, when some social change has made the wood into a boat. A few easy cases came to mind, all the result of plain advances in technology or scientific understanding. It seems highly unlikely to me that American housewives will ever again churn their own butter. For one thing, we have figured out better ways to make the stuff. For another, butter itself is out of favor.
The great tides of history, too, seem to be irreversible. It is difficult to imagine an advanced society taking up slave-holding, for example, or human sacrifice, or foot-binding. Those practices were rooted in ways of life and styles of human sensibility that have disappeared. Those disappearances were not some mere shifts of fashion or technological tweaks: they happened because we advanced morally, and also — though the causal link, and its direction, are much disputed — because we found much better ways of getting work done, addressing the Supernatural, and conducting relations with the opposite sex, ways that involved less human suffering.
Once you get away from technology, though, and from the grand-scale shifts in sensibility and “modes of production,” it is surprisingly hard to identify any social change that is clearly and obviously irreversible. Will adult men one day, once again, as they did until about fifty years ago, feel themselves ill-dressed if they go out of doors hatless? Will promiscuous smoking make a comeback? (It did not become usual until World War One; then it held sway for sixty years, and the human race carried out both its work and its leisure in a fug of tobacco smoke; now it is being legislated out of existence.)
Or take domestic servants. Up to World War Two in Britain, and to the 1960s in America (where African Americans provided a reservoir of cheap labor), every middle-class family had a servant or two, often resident. Then labor-saving appliances came in, domestic work came to be seen as demeaning, and the younger middle classes cooked their own food, cleaned their own houses, and minded their own children. Over the last ten or twenty years there has been a renaissance of domestic labor. Quite modestly middle-class people — college professors, attorneys, in one case known to me, a librarian — now have live-in au pairs, maids, or nannies.
Clearly in some areas the swinging pendulum is the norm. Libertinism and Puritanism take their turns; the irreligion and moral laxity of Regency England, which brought forth such cries of despair from the poets, gave way to Reform, the Oxford Movement, then to the pious, earnest, orderly, low-crime, later Victorian age.
“It was merry in England afore the New Learning came up,” said the Third Duke of Norfolk. (He was referring to the rise of general literacy, a new thing in his time.) “Yea, I would all things were as hath been in times past.” That could not be. With the invention of printing, the wood had been made into a boat. The same can be said of G.K. Chesterton’s fantasy of Britain returning to a feudal condition, jolly squires gazing on benignly as their plump tenants swilled mugs of ale, tonsured monks in the back ground to answer life’s hard questions when required. Attitudes like this go beyond conservative. Standing athwart History crying “Stop!” is conservative; hopeless longing for what is irreversibly gone (if it ever actually existed in the imagined form) is reactionary.
But how do we tell the difference? How can we know whether, in adopting some position, we are being robustly conservative or delusionally reactionary? Our own Ramesh Ponnuru has noted, what is true, that if the wildest dreams of today’s social conservatives were to be realised, the United States would merely have returned to the moral and legal condition of fifty years ago. Things went pretty well in America fifty years ago, setting aside the one great blot of legal race segregation in some localities. Is the desire to return to 1956-style attitudes and laws on abortion, divorce, marital fidelity, homosexuality, and religious expression reactionary (hopeless) or conservative (worth giving one’s time and energy to)?
I don’t see how one could know for sure. So far as abortion is concerned, I myself agree with Jeff Hart that the wood has been made into a boat. The mix of horror, disgust, and shame that people once felt about abortion has dissipated, and I don’t see how it could be regained. Abstract arguments about early-stage embryos being living human beings certainly have their merits, but most people do not engage much with abstract arguments. They never did: the feelings of people on this topic in Somerset Maugham’s time were socially, not intellectually, conditioned. An early-stage embryo is not plainly and incontrovertibly a human being, in the way that you are or I am; there is room for doubt; and so long as there is room for doubt, in matters where major inconvenience to themselves is concerned, and longstanding tradition and social constraint are silent, people will arrive at their own conclusions. Most people are not intellectuals — a fact that intellectuals have terrible trouble coming to terms with.
That might all be wrong, though. Some great shift of sensibility, following some social or technological change I have not imagined — perhaps cannot imagine — could conceivably send this pendulum swinging back. Whether that will happen or not, the large, general problem of how to tell whether some particular position is conservative or reactionary is, I believe, intractable. We can only watch, and guess.