Alexander Hellene

Things Change

I suppose yet another reason I don’t consider myself a “conservative” in the political, or other, sense is that I am not opposed to change. The status quo will never stay the same forever, nor should it, especially if said status quo is not profitable for the majority of the people. Typically, those who wish to preserve the status quo benefit from it. However, even if one benefits from a given state of affairs, if the majority of people do not benefit, I contend it is immoral for said state of affairs to continue.

Artificially prolonging a status quo can lead to stagnation in nearly all areas. I don’t need to get into the gory details, as anyone reading this is surely living it.

This applies to the big as well as the small as well. Small, relatively unimportant things like personal tastes. For example, rock n’ roll is not important as a cultural force anymore, and hasn’t been for almost three decades. The last guy with a guitar who mattered blew his own brains out in 1994. Kids nowadays do not dream of becoming rock stars anymore. When I was a young man, it seemed like most young men wanted to learn how to play the electric guitar to get girls, mostly, but also to rock out. Play bitchin’ guitar solos, or at least crank out some high-volume power chords. You have not truly known catharsis if you’ve never played a note that makes the entire room thrum, makes eardrums bleed, makes you feel the music at the cellular level, people cheering you on as you make a glorious racket.

That’s fine.

Everything changes. Younger generations need to have their own things. Do I force my son to like the same music, books, clothes, styles, or games that I liked as a kid and like now? Heaven forbid! I’ll expose him to some things I think are cool, but he can take them or leave them. He likes some, doesn’t care for others, and that’s okay. He’s an individual human being with his own likes, needs, wants, and desires. He, and his generation, are going to grow up some day and run the world while I’m a geriatric case reminiscing about the good old days to anybody who will listen. They’ll indulge old man Alexander with polite nods and kind words and then go on and do what they do. This is normal.

Always hopeful yet discontent

He knows changes aren’t permanent

But change is

Rush, “Tom Sawyer”

Enforced prolonging of the status quo does nobody any good except for the older generations who benefit. We all know that Boomer guy—no, this isn’t an anti-Boomer post, but some stereotypes are true for a reason—who refuses to admit that any music, literally anything at all, made after 1974 or whatever is actually “music” in even the technical sense, and is affronted when anybody born after the year, say, 1970, dares enjoy *shudder* eighties music. How dare they? Don’t they know we went to the moon? Etc. and so on.

What this has done, writ large, is artificially prolong the Boomer epoch in the realm of music. When this generational cohort found itself in control of the levers of cultural power, say by owning radio stations and record labels and stuff like that, instead of doing what generations older than them did, which was cater to them, as the younger generation, they decided to cater to themselves. Other scenes and musical movements were derided and not given room to breathe. Any cultural space they took up had to be fought for and faced with ridicule and scorn. I suppose they were better for it. But then media consolidation took hold and you know the rest.

Rock is dead, etc. and so on.

But time has a funny habit of marching on. Culture has a way of surviving under these harsh circumstances, adapting in new and exciting ways. They may seem odd to us middle-aged people (I’m 41, so I can say things like this with a straight face) but they matter to the young as much as what we cared deeply about when we were young mattered to us.

As a member of a generational cohort frozen out of power, I am a little bitter, but I also want to help provide what guidance and support as I can to the people who will be running our shared world in short order. Sure, my bosses have all been older than me and will soon be younger than me. In all of my adult life I have never had a member of my generation be in charge of anything. But that’s the hand we’ve been dealt. And there are really only two ways of dealing with such a state of affairs: whining about it or rolling with it.

I’m going to roll with it.

*     *     *

I recently saw a family member’s high school yearbook, class of 1986. It’s easy to snicker at the hairstyles, the sartorial fashions, the quotes and other stuff written below each graduate’s headshot. But remember, at that time this was it. The present, with a bright future ahead. Every generation has the same reaction to high school yearbooks of days gone by. The class of 1986 surely had some good chuckles at their parents’ yearbooks, and their parents at theirs, and so on. We all think our own era was the best, with past and future being, obviously, super-lame.

This is normal, even if it’s a little unfair.

We were all young once, with older generations dumping all over us. Remember this.

But I remember 1986. I was but a young lad, but I was alive then. And let me tell you, mid-80s high-school fashion, mid-80s culture, hits hard for me. Relics of that era seem so different from relics of my high school era. For example, the graduating seniors in 1986 looked so old, so mature, so fully grown, very different from my baby-fat covered face in my senior year headshot, class of 2000 (oh, the high hopes our teachers had for us, the high hopes we had for ourselves)! Did the class of 1986 think the class of 1974, or whenever, looked so mature compared to themselves?

In the Cracker Barrel in our town, late 19th and early 20th century memorabilia adorn the walls. If you’ve ever been to a Cracker Barrel, you know what I’m talking about. It’s Americana overload, which I like. Anyway, the last time the family went to breakfast there—probably the last time since I’m not that big a fan of their food—on the wall by our table was a framed photo of Springfield, Massachusetts high school class of 1911 or something like that and, brother, those graduating seniors, those boys and girls, looked like men and women in ways the class of 1986 most certainly did not.

Constant change is here to stay.  

*     *     *

I am too old to rock and roll but too young to die. I am too cool to be a stick-in-the-mud but too lame to be trendy. It’s an odd sort of mid-life adolescence, an awkward phase in my fourth decade, and a very strange place to be in. I like to think this has given me a little bit of wisdom, but who am I kidding? I do know, however, mistakes I have made and things I would do differently. These are the types of things I would pass on to my children, and any young people who would listen.

So here goes. Read this in a Grandpa Simpson voice if you must:

  • Do what you enjoy. It’s amazing how hard you will work at something you enjoy, and how little you will work at something you don’t.
  • Think of others. This isn’t hippy-dippy nonsense—it turns out that some of that hippy-dippy stuff was right, but I think it wasn’t practiced as hard as it was preached by those particular people.
  • Embrace change. Nothing will last forever, and if a culture remained frozen in metaphorical amber, it is dying.
  • Don’t be afraid to deviate from the norm. Everybody’s got to elevate from the norm!
  • The norm isn’t always bad. It’s okay to respect tradition; indeed you should. But changes don’t have to clash with tradition.
  • If you think a tradition is “outdated” or otherwise inimical to something you want to do, examine your own motivations, and examine why that tradition exists in the first place. Look up “Chesterton’s Fence.”
  • Respect your elders. Respect your peers. And respect the young. Respect everyone.
  • You don’t have to respect people who hate you, but you should still pray for them.

And now I will turn off my Internet-enabled faux megaphone and slink off into the long night of middle-age, awaiting the day when I can well and truly tell all of you to get off my lawn.

Unless you’re here for the cookout. In that case, you can stay (yes, you’re invited).

– Alexander

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7 thoughts on “Things Change”

  1. “I suppose yet another reason I don’t consider myself a “conservative” in the political, or other, sense is that I am not opposed to change. The status quo will never stay the same forever, nor should it, especially if said status quo is not profitable for the majority of the people.”

    That view is not in opposition to conservatism, though. Russell Kirk, often called the Father of American conservatism, wrote the following in his article “Ten Conservative Principles”:

    “Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world. When a society is progressing in some respects, usually it is declining in other respects. The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.

    Therefore the intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression. He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise. The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.

    Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.”

    In his book “Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism”, he wrote:

    “The religious thinker who criticizes our present society is not bound to maintain that one time is all white and another time is all black; he can pick and choose. If we pick and choose discreetly, we may hope to improve our own society considerably, though we never will succeed in making our society perfect. Human history is an account of men and women running as fast as they can, like Alice and the Red Queen, in order to stay where they are. Sometimes we grow lazy, and then society sinks into a terrible decline. We are never going to be able to run fast enough to arrive at Utopia. And we should hate Utopia if ever we got there, for it would be infinitely boring. What really makes men and women love life is the battle itself, the struggle to bring order out of disorder, to strive for right against evil. If ever that struggle should come to an end, we should expire of boredom. It is not in our nature to rest content, like the angels, in an eternal changelessness. In one sense, the religious conservative is a utopian, but in one sense only: he believes that the possibility of near-perfection does indeed exist, but it exists only within individual human persons; and when that state is attained individually, we call it sanctity.”


    “Change is essential to a good society, the conservative reasons. Just as the human body uses up old tissue and takes on new, so the body politic must discard, from time to time, some of its old ways and take on certain beneficent innovations. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be healthy, the change must be in a regular manner, and harmonious with the form and nature of that body; otherwise, change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in society should ever be wholly old, and nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of our society, just as it is the means of conservation of our physical bodies.

    Just how much change, however, a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the spirit of the age and the peculiar conditions of the society in question. It is one of the faults of the radical that commonly he advocates immediate and perilous change at the very time when gradual and temperate change already has commenced. Thus, it was in the French Revolution: as Tocqueville wrote of his nation, “Halfway down the stairs, we threw ourselves out of the window in order to get to the ground more quickly.” The conservative believes that any change which means a sharp break with established interests and usages is perilous; and he maintains that change, if it is to achieve real benefits, must be the voluntary work of many individuals and associations, not decreed by some presumptuous central authority. The United States have altered greatly since the founding of the Republic; some of those changes have been for good, and some for ill; but it is one of the chief merits of our country that we have not been in love with change for the mere sake of change. Our prosperity and comparative tranquility are the result, in no small measure, of the fact that we always have tried to reconcile the best in the old order with the improvements which our ingenuity has suggested. And our change has been the work, not of someone’s Grand Design, but of the independent endeavors of many men and women working prudently.

    Some very important things, however, the conservative knows to be immutable; and he holds that it is highly dangerous to tamper with that which probably cannot be altered for the better. He does not think that we can change human nature, in the mass, for the better; there is only one sort of improvement in human nature, and that is internal improvement—the improvement every man and every woman can work privately. He does not think that we can improve upon the Ten Commandments as a guide to virtue. He does not think that we can create out of whole cloth a form of government better suited to our national temper than that which we already have. He holds, in short, that the great discoveries in morals and in politics already have been made; we will do well to employ these truths, rather than to seek vaguely for some new dispensation. He says, as Burke said more than a century and a half ago in reply to the eighteenth-century advocates of a new morality and a new politics, “We know that we have made no new discoveries; and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity.”

    If one has to choose between the two, Permanence is more important than Progression. Between a custom and an institution that are known to function fairly well, and a custom and an institution that are unknown qualities, it is wiser to prefer the old and tried over the new and untried. Randolph of Roanoke cried out to a startled House of Representatives, “Gentlemen, I have found the philosopher’s stone! It is this: never, without the greatest provocation, to disturb a thing that is at rest.” The elaborate fabric which we call our civil social order—the complex of moral habits, political establishments, customary laws, and economic ways—has been erected over many centuries by a painful and laborious process of trial and error. It is the product of filtered wisdom, “the democracy of the dead,” the considered opinions and the weighed experience of many generations. If we demolish that edifice, it is scarcely possible for us to rebuild it. Our established order works; we cannot be sure that some conjectured new order would work. And we have no right to play with society as if it were a toy; the rights of millions living and more millions yet to be born are at stake here. So, I repeat, whenever a clear choice has to be made, we are wise if we prefer Permanence to Progression.”

    Russell Kirk’s style of conservatism largely fell by the wayside for the past six decades or so due to the rise of the neoconservatives, who twisted and perverted the meaning of conservatism until much of what people called “conservative” was unrecognizable as anything that Kirk or other such classical conservatives would recognize as such.

    1. Hardwicke,

      Thanks for this! I have not read Kirk, so this is good stuff. I think he’s really elaborating on “Chesterton’s Fence,” which I reference in the post. Where I will disagree with Kirk is here:

      He does not think that we can create out of whole cloth a form of government better suited to our national temper than that which we already have.

      I disagree. I most certainly do not think that our form of government is the be-all, end-all. Maybe my beef is more with what it’s become. But I most certainly do not wish to conserve the current status quo, even if it may be working out somewhat well for me, personally, at the time being. I’m concerned about my children and grandchildren’s future, and beyond. Your children and grandchildren’s too. Everyone’s, as a matter of fact. I do not see the status quo as benefiting the majority of the people. I do think our problems are systemic, and what we have now is the inevitable result of expanding our system to the point where it’s become a mass democracy where our leaders, our supposed “servants” (what rubbish!) only have to pander to the 50%-plus-one needed to get into power and maintain it, and screw everybody else. If our system got us to this point, then of what good is it?

  2. Hardwicke and Alexander,

    St Augustine said something similar that it was licit to change the laws. So I don’t see preserving and change inherently contradictory. The challenge as is always what to change and what to preserve. Nicholas Nassim Taleb advocates all institutions have an expiry date written into their creation/legislation. If it still fulfills its purpose, keep it; if not, dissolve it.
    Change and preservation are part of the great conversation. We’ll get it wrong and right. The issue is how much? How far? And for how long?


    1. Xavier,

      Good points.

      It’s not just the status quo vis-à-vis laws I object to, though–though of course that is a part of it–but our culture as a whole. I reject much of it and most certainly do not wish to conserve that which I see as anti-virtue. Our laws and our systems are a part of it, but if the demos supposedly has the power to control this system, then what does that say about us?

  3. “I disagree. I most certainly do not think that our form of government is the be-all, end-all. Maybe my beef is more with what it’s become. But I most certainly do not wish to conserve the current status quo, even if it may be working out somewhat well for me, personally, at the time being.”

    He wouldn’t have wanted to preserve the current status quo either. That quote of his (from 1957) was referring to the Constitutional Republic system, not to any particular status quo that has arisen since it was instituted in the 18th century. He also did not think that America’s form of government was the end-all and be-all, but merely the best form for America in particular. He believed that there is no one ideal form of government for every country.

    “I do think our problems are systemic, and what we have now is the inevitable result of expanding our system to the point where it’s become a mass democracy where our leaders, our supposed “servants” (what rubbish!) only have to pander to the 50%-plus-one needed to get into power and maintain it, and screw everybody else.”

    America was not intended to be a pure democracy, nor did Russell Kirk want it to be one.

    In his December 11, 1992 speech “The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma”, he said:

    “We are informed by certain voices that soon all the world will be democratic. But whether or not the American mode of democratic government prevails, the abstract ideology called democratism that any government which has obtained a majority of votes be received as “democratic.” Enthusiasts for unrestricted democracy presumably forget that Adolph Hitler, too, was democratically elected and sustained by popular plebiscites. Alexis de Tocqueville warned his contemporaries against “democratic despotism,” 20th century writers discuss “totalist democracy.” I am suggesting, ladies and gentlemen, that democracy-literally, “the rule of the crowd”—is a term so broad and vague as to signify everything or nothing. The American democracy, a unique growth although an offshoot from British culture, innocent of ideology’s fury-functioned fairly well in the past because of peculiar beliefs and conditions: a patrimony of ordered freedom, and especially, as Tocqueville pointed out, Americans’ mores, or moral habits. What is called “democracy” today in most of the world-and nearly every regime represents itself as democratic-bears much resemblance to America’s political and social pattern as the oar of the boat does to the ore of the mine. All that these regimes maintain in common is a claim that they rule with the assent of the majority of the people. The tyranny of the majority can be more oppressive, and more effectual, than the tyranny of a single person.”


    “In the name of Democracy, America’s representative government, under the Constitution, might be swept aside, and politics might be debased to contests between hypocritical ideologues, every one of them claiming to be more democratic than the others. What’s in a name? In Haiti, “democracy” signifies the arbitrary power of deposed President Aristide to have rubber tires slung round the necks of his opponents, and they set afire. In South Africa, the apotheosis of democracy, one man one vote on Benthamite principles would end in civil war and general impoverishment. In the United States, the demand for more democracy might lead to the legalized plundering of the hardworking by those who prefer not to work at all. And a line of American Caesars might be required to preserve any sort of order.

    I am arguing, ladies and gentlemen, that these United States would be only degraded by a submission to an ideological democracy, in either domestic or foreign policy, a Rousseauistic democracy restyled “teledemocracy.” What we require is a vigorous recovery of true representative government, one of the principal achievements of our culture, a legacy from centuries of British and colonial experience and from the practical wisdom of the Framers of the Constitution of the United States. Say not the struggle naught availleth, friends. In my concluding lecture of this series, I will endeavor to let some cheerfulness break in; suggesting means for cultural restoration in a diversity of aspects.”

    And some quotes from his 1988 article “Popular Government and Intemperate Minds: Democracy As Ideology”:

    “Then my old friend Eliot set down a forthright line that I quote often:

    “The term ‘democracy,’ as I have said again and again, does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces that you dislike–it can easily be transformed by them. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.”

    Amen to that. Democracy, as an abstraction, cannot be substituted satisfactorily for the authority of God. The modern mind has fallen into the heresy of democracy–that is, the ruinous error of vox populi vox dei, that an abstract People are divine, and that truth issues from the ballot box, as in the abrupt ascent of the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

    When Tocqueville traveled through the United States, society was sufficiently democratic in America–more so, really, than today–but Americans had not yet succumbed to the dogma of vox populi vox dei. Nor have all Americans, even today, embraced that error; but general resistance to Rousseau’s notion of democracy has been much weakened, the old “territorial democracy” of the early United States is much decayed, and more and more is rendered unto Caesar: that is, to a Caesar now styled as Plebiscitary Democracy.

    To argue that democracy has forsaken transcendent authority and so reels endangered before external and internal enemies, I propose first to describe certain confusions that hang about the word democracy; next to suggest how the worship of an abstract democracy and a concrete Mammon betray a people into committing tremendous blunders; and, last, to exhort a Remnant to stand fast.

    Some years ago I lectured at the University of Oklahoma on the prescribed subject, “What Is the Best Form of Government for the Happiness of Mankind?” This annual lectureship, always on the same subject, was endowed; and in every previous year, the chosen lecturer had declared that democracy was the best form of government for the happiness of mankind; the previous lecturers doubtless assumed that such a profession of faith was expected of them, quite as in Animal Farm all creatures are required to affirm the dogma “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

    But for my part, I heretically denied that dogma of ideological Democratism, assertion to the contrary that there exists no single best form of government for the happiness of all mankind. The most suitable form of government necessarily depends upon the historic experience, the customs, the beliefs, the state of culture, the ancient laws, and the material circumstances of a people, and all these things vary from land to land and age to age. Monarchy may defend the highest possible degree of order, justice, and freedom for a people–as, despite shortcomings, the Abyssinian monarchy did in Ethiopia, until the Marxist revolution there. Aristocracy, under other circumstances, may be found most advantageous for the general welfare. The Swiss form of democracy may work very well in twentieth-century Switzerland; yet it does not follow that the Swiss pattern, imposed abruptly upon Brazil, say, would function at all.

    Nor would the American pattern of politics, developed through an intricate process extending over several centuries, be readily transplanted to Uganda or Indonesia. As Daniel Boorstin puts it, “The Constitution of the United States is not for export.” No, the simple formula of “one man, one vote” will not cure all the ills to which flesh is heir.

    For democracy is neither a political philosophy nor a plan of political organization; rather, it is a social condition that may have political consequences. Two centuries ago, not one of the framers of the Constitution of the United States employed democracy as a term of approbation. To the framers, democracy signified the rule of the crowd; and of such politics, they had beheld sufficient in Shay’s Rebellion. The Constitution of 1787 established not a democracy, but a federal republic.”


    “In summary, I have been arguing too hurriedly that an ideology called Democratism affects often both domestic and foreign policies of the United States. Servitude to ideology–that is, to irrational political dogmatism–leads to intemperance of thought, discourse, and action. Men of intemperate minds never can be free, in Burke’s phrase. So it is that the ideology of Democratism, far from preserving our freedom probably will reduce American liberties in more ways than one.

    If the twentieth-century god called Demos has feet of clay, whatever shall we do? Away back in 1918 we were promised that glorious democracy would prevail universally; but nothing of the sort has come to pass. The word democracy is everywhere venerated and employed; but the reality of that concept, or what we expected to become the reality, the brotherhood of man and the federation of the world, is not to be found seven decades later.

    Yet we need not despair. The first thing for Americans to do is to recall the admonition of Eliot that “it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organization which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality.” We must remind ourselves that politics is no more than the art of the possible; it is no source of eternal truth. The ideology of Democratism, like all other ideologies, is a pseudo-religion, immanentizing the symbols of transcendence–in Eric Voegelin’s phrases. The cure for ideology is a recovery of a religious understanding of the human condition.”

    Those are just snippets; Kirk went into even more detail in the full articles and speeches that I linked to, including and exploration of how Democratism, as he calls it, came to rise to the level of prominence that it now holds.

    1. Hardwicke,

      Interesting stuff! In these excerpts, Kirk is treading into some dangerous territory that might get him canceled were he to say it today. To even intimate that the people of a nation have an effect on its culture steps over the line into what today’s modern democracy-worshipper might call the “R” word. And I don’t mean “retarded.”

      I can’t say I disagree with Kirk in these passages.

  4. Many of his writings and speeches are fascinating, not only in their own right, but also as a counterpoint to what the word “conservative” came to be twisted to mean over the decades and a window into what was lost in the process. Reading his words often feels like rediscovering a long-lost philosophy. He was able to explain conservatism in a manner that is approachable, yet illustrates the depths and complexities of the subject very well.

    I’d highly recommend his book “Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism” as a good crash-course on the true meaning of conservatism.

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