Coincidentally, I have over the past couple of months been watching DVDs of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show I missed completely in its run of 1987 to 1994; and I confess myself amazed that so many conservatives are fond of it. Its messages are unabashedly liberal ones of the early post-Cold War era – peace, tolerance, due process, progress (as opposed to skepticism about human perfectibility).
Wow. In addition to surrendering peace, tolerance, due process and even progress over to liberal hegemony, Potemra sets up a pretty lazy dichotomy. It’s not just that “human perfectibility” does not, as far as I can tell, play any significant role in modern liberal political thought–it’s that I see no reason why skepticism about it should be at all contradictory to the “unabashedly liberal” ideals he mentions. “Skepticism about human perfectibility,” when placed in direct contradiction with progress, is little more than a quick and dirty evasion of moral responsibility by way of the Nirvana fallacy. It’s a way of saying: “Well, things will never be perfect, so why try to even make them better? Why not just stay in this perfectly acceptable holding pattern until the Rapture?”
Problem is, unless you’re advocating some kind of Rosseau-style return to nature (which is its own breed of starry-eyed utopianism), then staying where we are means accepting all of the progress we’ve already made. Something tells me that Potemra, were he given a time machine, would not spend most of his time running around telling his ancestors to forsake geometry, running water, and Christianity* because of “skepticism about human perfectibility.”
With that in mind, why should things be different now? It’s supremely arrogant to just assume that we’ve already reached our peak along the long arc of history, and any attempt to meddle with it will result in failure. And, for that matter, it’s significantly more naïve than the “human perfectibility” straw man, because it presumes that we’ve already gotten as close to the ideal society as we ever will. The result isn’t cold, hard realism; it’s a pathological aversion to change, even when we absolutely must.
*This is not to call the rise of Christianity “progress,” which is an entirely different and extremely complicated debate, but for now it should suffice to say that most National Review writers probably see it as such.