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 The Neanderthal Creed 

November 18, 2003

Senator Edward Kennedy, who prides himself on opposing discrimination against all minorities, committed a gaffe the other day. Speaking of President Bush’s judicial appointees, he pledged that the Senate won’t confirm any “Neanderthals.”

As a Neanderthal, I find that shockingly insensitive. Senator Kennedy is, after all, the uncle-in-law of California’s new governor, who achieved great fame playing Neanderthals in the movies. How can he be so openly contemptuous of the concerns of the Neanderthal community?

President Bush hasn’t even nominated any real Neanderthals to the Federal judiciary. His choices are all far too “progressive” to suit us, even if Senator Kennedy considers them “reactionary.” To his way of thinking, anyone who is less than enthusiastic about destroying human fetuses is hopelessly behind the times.

But as all Neanderthals understand, much of the trouble in this world is caused by people trying to keep up with the times. Such people consider following current trends imperative, because they have no unchanging standards by which to judge those trends. For them, change automatically means improvement, and the word change itself is a kind of mantra for them.

The “progressive” mentality is marked by an odd faith in the future, with a corresponding disdain for the past. It believes that the future will be better, if present trends continue; the only change it disapproves of is change back toward the past.

This faith was best expressed by the progressive journalist Lincoln Steffens, who returned from a visit to the Soviet Union to proclaim, “I have been over into the future, and it works.”

But by what standard will the future be better, when to the progressive mindset all standards are themselves impermanent and fluid? After all, progressives tell us, “there are no absolutes”; they even speak of “evolving standards.” What seems good today may appear bad from the perspective of the future. Even today’s progressive may become tomorrow’s reactionary, if he fails to keep up with the times!

[Breaker quote: Can history cure optimism?]“Lord, we know what we are, but we know not what we may be,” says Shakespeare’s mad Ophelia with demented insight. She doesn’t know she is expressing the progressive philosophy in a nutshell.

Well, the present is the glorious future of yesterday’s progressives. Is it really an improvement? By definition it must be. But not everyone finds it so.

The Neanderthal will have none of this. By his standards, history isn’t an unbroken record of improvement. He is keenly aware that in the struggles of the past, the right side hasn’t always won. Believing that the right side is always victorious is, as G.K. Chesterton put it, like believing in trial by combat.

The stronger side usually wins. This proves nothing about which side was right. Often the right side winds up on “the dustbin of history.” In most of the great struggles of the past, there have been reasonable and honorable men on both sides before the issue was decided by power and, sometimes, sheer chance. And sometimes neither side was right.

For this reason, the Neanderthal understands that history’s losers are often worth listening to. Making allowances for his partisanship, the memoirs of Jefferson Davis are extremely illuminating about the War Between the States. He argues compellingly that under the U.S. Constitution any state has the right to secede from the Union. The fact that his side lost in no way refutes the logic of his argument.

This is especially hard for Americans to understand, because the United States has won most of its wars and has never been conquered and devastated by a foreign power. We lack the sense of tragedy, irony, and history itself that is common to people who have tasted bitter defeat.

Our enormously emotional reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks was partly due to sheer amazement: we had felt immune to such violence. The Neanderthal was shocked, but not surprised. He had almost expected something like this. Or even worse.

The Neanderthal isn’t necessarily a pessimist, but he regards the progressive’s optimism about history as insanity. And he can’t share the progressive’s faith that government can protect us from evil — a faith held even by many people who consider themselves conservative.

History ought to be a sufficient cure for optimism, but many Americans seem to be incurable.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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