Monday, September 10, 2007

Churchill didn't say it...

One of my favorite quotes is, it turns out, mistakenly attributed to Winston Churchill. I’ve been using this line for several years and confidently telling people that Churchill said it. You’ve probably heard it: “A man who is not a liberal at age twenty has no heart; a man who is not a conservative at age forty has no brain.”
There are variations; in some versions it’s “socialist” instead of “liberal”; sometimes the age is thirty instead of twenty.
Doesn’t matter. Churchill, it turns out, didn’t say it, or at least didn’t say it first. Apparently the existence of different versions reflects the fact that it has been said by different people at different times. The most reliable attributions appear to be to a couple of nineteenth-century French politicians, François Guizot and Aristide Briand, with Guizot saying it first. Maybe Churchill cribbed it from them in turn.
It’s a good line, which accounts for its popularity. But it bugs the hell out of liberals, which is understandable. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn even ran a couple of columns about the line a while ago, inviting reader responses. I don't know if it bugged him; I’d call Zorn a liberal, but whatever he is, he’s a thoughtful writer who’s never afraid to consider the other side.
I didn’t get involved then, maybe because I wasn’t sure what I thought. But for what it’s worth, here’s what I think now: Guizot and Briand and Churchill had hold of a truth, and even if you didn’t wind up a conservative, there’s wisdom in it that you ought to be able to concede.
Full disclosure: I don’t know how much it had to do with my internal anatomy, but I’ve moved to the right in my political views over the past couple of decades. I’d still call myself a liberal rather than a conservative (how can a man who believes that both sodomy and cocaine should be legal be called a conservative?) but I’m a liberal in the way Gladstone or the young Churchill was a liberal. I’m a small government guy. I’m an economic conservative and a social liberal, to give you the usual oversimplification. (I'll break that down a little more some other time.) If you have to slap a label on me, you can call me a libertarian, though I’m not especially anxious to be identified with the black helicopter crowd. If this helps, I am the only person I know who has actually voted for Ron Paul.
We can argue about libertarianism some other time. For now let’s look at that quote: what does it mean, and is there a formulation we can all agree on?
When I think of the quote, I remember my own political trajectory: I grew up in a devoutly religious but intellectually stimulating household (no, it’s not impossible); one parent was a Democrat and the other a Republican who usually voted Democratic; I was a fairly standard peace and love and rock and roll liberal through college, flirted with Marxism, hung out with radicals in Chicago and outright Communists in France; voted for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, rued the election of Ronald Reagan, and all the time kept reading, thinking, talking with people. I lived in countries where things didn't work as well, and wondered why. In the middle eighties I finally got around to reading The Open Society and Its Enemies, by the man whom the title of this blog honors. That pretty much took care of the Marxist thing, which had always smelled a little fishy to me. I started to educate myself about economics. I read more Popper. I heard some people say that Reagan was ruining the economy and I heard other people say that Reagan was saving the economy and I had an epiphany: they couldn’t both be right. There had to be some empirical grounds for deciding the question. I looked into it and decided that the conservatives were mostly right about economics. The trouble was, they were still wrong about other things. I had kids and rediscovered the meaning of original sin. If I didn’t start believing in God again, I at least started to appreciate the ethical content of religious tradition. I became more intellectually humble. I learned that very few people are wrong about everything (OK, there are a few out there that are truly hopeless). I realized that political views are just hypotheses about how the world works, and that there shouldn't be any reason we can’t discuss those hypotheses as calmly as any others.
Look, here’s all that happened: life experience tempered the incandescent idealism of youth. And that’s all Churchill, or whoever said it first, was talking about. Even if you’re still out there on the left, I imagine you’ve undergone the same process: you see what works and what doesn’t. You learn that human life is a messy, chaotic process that doesn’t always cooperate with Utopian plans. Maybe you’re still a socialist, but you learned something from 1989. Maybe you’re still a passionate critic of our criminal justice system, but the time you got mugged cured you of your sentimental attitude towards street criminals. That’s all we’re talking about. That’s what the quote means, and because the men quoted above all wound up as conservatives, they put it in terms that favor that point of view. But there’s a core of truth in it for everyone. You’ve got to learn from the things life throws at you, temper theory with practical experience.
If your views didn’t get tempered by experience, if you’re still throwing Molotov cocktails at police cars or looking for excuses for Pol Pot, then you’re the guy Churchill was talking about who has no brain. I'm not sure what we can do for you.

Sam Reaves

1 comment:

TG IMAGERY said...

I really enjoyed this. Thank you!