November 18, 2003

by Joe Sobran

     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!

     "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 

     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.


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