Reading through a “news” paper the other day, I read the comments of an ardent Kerry supporter accusing Bush of having a “19th Century mentality”, apparently because Bush thinks that killing dangerous enemies and producing fuel are worthwhile activities. As I so often do when hearing the comments of Bush opponents, my reaction was “I wish!” I guess you know you’ve definitely become someone’s political enemy when you hear him accusing your candidate of things that would make you a fanatical supporter if only they were true.
At any rate, it constantly amazes me to hear people speak of a “19th Century mentality” as if it were a terrible insult, and to speak of the 19th Century itself as if it was a time when our benighted policies kept us on the road to disaster until 20th Century heroes took the reins of power and saved the day. I suppose that I must confess that I myself harbor a 19th Century mentality.
It was a 19th Century mentality that brought us the telegraph and the telephone. The electric light and the electric power plant. The transcontinental railroad and the automobile. The steamship, which enabled millions of people to escape misery in Europe and begin the long climb to prosperity on our shores. Typewriters and bicycles. Sewing machines. The airplane (yes, it came in 1903, but I’m pretty sure the Wright Brothers can credibly be accused of harboring a 19th Century mentality, like Edison, Bell, and Morse before them).
It was a 19th Century mentality that saved the whales, and found something better than whale oil to use as fuel. It is not to the credit of the 20th Century mentality that the man who organized the enterprise that produced more fuel at a cheaper price than anyone on the planet came to be regarded as a villain, and his enterprise that flooded the world with that fuel came to be regarded as “predatory”.
It was a 19th Century mentality that finally drove slavery out of the civilized world. For uncounted millenia, muscle power dominated production, and men who controlled hundreds of other mens’ muscles with whips grew wealthy while men who didn’t stayed in poverty. It was men with a 19th Century mentality who finally denounced slavery as unequivocally evil, and who devised ways to outproduce the slaveowners and drive them to ruin. It was free men with a 19th Century mentality who replaced muscle power with machine power on a large enough scale that free men who used their minds to develop and control the machines irrevocably gained the upper hand over men who used whips to control armies of slaves forbidden to use their minds. And when the slaveowners resorted to war to protect their barbaric enterprises and their own ill-gotten position atop their mideval social order, the free men and their machines flooded their enemies with weapons and ammunition, with food and clothing, in quantities never before seen, while their own soldiers went days without food and often fought barefoot in gray rags that might once have been uniforms.
It was a confidence in the continuation of the 19th Century mentality that led people well into the 20th Century to predict wonders for the present day that still have not materialized. It is the remnants of the 19th Century mentality that drive the computer revolution and the race for the X-Prize. I daresay that had we kept the 19th Century mentality to the present day, you could see lots of young-looking and healthy people recount their first-hand experiences of the 19th Century on your holographic TV at your home in the outer solar system. Instead, the man who organized the enterprise that produced computer operating systems that average people can use and afford is denounced as a villain (often by people using the very tools his organization produced!), the men who continue to produce fuel for our society are accused of “raping the Earth”, and those same people regard any attempt to replace the fossil fuel they hate so much with nuclear fuel as a conspiracy to kill everyone with evil “radiation”. Right-thinking people with a 21st Century progressive mindset look upon average people traveling faster to their jobs, from larger and more remote estates, and denounce it as “sprawl” and never consider that people with their benighted 19th Century mentality once confidently and eagerly awaited the day when we would all use skycars to commute hundreds or thousands of miles. People with outdated 19th Century minds once eagerly awaited the day when pharmaceutical companies would cure cancer or even beat the aging process, while progressive 21st Century thinkers consider such things trivial compared to the pharmaceutical companies’ evil conspiracy to sell their drugs at a profit, and to commit the unspeakable outrage of advertising their product. Bush with his alleged 19th Century mind pushed through a 20th Century-style government program to give away drugs, and progressive 21st Century thinkers call him an agent of the pharmaceutical companies because the plan calls for those companies to be paid for the drugs!
Today we regard the 19th Century as a time of unremitting misery, and indeed our ancestors of that time lived in conditions we find deplorable, but many fail to consider that this is not because our mentality or our policies are better than theirs, but simply because the progressive 20th Century policies did not manage to completely halt the march of progress that was in full swing long before any 20th Century “reformers” came on the scene. But as you drive your groundcar through innumerable bottlenecks, and behold the nearly empty sky, as you visit your ailing parents or the graves of your grandparents, as you look at the night sky and see nothing but unreachable stars and absolutely deserted planets, take a moment to consider what might have been if only the 19th Century mentality had remained the driving force of our society.