News & Politics

The Right-Wing Tendency to Live In the Past Reveals a Big Conservative Weakness

Retro-gloating is often a group activity.

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The middle-aged guy relives his moment of high school football glory instead of facing his current unemployment.

Trump relives his November 16 victory rather than facing the trouble’s he’s in.
Right-wingers still think they’re fighting Communists when all that’s left of it is 
dictatorship in see-through "Communist" clothing.

Religions revel in their ancient revelations as though they still have the last word on what’s true.

The old guy regurgitates his heroic insights of the 1970’s as though they were still fresh, not commonplaces in a world that got it, built on it and moved on.

Cliché Guevara: Dressing up clichés as though they’re edgy.

And why? Two reasons:

1. Because old victories are assured. They already happened, whereas facing new challenges, who knows what will happen? It’s like that story about the guy who looks for his lost key under the lamppost not because that’s where he lost it but because the light’s better. People look for signs of victory where it’s easier – in the past.

2. Because it would be nice if our past insight was the one true insight that changed everything. Who wouldn’t love a pat formula we discovered and championed ‘til the end of our days only to have it prevail for all eternity.

We have trouble with the thought that today’s winners even if they include us, will be tomorrows losers, not because everything’s just a passing fad but because today’s answers spawn tomorrow’s questions. We’d rather our answers were final. But they aren't.

Always Next Dilemma: A.N.D.

After finding solutions that fit
I’d like to kick back and just sit
on my laurels but then a
resulting dilemma
shows questions in life just don’t quit.

Even some philosophers, those famously eternal inquirers, have trouble thinking about their insights as folded into the great soup of ideas, not held aloft forever as the once-and-for-all solutions. Many old lions of philosophy never write about the questions that naturally follow from their answers.

And even scientists, which is surprising since science, by definition, can never ever claim the last word on anything, only the best guess so far to be beaten if and when a better guess if one comes along. Science, by definition, is a field one enters knowing that there’s no way to prevent the possibility that you will end up spending your entire career barking up the wrong tree. Even Nobel Prize winner’s insights can later be overturned.

Newton famously said “I stand on the shoulders of giants,” and it was certainly true of that giant. Still, there were giants after Newton, standing on his shoulders, shrinking his stature a bit. Einstein, for example, demonstrated that Newton’s universal solutions weren’t actually universal but applicable at the only scales that Newton, in his time, could reckon with.

My attention shifted firmly to science about 25 years ago for personal reasons, some I recognized at the time and some unconscious.

I shifted during a midlife crisis in part triggered by my wife falling out of love with me and in love with someone else.

I tried to regain peace of mind through Taoist and Buddhist non-attachment. But for me, Taoism or Buddhism fell short until I discovered the many ways science demonstrates, both through its discoveries and the evolution of its discoveries that things come and go.

What drew me most earnestly to science was evolutionary theory – in particular, evolutionary psychology and Richard Dawkins’ breakthrough Selfish Gene concept. I became a Taowinist, a hybrid of the Tao and Darwin, and with it a bit more peace with life’s coming and going.

That was my conscious motivation for embracing science. An unconscious motivation was that my midlife crisis had shaken me to my core. Through Selfish Gene theory, I found what felt like permanently robust scaffolding to gird me, a way to hold my head high, standing tall forever more.

I had discovered the once-and-for-all truth. It was a proud yet humble truth. Dawkins “proved” to me that I’m just a machine built by my genes for their own self-perpetuation. I’m merely a product of random genetic mutation.

The New York Times review of Selfish Gene said, “It makes every reader feel like a genius.” It certainly made me feel like one. I and my fellow evolutionary thinkers gloated triumphantly in large part because the Selfish Gene exposed the lying idiocy of religious creation stories.

Defaultylogic: Since your opponents are wrong, you’re right by default.

Over time, new questions grew out of my pat evolutionary answers. We don’t act like machines. We try. We want. Sure there are plenty of researchers in psychology who think all of that can be ascribed to molecules, hormones or DNA, but that started to little sense to me. Chemicals don’t try, but we do. I started to hear self-contradictory nonsense in the pat answers: Though you try to believe that you try you don’t.

I found a new, more scientifically curious clan working on the problems that arise when you don’t believe there’s a God who builds us for his purposes, and yet you can’t deny that we have our purposes, most fundamentally trying to stay alive and reproduce.

When I tell religious people that I’m an evolutionary atheist, it triggers a boilerplate response. “You atheists are the dogmatic ones.” That’s standard from any dogmatist – projection: “I know you are but what am I?”

Call a dogmatist muddle-headed and he’ll just reverse the charges. “No, you’re muddle-headed.”

I don’t believe evolutionary atheists are all dogmatic but I do believe that, like any school of thought, evolutionary atheism can be put to dogmatic uses, treated as the once and for all solution not receptive to the questions that follow from your pat answers.

This week I got a taste of that from a sect of my old selfish gene clan. A leader of that clan read an article I wrote here, making the case that evolutionary theory, while true, doesn’t explain effort, the trying that all organisms do for their own benefit. Here’sthat leader’s response and the comments the debate inspired. It's well worth reading.

Commenters suggested that since they didn’t understand me I was clearly speaking gibberish. Some insisted that I must not really believe in, or understand evolutionary theory. Some assumed I must believe in God or some other sort of magical nonsense. And some just ridiculed my appearance and presentation.

A few addressed the challenges I raised and a few made an effort to understand my argument. I interacted with those who posed substantive questions until I was blocked from commenting.

Retro-gloating is often a group activity. To sustain themselves, groups have to deflect infection and prevent defection, as I did as a selfish gene clan member years ago. I was quick to dismiss anyone disloyal or challenging to our self-certainty.

We had proven victorious over the religious and spiritual. We declared ourselves perma-winners and would take no guff from other thinkers. We were more contented to simply slot them in with our former foes, long since beaten.

Now are my new questions and hunches about how to answer them just my new egotistical perma-winner scaffolding? Have I just swapped one pat cult for another as I suspect some anti-religious atheists have done?

I sure wouldn’t put it past me. My old gladiatorial appetites live on in me. I love identifying with my new challenge to selfish gene solutions the way I once identified with the selfish gene solutions as the new challenge that it once was.

Still, I know that, in the rigorous discipline of science, there are no pat answers. I accept the possibility that I will have expended my life’s work barking up the wrong tree.

The image I hold is of scientists as members of search party out looking for the truth about nature. Our worth is as members of the search party even if we end up not being the ones who find lasting truths. No one gets to claim that since they happened to find a truth a while ago they’re the only ones entitled to claim to have found the truth, forever more.

Life and the sciences that attempt to understand it are trial and error process. Participating in a trial and error process splits our allegiances. We say “May the best trial win and it damned well better be mine,” or with retro-gloating, “Since I we the last round, I win all future rounds.”

No matter our choice rigorous discipline, we are all human and prone to retro-gloat. And why?

I’ll add a third reason:

When life serves up a cosmic wedgie

Who amongst us won't feel edgy?

We're shaken to our firm foundation

We'd have preferred an affirmation.

Two options next for how to be:

Face and learn or dodge and flee.

The first one, humbling, leaves us blue

We tend to opt for option two.

That's why we're good at self-protection.

Projection as a threat deflection.

We need ourselves, we can't defect

Don't count on us to self-reflect.

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Jeremy Sherman Ph.D. researches how the living interpret, from their cradle at the origin of life to our current grave situation.

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