Dept of Human Nature:
Nothing Harder
10 April 2015

It must be repeated that in all the social sciences genuine scientific detachment is difficult to attain, and in any “absolute” or “pure” sense impossible of attainment. Even in the natural sciences, desire to prove an hypothesis or a theory of one’s own may bring to the distortion or neglect of facts some of the most powerful sentiments in human beings. But the natural scientist does not want to improve a molecule or an amoeba — at least, not “morally.” Upon the social scientist, however, there pours the full force of those sentiments we call moral as well as those we call selfish. He can hardly avoid wanting to change what he is studying: not to change it as the chemist changes the form of the elements he compounds, but to change it as the missionary changes the man he converts. Yet this is just what the social scientist must try to avoid as a better man would avoid the devil. One of the hardest things to do on this earth is to describe men or institutions without wanting to change them, a thing so hard that most people are not even aware that the two processes are separable. (20)

That’s from the Introduction to Crane Brinton’s classic study, The Anatomy of Revolution, first published in 1938. It’s a book that I read a long time ago (although not in college) and have always meant to re-read. If now is the time for re-reading it, that’s because the move to the new apartment has placed enormous pressure on my possession of individual books: Do I really need this one? Will I ever re-read it? So far, however, I’ve wondered if re-reading is really the word. Much in the text is familiar, but its meaning seems altogether fresh and new. Brinton is telling me things that I’d never heard before, because I couldn’t. To understand, you must already understand — the intellectual equivalent of the paradox about not being able to get a job unless you already have one.

One of the hardest things to do on this earth is to describe men or institutions without wanting to change them.

What amazing wisdom! The desire to change “men or institutions” is indeed so overpowering that it goes unnoticed. We profess to describe; in fact, we critique. It is only when this proclivity has been acknowledged that our analysis of anything becomes useful or trustworthy. I would add only that our descriptions are doomed by incompleteness; we can’t know enough to describe anything in full. We fill in the gaps with wishful thinking.

Brinton’s aperçu sheds an intriguing light on something that I think about almost every day: how to explain the collapse of liberal optimism in the 1970s. This is often attributed to shifts in economic winds attributable to increases in fuel prices, and there’s no question that an air of rude awakening characterized the middle of the decade. I think that it’s important to stress a backlash against liberal social advances of the previous decade, especially those concerning equal civil rights for black Americans. But Brinton reminds me that liberals, during their postwar halcyon, had made the same mistake that progressives in power seem always to make sooner or later, at least in modern times. They believed that they could change human nature. With the right kind of laws, incentives, and whatnot, they expected to transform the United States into a truly great society. Having commended themselves on their virtue, they stopped thinking.

The inevitable backlash was embryonic and mute, at least until the appearance of Ronald Reagan in the White House. Ever since, it has become persuasive and eloquent, while liberals have either babbled in bewilderment or talked businesslike mush. Conservatives always hold the Ace of Spades: they don’t believe in changing human nature. The human condition permanently reflects the fall from grace caused by Adam and Eve. We are all imperfect sinners, and there’s no sense in expecting us to be any better. Bigotry and racism are incorrigible elements in human nature. So is greed. What’s good is not greed itself but accepting its inevitability. Plan on the greediness of others, and you’ll do very well yourself. Punishment is the lot of the weak and resourceless.

Liberals, as children of the Enlightenment, believe in top-down improvement, if not perfectability. Champions of freedom, they fall hard, again and again, for essentially coercive solutions to social problems that are borrowed from the Industrial Revolution. It is a Disneyland fantasy, also a nightmare: lock people up in a well-designed, Utopian theme park, and they’ll develop correct attitudes “spontaneously.”

The conservative failing, like that of the liberals, lies in its strength. Acceptance of human nature leads insensibly to a program of pandering to powerful interests, instead of one that curbs them. The fact that we are all sinners ought to inspire conservatives to protect us from the depredations of the biggest sinners, but that’s not what happens. What happens is the legalization of corruption: see Citizens United.


Regarding businesslike mush: in the current LRB, Marina Warner, in a continuation of her report on the perversion of Anglophone higher education, mentions a useful term.

Like Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty Four, business-speak is an instance of magical naming, superimposing the imagery of the market on the idea of a university — through “targets,” “benchmarks,” time-charts, league tables, “vision statements,” “content providers.” We may laugh or groan, depending on the state of our mental health, at the thickets of TLAs — three-letter acronyms, in the coinage of the writer Richard Hamblyn — that accumulate like dental plaque.

Although conservatives such as Margaret Thatcher are blamed for the deterioration of modern academia, I believe that the dirty work has been done by dispirited liberals who believe that business-speak and TLAs make them sound serious and grown up, providing substantive backup to their exhalations about progress and improvement. I remember the beginnings of the betrayal, when students on the left began calling for “relevance” in their studies, as well as the right to evaluate their professors. Nothing has surprised me in the forty-odd years since.

The next time someone throws a TLA at you, demand a rendering in plain English.