Joseph Bottum, polyepoxide conservative.
Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
The conservative mood starts with a skepticism and a suspicion about change. Revolution! shout the revolutionaries, and conservatives expect the new boss to look a whole lot like the old boss. Make It New! demand the modernists, and conservatives wonder why they have to make anything at all. Hope and Change! President Obama promised us, and hope and change we got, although the hope was that the Democrats would lose the 2010 midterms, and the change was mostly of the Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? kind.
Photo Credit: Matt Collins
Anyway, to be a conservative is to know, way down in your gut, that no transformation comes without a price. Civilization is held together with duct tape and baling wire; it’s amazing the rickety thing works at all. Radicals imagine they can swap out whole sections, leaving the rest unaffected, while conservatives hew to the creed, If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and if it is buy a good repair manual.
I’m here to tell you, however, that conservatives are wrong. It’s not true that all social change is bad. It isn’t the case that every technological alteration bleeds unintended consequences. We shouldn’t assume that reformation of manners and morals always edges us down the slippery slope toward the abyss.
Only most of them. Look, it’s a simple truth that American public food has improved over the last 30 years. Remember the plastic-wrapped sandwiches that used to be the only sustenance you could get at night in a bus station? Remember artificially flavored grape soda? Remember, God help us, Vienna sausages in a can? The oldest hath borne most: we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
Of course, this change in cuisine means a simple sandwich at a New York takeout joint is now salametti and bresaola—with arugula, mesclun, and roasted peppers, all on rosemary focaccia—and costs only slightly less than a weekend ski trip. You might think that a small price to pay for never again having to see the quivering of lime Jell-O with carrot shavings at the church potluck, and even conservatives would have to admit that you’d be right. But those same conservatives would point out that a price it is, nonetheless.
Similarly, they’d admit, coffee has improved enormously in this country since 1975—when the average diner’s cup of joe had been stewing angrily in the industrial vat of a percolator since the short-order cook arrived at 6:00 that morning. But the price of this new and better coffee is a chain shop at every other intersection, smugly assuring you it doesn’t buy beans from dictators. At least, not right-wing dictators.
Meanwhile, don’t talk to me about the Internet, which has produced a generation of students for whom the idea of research is to see if anyone has Twittered about the topic lately. And don’t mention email, which has pretty much ruined my work habits. No, the one unequivocally good change of my lifetime—the one transformation without bad consequences, the definitive refutation of conservatism—is glue.
There was a time in this country when your glue choices began with school paste, which wouldn’t hold together two pieces of paper. You then moved to Elmer’s Glue, which was made by boiling down cow bones and skin, prompting the Borden company to market it with a cute drawing of the bull they killed to make it. Anyway, Elmer’s was lumpy and inferior, and if you wanted something more precise, you went on to model-airplane glue. Which made you high and then killed you. And if that wasn’t enough, you moved all the way up to Krazy Glue, the whole tube of which dried out after one use and anyway was useful only for permanently fusing your fingers together.
Sales clerks used to keep razor blades by the cash register for scraping the price stickers off. Everybody I knew had at least one appliance or piece of furniture on which, years later, you could still see the sticky residue of a removed label. The low-tack adhesive of Post-It notes didn’t exist for temporary sticking, and the permanence of polyepoxide thermosetting polymers hadn’t yet been found for laminated beams. Everything about gluing is better now than it used to be, and we haven’t had to pay a price in unintended consequences. Conservatives are just wrong in their suspicion of change.
Unless, of course, you think that the putting of things back together is inherently a conservative thing to do. Radicals want to unglue society. They want to break the adhesion of culture, the tensile strength of civilization. But conservatives know that things don’t have to fall apart. Turns out the center actually can hold, if you have a good enough polyepoxide thermosetting polymer.