One Way to Gauge Who You Would Have Been


In a recent Twitter thread, Princeton Professor Robert George gets at a question that has long interested me:  How can you tell who you would have been in ages past — what side of a controversy you would have taken?

In some recent podcast or other, writer Jonah Goldberg mentioned a statement that William F. Buckley, Jr., made some decades ago when asked about the risk that history will fault conservatives for some of the things they’ve striven to conserve.  Buckley was not bothered by the prospect.  Conservatives’ objective is to slow down change to the point that decisions can be made with appropriate care, so of course they will from time to time be slowing down changes that turn out to have been to the better.

So, if we assume that being conservative, in the sense of being cautious about political and social change, is a somewhat innate temperament disconnected from the specifics of the day, then conservatives would have to consider that they’d have been on the wrong side of some very important questions, like slavery.

I don’t think that analysis is sufficiently deep, however.  Today’s conservatives are specifically striving to conserve American principles of liberty, as well as the values and beliefs of traditional religions.  Those also are a matter of temperament that could be as innate as the preference (all else equal) to change slowly.  Complicating things further is the fact that conservatism in our time is countercultural, which is arguably the key aspect attracting some of us (ahem).

Here’s where Professor George offers a helpful guide.  He mentions his repeated finding that every one of his students claims that he or she would have been an abolitionist in the time of slavery.  Finding this result laughably unlikely, he goes on:

So I respond by saying that I will credit their claims if they can show evidence of the following: that in leading their lives today they have stood up for the rights of unpopular victims of injustice whose very humanity is denied, and where they have done so knowing:

  1. that it would make them unpopular with their peers,
  2. that they would be loathed and ridiculed by powerful, influential individuals and institutions in our society,
  3. that they would be abandoned by many of their friends,
  4. that they would be called nasty names, and
  5. that they would risk being denied valuable professional opportunities as a result of their moral witness.

In short, my challenge is to show where they have at risk to themselves and their futures stood up for a cause that is unpopular in elite sectors of our culture today.

Surely, many in George’s Twitter audience will recognize his measuring stick as conspicuously like the witness of many conservatives, particularly those of us who are pro-life.  That familiary applies even if we are more general in our terms.

Whether we would have recognized the humanity of people who were maligned in common wisdom, as well as according to the convenient scientific theories of the day, is a haunting question, no matter who we are.  We can be a little less haunted, though, if we’ve proven a willingness to follow our lights despite the contrary encouragements of the authorities and popular role models of our times.

Featured image: An illustration from the original edition of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn.

  • ShannonEntropy

    An old question is what would you have done if you were a young person in Germany in the 1930s ??

    Everyone always says they would of course oppose the Nazis, but the Trvth is coming out now: everyone would fall in line and do whatever Gina or Adolph told them to do without raising a peep; and the social-distancing Karens amongst us would have the first ones to call the SS on Ann Frank

  • Lou

    Ah, revisionist history…sort of like how you like to criticize the state’s efforts to protect those in nursing homes during the pandemic after the fact because you have very little else to lament. How’s RI’s efforts matching up against your “freedom loving” red states now?

  • bagida’wewinini

    The professor’s question to the students is problematic in that it practically forces the answer he is anticipating so he can continue to the test questions he has prepared. Life is always much more complicated. There were many white abolitionists living in the South. Only a tiny minority of those publicly opposed the institution that brutally suppressed human beings into forced labor to enrich the wealthy and powerful. Many others joined leagues and societies to work against the custom but not publicly for fear of retribution. And many other picked up and moved north past the Mason Dixon into the free states. And among the southern abolitionists there those who favored the immediate deportation of the Africans to the African continent, while others believed in the humanity of those they wished to help free.

    • Rhett Hardwick

      One forgets, or never learned, of the considerable interaction of whites with blacks in the old South. It is not difficult to imagine that many were thought of as “human beings”. Much is made of “slaves” building the Capitol Building and Monticello. Why does it seem doubtful to me that they were “whipped” into becoming skilled carpenters or masons. I am from a Southern family, which was undeniably racist. But, a distinction I noticed being raised mostly in the North, Southerners didn’t “hate” blacks. They didn’t want “to mix”, sometimes the methods were harsh.

      • Christopher C. Reed

        “In the South they hate the race but love the people.
        In the North they love the race but hate the people.”
        Ever notice how these BLM signs are mostly posted in neighborhoods suffering from a notable paucity of the objects of their ostensible concern? Damn Separatists!

        “The Black Man will never be free until he is free of YT”. –A rough paraphrase of the late brother Malcolm (Little) X (PBUH).
        Brother Marcus Garvey — truly a man before his time, who unfortunately crossed the cheap labor lobby.

        It’s interesting to compare the testimony from interviews of actual enslaved Africans with the unimpeachable evidence of a Tarantino documentary.

        • Rhett Hardwick

          I have never spent any time studying American slavery, but I sometimes have cause to wonder. One of my ancestors was robbed and killed by slaves in the center of town. The court report of their trial is somewhere on the ‘Net. Apparently, they were perfectly free to “walk around” town.

  • Christopher C. Reed

    Great sequence from “Cabaret”.
    Love the old guy at 1:40…you can just see him thinking, Oh swell…here we go again.

    • Lou

      If that entertains you, you should watch most Americans when Lee Greenwood gets queued up at a Trump “rally”!

    • Rhett Hardwick

      lest we forget, the Nazis were democratically elected by appealing to those who thought they were deprived. Nor should we forget that NAZI translated to “National SOCIALIST German Workers Party”

      • Lou

        …and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea means there a democracy, right? I wouldn’t be naive enough to take how everybody self-identifies at face value. Terms like “freedom” and “prosperity” can ring pretty hollow when their only used as props.

        • Rhett Hardwick

          “take how everybody self-identifies at face value.” I expect it expresses some desire. No doubt N. Korea would like to be seen as “Democratic”. The NAZIs were adamantly anti communist, no doubt they were attempting to appeal to the borderline Socialists and give them an alternative. Whatever, it is not happenstance, it has a purpose.

      • Christopher C. Reed

        Good points. That “Socialist” branding was always a bit of a head scratcher for me. It probably played well to the free-lunch crowd…it always does. But the NSDAP were corporatist — they knew who cut the butterbrot. And they had plenty of help from this side of the Atlantic. The Brownshirts were kitted out with Connecticut’s finest, courtesy Prescott Bush/Brown Brothers Harriman. Nobody wanted to see a Red Germany, least of all a default on the external debt, and it had been a close one in Bavaria.
        Cabaret is great, decadent theatre. Quite the high point of Michael York’s career I think…I thought he might have had a shot at taking over James Mason’s franchise…alas. Joel Grey pulls off the star turn of his career.
        Today it would be the gormless antifagoons leaping to their feet…or knees, as it were. And the anthem would be less catchy.

        • Rhett Hardwick

          “But the NSDAP were corporatist — they knew who cut the butterbrot.” One distinction between “socialist” and “communist” is that a communist government “owns the means of production”, “socialists” simply desire to control it. Sweden is/was a good example of this. The government didn’t “own” Volvo, they just taxed it heavily to provide public amenities. “Gotterdammerung” might be a better movie to explain this.