The Search For Novelty : Progress Dies

30 Mar

An opinion piece by DS Davidson

These days, everything is focused upon novelty, upon change, upon THE NEW. Stuff the old-fashioned, we’ve got something new – and new means bigger and better (or should that be smaller and more sophisticated?). Western culture is obsessed with novelty – and that obsession is blinding people to the fact that a lot of what is ‘new’ is actually not much cop. In fact, most of it is not even very new – even the obsession with novelty is as old as the human race!

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with replacing something that doesn’t work with something new that does – that’s entirely sensible! The problem is that people assume something must be better because it is new and thus, obviously, more advanced. Now, that’s not true in itself – but it is an even greater fallacy when one actually examines these ‘new’ trends and finds they are not actually original…

As an example, let us consider just a handful of the more controversial ‘new’ ideas that are in the news at the moment :  Evolution, Paganism, Metrification, US Global Hegemony, Democracy and the EU. All five of these are things that rely upon their novelty to argue their relevance (you know the arguments, Evolution is true because it is modern science not discredited superstition, Paganism is good because it is not evil ol’ Christianity, Metrification is good because it is more logical than old fashioned Imperial, the US knows what is right for the world because it is out to create a ‘New World Order’ of freemarket Capitalism to replace the old ways, and the EU is good because it will end the old fashioned pan-European warfare).

As none is no more worthy of attacking than the others, let’s look at them in the order I typed them up… so, Evolution first. Yup, got to be true as it’s brand shiny new science and light of logic banishing away the shadows of ignorance. Um, not really. If you really want novelty, try Van Daniken or Intelligent Design. Evolution is nearly a century and a half old in Darwinian terms (Origin of Species, 1859) – from an era when most people believed that heavier-than-air-flight was impossible. And, if you get down to basic theory, it goes all the way back to Aristotle – that means it’s older than Christianity!

Paganism’s novelty is a strange beast – on the one hand it is the new way of understanding the world and it loves nothing better than to attack Christianity for the alleged excesses of Dark Age and Medieval Catholics, but on the other hand it claims to be the rediscovery of the ORIGINAL, pre-Christian religions – minus, of course, such dubious aspects as human sacrifice (can’t bully the Catholics if you have to admit to once having filleted virgins, I guess…) . So, whilst capitalising on novelty, the faith is based solely on a claim to great age. Of course, they really DO possess novelty, as very few have even a passing resemblance to anything likely to have been practised in antiquity (just as the majority of Churches would be unrecognisable to Jesus, John , Peter or the rest of them if they took a pew today). We could also drag in Buddhism here, except that true Buddhists have never tried to claim novelty for their religion, only ignorant Westerners expecting some Oriental miracle-cure.

Metrification :  a wonderful conceit. This relies on being more logical than Imperial (except that base-6 is at least as useful for calculations as base-10, if not more so), easier to remember (ie it is good because imbeciles can do it – in that case illiteracy is superior to literacy!), it is global (except Imperial was once almost as global and nobody insisted we all go with it then) and, well, modern. Alright, in a vague sense, Imperial measurements have been around for millennia – but in real terms they were defined and standardised in about the late Middle Ages with refinements going on for several centuries, so they are not much older than Metric which has its origins in Gabriel Mouton’s decimal measurements of 1670, being refined into modern Metric in 1790 and made compulsory in France in 1840. The closest it gets to novelty is the occasional redefinition (in microscopic terms) of the metre – maybe we could redefine the yard by a 1/16th of an inch every now and then to make it ‘happening’ or something? If we’ve really got to change how we measure things, couldn’t we at least come up with something better than the insipid nonsense that is the Metric System?

The US believes that, because it is a young nation without all that bothersome history, they can somehow be a global power without being an evil Empire. Unfortunately, it’s all that history that generally made the old Empires somewhat better at running their evil Empires than the USA. You can shout all you want about freedom and democracy but, when you plant your flag in another nation’s soil and make it do what you want at the barrel of a gun, then it is Imperialism – and that’s not a novel idea…

I think we can gloss over Democracy –  everyone ought to know that it dates back to ancient Greece (and, before anyone points out that it wasn’t ‘true’ democracy because slaves, poor people and women couldn’t vote – ask yourself whether the poor and disenfranchised have any real say in the modern version…).
The EU is not much of a novelty, either – even its current form is fifty years old and so dating slightly. Every lunatic with an army (whether of German stormtroopers or Belgian bureaucrats) and located somewhere in Europe has dreamed of creating their own European Union. It even existed once – it was called the Roman Empire and it did not bring peace to Europe (more the opposite – the Pax Romana was waaaay overrated…).

An old book says ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ and that’s true, even if it’s not very new. The problem with the search for novelty is that progress dies. Rather than searching for truth or trying to make things work better, people spend their time for the next ‘buzz’ and all-too-often find themselves being shortchanged and bamboozled with old ideas wrapped up in new packaging. Rather than just accepting that something must be wonderful because it’s supposed to be new, you need to start using your mind to think about things and decide for yourself. If you don’t, the next novelty experience you encounter might just be another old favourite – totalitarianism…

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