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"The irrevocability of everything"

Submitted by Simon on Tue, 10/18/2011 - 7:36pm

That's the evocative phrase used by a fellow I was talking to recently, and it's a good lens through which to view the locution "such-and-such threatens to take us back." It is wheeled out in political contexts by those who say that conservative reforms would "take us back a century," for example, or "repeal the new deal," etc., and in the ecclesial context by those who say that various proposals (especially those that fall under the heading "the reform of the reform") would "take us back to before Vatican II."

The trope is exhausted, and I'm tired of it too. There is no going back; even if we erected the same juridical framework we had a century ago, to the letter, we would not be transported back to that world, because the world has moved on. And that's where the irrevocability of everything comes into play: The same bell, when installed in a a new bell tower, will have a different ring. Do people really believe that our progress towards women's equality, for example, has to do solely with legal machinery such as Title VII, rather than broad-scale changes in our culture? Only by making such an assumption could they insist that it would all be undone by repeal. (Such laws of course promoted the change, but it's one-way: Their enactment promoted change but their repeal won't undo it.) If anyone actually believes that, they're wrong, for the same reason that the so-called "tenthers" will be disappointed to discover that even reversion to EC Knight and National League of Cities will not reverse the federalized mindset of modern politics; the legal framework can be changed, but society has changed and those changes can't be called back by mere statutes.

So time move relentlessly forward. But that doesn't mean that mistakes aren't made along the way, mistakes that we can try to correct as we move forward—sometimes by recovering things we dropped along the way, sometimes by taking out and dusting off ornaments that were put in the trunk along the way. Of course, the folks who really wanted that stuff in the trunk aren't happy, but that doesn't mean we're "going back" by taking them out.

One problem with the progressive paradigm is that it can seem agnostic to destination. If we're moving forward, that's progress, right? Well, at risk of getting into teleological problems, we should care about where we're going, because we are going to get there. So we should think about where the road leads (thus which road we want to be on) and measure progress in terms of distance thence. And if we one day realize that we have taken a wrong turn and driven several miles on a road toward somewhere other than our destination—toward Hell or Hull or Halifax—progress doesn't mean forging ahead, it means turning about smartly and getting back to the right road.

Post facto
MP: Straight talk on altar girls (Oct. 19, 2011)

Agree and disagree

It is hyperbole to say that things would go back to what they were. Yet, it is hard to deny that there would not be some kind of backsliding if given the chance. Take Title IX out of college sports and you will see a rollback of a number of changes that have been made. Now, the argument can be made that somethings need to be rolled back. If we rolled back federal rules on voting rights, I think there is little doubt that there would be disenfranchisement in some areas. Will repeal something cause all progress to be lost? You are right, it won't. How far do you want to go? I think that is the question. My fear is that there are a lot who just want to kill good regulation and laws with the bad out of principle. I don't want to live in that country.

Speaking of irrevocability,

Speaking of irrevocability, the man who was going to turn back the clock, according to Sen. Kennedy:

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