Que no haya novedad (May no new thing arise)

That, as devotees of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series well know, is a traditional benediction spoken upon parting in Spanish-speaking cultures. It’s a way of wishing someone well, all new things by definition being bad.

It’s a window into a reflexively conservative culture, conservative in ways that English speakers can’t really conceive, lacking the vocabulary. English speakers may try to be conservative, but they speak a dynamic, world-shaking, innovating kind of language that doesn’t lend itself to a static culture.

I suspect that perhaps my own ambivalence toward change may arise from having spent a significant portion (2 years and 4.5 months, longer than I lived anywhere else growing up) of my formative years in Ecuador. I both get a warm feeling from that phrase, Que no haya novedad, while at the same time taking as much delight in novelty and innovation as anyone. There was a quiet, old-fashioned continuity there to which I became accustomed, it felt natural. But when I came back to the states, I got extremely high on the fast-moving popular culture. I reveled in it in a way that’s hard to describe, because I had come from a place that lacked it. I remember getting EXTREMELY excited about the new TV season that started in the fall of 1965 (“Green Acres,” “Lost In Space,” “I Spy” and so on). It was like an entire universe had been brought into being, and every sense I had was switched on to maximum sensitivity to take it all in. I was utterly uncritical; it didn’t matter whether these new things were of high or low quality; I just enjoyed the rush.

So today I both love exploring the new (blogging, social media, the latest gadget) and cleave lovingly to the traditional (the written word, standard spelling, etc.).

These thoughts are provoked by a piece in Salon to which Kathryn Fenner directed me that muses about the cultural roots of conservatism among English speakers, inadequate as it is. An excerpt:

This myth of primordial English liberty rhymed neatly with radical Protestantism. According to dissenting Protestants, the true church was the earliest church. Christianity had been corrupted over time, and Reformation required a restoration of the early, pure practices and beliefs of the apostles.

Put the myths of the ancient constitution and the early church together, and you have a view of history as decline from an original state of perfection, in politics and also in religion. Innovation is equated with tyranny in politics and heresy in religion. Virtue consists of defending what is left of the old, more perfect system and, if possible, restoring the original government or church. Progress is redefined as regress — movement away from the wicked present toward the pure and uncorrupted past.

This way of thinking is more or less extinct in Britain, its original home, but it became an important part of the political culture of the British North American colonies that won their independence from the mother country. Having become Americans, the former British colonists found it easy to replace the ancient constitution of the virtuous Anglo-Saxons with the 1787 constitution of the virtuous Founding Fathers, who were quickly elevated to the status of demigods like the legendary King Alfred.

I found the premise intriguing, if only in that this writer found yet another way of being dismissive of the poor, unhappy Tea Partiers. Liberals will always sneer at right-wing populists, and sneering is unbecoming. I find it offputting, anyway. So it’s refreshing when someone sneers in a new and fresh way.

Personally, I find the tea partiers off-putting as well, but I find much about what this writer describes as the “progressive” alternative unappealing as well. Consider this excerpt:

You see, while I don’t for a moment identify with the Tea Partiers (and my disapproval extends all the way back to the original of the species, Samuel Adams), at the same time I look upon the early republic as an ideal, and tend to believe the country’s been going to hell in a handbasket ever since Andrew Jackson was elected. Of course, within that there is a wide latitude. Just to be clear, I look back fondly upon John Adams more than Thomas Jefferson (who thought we should have a new revolution every generation). But you know, even if I lived back then, I couldn’t have subscribed to a party. I liked Adams, but not the rest of the Federalists. I liked Madison (when he was in Constitution-writing mode), but not the radical yahoos of his party. I liked Jefferson, when he was working with Adams, but not so much when he wasn’t. It’s complicated. In fact, think about it — both the “progressives” who think the Constitution should be a living adapting document and the Tea Partiers embrace Jefferson (while neither, alas, would give J. Adams his due).

And the problem with Tea Partiers is that for them, it’s not complicated.

7 thoughts on “Que no haya novedad (May no new thing arise)

  1. bud

    The problem that exists now in Washington is not one of too much partisanship but rather one of too little spine. With Evan Bygh’s resignation we are witnessing one of the most cowardly capitulations in American history by the Democrats. This is not the time to pursue votes of GOP politicians who make up barely 40% of congress and represent even a smaller share of the nation’s population. No. It’s time for the Democrats to become stridently partisan. Partisanship with a purpose can serve this nation well if it’s directed in the proper direction. The people of this country are not upset because congress is behaving like a bunch of partisans. That’s just a bunch of Warthen/Broder nonsense. Folks want results. They voted to end the war in Iraq. They voted to bring about a change in our health care system. They voted for aggressive action to correct the nation’s economy.

    All this mushy, bipartisan flap-trap is wearing pretty thin right now. I’m ready for some serious action. The biggest enemy to the welfare and security of our nation right now is inaction. The only cure is an aggressive and yes partisan action by the democrats. The time to act is now. Otherwise we’ll end up with a new round of GOP rule that only benefits the super rich. Isn’t it time to recognize that an economic system that allows CEOs to make 1000 times what the average worker makes a hideous aberation of the free market? In most countries it’s around 50 times. Shouldn’t that be enough? This tyranny is the result of the GOP getting it’s way. Given the far more destructive nature of their policies than the Taliban ever could render, they should be considered an enemy. Too bad that won’t happen.

  2. Doug Ross

    Bayh quit for $13 million reasons… the amount in his campaign warchest that he can now raid for who knows what. Plus he can become a high paid lobbyist and get the big bucks in return for all the deals he made while in office.

    It’s called quitting while you’re ahead.

    The Bayh decision IS important because it is a clear indicator of the fear that incumbents have coming into 2010. Harry Reid is likely to lose his seat… there will hopefully be a bunch of incumbents thrown out.

    I saw a pilot pulling his bag in the airport a couple weeks ago. He had a bumper sticker on the bag that said, “Re-elect NOBODY”. I told him I agreed 100%.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    Why is it okay for you to sneer at liberals who provide a detailed and well-supported critique of Tea-partiers and originalists, etc.? (aside from the fact that it’s your blog and you can sneer when you want to)

  4. Brad Warthen

    Is it “sneering” to say I find someone else’s sneering unappealing? I thought I was being quite gentlemanly about it.

    If I sneered, lo siento mucho.

    Y que no haya novedad


      “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” 1st Psalm
      I think you can honestly define “Sneering” as “Scornful”, neither of which advance the conversation.
      Sneering is an attempt to steal a mans pride when you can’t beat his argument, and the dumbest thing you can do is steal a mans pride; it’s of no use to you and critical to him, and he won’t rest until he gets it back.
      It ends the possibility of a pleasant conversation and it’s so hard these days to have an intelligent one.
      Besides, Sneering, I’m talking about weapons grade sneering here, screws up my sinuses because, if you aren’t careful sneering can easily slide over into snorting.

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