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.