Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Creative writers and our problems with change

Being creative doesn’t necessarily make us friends of change or of other people’s new ideas. Jonathan Franzen’s extravagant concerns about the impact of Twitter and Facebook on thoughtful, civil discourse are only a recent example.

In his 1945 novel, Cannery Row, in an obvious authorial aside, John Steinbeck had this to say about the hottest technology of age:

"Someone should write an erudite essay on the moral, physical, and aesthetic effect of the Model T Ford on the American nation. Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than about the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars. With the Model T, part of the concept of private property disappeared. Pliers ceased to be privately owned and a tyre-pump belonged to the last man who had picked it up. Most of the babies of the period were conceived in Model T Fords and not a few were born in them. The theory of the Anglo-Saxon home became so warped that it never quite recovered."

The affordable automobile did change life physically: it allowed cities to sprawl and hold together, it reduced the disadvantages of living in the hinterland, it made it much easier to get up and go somewhere else, and it became more difficult for local bosses and businesses to fend off outside alternatives.

Steinbeck’s portentous musings on the automobile’s moral and aesthetic effect, however, look silly retrospectively.

Cannery Road was set in California during the Great Depression of the '30s. At that time, two generations of Americans hadn’t owned a car to fondle, let alone make love in — and a decade later, only the affluent half of American families owned one. They, to be sure, were white, predominately Republican, already owned a family home, a small business, an active farm, or held trade or professional licenses. They probably didn’t know too much about the clitoris and still may not.

However, over two generations later, that happy half of early adapters is as passionate as ever about their property, their Christian God, American engineering, the work ethic, higher education, traditional marriage, grandchildren, civic duty, and low taxes.

The first to the best toys have money and usually remain conservative.

Tools like the automobile, mass circulation newspapers, colored televisions, commercial air transportation, mobile phones, and now the social media change what we do. They test our resolve and serve our appetites. They don’t appear, however, to change who we are, for better or worse.


  1. Please explain how the so-called Ford Nation fits into your thesis on conservatism?

  2. Don't know much about "Ford Nation". Hear they love to shop.