It was fifty years ago today! — Won’t Get Fooled Again
Fifty years ago, The Who released ‘Wont Get Fooled Again,’ the first single from their classic album Who’s Next, which followed in August. It is one of the greatest conservative rock songs ever recorded (a thin field, admittedly).
A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.
This might be a bit much: would Buckley have yelled ‘Stop’ at the American revolutionaries? Just as not all change is good, not all change is bad, either. The trick is to tell the one from the other. More modestly, and more usefully perhaps, the conservative performs a valuable function by standing athwart history, yelling ‘Hang on a minute, shouldn’t we think this through more carefully?’
…a value in the lessons of experience. They might well be telling us what not to do, but they might also warn us against certain mistakes. There is also a limit to our ability to reason everything from first principles. There are limits to our knowledge, for one.
So conservatism, at least in one sense, is a skepticism of revolutionary change. When we look at how the utopias of the 20th century played out in the Gulags of the Soviet Union or the Killing Fields of Cambodia, this seems valuable. And when you have one of the most successful social arrangements in the world – which the United States is – proposals to alter it radically ought to be set a pretty high bar to clear.
Come mothers and fathers Throughout the land And don’t criticize What you can’t understand Your sons and your daughters Are beyond your command Your old road is rapidly agin’ Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand For the times they are a-changin’
Much needed reforms in areas like civil rights were followed by increasing calls for broader change, almost for the sake of it. What was was automatically assumed to be bad and in need of replacement. What it would be replaced by was less certain. A couple of years ago, in our magazine Thinking Minnesota, I wrote that: “1968 did not usher in the Age of Aquarius,” which is probably just as well:
The Who’s Pete Townshend saw this at the time. In ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ first comes the revolution:
We’ll be fighting in the streets With our children at our feet And the morals that they worship will be gone And the men who spurred us on Sit in judgment of all wrong They decide and the shotgun sings the song
Then comes the aftermath:
The change, it had to come We knew it all along We were liberated from the fold, that’s all And the world looks just the same And history ain’t changed ‘Cause the banners, they are flown in the last war
There’s nothing in the streets Looks any different to me And the slogans are replaced, by the bye And a parting on the left Is now a parting on the right And the beards have all grown longer overnight
The Russian revolution ultimately amounted to replacing a dictatorial nonentity like Tsar Nicholas II with a dictatorial nonentity like Leonid Brezhnev. The Iranian revolution replaced the oppressive Shah with the even more oppressive Ayatollah. Mao Zedong was a popular figure with the revolutionaries of the late 1960s, but the Chinese who swapped the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek for the genocidal dictatorship of Mao may have thought, as Townshend wrote:
Meet the new boss Same as the old boss
In truth, the major British rockers of that period were more ambivalent about ‘revolution’ than they often appeared. On The Beatles’ White Album in 1968, John Lennon sang on ‘Revolution 1‘:
But when you talk about destruction Don’t you know that you can count me out, in
When the single was released, the lyric became:
But when you talk about destruction Don’t you know that you can count me out
Well now, what can a poor boy do Except to sing for a rock n’ roll band? ‘Cause in sleepy London town There’s just no place for a street fighting man
Once again, today, there are calls for radical change in the United States. Indeed, the “the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law” are under attack. As The Who warned us fifty years ago, be careful what you wish for.
John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.