In the centuries leading up to Galileo, the Aristotelians thrashed around desperately trying to save the astronomical doctrine–named after Ptolemy–that had the Earth at the center of the universe. But the more we learned about the actual universe, the harder it became to sustain the theory, according to which the heavenly bodies moved in circular orbits, and the only fixed, immovable point in the universe was…us. Even Copernicus, whose name is permanently attached to heliocentrism (planets revolve around the sun, not the earth), tried to salvage the theory of circular planetary orbits; it took Kepler to sort out that orbits are elliptical. Copernicus kept on diddling with the orbits by inventing endless “epicycles” to account for the annoying fact that the planets didn’t show up where they were supposed to be.
In other words, annoying facts had subverted a beautiful theory, and the beautiful theory had to go, even though many of those who called attention to the annoying facts would be burned at the stake, thrown in jail, censored and ruined along the way. For many happy years, Barbara and I and baby Simone lived just off Campo dei Fiori in Rome, where Giordano Bruno was burned alive for daring to suggest that the beautiful theory didn’t account for the real world. There’s a grim statue of Bruno in the Campo, a durable reminder of the dangers truth tellers encounter for speaking their minds.
Sometimes these “paradigm shifts” happen very quickly. Other times are maddeningly slow. And we’re invariably surprised when the beautiful theory bites the historical dust, even though we had long known the theory was claptrap. Gorbachev probably knows that subject better than most…his whole world collapsed along with the myth of communism.
However, the myth lingered, and has had a brief reincarnation in the person of President Obama. Now its hollowness is being exposed once again, as the failures of the state overwhelm us from many sides. The Obamacare fiasco attracts the most current attention, because it causes so much direct pain to so many people, and promises even more for more in short order. The various “fixes” are replays of the epicycles, and will have the same effect (footnotes in the history texts of the future).
The beautiful theory can’t be saved. The only question is how long it’s going to take to scrap it altogether. Sometimes it takes a very long time. Galileo was only fully exonerated by the Church a few years ago, after all…
What’s so important about the current paradigm shift is that it may do away with both a theory and a system of government. When Ptolemy and Aristotle-the-astronomer were sacked, it didn’t produce a political revolution, but if–IF–the beautiful theory of the-state-does-all is thoroughly rejected, its consequences could, and should, be global.
We’re now in a post-Galileo world, politically speaking. The theory of the “perfect” nanny state that will solve all our problems, cure our ills, and deliver us unto happiness is overwhelmed by annoying facts. We’ve known for years that centralized national power doesn’t work. All the rich states have tried it, and failed to fulfill its promise. But still the true believers insist that they can make it work, at least until they run out of others’ money.
We had several Galileos, from Thatcher and Reagan to Hayek and Friedman, from JFK (thanks, Ira!) to a generation of smart Czechs. Do we, here in America, have enough good leaders to spell out the nature and the urgency of the moment?
Or will the bonfires of the vanities consume the Cruzes, the Lees, the Palins, the Walkers and the others who are sounding the alarm?
There is nothing automatic about this process. It is all about winning and losing, about battles won and lost, about courage and opportunism. Ptolemy isn’t going to quietly surrender to Galileo, he’s going to keep inventing new epicycles and insisting that the planets move in perfect circles.
As I said several years back, we’re in for a hell of a fight. Just being right isn’t nearly good enough. Come look at Giordano Bruno.