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The Life of Facts
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The Life of Facts

We’re never more than one generation away from sweeping change.

Hey,

So, true story. About half an hour ago, I opened a great email from a Dispatch member (don’t worry, this isn’t a pitch). It was heartwarming and sincere, and it told a great story about how much The Dispatch means to him, his father, and their relationship. It was precisely the sort of email we love getting because it makes it all seem worthwhile. I forwarded it to a bunch of colleagues, saying, “Great email.” And then, right after I hit send, a ball of foulness that reason tells me was crow feces but that I strongly suspect was actually a fist-sized globule of orc phlegm landed right on my laptop keyboard, spraying stygian, chthonic foulness everywhere. It got in every conceivable groove and cranny of my computer. It ruined a perfectly good, just lit cigar, and it immediately sent my germaphobia into at least a 24-hour spike. I have now washed my hands so many times they look like I forgot to put   on rubber gloves when dissolving one of my victims in acid.

What’s the lesson here, other than “fecal matter occurs”? I don’t know. As Immanuel Kant said when he wrote the theme song for The Facts of Life, “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the facts of life.”

[Editor’s note for you young’ns: The Facts of Life was a TV show in the ‘80s. When it ended it was one of the longest running sitcoms in history until that point.* It was set in a girls’ boarding school. It wasn’t great, But back then we had only a few channels. The main character, Mrs. Garrett, had been the housekeeper on Diff’rent Strokes—a much more popular show—and she dispensed wisdom to the girls in her care.]

But what do we mean by the facts of life? Let’s dispense with the materialist interpretation quickly. Science and philosophy don’t overlap as much as they used to, but one place where the Venn diagram is at its darkest is the nature of reality itself. Entropy is a fact of life, and that means for people, planets, and the universe itself, time is a scarce resource. Even in a world of infinite abundance, if you spend time doing X you will have less time to do Y or Z. You can’t even experience X again the way you did the first time. You can only read a book or fall in love for the first time once. Tradeoffs are simply written into the metaphysical fabric of reality.

According to the song, the facts of life are “all about you.” The conservative in me wants to scream, “No, no, no!” at what sounds at first blush like narcissistic and relativistic treacle. The whole point of the phrase is to acknowledge that there are things inside and outside of ourselves that are permanent fixtures of life. After all, the whole idea behind the crooked timber of humanity is that there’s nothing new under the sun.

Margaret Thatcher famously said, “The facts of life are conservative.” She wasn’t arguing that the facts of life were part of the conservative coalition. She was saying something at once more simple and more profound. Governing, like life itself, is constrained. Every parent knows this. The more time you spend at work, the less time you have for family or friends. Going on this vacation precludes or postpones that vacation. Conservation of effort is another way of saying conservation of time. One of the curses of parenthood is watching your kids make the same mistakes you made, wasting time, and energy—both mental and physical—on stuff they shouldn’t. The universal conservatism of parenthood is best displayed when parents tell their kids, “I don’t care what the other kids are doing, you’re my kid and the rules for you are different.”

I believe all of that.

And yet: The facts of life can change.

For much of humanity’s existence, it was a fact of life that many, probably most, parents would experience the death of at least one child. Child mortality was so common until fairly recently that it was considered a normal experience. It was also a fact of life that even a small cut or sniffle could end with a painful death at what today would be considered an early age. In 1500s England, life expectancy hovered around 30. That average is weighted down by the fact that some 60 percent of children died by the age of 16. And many mothers might have beaten their children to the grave anyway. In A World Lit Only By Fire, William Manchester writes of a typical woman in the early 1500s, “On her wedding day, traditionally, her mother gave her a piece of fine cloth which could be made into a frock.” He adds, “Six or seven years later it would become her shroud.”

Most of the facts of life for Blair, Tootie, Natalie, Jo and the other girls in Mrs. Garrett’s care were, in almost every recognizable way, very, very different from the facts of life for girls their age for 99.99 percent of humanity’s existence. Many episodes revolved around boy trouble. Well, yes, girls have always had boy trouble of one sort or another. But given that romantic marriage—i.e. pairing up with someone for life just because you really dig them—is a relatively new invention, boy trouble meant something very different for a long time.

I want to be clear, though not in the way L. Ron Hubbard meant it. I really do believe in something called the facts of life, but I don’t think they’re always as obvious as we think. One obvious fact of life is that we are born with all manner of programming, tendencies, and instincts that come with being human. People in every age crave meaning and respect just as they crave food and water. The great task for a civilization worthy of being called “civilized” is to create institutions that channel those cravings in ways that maximize human flourishing. I believe most of those institutions are emphatically and indisputably “liberal” in the classical sense, but some of them aren’t. The family, for instance, isn’t a liberal institution, and making it one would be a disaster. 

You can’t change human nature, but you can change—for good or for ill—the incentives for acting on different aspects of human nature. And a healthy, decent society treats the best versions of those incentives as the facts of life, when in reality they are, in a sense, often vital fictions. A society that believes—and teaches—that honesty, decency, and hard work are essential to a good life will actually provide a good life for most of its people. And a society that is based on universal human dignity and political equality is a very, very new idea (heck, I wrote a whole book on that). Make these things the habits of the heart and they will be the facts of life.

The fragilities of life.

Two women got me thinking about all of this. The first is Queen Elizabeth, for whom I have nothing but respect and admiration. In many ways, she’s the epitome of Yuval Levin’s argument about institutions. She consciously bent her whole life—or at least 70 years and 214 days of it—to the demands of an institution.

But what I find fascinating is how her long life illuminates the brevity of, well, life. If you said she was the best thing since sliced bread, you’d be at least partly wrong because she was born two years before the invention of sliced bread.

When Elizabeth was born in 1926, Calvin Coolidge, of blessed memory, was president of the United States. When Coolidge was born in 1872, Ulysses S. Grant was president and the 18th person to hold that job. When Grant was 24 years old, President John Tyler, the 10th president, sent Grant’s unit to fight in the Mexican-American war. Tyler was born in 1790 when George Washington was still in his first term (Tyler’s grandson is still alive by the way). I can keep going but you get the point. This whole American experiment is, in the grand scheme of things, very, very new. It’s just a few lifetimes old.

The second woman is Liz Cheney. This week, she delivered AEI’s annual Walter Berns Constitution Day Lecture. The content of the speech will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the news since January 6. But the main takeaway from her remarks was that the Constitution depends on the habits of the heart of the American people, but more concretely on the people sworn to uphold it. When tested, a remarkable number of people who talk a lot about the permanence of the facts of life and the sanctity of the Constitution followed a very different set of incentives. Cheney’s whole point was that there’s no one out there but us. No parents and no politicians are waiting to put us back on the righteous path. We’re never more than one generation away from abandoning the American experiment in the same way the British monarchy is never more than one generation away from the ash heap of history. If we no longer think fidelity to the Constitution is a fact of life that all politicians must bend their characters to, it will no longer be one.

Indeed, the idea, or at least the phrase, “the American experiment” was born in the same year as Tyler, when Washington wrote that “the establishment of our new government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness by a reasonable compact in civil society.”

A bit later, Washington added that, “In our progress toward political happiness my station is new, and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodden ground.” He was right, of course. But the truth is we all walk on untrodden ground because the future is always fresh soil, and it falls to us to define the best version of the facts of life.

Correction, September 23: This newsletter initially claimed that Facts of Life was the longest-running sitcoms to that point when it ended. Happy Days and M*A*S*H both ran longer.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.