I looked at a number of things over the past weekend. They all seem to me to fit into one grand pattern.
In The Wall Street Journal was printed a review of Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition by Roger Scruton. The reviewer is Richard Aldous, a professor of British History at Bard College and an author of works of his own on conservative themes (Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship and The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli are named in his bio). The review leads in with much exposition on the nature and history of conservatism.
I’ll likely not be reading the book any time soon. Although it is only 164 pages and, apparently, a good and quick overview conservative philosophy, my list of “must reads” has grown rather lengthy.
According to the review, while the book itself is not “dour,” the message of Scruton is that the conservative tradition is dying. Aldous goes on to suggest that, if there is a hope of survival, conservatism must draw upon its best traditions. Scruton himself, much to the delight of Professor Aldous, suggests that it is the liberal-arts colleges where conservatism can remain alive, no matter what happens in greater society. For those following the news, this may seem particularly improbable.
Also over the past week, I have seen some defenses of conservatism as the election of 2018 gets up to full-speed. William F. Buckley opined that “A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!'” That surely resonates with conservatives, but doesn’t that explain to a progressive exactly why conservatives are wrong?
Aldous draws a quote from the book that makes, perhaps, a clearer argument.
Speaking about the progression of conservatism from defense of monarchy through its anti-materialism and finally the alignment of conservative and “classical liberals” (libertarians) against socialism.
In all these transformations something has remained the same, namely the conviction that good things are more easily destroyed than created, and the determination to hold on to those good things in the face of politically engineered change.
This quote seems very much on point in today’s political environment.
Also this weekend, I started watching the BBC series from 1985, The Day the Universe Changed.
This 33-year-old show is about the discoveries that shape our view of the world and, in doing so, shape who we are as a society. It goes without saying that much of technology has seen tremendous change over the past three decades. In a particularly glaring example, narrator and creator James Burke makes a statement about how “the telephone” still looks the same as it always has (pointing to the standard issue AT&T model of the early 1980s) but has far more capabilities. But does that even look like a “telephone” to the teenager of today? Or does it look it merely look like an antique that she knows to be an “olden times” telephone because she’s seen it identified as such in pictures?
But oddly enough, his commentary on technology (if not the examples) still seems relevant. The comment about the form and function of telephones is a lead-in to the potential of the “microchip” to enable telecommuting. And while, indeed, technology enables telecommuting today, the discussion of pros and cons in which he engages remains relevant.
Counter-intuitively, the ideas that conflict with modern sensibilities are the philosophical ones. The ideas that most of us, and certainly 1985 Burke, would consider to be far more timeless.
The opening show is about the foundations of Western Civilization in Greek thought and particularly the pursuit of practical knowledge and understanding of the world over superstition and religion. This pursuit not only changes our understanding of the universe that we live in, but changes in a fundamental way who we are as a culture and even as individuals. The foundation is an argument for “Western Exceptionalism” that immediately hits the 2018 viewer as bordering on “crimethink.” Could someone get on TV today and say that Western Culture is superior to (as is his example) the Eastern traditions of Nepal? I don’t think so.
Towards the middle of the show, he talks about the rituals and institutions that we have. He specifically dwells on marriage, universities, and courts of law. He explains that we have made these institutions particularly conservative, both in traditions and in trappings. Each of these, we are shown on screen, have examples of its participants dressing up in archaic costumes to participate in the proceedings. Burke explains that this reliance on extreme conservatism in particular corners of our lives is a critical part of what allows our society to progress and flourish. Our culture is built upon the disruptive change that comes from scientific inquiry. A large part of the way we manage the change, and the individualistic thought that drives those changes, is by having certain cornerstones of society upon which we can rely. Deeply conservative institutions – like marriage, universities, and the law – anchor today’s tumultuous world in the ancient traditions of Western Civilization. Our identity can persist in a way that keeps us all sane even as our surroundings change at an astounding rate.
James Burke was not trying to be politically provocative with these statements and these examples. He did not mean “conservative” in the political sense. I would say he meant to draw examples that were self-evident to all his viewers.
Yet, to the viewing in 2018, each of these examples is indeed controversial and very political. Marriage is being devalued across the board while its conservative traditions are being systematically dismantled by the law. In the Law itself, we are moving away from the self-evident situation where law and order was a bastion of conservatism. Political control of the machinery of government remains heavily contested, particularly in America. But recent years have seen opinions abound that progressive has reached (or, at least, is on the verge of) a “permanent majority.” Law an order no longer is no longer the symbol of conservatism.
We also see that Burke absolutely agrees with Scruton and Aldous in that liberal-arts colleges are conservative foundations of Western Civilization, an idea that made far more sense in 1985 than in 2018. While universities were already rapidly changing in the 1980s, one could still identify as their purpose to insure that the instruction of the new generation of minds – the minds that are to go on and create the science, law, and culture of the future – had the same foundation in the Greek, Roman, and European traditions in common with generations of their predecessors. Yet today, it seems that the goal is to teach the new, progressive orthodoxy and stifle any opinions that might cause that orthodoxy offense. Certainly the “dead white males” from whom we learned in the 1980s must be offensive to the students and teachers today.
If Burke is right and these conservative rituals are part of what keeps society sane, what are we doing to ourselves in 2018? Progressivism is replacing these historical and universal truths with the “new truths.” Will we have to sacrifice society’s advancement in science and knowledge? Will we go insane? Or are progressives the ones that are right? Is there no virtue in going through the old motions for no better reason than that is the way they’ve always been done?
The last article I read, yesterday morning, finally throws a glimmer of hope athwart the steady march toward dystopia. The Wall St. Journal, again, published an opinion piece (Emily Esfahani Smith of the Hoover Institution) about the Heterodox Academy. A self-described “politically-diverse group” of professors and graduate students has identified and targeted the free-speech stifling environment of 2018 universities. If, truly, we are seeing a broad-based understanding that our society’s understanding of freedom may be hurtling in the wrong direction, we may be able to correct our course.
Hope remains that the twenty-teens may be seen as a weird cultural outlier where, very briefly, political discourse in the West was seized by the politically correct and became a black comedy. As long as the comedy sputters out allowing cooler heads to prevail, we may yet return to the path of progress that we all once enjoyed. But a few dozen professors at a conference is just one small step.
Finally, all this talk of revolution reminds me of a picture that popped up on my Facebook feed yesterday, courtesy of a political activist. The imagery here gives heart to conservatives who feel, one way or another, victory will be theirs. I have no illusion that the Second Civil War will be brief – it will be awful. However, if the recognition of the absurd imbalance between the warring philosophies becomes mainstream, we may yet walk away from this in one piece.