Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Review: "Conservatism," by Sir Roger Scruton

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
Review: “Conservatism,” by Sir Roger Scruton
July 10, 2019

Conservatives are not reactionaries. As Burke said, ‘we must reform in order
 to conserve,’ or, in more modern idiom: we must adapt. But we adapt to change
 in the name of continuity, in order to conserve what we are and what we have.”
                                                                                                Conservatism, 2017
                                                                                                Roger Scruton (1944-)
                                                                                                Philosopher and Writer

Labels are misleading. The terms “liberal” or “conservative” confuse substance with abstractions. To paraphrase Humpty Dumpty, labels mean whatever we want them to mean. If told I am conservative is it meant I am a tightwad in fiscal matters? Does it mean I favor martial law to a democratic process?Does it mean I am antediluvian in cultural ways? Does it mean I am anti-progress, preferring the past to the futureDoes it mean I am racist, xenophobic or misogynist?Does it mean all, or none of the aboveI know what I mean when I claim to be conservative, but do others?  For me, conservativism is about freedom – free to speak, write, assemble and pray. But it also includes respect for tradition and for the opinions of others; being responsible for one’s actions and accountable to other. It means a belief in the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and a commitment to values, like honor and duty. I believe strongly in family and in loyalty, and that the Constitution provided freedom for religion, not from religion. I believe government is an instrument of the people, not the other way around; that we must be ruled by laws, not men; it assumes a vigorous military, but one reflective of the nation’s citizens and under the control of a civilian president; it is the welcoming of legal immigrants and those legitimately seeking asylum; and it is an understanding that debt, while having useful purposes, when excessive has consequences, including political pressure to keep interest rates artificially low. 

The subtitle of Mr. Scruton’s short book is “An Introduction to the Great Tradition,” and that is what this book is – a primer on conservatism, a guide through the history of the discipline.  “…modern conservativism arose as a defence of the individual against potential oppressors, and an endorsement of popular sovereignty.” But it also recognizes the role communities and government must play in civil society. In institutions and traditions, there are kernels of wisdom without which, Mr. Scruton writes, “…the exercise of freedom is as likely to destroy human rights and entitlements as to enhance them.” 

We are taken on a sleigh ride from Aristotle to Niall Ferguson. He writes of Edmund Burke (1729-1797), “…the greatest of British conservative thinkers…” and Adam Smith (1723-1790), who “…provided the philosophical insight that gave intellectual conservatism its first start in life.” He cites Thomas Jefferson’s (1743-1826) contribution to conservativism, in his “insistence on continuity and custom as necessary conditions for constitution building and also for his warnings against the centralization of political power.” He writes of Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) and their belief that “only in a free market do prices provide a guide to the economic needs of others.” He notes the role of cultural conservatives, like T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), George Orwell (1903-1950) and Allan Bloom (1930-1990). He quotes George H. Nash (1945-) on William Buckley (1925-2008), as “the pre-eminent voice of American conservatism, and its first great ecumenical figure, ecumenical because Buckley attempted to synthesize in his writings and his life the three principal aspects of the American conservative movement: cultural conservatism, economic liberalism and anti-communism.” 

Scruton differentiates conservatism from libertarianism, where the latter is interested only in the bare minimum of government necessary for the maintenance of individual freedom, while conservatives believe more is at stake: “Society depends for its health and continuity on customs and traditions that are at risk from individual freedom, even if they are also expressions of it.” He adds, “The philosophical burden of American conservatism has been to define those customs and traditions and to show how they might endure and flourish from their own inner dynamic, outside the control of the state.”

Conservatism has long been portrayed in pejorative terms, as privileged white males who, as Franklin Roosevelt once said, “stand on two legs but never go forward.” Conservatism has been under attack more recently by intolerant liberals purporting to fight for equality and fairness. It has been most common in universities, where administrators and professors blindly reject alternative opinions. We have seen “liberal” entertainers call for the assassination of President Trump. We have witnessed this hatred manifested in violent attacks by Antifa, most recently on journalist Andy Ngo in Portland, Oregon. Roger Scruton has not been immune from this scourge. George Eaton a deputy editor of the New Statesman interviewed him last November. By taking Scruton’s responses out of context and resorting to Twitter, Eaton was able to get Scruton fired from his unpaid position as chairman of the UK commission, Building Better, Building Beautiful. Indicative of his own character, Eaton then posted a photo of himself online clasping a bottle of champagne: “The feeling when you get right-winged racist and homophobic Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government advisor.” He later deleted the photo.

Perhaps, though, there is a shift in the winds. There are a few on the Left who have begun to realize that they may have gone too far, that they are partaking in a “sort of progressive feeding frenzy,” as Victor Davis Hanson recently wrote. This tendency toward extremism is not new to the left. It periodically surfaces. We saw it in 1968, in the attack on police in Chicago at the Democrat National Convention, and in the militaristic occupying of college campuses in the late 1960s by groups like SDS. When attacked by George McGovern on his policies in 1968, Lyndon Johnson, who had pushed through Congress the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, told a reporter: “You know the difference between cannibals and liberals? Cannibals eat only their enemies.” But attitudes may be changing. In his 2019 book, A Thousand Small Sanities, the left-of-center Adam Gopnik wrote: “The contemporary left can sometimes seem to have an insufficient respect for the fragility of the very same liberal institutions that allow its views to be broadcast without impediments.” In These Truths, Harvard professor Jill Lepore bemoans that studying the United States as a nation fell out of favor. She has migrated from the progressive fascination with identity politics to the Declaration of Independence as her guiding star. While she does not whitewash America’s past, she wrote: “There is also, in the American past, an extraordinary amount of decency and hope…” There are defenders of conservatism, like Boston College professor Kenneth Kersch’s recent book Conservatives and the Constitution. As well, the “Intellectual Dark Web,” or IDW, has become prominent, a group that includes Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan, all who have articulated opposition to identity politics, political correctness, multiculturalism, intersectionality theory and perpetual grievance.

So where does President Trump fit into this discussion. I like what he has done overseas, in terms of accentuating the hypocrisy of global institutions, bringing attention to supercilious Europeans who have taken advantage of the U.S. in terms of their own defense; I like him for calling out the Chinese for having done the same in trade and in stealing our technology, for naming the Iranians for what they are  – seekers of the bomb and exporters of terror; and I admire him for defending Israel and being honest about the Paris Agreement, which was nothing more than a glorified mechanism to transfer wealth. I like what Mr. trump has done for the economy, in terms of taxes and regulation. But he is coarse, inarticulate and egotistical. However, like George M. Cohan (as played by James Cagney in the 1942 film “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), he knows what ordinary people want. But he is not a defender of classical conservatism. Just look at the increase in national debt. As well, conservatism incorporates contrition, manners and respect for others. One might argue those traits are no longer possible in today’s dog-eat-dog world. Perhaps? I hope they are simply taking a temporary leave of absence.

Sir Roger’s book is timely. Freedom is fragile and must be constantly tracked. The risk to our democracy is less the threat of terrorism, global warming or an attack by Iran or China, and more dissolution from within. When the central government assumes too much power, over-regulates and/or puts in place laws that constantly monitor and govern people’s behavior, freedom is the loser. To ward against that threat, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo established a Commission on Unalienable Rights at the State Department to be chaired by Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon. The purpose: to ensure that our human rights – those granted by government – are grounded in America’s founding principle of unalienable rights, which are universal and not granted by government. They include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In this post-Soviet Union period, those rights have been challenged by ad hoc (or human) rights, which include healthcare, old age pensions, education and basic income. Real freedom depends on the pursuit of unalienable rights. A focus on human rights, while desirable in a compassionate community, can detract from those that make us a free and independent people.  It is not that human rights should be abolished; though we must be wary of suffocation by kindness. It is that we cannot lose sight of those rights that are unalienable. Keep in mind, anything that government grants, they can take away, and that as dependency waxes independence wanes. 

In the 2006 revised edition of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, George H. Nash asked: “Whether conservatives could thrive indefinitely without victory in the context for our culture wars was, perhaps, the great unanswered question about American politics.” The question, in my opinion, remains unanswered, as intolerant professors and skittish administrators dominate our universities and colleges, as the incident regarding Oberlin College and the Gibson Bakery so vividly demonstrated, and as mainstream media serves as advocates for progressive causes, rather than as skeptical reporters indifferent to political philosophies. Scruton writes of the need to adapt – to change in the name of continuity, “in order to conserve what we are and what we have.” He emphasizes the importance of the first-person plural “we,” as it binds us together. Our identity is not one of gender, race, sexual preference or religion; it is one of being American – citizens of a sovereign state, governed by laws not men, where we are free to write, speak or act, subject only to rules of civility – that what we write, say or do does not infringe on the same rights of our neighbors. 

Roger Scruton has done a public service in producing this small book (155 pages). Not all will agree with his conclusions. He is controversial, scorned by the left and too often undefended by the right. But a reading should cause thinking people to question their assumptions and to decry the use of labels that do more to confuse than clarify.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home