Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why I am a Traditionalist Conservative (1)

There is a particularly funny moment in one classic episode of The Simpsons called "Homer the Heretic". Homer looks through his LP collection and comes across an album with the title "These Things I Believe", whose cover picture shows the artist sitting on the lap of the famous Lincoln statue, dressed in stars and stripes clothing. We hear this LP described as "a spoken word album of right-wing political views."

Not only do I find that hilarious, but I would love to hear this fictional album. I love to read books and articles whose titles begin with the words "Why I Am", whether it be Why I am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell or Why I am not a Pacist by C.S. Lewis. I guess I am just as interested in the personal and emotional reasons as I am in the more intellectual ones; I want to know what makes this person an anarchist, or a communist, or a nihilist, what that feels like, and how it relates to their attitudes to everything else-- right down to mundane matters like housework or etiquette.

As you've guessed, I am presenting my excuse for writing a post that I really want to write, and that is going to be unashamedly personal. I am not putting forward an argument for conservatism so much as trying to put down on (metaphorical) paper the reasons I am conservative and what that means to me. This is not because I egotistically believe that my opinions have any special significance. It is because I want to write it and because I enjoy reading such musings by others.

First off, I am a Catholic conservative, and the accent is very much on the "Catholic." If any of my conservative beliefs or opinions are shown to clash with Catholic orthodoxy, I will drop them like a dumb-bell.

Another point I should make, regarding my Catholic beliefs, is that conservatism (just like liberalism and most other life-philosophies) often appears to me as an embarrassingly this-worldly attitude. What should I care about cultural nationalism, or TV in pubs, or the survival of corner shops? Heaven and Earth will one day be rolled up like a scroll, and only immortal souls will count on that day.

There are two possible responses to this. One is to quote the film Gladiator and say "What we do in time echoes in eternity." That is true, of course. We are on a spiritual battlefield and it seems obvious that the terrain and conditions should play a part in that battle.

But that would be a rather insincere answer. The truth is that my conservatism really is this-worldly, to a great extent. There is a game played in Ireland, mainly in counties Cork and Armagh, called Irish road bowling. It has been played for several centuries. The survival of this game delights me, as does its regional nature, and its disappearance would depress me. But I can't see its relevance to the salvation of anybody's soul. So my response to the accusation that my conservatism is rather this-worldly is to admit that it is, and to hope that doesn't make me a bad Catholic.

What then, is conservatism as I mean it?

For one thing, it has little or nothing to do with the free market. I couldn't really give a fig about the free market. I'm not even sure the free market exists. Laws such as limited liability and intellectual copyright seem like "government regulation" to me, every bit as much as minimum wage laws. I don't see how any market can even exist without extensive government regulation. Big business seems just as scary and bureaucratic as big government. But I don't understand economics and I rather suspect that nobody understands economics, not even economists. If they did understand their subject, wouldn't they be better able to predict recessions?

My conservatism, then, is not economic, but cultural and social.

To many conservatives, "freedom" is the defining value of conservatism. Not to me. Of course freedom is necessary and precious-- you might even say sacred. But prudence is necessary, too, and nobody uses "Prudence!" as a slogan. Engineering and sanitation and abstraction are all necessary, but nobody's pulses are set racing by the very idea of abstraction.

Freedom is precious. But does that mean that, the more freedom we have, the better? Like many conservatives, I don't believe in the freedom to kill yourself, or to help somebody else kill himself. I don't believe in the freedom to shoot yourself up with recreational drugs. Nor do I only approve of the constraint of freedom in dramatic instances like these. I have to admit that I am vastly pleased whenever I hear of some petty local restriction that causes people to grumble and go a little out of their way, like the chewing gum ban in Singapore or the ban on alcohol sales on Good Friday in Ireland.

Once I was reading a Beano annual (for those of you who don't know, the Beano is a British comic for children). In one particular story, a scheming child who craved green jelly babies (jelly beans shaped as babies) put up a sign that read "Green Free Zone", and confiscated anything green that passers-by might have been carrying-- all in the quest for green jelly babies. I liked the idea of a "Green Free Zone" very much. I like these local restrictions because they create local character and interesting situations. A horror of sameness and rationalisation is a big part of my conservatism-- and insofar as petty regulations create interesting variations, I relish them.

To that extent, I even think that societies and settings in which freedoms are limited are often more pleasing to my conservative imagination. Boarding schools, small towns, religious orders, strict families, tradition-heavy universities, fraternal orders-- all of these seem more likely to breed the traditions, slang, folklore, nicknames, rivalries and shared memories that I prize, that I think make the world a richer and more interesting place.

So if freedom is not the catch-cry of my conservatism, what is?

I can't pick just one. I can't isolate one defining value that best describes my conservative outlook. There are actually three that seem essential to me; and they are tradition, character and gentleness.

I will describe these three cardinal conservative virtues in the next instalment of this over-indulgent post.

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