Saturday, July 28, 2012

Why I am a Traditionalist Conservative (2)

In a previous post, I named the three cardinal virtues of my sort of conservatism as tradition, character and gentleness.

The first is obvious enough, I'm sure. Who is actually hostile or indifferent to tradition? Not even liberals and radicals, except those of the most hardboiled variety. Most people feel some call to honour their ancestors, to celebrate and perpetuate their national way of life, to pay homage to the past.

Futhermore, even revolutionaries can rarely resist the backward glance; Spartacus, the Peasant's Revolt, the Paris Commune and so forth.

In my case, the call of tradition is very loud indeed. I cherish all traditions. National traditions, family traditions, local traditions, school traditions, professional traditions, academic traditions...I can't understand why anyone would want to remove the wigs and gowns of judges, or force an old all-male club to accept female members (or vice versa), or abolish the English monarchy. It seems like the purest vandalism to me.

My love of tradition is so ludicrously strong that I once found myself feeling sad that the code for my workplace's staff door had changed. It had been there so long and now it would be forgotten...

I don't value tradition because it is (as Burke claimed, and as may be the case) a better guide than reason-- that is, the sort of reason that seeks to engineer society and redesign social institutions, based upon abstract ideas. I don't value tradition for its practical use, or for its distilled wisdom. I value tradition for its own sake. I like old things because they are old.

But why?

This seems to me to be one of those classic imponderable questions, like asking why people enjoy scary movies, or what makes funny things funny. But (as with those other two imponderables) I have spent some time thinking about it.

One thing we can say about tradition, and that may go some way to answering this question of why we value it, is that it cannot simply be willed into being. No amount of power, no amount of money, and no amount of ingenuity can create a fully-formed tradition. It can only be created over time, often at annual or longer intervals, and by a large amount of people, most of them anonymous and unacquainted with each other. Thus tradition has a strangely equalising effect; Christmas belongs to everybody, and unites people across time.

Another possibility is that tradition reconciles two contradictory desires deeply rooted in the human spirit-- the desire for the new, and the desire for permanence. To take the example of Christmas again-- every Christmas is a new experience, and yet it seems to stand outside time and even to unite us with those who went before, and who also decorated Christmas trees and sang Christmas carols.

But in the end, I am happy for the appeal of tradition to remain a mystery-- because I believe that everything that truly enriches life is mysterious. We can only see to the bottom of shallow things.

Character is the middle term of my conservative "trinity". By character, I do not mean moral fibre, but rather personality, distinctiveness, atmosphere.

We value our national traditions, such as the monarchy in Britain or the Irish language in Ireland, not only because they are old but because they make us special, different, unique.

A conservative-- a conservative like me, that is-- is somebody who wishes for a world full of character, and for all things to preserve their own character. His attitude to men and women is vive le différence, and he is suspicious of anything that might make the sexes more alike. In the same way, he treasures national distinctiveness. He wants England to remain quintessentially English, Russia to remain uniquely Russian. If he goes to America, he will take great pleasure in watching a baseball game, but he will frown if he hears of baseball being played in Ireland or England.

Within the nation, too, he wishes to find distinctive character. He exults in the existence of regional dialects, slang words, customs, attitudes. He wants Liverpool to be Liverpool and London to be London. Even within cities, he is pleased to hear of neighbourhoods with a particular reputation or atmosphere, and he dreads the advent of universal identikit suburbia.

I am not a seasoned traveller by any means, but I have paid several visits to Richmond, Virginia. In that city there are two "hipster" bookshops by the names of Chop Suey and Chop Suey Tuey. The shelves are packed with Jack Kerouac books, radical histories, gay and lesbian tracts, handbooks on New Age spirituality, and so forth. As a conservative, did I disapprove? Not at all. It pleases me very much that there are hipster bookshops out there. The existence of such a sub-culture seems to me to make the world a more interesting place.

A conservative of this sort does not fume and mutter about illiteracy when he sees a mispelling on a handwritten shop sign. He is pleased that the shop sign is handwritten rather than printed, laminated and composed at corporate HQ. He dreads a deadening rationalisation and a bland professionalism.

There is one final, and very important, point to be made about character. Even though it is linked to the idea of diversity, I have not used that word for a very good reason. "Diversity" has been hijacked to mean a kind of cultural and social free-for-all that, instead of increasing the world's diversity, actually diminishes it. Take the example of multiculturalism. It might seem that multiculturalism makes the world a more diverse place, but it does the opposite; instead of particular societies boasting their own distinctiveness, each becomes more like everywhere else; an anywhere rather than a somewhere.

The paradox here is that institutions and places and ways of life that are exclusive, stuffy, narrow and strict often do more to make the world an interesting and diverse place than those that are tolerant, cosmopolitan and open-minded.

This is also one of the reasons why a traditionalist conservative is ambivalent about the free market. He does not see the great blessing in having a Starbucks and a Subway in every town and village. He would prefer a local or family-run café, even if it was by all objective standards inferior to Starbucks or Subway.

"Fair enough", you say. "I give you tradition, which was entirely predictable, and character, which was only a little less so. But gentleness? What has that got to do with conservatism? Aren't conservatives the nasty party, the spoilsports, the perpetual begrudgers and curtain-twitching nosy neighours of the world?"

Well, I'll get to that in the third and final part of this post.

POSTSCRIPT: Some after publishing this post, I came upon this quotation from GK Chesterton's essay "What is Right with the World", which illustrates it nicely:

"In short, this vast, vague idea of unity is the one 'reactionary' thing in the world. It is perhaps the only connection in which that foolish word 'reactionary' can be used with significance and truth. For this blending of men and women, nations and nations, is truly a return to the chaos and unconsciousness that were before the world was made. There is of course, another kind of unity of which I do not speak here; unity in the possession of truth and the perception of the need for these varieties. But the varieties themselves; the reflection of man and woman in each other, as in two distinct mirrors; the wonder of man at nature as a strange thing at once above and below him; the quaint and solitary kingdom of childhood; the local affections and the colour of certain landscapes -- these actually are the things that are the grace and honour of the earth; these are the things that make life worth living and the whole framework of things well worthy to be sustained. And the best thing remains; that this view, whether conscious or not, always has been and still is the view of the living and labouring millions. While a few prigs on platforms are talking about 'oneness'and absorption in 'The All', the folk that dwell in all the valleys of this ancient earth are renewing the varieties for ever. With them a woman is loved for being unmanly, and a man loved for being un-womanly. With them the church and the home are both beautiful, because they are both different; with them fields are personal and flags are sacred; they are the virtue of existence, for they are not mankind but men."

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