Friday, January 25, 2013

A Fine Summary of Social Conservatism by Peter Hitchens

...given in an interview to a Maltese newspaper, which can be found here. (He was born in Malta.)

He says:

My conservatism is not political, but social, moral and cultural. I think many old things are old because they are good – cathedrals, the music of J.S. Bach, the Old Masters, Shakespeare, all these are incomparably better than the trash, or second-rate stuff which now infests music, architecture, literature and painting.

I hate to see trees cut down, and find it hard to imagine what sort of person could imagine he has the right to destroy such a wonderful thing, which has taken so long to grow and can never be replaced. The same is often true of customs and virtues.

I am against anybody who would want to turn the world into a bare, treeless, concrete wasteland in which we all slaved in call-centres and sweatshops, travelling at the end of a weary day to cramped homes in which we gazed blankly at screens and consumed denatured foodstuffs, while our children were brought up (and indoctrinated in ideas that we do not share) by paid strangers. A ‘liberalism’ which destroys private life and cares nothing for beauty or tradition is just barbaric.

But I am for and alongside anyone who defends the freedoms of speech, thought and assembly, and the idea that, be ye never so high, the law is above you. These are the gifts that England gave to the whole world, and which it is now busy throwing away. I’m liberal as anything about them.

He pretty much speaks for me in this, though I don't have much of a taste for cathedrals or Bach. (I enjoy rock and pop music but I try not to listen to it because I know it is barbaric and my taste is a degenerate and corrupted one.)

What I like especially is the concreteness of Hitchens's mini-manifesto. He can point to specific things that he likes and that he loathes, and tell us he wants to preserve the one and avoid the other. I can never warm to ideologues who stand by some crude principle like the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or the removal of all compulsion, or the elimination of prejudice and discrimination.

Hitchens gets it horribly wrong sometimes (in one of his American Conservative articles, he claims that dogma inevitably creates "doublethink", when dogma is the only thing that really prevents doublethink). But he is a national treasure.

(By the way, some people might see a contradiction between my penultimate paragraph and my final one. But there is no such contradiction. A dogma is not the same thing as an all-embracing principle which is ruthlessly applied to human life in all its richness and complexity. The Catholic dogma that you may never do evil to bring about good is an example of the former. The libertarian principle that all compulsion is evil is an example of the latter. The dogmas of the Church preserve freedom, while the ideologies of the world do the opposite, even when they are in fact aimed at maximizing freedom.)


  1. That's a good point about dogma. I'll bear it in mind

  2. Don't be apologetic or ashamed about liking rock music. It seems a completely natural human impulse to me to be drawn to loud music with a strong beat, a catchy melody, a simple but soothing or energizing set of chord progressions. And some bands have woven rich and wonderful variations into that simple template.

    The problem comes when rock and pop music achieve "full spectrum dominance" of public and private tastes and subtler, deeper, more beautiful varieties of music are drowned out. Simpler varieties too that don't require amplification and mixing desks and the rest.

    I say this as someone who likes lots of rock music, a decent heap of country and western, some of the great classical works and who has a special fondness for polyphonic church choral music, both the continental and the Anglican traditions. (I think Peter Hitchens is also very attached to the last of these.)

    And don't give up on cathedrals. Try to think of them as C S Lewis suggests in The Discarded Image:

    "They wrote it (the medieval model of the universe), they sang it, painted it and carved it. Sometimes a whole poem or a whole cathedral seems almost nothing but petrified cosmology."

    Mind you, for this quotation to have its full force, you probably need to read TDI. Have you? Alongside Surprised by Joy, it's probably my favourite Lewis book.

  3. I never finished The Discarded Image but I liked what I read of it. I think cathedrals are just too overpowering for me.

    As for rock obviously know a lot more about music than I do (not difficult), and yet I can't help feeling that there is something destructive about rock and pop, even good rock and pop. It seems very crude, very stylized, very primitive almost. I can't appreciate classical music but I can hear that there is so much more nuance and subtlety in it, and even folk music doesn't seem to have the same brashness as rock and pop. I don't think rock and pop are incapable of expressing awe and reverence. I always feel bad after listening to it, as though my soul has been shrivelled. And I have been listening to it for years and years.

  4. That sounds like an allergy then!

  5. My curiosity is stoked though. Can you give examples of music that has left you soul-shrivelled?

    I've just been listening to Want You Back by Take That, a simple but really likeable melody (mind you, there all simple once they've been written), a soppy but endearing sentiment and an unfussy arrangement with some really nice touches, especially that little piano run. What's not to like?

    Earlier I listened to Springsteen singing Hungry Heart and felt exhilarated. Like lots of rock and pop music, these are moden folk songs run through amplifiers and beefed up by a drum kit and electric bass.

    Then a little Gillian Welsh. I don't know of a more tender, heart wrenching or thought provoking song than Orphan Girl

    But I know I might listen to Palestrina or Poulenc later and that will be on a different and, yes, higher plane, but that doesn't diminish the pleasure I took from the others.

  6. I like I Want You Back by Take That. I like Led Zeppelin, Queen, Horslips, Hot Chocolate, the Bee Gees, Rory Gallagher, Slade, the Beatles, Abba, Wings, the Sweet, Waylon Jennings, the Saw Doctors, Def Leppard, the Wildhearts, the Kinks, the Who...all of those.

    Somehow I just don't feel they nourish my soul, though, in the way movies or books do. They stimulate me, nothing more. Even lyrics that seem deep or striking turn out, on deeper inspection, to be trumpery.

    I don't appreciate classical music at all. The only classical music I've ever enjoyed (pretty much) are Dvorak's piano quintets.

  7. Hello. Excellent post. One thing that I have realized is that the idea, or even reading the word dogma, is usually met with such repugnance by those who aren't social conservatives let alone religious. It's like an allergic reaction to peanuts or something. Understandable, but at the same time weird ... and somewhat humorous.

    Does your site have an archive? I'm thinking of reading your blog from the very start.

  8. As Chesterton said, if we don't have dogmas, the only thing we are left with is prejudices. It does seem like an allergic reaction. In the same way that the word "institutional religion" or "organized religion" gives people the shivers, but "community" gives people the warm fuzzies. Well, how can you have a community without some level of organization?

    Yes, my site has an archive, bottom right!