Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pure Conservatism

My brother is a Marxist. He's also a very good guy and we get on very well. We rarely get into discussions about our differing views of the world, and when we do, they are not head-on but usually about some incidental or secondary question. We both try to be gracious and respectful-- me about his Marxism, him about my Christianity.

Recently, he mentioned a lecture on Youtube delivered by a Marxist, and sent me the link. (We both like long lectures on Youtube. It's funny how 'lecture' and 'sermon' are both words that have taken on a pejorative connotation, and yet I like both formats.) I've only watched about fifteen minutes of the lecture so far, and I don't know if I'll watch the rest. The lecturer was avuncular and pleasant enough, and it was obvious that he was trying to avoid shrillness or tub-thumping. But, as is always the case when I listen to Marxists-- even Terry Eagleton!-- I couldn't get past all the assumptions and question-begging assertions that he indulged in. (I'm sure Marxists and others feel the same way about Christians.)

The question-begging moment that really stood out was when he mentioned the need for conservatives, and society in general, to justify inequality. My immediate thought was: Why does inequality need to justified? Isn't it just there?

Let it be understood that I am not a cheerleader for inequality, by any means. I think equality is a good ideal, in many ways. I believe everybody is of equal worth.

But I don't feel any sense of outrage that some people are wealthy while other people are not, or that some children have advantages that other children don't, or even that some groups are privileged in a way that others are not. The fact that people are homeless is a scandal, and the fact that children are undernourished or without prospects is a scandal, and active discrimination by public institutions is a scandal.

But the fact that some people are orders of magnitudes richer than others, and that some children have more opportunities than others, and that private people and institutions have (and act upon) prejudices-- I've never been able to feel that there was anything especially amiss about this kind of thing. In fact, it simply seems like the spice of life to me.

My bewilderment with the Marxist attitude goes deeper, though. I don't understand-- in the sense that I can't sympathise with-- the unspoken assumption of the Marxist, and of the radical in general, that every social institution, and every social custom and social practice, and pretty much everything, has to be justified if it is not to be thrown on the scrap-heap-- that the most logical attitude is simply to wipe the slate clean and start again.

The conservative-- the traditionalist conservative, at least-- cherishes an institution, or a custom, or a state of affairs, because it exists. They tend to be in love with the actual.

Because it's messy. Because it's old. Because it's inherited. Because it's irrational. Even because it's absurd or archaic or inconsistent. That seems more organic, human and interesting than an artificially constructed social order, no matter how rational.

I was reading a George Orwell essay today, one in which Orwell discusses spelling reform, putting forward various practical reasons why he doesn't think any system of spelling reform would work-- for instance, because most people don't want the bother of learning it.

It seemed so bizarre to me that he didn't mention the principal objection to the various schemes for spelling reform (which are usually forms of spelling rationalisation and simplification)-- that is, that spelling is a sort of fossilised social history, and of fossilised cultural history. Every silent letter tells a story. Why would anyone want to throw that away?

And the same could be said of so many other institutions; the nation, the family, art, the political system, humour, and so on.

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