Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Need for Conservative Spaces

In the year 2002, I was trying to work on a play for my local arts centre, along with a couple of professional actors. Nothing ever came of the play. During our discussions, one of the actors suggested I read Angels in America, a two-part play written by the American playwright Tony Kushner. Kusher also wrote (with Eric Roth) the film Munich, which I greatly enjoyed, and Lincoln, which bored me to death.

I can't say I enjoyed Angels in America, though it held my interest and the concept intrigued me. Its subtitle is A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The story involves actual angels, or at least, angels that some of the characters take seriously.

Tony Kushner. Not a conservative.
I'm intrigued not only by the play, but by the playwright. Kushner is a gay Jewish American socialist. One thing that intrigues me is that he describes himself as being an agnostic who is genuinely open to religion. He's also willing to be unabashedly political in his work, and to feature fictionalised versions of real-life characters.

I group him with other figures such as David Bowie, Clive Barker (the horror writer), and even (on a grander scale) W.B. Yeats. That is, they are artists who seem to see the life of the imagination as paramount (not always the case for artists), and who are determined to draw from every source for their art. They always want everything to be "in play"-- generally, they are interested in religion but opposed to dogma.

Although I could never be like that-- I'm a dogmatist through and through-- I find the type quite attractive.

Recently, I found myself watching a YouTube recording of an interview with Tony Kushner. (Well, it wasn't so much that I was watching it as that I had it on while doing something else-- a very frequent practice of mine.)

The discussion turned towards the use of political themes in drama. Both Kushner and the interviewer seemed like nice chaps, but one thing about the interview really irritated me. It was the shared assumptions. Both interviewer and interviewee, for instance, agreed that gay marriage was an unquestionably good thing-- this wasn't even something stated, it was simply the unspoken assumption behind their discussion of that topic. Similarly, they obviously agreed that Donald Trump was an abomination.

Now, some of my readers might think that Donald Trump is an abomination. Some of my readers (though I doubt it) might even be pro-same sex marriage. I'm willing to accept that people think differently from me on those topics. I'm willing to respect those different views. I'm sure everybody reading this has family and friends who are pro-abortion, and while that may grieve us, we still love them.

But, in almost any public forum-- especially those at the higher end of the intellectual and cultural scale-- conservatives must always deal with assumptions that everybody (or everybody worth considering) holds a full set of liberal, progressive, secular views.

We can respond to this in different ways.

One response is to keep your mouth shut and essentially lead a double life. Many of us have to do this out of practical considerations-- is it really worth losing your job to make your voice heard? Many of the rest of us will keep our mouths shut anyway, at least sometimes, just out of a desire for an easy life, or for the sake of a pleasant atmosphere, or out of sheer fatigue.

Another response is to accommodate the ruling ethos more and more until there isn't much left of your conservatism. It's salami-sliced away, at first under the guise of "using respectful language" or "accepting the truth of somebody's feelings", until there really isn't any of it left anymore. The cognitive dissonance of living in two mental worlds becomes too hard to take, and we slowly and gradually reduce the tension by accepting the ruling ethos, bit by bit.

A third response is to become a die hard. Not an inch! You might have to strategically keep silent now and again-- at work, especially. But no way in hell are you going to bend an inch aside from that. In fact, you're going to push back with all your force.

I think all these responses are unfortunate (the first one might be inevitable, for some people).

What's wrong with becoming a die hard, you might ask? Well, one of the reasons I think it's wrong is the coarsening effect it has on your own character. A person can't be angry or combative all the time without sacrificing some of their humanity, some of their range as a human being. You cannot live in the trenches without becoming a fighting machine.

And so I come to the actual subject of this blog post. (Please excuse the oblique approach. This is something I generally detest, but in this case it seemed justified.) I believe that conservatives today, more than anything else, need conservative spaces, both physical and virtual. We need places where we can talk to each other free of the liberal-secular-progressive-globalist assumptions which reign elsewhere. We need a sub-culture.

I think this is less true of America than it is elsewhere. American conservatives do have a sub-culture. There are Christian colleges and conservative news networks and conservative think tanks and so forth. (First Things magazine is an outstanding example.)

Outside America, however, this hardly seems to be the case anywhere-- at least, in the anglophone world. (A friend tells me it is very different in France and other non-anglophone countries.) The supposedly conservative media in the UK have given up the fight long ago, and now take refuge in irony and sarcasm. Whenever there is an exception, such as the excellent Conservative Woman blog, or Peter Hitchens's blog, it's surprising.

A British "conservative"
And in Ireland...? There is almost nothing in Ireland, other than the Iona Institute. Indeed, the Catholic Church itself tends to be a liberal voice in Ireland, except when it is backed into a corner and very reluctantly has to take a conservative line on some social issue. This is even truer of the other churches.

The crying need, in my view, is for conservative spaces where we can discuss things other than politics, religion, and the controversies of the day. Where we can talk about everything. And I won't even say "where we can talk about everything from a conservative perspective", because I think it's even simpler than that-- we need places where we can talk about everything without left-wing assumptions.

The main reason I think conservatives need spaces of our own is because we need somewhere to relax.

We're often told that it's good to have your ideas and preconceptions challenged. Yes, it's good-- some of the time. But surely not all of the time, or even most of the time.

As I've said, a person cannot always be in fight mode. I think this is true, not only in an emotional sense, but in an intellectual and artistic and cultural sense.

It's not good to be always on guard. To really develop, we have to be allowed to explore ideas, express uncertainty and conflicted feelings, question ourselves (without fearing that this will be immediately punished), be playful and whimsical, and basically behave like rounded human beings rather than politicians toeing the party line, or door-to-door salesmen.

We need to have internal debates and discussions. And not simply to refine our ideas, or to develop strategies, or anything like that-- we need them for their own sake. Because every collective entity that has ever existed, from a nation to a football supporters' club, has these things. They are quite simply signs of life.

We need places to breathe. We need places to hang out. We need places to be at home.

One area in which I feel this absence particularly acutely is movie reviews. Look for a review of any movie, past and present, and you'll discover it's very hard to find a review that isn't laden with left-wing and PC assumptions. Sometimes this doesn't matter, but often it does.

I often find myself looking for a conservative review of a movie-- not a critique of its liberalism, but simply an ordinary review which doesn't get hung up on the liberal talking points.

I can imagine a left-wing critic responding to this by saying: "Yes, but that's because most people are what you call "politically correct". Of course they're going to call out the racism, sexism, homophobia etc. of that old movie they're reviewing. It sucks for you that this is what most ordinary people do naturally, now. But it's not some kind of big conspiracy."

I don't agree with that critic, however. I don't think it's just a case of doing what comes naturally. I think many people feel obliged to go along with this-- even private individuals uploading movie reviews onto their own YouTube channel.

And this cuts across everything. Sports. Book reviews. History. Horror. The Irish language. Comedy. Everything.

I think, as far as possible, we need our own places where we can be incidentally conservative, or traditionalist, or old-fashioned. (And that's another thing-- I'm not talking about any one sort of conservatism here. I'm basically talking about all the social philosophies which find themselves outside the tent of liberal-secular-globalism.)

This is what I was aiming at when I set up the Irish Conservatives Forum, which has been surprisingly successful (though it could always do with more contributors). From the first I was clear that it was open to all definitions of conservatism, and even open to non-conservatives who were willing to get into the spirit of the thing.

At one point, I banned a contributor who was not a conservative but who was also not (in my view) conducive to the atmosphere I was trying to create. He was, to be blunt, a buzzkill. He did nothing but challenge other contributors from his liberal perspective and I felt completely justified in banning him, even though some regulars thought I was too harsh (as did he). He was perfectly polite, but that was irrelevant to me.

As well as being open to all forms of conservatism, my conception of the forum was that it wouldn't just be devoted to conservative topics but have a place for everything. For instance, I have a thread for original creative works, although it hasn't been terribly active. There is also a thread called "Conservatives Go to the Movies", for accounts of trips to the cinema. I was trying to create exactly the sort of space I am describing in this post.

This idea has also occurred to me in connection with the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland, that ghostly entity whose "flickering and wayward existence" perpetually haunts me, just like the ghost of Michael Furey haunts the protagonist of "The Dead". (I have spent a ridiculous amount of time asking editors to stop giving the address of its blog, which has not been updated in many years, in my author description.)

The Chesterton society was a good idea, and I do hope it gets off the ground again, but it often occurred to me that it would have been better as a simple Catholic book club. Many of the people who turned up knew very little about Chesterton and it seemed rude to exclude them from the discussion. So every meeting was always stuck at first base, and turned into a discussion of the latest Catholic controversies anyway. It served as an opportunity for Catholics to turn up and talk with like-minded people about all sorts of things. That was fine by me, but it was hardly a Chesterton society.
(The same thing happened to a Hilaire Belloc Society, which was more or less the same people in the same place. I wanted to merge the two-- in fact, I think they would have been better off as a general Catholic culture club.)

I would love to see other conservative spaces come into being, both online and in the real world. For instance, conservative movie reviews which don't set out to be conservative "take-downs" of the films in question, but simply ordinary movie reviews which are not hampered by left-wing taboos. (The Catholic News Agency website does have a section of this kind. But the reviews are not very long, not very numerous, and not all that well-written.)

The same approach could be taken to any number of other subjects.

The Irish journalist John Waters has often said that he is sick of being set up as the angry guy on the panel, the token conservative, wheeled out to say "No" to whatever the other three panelists were saying "Yes" to. Conservatism is going to shrivel and die if it continues to occupy only this role. It needs its own spaces, spaces where it can say not only "No", but "Yes, "Maybe", "I'm not sure", "This is quite interesting", "Good cinematography", "Terrible goal-keeping", and "Cool!". Places where it can breathe, and relax, and be at home.


  1. Found some similar wishes on the web after having liked your post with a heart smiling:

    1. Did Chesterton ever actually say this thing about the pipe, the pint and the cross? Not only can I not find it attributed to any actual text, but somehow I get the impression that Chesterton would never refer to a pint of beer as a "pint". Nevertheless I agree with the spirit of the blog post.

    2. You know him better than me and I think he probably never put it exactly like that either. Same goes for several of our best apologetic writers. These days are not the most noble for authenticity.

  2. I once tried to start a men’s book club at the Latin Mass I attend. The problems were a. No one read the books, and they expected me to summarize, b. They were often scandalized by any literature that wasn’t hagiography, and c. It would mostly be different people each time, since various commitments would always come up.

    1. Those were exactly the problems I had with the Chesterton Society. You can either set a text and expect people won't read it, or not set a text and not have anything particular to talk about.

      I'm in a horror club which is very successful (twentieth anniversary in January). But that's pretty much invitation only and the guy who runs it is good at inviting only people who will take it seriously.