Friday, 9 October 2015

More thoughts on what Scottish conservatives can learn from the US...

Having had a chance to think a little more about my previous blog on the subject...

There are some presumptions in my treatment of this question that were not clear to me but (in part as a result of helpful combox challenges) have become clearer. In no particular order:

1) Something I've been banging on about for years: not everything that concerns the polis is political. This is true in at least two ways: a) the most important parts of our social existence (the family, the little platoons of civil society, the interiority of the self) are only the concern of politics to the extent that politics needs constantly to be reminded that the State needs to leave space for them; b) for everyday politics to thrive, it needs to rest on a level of reflection about human life that sits between the abstractions of much academic debate and the daily grind of party political life. Neither of these truths is clearly or regularly acknowledged in current Scottish political life. Both are (or at least have been) better dealt with in American thinkers such as Russell Kirk.

2) The exclusive concentration on a UK perspective among most Scottish conservatives while understandable (if you think the question of the Union is key, then the battle is going to be dominated by this issue for the next few years at least) is destructive. Unless that deeper level of conservative thought about 'the permanent things' of human life retains a place in Scottish public discussion, then more damage will be done to Scottish life in the long run than whatever happens with the Union. To put it slightly more crudely than it deserves, it is more important that someone starts talking about (say) the place of the traditional family and a humane education in modern Scotland than whether or not Scotland becomes independent. (This is particularly true if Scotland does become independent and, for a generation or more, there is no conservative presence in Scottish intellectual life because it has previously focused entirely on the Union.)

3) I think what I find most admirable about Buckley and the National Review is the way that it created a landscape for conservatism. If you think that conservatism is concerned with the value of a number key things (eg God, family, country, scepticism, little platoons etc) you would expect a kaleidoscope of prudential judgments about how these values are to be realized. (And so on the one side (well, strictly, just outside the borders) you have radical libertarians such as Rand, and on the other ur-traditionalists such as Bozell in his Carlist phase.) One of the problems with modern conservatism (especially but not just in Scotland) is the lack of internal squabbling at a sufficiently deep intellectual level. A landscape of conservatism has to be inhabited by marauding and mutually (slightly) suspicious tribes.

4) We need to do God more. Western civilization is bound up with Christian theism. There's room for the humane sceptic, the Muslim (perhaps even (in Scotland) the Catholic) within a broad understanding of that theistic focus, but to allow the centre ground to be dominated by the assumptions of a militant anti-Christian secularism is commit intellectual and social suicide.

5) A particular point for Scotland. The history of Scottish nationalism is one that had a place for conservative understandings of society. I would expect (see 3) there to be different views on the place of the Union/Independence among modern Scottish conservatives. That (certainly in UKIP and the Conservative Party) there appears to be unanimity in favour of the Union is a sign of intellectual weakness and lack of depth. (It didn't surprise me -although it seems to have surprised many others- that the deepest conservative in the UK at the moment, Roger Scruton, came out broadly in favour of Scottish independence.) Given a conservative focus on the local and the place of tradition, it would be odd if some conservatives were not nationalists. Equally, given the conservative emphasis on stability and scepticism about the State's ability to improve human life, it would be odd if some were not.

6) A particular point for Catholics. There is a temptation, especially given the fideistic turn of much twentieth century Catholic theology, to turn from politics and questions of society towards pietism. Whilst it is important for us to remember the limitations of the earthly life, equally, a simplistic focus on our supernatural end is not in keeping with Catholic teaching. (Think St Joan of Arc. Think of the social teaching of Leo XIII.) At the moment, the neuralgic issues of Catholic teaching (sex and the family) are neuralgic precisely because they are out of step with modern, secular beliefs, and the 'push' to change Catholic theology and for individuals to fall away from the Church comes from this. While there is clearly a place for a simply reassertion of authority ('This is straightforwardly what the Church teaches...') there is also a place for defending a broadly conservative view of society on the grounds of human nature (or natural law if you prefer). If socially conservative views establish a hearing in the marketplace of political ideas, this will reduce the tension felt by individuals between what is socially acceptable and what the Church teaches. (There will always be a faithful, saintly remnant who keep the teachings, no matter what. But I see absolutely no reason why we also shouldn't strive to create the most favourable social circumstances for a 'just about solid enough' crowd to accompany them.)

7) I'm not mad about the label 'conservative'. It suggests a link with the Conservative Party which is (almost) entirely imaginary. (I see very little sign of conservatism as I mean it in the modern Scottish or UK party.) There is absolutely no reason why the key elements of conservatism (let's try God, family, country, little platoons, scepticism, tradition) shouldn't be present in most of the modern Scottish political parties. Indeed, it is essential if 'conservatism' is to function as a major part of the political debate, that it is wider than local party loyalties -that it becomes a landscape (see 3) in the same way that 'progessivism' seems to dominate current parties. So find another label if you can ('social' conservatism is the best I can do). It's the substance that matters.

8) And finally. I think  my previous cry for a Scottish William Buckley Jnr was one of those lines that creates misunderstanding as much as it helps by being striking. I don't think we should (or indeed could) import some aspects of American cultural war conservatism into Scotland. (You can take your pick on what these rejected elements might be, but I suspect that they might include aspects on race and projecting national interests through force. Perhaps, in general, we need to drop that sense of war in culture wars?) But this is a deep political struggle about culture: how people see their lives and flourishing as social beings. By all means take some of the intransigence and heat out of the debate if you can. But the fact remains that Scottish discussion about how to live in societies is dominated by a very narrow (and wrong) set of 'progessive' assumptions. It is for that cultural struggle that we need a McBuckley (and Kirks, Bozells, Burnhams etc etc): popularizers who remain in touch with deeper issues and are willing to create a genuine, socially conservative landscape of debate as alternative to the monotonous progressive dogma of what passes for public intellectual life in modern Scotland.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Catholicism as a hospital

                                                  'Sorry, luv, I'm actually a lumberjack...'

A thought experiment...

Say, per impossibile, at some stage in the near future, the ordained Church just became a hospital for the spiritually sick, in much the way that liberal Anglicans seem to interpret this. So basically we spend our time making the sad feel better and encouraging people not to feel badly about themselves or their lives.

What are the laity meant to do? It's perhaps straightforward for those in the 'caring' professions such as medicine: they go on patching things up and perhaps just do it with more intensity. But what of the many other Catholics whose jobs don't (directly) fit this caring pattern? What about judges and politicans and novelists and accountants? How do they simply become spiritual nurses?

Oddly enough, although Vatican II reemphasized that we are all Church, laity and ordained, the idea that the Church should become a hospital only makes sense if we understand 'Church' here as simply the ordained and members of religious orders, or if we understand the Church as only a tiny and marginal part of society. To be a hospital depends on there being an everyday life going on elsewhere, from which the sick emerge for treatment, and to which the restored return. That 'everyday' can either be the laity or the non-Catholic world.

Certainly, a lot of Protestant Churches do seem to think of the world like this: Church is a matter of patching up the evils of the world and hence not being part of that world. (The Erastian element of Anglicanism fits in very well with this picture: the State does the important stuff and the Church mops it up.) But the history and theology of Catholicism suggests otherwise: it has always been an important part of Catholicism (even if not always the (ordained) Church) to make our earthly life as good as possible: to the extent that the State is secular, it is a Catholic secularism which takes its Christian belief just as seriously as the Church.

If, as some seem to interpret it, making the Church a hospital for sinners means simply a day to day nursing, without judgment, without planning, then the only reasonable interpretation is that the laity have to do the necessary rest. So while 'the Church' patches things up, lay Catholics try to apply their Catholicsm to making the State, the family and businesses etc, as Catholic as possible. And just as it would be absurd to be a judge without judgment, a teacher without assessment or a police officer without a desire to enforce justice with violence if necessary, it would be absurd for a Catholic judge, teacher or police officer simply to 'care', at least in the manner of a nurse.

One of the strongest elements of Catholicism is its universality: it encompasses 'worlds and volumes of worlds'. So if, per impossibile, the 'Church' becomes simply a space for nurselike care, the Catholic laity, excluded from being the Church, will have to do the heavy lifting on the rest of the everyday life, making sure that as few as possible have to enter the hospital and as many as possible find a way to emerge from it. And it will have to do it without any help from bishops and priests because they will be entirely focused on 'caring' of a highly specialized sort...

So much for the thought experiment. I'm not suggesting that the Holy Father's remarks or general approach can't be understood in a perfectly orthodox way, primarily as a hyperbolic correction to a heartless understanding of Catholicism. But equally, I've come across enough people who think that, if we all acted like nursery school teachers, Catholicism would be better to suspect that the other side of the truth also needs to be stated. And that is that unless we think Catholicism is solely a religion for the ordained, religious orders and those who can closely imitate them, then we cannot all act like nurses. I suspect that what's often going on here is a sort of clericism (only priests and priestlike roles matter) or a sort of delegated secularity ('I don't believe in all that rubbish, but it's quite good for society that there are some people who do'). In neither case is this the Catholicism which embraces the full range of (good) human personality and roles.

Let's be concrete. If at any stage, the 'Church's' attitude to marriage was simply and immediately comforting those wounded by the idiocies of society's attitude to sex, then there would be a need for lay Catholics to do the judging and the compelling. Members of the family would have to tell straying husbands they are fools and to go crawling back to their wives. Friends would have to cut dead the adulterous betrayers of their other friends. Parents would have to bring up their children never, ever, to treat their spouses in the way they have seen others treat their spouses. Police would chase down those who refuse to pay for the abandoned children. Judges would have to allocate a just share of property. But the 'Church' would distance itself from all this messy highly judgmental stuff. Which rather seems to leave lay Catholics pursuing the good as 'outside' the Church.

I'm sure it all makes sense somehow.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Social conservatism and defending the nation

I've been immersed in reading about the trials and tribulations of twentieth century American conservatism recently (William Buckley Jnr, L.Brent Bozell, Russell Kirk etc). Mere curiosity aside, such a focus can, I think be defended on two grounds. First, there is something broader about the American conservative landscape that has allowed a greater variety and depth of views to be developed and defended, certainly when compared to the UK, let alone Scotland. Secondly, as a result of globalization etc, the American political landscape is, especially for Anglophones, our political landscape. (As an added bonus for Catholics, many of the major figures were Catholic.)

George H. Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 spends much of its time (in broad terms) considering the split between traditionalists and neo-cons (although he doesn't use those terms). A particularly dramatic moment which to an extent symbolizes the theoretical differences here is Willmoore Kendall's claim that a society has to be both closed to certain ideas and willing to defend itself against them by determined action:

Kendall acknowledged that 'liquidation [in this context, the deportation of Communists] of a minority' must be a very careful undertaking. But he insisted on two principles:

   ...a) that a democratic society that has a meaning to preserve, as I think that ours still does, must stand prepared to make such decisions, and b) that the surest way for it to lose its meaning is for it to tell itself, and its potential dissidents, that where dissidence is concerned, the sky's the limit.

(from The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945)

Putting aside the rather chilling 'liquidation', the fundamental point that all societies are closed to certain values is undoubtedly true. (To what extent that exclusion is permanent and how it is to be enacted are further matters.) But what (for the UK) is the content of those defended values? And so we are back again to the question of British values and how they are to be realized particularly in the school system.

Sticking to a broadly Conservative party and similar (eg UKIP) position, we seem to be stuck in traditionalist/Kendallian majoritarian space. Kendall 'rejected as inherently undemocratic any effort to limit majorities by bills of rights' (ibid). In rough terms, whatever current British culture holds to be right are British values. And so we are delivered a rather unstable soup of defending the British Empire, supporting the post-Reformation settlement, the Monarchy, Unionism and welcoming the post 1960s sexual experiment. To articulate it is at once to risk revealing its inconsistency and even incoherence.

On the other hand, from a broadly neo-conservative position, there is absolutely no reason to suppose that what tradition has delivered to us in British politics is any good, and certainly, not entirely good. British history, the state we're in, like all other human endeavours, is shot through with human failings and the evils therefrom. What is right in the tradition (and a certain inherent scepticism should make any brand of conservative careful about rejecting too quickly what we have received) has to be tested, for example, by the principles of natural law and right. And we won't be suprised to find, at times, that this will show the tradition to be wanting.

And what then of the Catholic Scottish conservative? Firstly, for any Catholic in the West, I think conservative in broad terms has to be the right label. For roughly 1500 years, the culture has been at least in intention Christian. Even though much evil has been done under that description, the system of culture aimed at there is one that has to be conserved against a culture that is often avowedly anti-Christian. But it is a set of principles, a culture, which to an extent always exists on the intellectual and moral horizon: we have failed -and will fail- to live up to it. Secondly, for a British and certainly Scottish Catholic, the tradition we live in is avowedly not entirely ours. For 500 years, we have lived in State(s) that have been mostly anti-Catholic: whatever we might share with Protestantism, we have absolutely no reason to think that there is an unproblematic set of  traditional British values that, despite a conscious opposition to Catholicism, have oddly remained still entirely Catholic. Whether or not traditionalism in politics is ever a viable Catholic political position, it is certainly not one in Britain. To bring it back to Kendall, the natural position of a Catholic conservative in the UK is one where majoritarian rule is tempered by principle.

Although I've focused in on the Catholic social conservative, I think most social conservatives would find echoes here. The Islamic conservative would find an even greater distortion of an initial revealed set of principles. Most Christians would find the last 50 years or so at least a drift from their principles. And the 'non-aligned' social conservative is left perhaps with a dream of Bognor in the 1950s, but the reality of the holders of political power cavorting with dead porkers.

Where's all this going? I think towards an awareness of quite how barren a political landscape the social conservative of that ilk faces. Political traditionalism in the UK is saddled with 500 years of Protestantism and 50 years of Vile Bodies. Neo-conservatism faces the problem of the absence of a basket of principles that is likely to command sufficient loyalty for effective political action. If there is any hope, then (as in post war America) there has to be an intellectual revival of conservatism first, which then establishes the ground for an eventual political revival. And (to return to Scotland for the moment) I see little sign of that, certainly in the supporters of the Conservative party. There we see the adoption of a political allegiance to progessivism or to the principles of the unrestrained free market. The main policy on which they agree is Unionism which, as I've argued, can hardly be regarded as essential to a principled neo-conservative case. No one is arguing the case for government (and indeed commerce) limited for the purpose of allowing the natural unit of the family and the little platoons of civil society to flourish.

This is, of course, the natural feeding ground of Red Toryism or Blue Labour. But both have limited traction in Scotland, their very names being here rather political insults. (And given current political realities, we really need a sort of Blue/Red (purple?) Nationalism.) I think we probably need a Scottish William Buckley Jnr and a National Review, an intellectual force that is genuinely intellectual but immersed in political realities and punchily dynamic. Any volunteers?