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?


  1. Scotland does not need a William Buckley Jnr. He was a white supremacist,a segregationist, among other despicable traits.e.g. read his views on AIDS. A supporter of Franco et al. Punchily dynamic political realities? A champion of anyone on the extreme right ( J Edgar Hoover,Goldwater etc. etc.) whose views and power resulted in the demise and misery of many. A member of the Skull & Bones secret society (cavorting with dead porkers perhaps ?) Cuba,Viet Nam,Cambodia etc. etc. As a Catholic why could he not just strive to emulate Christ.

    Scotland needs intellectuals for sure, but most definitely not of his ilk.

  2. I think I'd reply to you as I'm tempted to reply to a lot of online discussion: 'Are you sure?' and 'How do you know?'

    I wouldn't expect *anyone* active in politics to come out with views that were always correct, particularly over a long career and particularly when one's main employment is as a cultural critic with all its temptations to hyperbole and simplification. My main reason for suggesting that Scotland needs another Buckley is that there is no one who, in a popular way which yet engages with a deeper intellectual tradition, is putting out a socially conservative position. (Which I think can be summarised broadly (as it was by his father) as God, family and country (in that order).) Moreover, his attempt at fusionism -the union of broadly libertarian thought with palaeo-conservatism- is one that I think needs to be thought about carefully. (The current Conservative party (let alone the GOP) seems to be almost entirely libertarian.)

    Turning to your specific charges, he would certainly have rejected the labels of white supremacism and segregationist. In part, this was because he came to accept that he should have accepted the Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s. In part, it was because his opposition to it even then was based as much on defence of states' rights against the federal government as it was any idea of racial superiority. (His brother's (Reid) book on the family's Mexican background is revealing about his extremely favourable attitude to Hispanics.) My verdict? Mixed. Certainly not a clearsighted grasp of the horror of racism, but that is an abiding danger of any social conservatism: that you will defend the wrong simply on the grounds of its long standing. (Just as it is an abiding danger of social liberalism that you will destroy what is worthwhile simply because you do not (yet) understand it.)

    To be continued...

    1. Most of the rest of your points cover his attitude to Communism where (contrary to many other US conservatives of the time) he thought the danger so great that it required decisive action and a strong federal government. (Nash's book is esp. good on this issue.) Frankly, I still don't know what I think about this: the 'imperialist' threat from the USSR, China etc was real and, although we now know the outcome, I'd hesitate to read back current knowledge into the 1950s and 1960s. An analogous problem now faces us with Islamism and ISIS. I'd be suspicious of anyone who claims to know with certainty what the correct set of actions is here. And I'd certainly not dismiss as clearly immoral anyone who urged some forms of decisive military action (although, as far as I can judge, this isn't the prudential path to follow).

      I know very little about the Skull and Bones society except tittle tattle. As with piggate, its 'colourful' aspects probably deserve lampooning and are probably of little importance. The substantial matter here is domination of political power by a social clique (of which Piers Gaveston and Yale are a tiny part). I certainly don't deny Buckley came from a privileged background (although his father most certainly did not). I think, on the whole, he made good use of those privileges. You clearly do not.

      On 'just emulating Jesus'... Well, in one sense, yes. (And the capacity for self-critique is one of his more attractive qualities.) But really, from a Catholic perspective, do you really think it is so simple? If you look at the Saints, they all tried to emulate Jesus but did so in so many different ways. (Eg: St Thomas Aquinas and St Joan of Arc both in one sense emulated Jesus. But can it really be said that their lives in any straightforward way follow from what we know of Christ's earthly life in the Gospels?) We, as Catholics, have the inherited (and rather complex) teachings of the Church on (eg) Social Teaching. This 'emulates' Christ, but to transfer those into a public life, whether as an intellectual or a politician is not a straightforward matter. I certainly wouldn't claim he always got it right, but portraying him as some sort of bogeyman strikes me, from what I have read, as simply wrong.

      Other than the books I've already mentioned, I've found Lee Edwards' 'William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement' most helpful. What do you suggest reading?

  3. The coin of WF Buckley is spun in the air with one side (me) as detractor and the other side (you) as champion/apologist. It spins,falls.bounces and rolls where it may.
    Am I sure of my detraction? How do I know? Probably from the same methods you use to become informed on any subject.

    I suppose my information/conditioning came from a then "counter cultural" attack/ perspective on a political "social conservatism" which righteously elevated its core values (god,family, country?) above those of others and directly and indirectly facilitated in the "demise of many".The wars pertaining to "the domino theory" then has now become the "war on terror" now. I watched/listened to his supercillious TV persona many times.

    His defence of States' rights given the unjust situation regarding civil rights etc.? Defending " the wrong" because of its long standing ? A priority Jesus would have taken?

    Yes , so very difficult to "walk in His footsteps". And so easy to detract. I'm no intellectual and no angel, but in my humble view when public intellectuals views (catholic or otherwise) prop up evil they perhaps would be better to uphold vows of silence.

    Suggested reading would be from Noam Chomsky. Now his ilk of public intellectual would benefit Scotland immensely.

  4. Ok. Two issues. First, there's our judgment about Buckley personally. I'm pretty open to correction on this. I'm sure Scotland needs someone who can articulate the depths of a social conservative philosophical position but in a way that engages with political realities. *That's* the job that I want a McBuckley for, and if you could show me (which you might) that my superficial impression of Buckley's strengths is ourweighed by his failings, then I'd stick by the job description but abandon the claim that we want someone *like* Buckley. (Incidentally, on the 'same methods you use to become informed on any subject': you clearly have an advantage over me in that you've been exposed to his TV appearances much more than I have. That is a real point in your favour: I've been very much relying on written accounts. I'll try and rectify that.)

    Secondly, there's the general issue of social conservatism vs the 'countercultural attack'. To the extent that the countercultural attack is an attack on 'God, family and country' as important locations of value, then I have little sympathy with it. To the extent that it is a gadfly attacking the abuses of those values, then it has great worth. (And that's pretty much my view of Chomsky as social critic: good as a gadfly; hopeless as constructive social thinker.)

    'His defence of States' rights given the unjust situation regarding civil rights etc.? Defending " the wrong" because of its long standing ? A priority Jesus would have taken?' 1) Putting aside Jesus for a moment, it's entirely rational to put up with an evil if the cure is worse. *That's* essentially the point about States' rights: that the harm done to society is worse than the evil remedied. It may of course be that in this case, that assessment was wrong: that the evil to be remedied was worse than the cure. But putting up with an evil because there is nothing that can be done without harming society more is a regular and necessary feature of political life and a cause of much misery when ignored. 2) 'A priority Jesus would have taken?' Well, I'd go back to what I said about the difficulty of drawing conclusions from the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life previously. But since Jesus did put up with the far more obvious evils of Roman imperialism in Palestine, I suppose the only possible conclusion would be that Jesus had little interest in social reform and was content to leave society as he found it. (Not what I actually think, but certainly the obvious conclusion from What Jesus Actually Did applied simplistically.)

    My own suggestion for (general) reading would be the Compendium of Social Doctrine and Papal teaching documents such as Rerum Novarum etc. I'm sure that neither Chomsky nor Buckley would come cleanly out of such an encounter. But I think Buckley stays in contact with it in a way that Chomsky doesn't . It is, in any case, surely from that central Catholic teaching on society that we should begin our navigation?

    Anyway, off to Youtube to watch Buckley in action!

    1. Interesting to watch Chomsky encountering Buckley: and . Judging from the comments underneath them, assessments of the two debaters depends on prior prejudice. But anyway see nothing to change my mind so far...

  5. 'We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another - doubtless very different - William Buckley Jr.' Sorry, Lazarus, I just couldn't resist it!

    Ok, from what I know of it, 'conservatism' in the US is an astonishingly rich and varied phenomenon which contains things worthy of admiration and even emulation (albeit the necessarily 'parochial' nature of all expressions of conservative thought would make that quite a challenge). This richness can come as something of a shock to someone brought up in a country where calling a man a conservative is, ah, rarely seen as a term of approbation.

    Having said that, I suspect that Scotland would need an accepted and enduring resolution of the constitutional question, whether as a genuinely equal partner in a revitalised if much looser Union or as an independent state - the details don't matter here, before the kind of conservatism you hope for becomes possible.

  6. ...and the coin rolls where it may.