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?

Monday 21 September 2015

Something must be done: Adam Curtis and Bitter Lake

                                       Another Mass? Perhaps not such a bad idea after all...

I finally caught Adam Curtis' 2 hour + long documentary Bitter Lake on the BBC i-player yesterday. (Wikipedia article here. Iplayer here.) It's primarily a reflection on the US and UK involvement particularly in Afghanistan, with the message that Western governments began spinning a simplistic story of good versus evil to support their policies since Reagan, a strategy which has failed and led to foreign policy disasters and a remaining sense of confusion and hopelessness in politics.

It's well worth watching. Death, in particular, can rarely have been made more beautiful. My simple reaction (one that unfortunately others have got to before me: see the Wikepedia article) is that the attack on simplistic narratives is ironically in tension with the simplistic narrative of the film. It also teases. Practising argument by juxtaposition, it suggests that the banking crisis and ISIS are also areas in which this urge for simplistic solutions based on simplistic narratives have failed without doing much to back up these claims, however plausible they may be quite apart from the film.

Whatever else the film is, it is certainly an exercise is the politics of aesthetics. (One of the creepier moments is some well bred art historian lecturing a bunch of Afghans on the importance of conceptual art in nation building.) A well constructed piece can leave you with a sense that 'you've got it': that a convincing vision has been given you which has revealed the truth about a complex situation. Added to this is the vanity of the modern artist contra the bourgeoisie: I have seen through what others have not. Both are abiding sins of popularism and its political child, democracy. In two hours, I have seen what my preceding complete ignorance of Afghanistan might have been expected to be a poor preparation for; in two hours, I have seen through their knavish tricks. To the barricades!

Applying this to current British politics (and particularly 'progressive' Scotland) one might note the attractiveness of (simple) visions: it is like this, and those who disagree are simply fools or giant alien lizards. (That, by the way applies to many in both unionist and nationalist camps in Scotland. For every foam flecked cybernat, I could name a unionist commentator writing off the SNP as a cargo cult.) It also explains, I think, much of the gut reaction to attempts by various people such as Gerry Hassan and the National Collective to insist that creative dance and its ilk should play a key role in our political culture: aesthetics is an unreliable element in politics and perhaps the best thing is for politicans, as in Plato's Republic, to escort the artist to the borders of the State.

But in a wider way, it also a reminder that natural religion is part of rationality. As I've noted before, belief in God is something accessible to reason. To put it more strongly, if you don't believe in God, you're not (fully) rational. Now this is something that is profoundly unfashionable to claim, both within the Church and outwith it. (Note how both sides seem to chummily accept the label of 'faith' for religion.) This, of course, is not something touched on (well, except perhaps unwittingly through Curtis' use of Tarkovsky's Solaris) in Bitter Lake. But rational people in times past squared the circle between something must be done and not actually knowing what to do (or even knowing that there was nothing they could do) by praying. In the absence of a belief in prayer as action, the temptation to rush in and do something is increased. Prayer is however doing something, perhaps the most important something. That secularists are too irrational to see this and have to be left floundering around in a mad frenzy is of course unfortunate but there's little to be done when people close themselves off to a key aspect of reality...

Monday 7 September 2015

What are our duties to refugees?

Encountering a moral dilemma should make us reflect on our character. What aspects of the dilemma appear salient to us? What do others notice that we fail to notice? What actions would we take and what would we feel about it? How does all this compare to the standard of the practically wise person, the phronimos?

One aspect that ought to occur to such a deliberator is the luxury of thought: while I ponder, others die. On the other hand (and is that hesitancy itself vicious?) if we do not plan, we go blundering in and make matters (and often different matters) worse...

The efficacy of a photograph is that it can cut through to our natural response: to see a dead child is to be instantly reminded of that natural response to protect the weak. But to see a dying child and to be prompted to try to save it now is one thing. To see a photograph of a dead child and to vow to save others in the future is quite different. That latter involves planning and calculation.

Perhaps the one philosophical paper which has troubled me most over the years (as a person, not academically) is Peter Singer's 'Famine, Affluence, and Morality' (here). In it (and elsewhere) Singer argues we are morally bound in the West radically to alter our lives to save those of others facing (eg) starvation. Essentially, Singer bases his argument on the commonsense principle that a small good should be sacrificed to avoid a great harm. If, by (slightly) constricting our luxurious Western lifestyles, we can save lives, we should do so. (We should probably do more than that. But we should at least do that.)

And it is this that has sat in the back of my mind since a conversation at a post-graduate conference some twenty years ago where both I and an interlocutor admitted we were convinced but... I remember the principle. I remember the conversation. And yet.

So when I see the photo of a dead child, I put on my ice cold utilitarian hat, and I see just one more, very concrete example of a problem that very few seem to worry about: that while I sit here with my extraordinarily materially comfortable lifestyle, all round the world, others live in desperate circumstances. I don't know whether letting in 1000 refugees to Scotland is a good thing or not. (Who are they? What are the alternatives? Are there better alternatives? Isn't the constant desire to rescue people from their own countries and bring them to the only place where life really exists properly (the West) itself deeply suspicious?) But I do know that whatever happens to the thousands who might enter Europe, the millions left struggling in the Middle East and elsewhere won't disappear, except from our jaded awareness.

All this reflection leaves me nauseated by myself and frankly nauseated by a lot of the virtue signalling or callousness of the public debate. As something of a valetudinarian, I'm not even going to pretend that I would invite another family to share my home on a long term basis. I've given more to charities, but it's almost nothing. As I've said, even to stop and think about the issue seems an unpardonable luxury.

While living with this uneasy conscience, two things. First, Aquinas. Singer as a utilitarian neglects a proper view of human flourishing. The strong utilitarian case (according to Singer -and I think he is right here for a consistent utilitarian) ought to be that we reduce our wealth to the point that marginal utility is equalised:

The strong version, which required us to prevent bad things from happening unless in doing so we would be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance, does seem to require reducing ourselves to the level of marginal utility. I should also say that the strong version seems to me to be the correct one.

But we are not and should not be utilitarians. So the deeper, correct view is going to take into account other considerations such as those sketched by Aquinas (STh IIaIIae q.117, a.1) here:

Reply to Objection 1: According to Ambrose (Serm. lxiv de Temp.) and Basil (Hom. in Luc. xii, 18) excess of riches is granted by God to some, in order that they may obtain the merit of a good stewardship. But it suffices for one man to have few things. Wherefore the liberal man commendably spends more on others than on himself. Nevertheless we are bound to be more provident for ourselves in spiritual goods, in which each one is able to look after himself in the first place. And yet it does not belong to the liberal man even in temporal things to attend so much to others as to lose sight of himself and those belonging to him. Wherefore Ambrose says (De Offic. i): "It is a commendable liberality not to neglect your relatives if you know them to be in want."

 Reply to Objection 2: It does not belong to a liberal man so to give away his riches that nothing is left for his own support, nor the wherewithal to perform those acts of virtue whereby happiness is acquired. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. iv, 1) that "the liberal man does not neglect his own, wishing thus to be of help to certain people"; and Ambrose says (De Offic. i) that "Our Lord does not wish a man to pour out his riches all at once, but to dispense them: unless he do as Eliseus did, who slew his oxen and fed the poor, that he might not be bound by any household cares." For this belongs to the state of perfection, of which we shall speak farther on (Question [184], Question [186], Article [3]).

In essence, we are not required always to adopt Singer's utilitarian principle of sacrificing lesser goods to greater ones if we have a particular relationship to those benefited by those lesser goods (eg ourselves or our families).

Secondly, and apparently (but I think not really) in tension with that, there has to be a change of heart. Father Zossima's injunction in the Brothers Karamazov that we see ourselves as responsible for everything and everyone is not an algorithm: it could be applied to motivate the sort of neo-con interventionism that has probably done much to bring us to where we are now, But equally, unless we cultivate on a regular basis the understanding that all humanity is in this together whether or not we have recently seen a photo of some disaster or not, any chance of a genuine long term improvement in others' lives is minimal:

There is only one means of salvation, then take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men's sins, that is the truth, you know, friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for everyone and for all things. But throwing your own indolence and impotence on others you will end by sharing the pride of Satan and murmuring against God. [Here.]

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