Friday, August 26, 2011

Jews with force

Roger Cohen used the following fragments of dialogue from Philip Roth's novel Deception to bookend his recent New York Times opinion piece on anti-Semitism and Jewish identity.

The novel's protagonist, a middle-aged American writer, is speaking to his English lover.

"In England, whenever I'm in a public place, a restaurant, a party, the theater, and someone happens to mention the word 'Jew', I notice that the voice always drops just a little... [That's how] you all say 'Jew'. Jews included."

When he returns to New York, he tells her that he has realized he had been missing something. What? she asks.


"We've got some of them in England, you know."

"Jews with force, I'm talking about. Jews with appetite. Jews without shame."

Nicely observed. (Sits uneasily, by the way, with Cohen's worthy but rather contorted reflections.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Anyone for chess?

This picture tells a sad story about priorities and cultural decline. In a corner of the mezzanine floor of the local library (or is it a community center now?), pushed up against an air-conditioning vent and adjacent to a fire extinguisher, sits a chess table and chairs. The pieces are set up - albeit that the kings and queens are on the wrong squares (white queen should be on white, black queen on black); and albeit that one pawn and one knight have gone missing! A tradesman has left a small paint brush on the table which nobody has bothered to remove.

When the chess table first appeared a few years ago it occupied a prime site within the library, but I have it on good authority that it was virtually never used.

In itself a trivial matter, but symbolic - and indicative not only of cultural trends but also of the pitfalls of public sector decision-making.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The boat sails on

The stand-alone pages (click under the Conservative tendency banner) are designed to sketch out in a concise way the political and ethical framework within which I am operating. But, since what I have written only imperfectly reflects my ideas, and also because my ideas are slowly evolving, there is a constant need to revise my notes.

I am reminded of Otto Neurath's famous image which compares our body of knowledge to a boat that must be repaired at sea: "We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, without ever being able to dismantle it in dry dock and reconstruct it from the best materials."

Today I put up a revised version of 'Conservatism without religion' under the new title, 'Modern conservatism'.

Sometimes I am tempted to go in a more scholarly direction. For example, I have been reading up on the philosophy of law. But, in some ways, such areas (the philosophy of mathematics is another that comes to mind) can be problematic. They appear rigorous and scholarly, but they lack a mechanism to create the convergence of views which characterizes scientific disciplines.

Debates between, say, legal positivists and supporters of natural law-based approaches - or indeed between legal positivists and legal positivists! - roll on for decades without any real resolution. Such debates produce divergence rather than convergence of opinion - growing lists of elaborate and more or less incompatible theories.

I have tried to avoid getting entangled in this sort of thing, stating my views as clearly and as plainly as I can. Not everyone will agree with what I say. There are facts and there are values, and values are necessarily subjective to some degree.

That's just how things are, and I am inclined to think that life would be a lot simpler and a lot more pleasant if that subjective element were more universally recognized and accepted.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The future of conservatism

Once upon a time - not so long ago really - the older generation knew things that the younger generation wanted or needed to know. There was a sense that certain customs, certain literary or artistic or cultural standards persisted through time and might be expected to persist into the future. Objective standards, if you like.

That Western cultural tradition, that thing which we felt as our tradition, is dead. There is no 'us' any more other than fragmentary groups with little prospect of self-perpetuation.

Nothing highlights the disconnect between today's culture and the past more clearly than the slow but relentless closing off of the channels of intergenerational communication. Young people are largely self-sufficient, communicating with and seeking information from one another rather than from older mentors. And, of course, digital technologies facilitate such intragenerational information flow, freeing it from restrictions of time and distance.

Declining fertility rates in many Western countries and in Japan seem to be linked to the failure of cultural traditions. Is it not possible that a loss of confidence in those traditions might be a contributing factor to low birth rates? Look at it from the point of view of the individual who identifies with and takes his values from a culture he sees as dying. Why go to the bother and expense of having a family when there is little chance one's children would carry forward one's values?

We have learned that genes play tricks on us (as it were) in order to encourage us to reproduce - them! But what do I care about my genes? What I do care about are people, certain values, certain cultural and intellectual traditions. I feel much closer to people who share my basic values (I am not thinking politics here) than to those to whom I might have a close genetic relationship but who do not share my values.

Let us assume, then, that traditional conservatism, predicated on the assumption that key values are embodied in certain institutions (the traditional family, churches, etc.), is in terminal decline. Is there any future for conservatism? Perhaps a new form of conservatism?

I am of the view that there is a set of values which might justifiably be called conservative which will always survive the demise of particular cultural traditions: values such as independence of thought, self-reliance, self-discipline and the generous spirit which expresses itself in good manners.

Such values are timeless and not dependent on particular traditions and so are resilient to social and cultural upheaval. They stand a better chance of being passed on than culture-specific values.

But the upholders of such values will be geographically scattered, constituting - if this is not too Romantic an idea - a kind of diaspora. Their promised land is not and never will be a geopolitical entity, but simply the prospect of meaningful contact and communication, a meeting of minds in the here and now, maybe hearing echoes from the past and radiating out into an indefinite future.