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.


  1. Beautifully said, as always. In the U.S., it appears self-reliance and self-discipline stand a fair chance of revival as part of the dominant paradigm. I do not know what can be done to restore good manners. I would choose to promote rude self-sufficiency over mannered dependency, but nowadays the only choice is between rude self-sufficiency and rude dependence. We have varying degrees of parasitism, and no one is well mannered.

    Morals, though, begin with manners. Absent religion or aristocracy, it is hard to see how the shared public aspiration to good manners can be maintained. Secular democracies are naturally prone to vulgarity. A few people, naturally generous or with heightened aesthetic sensibility, will appreciate the forms of refined social intercourse. They will always be a minority, reminding us that what is rare is precious.

  2. I was thinking not so much of refined manners as of a more basic level of good behavior - refraining from certain forms of gossip, from gloating, from bragging - that sort of thing.

    Thanks for the kind words.

  3. Yes, I see the distinction you are making. It is almost like what used to be called the gentleman's code, which, to be fair, also comprised a knowledge of the forms. But the heart of that code was consideration--"refraining from certain forms of gossip, from gloating, from bragging...." It is the very opposite of self-assertion. It does not seek attention. It does not raise its voice. It is thus not to be found on American television, though I may be breaking the code to say so explicitly.

    It is interesting to see how some Americans regard courtesy. A friend from New York interprets all considerate behavior as phony. She understands intellectually that there are people in the world whose consideration is genuine, but her first impulse is to wonder why anyone would be more than minimally courteous without an ulterior motive. Once convinced that a person is genuinely polite, her next thought is to wonder whether he may be too nice to be effective in today's world. Too self-effacing. Too weak.

    I remain optimistic that outside New York her view is still in the minority.

  4. Of course, some people are too nice, too accommodating for their own good, but there isn't any necessary correlation between courtesy and weakness. I like something Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont (blogging as Ana the Imp) said recently: that her bite was really much worse than her bark.

  5. "her bite was really much worse than her bark"

    Nicely said. Perhaps my friend from New York represents only a regional opinion. I certainly hope so.