Sunday, October 28, 2012

The intrinsic instability of secular conservatism

Razib Khan recently published an account of what secular conservatism means to him, and I am in sympathy with much of what he says. But he does not really come to terms with the anomalous nature of secular conservatism. It is an unstable and in many ways unsatisfactory position, but its unsatisfactoriness only becomes clear if one can see it from the point of view of a person with religious convictions.

Let's leave aside fundamentalist religion and its crazy, childish literalism and acknowledge that there are reasonably sophisticated forms of religious belief which are compatible with an intelligent approach to politics and social issues. Such approaches (unlike fundamentalist ones) are more or less within my intuitive range, and, from such a perspective, secular conservatism looks unappealing if not dubious.

Only a person with a religious perspective can have a strong sense of his or her conservative beliefs being anchored in something secure.

Sure, the non-religious conservative can look to history. But history is notoriously subject to alternative interpretations.

He or she can also look to extant social and cultural elements which exhibit some continuity with past practices, but here again there are problems. In a world like ours discontinuity rather than continuity is the norm. And, even then, the secular conservative must deploy a necessary - but also, in a sense, an arbitrary - bias against one (very important) class of cultural lore.

Razib skirts this problem. Why does his 'empirical conservatism' not apply to religious traditions? (If it did, by the way, it might begin to look something like William James's Pragmatism.)

There are clear psychological and practical advantages for those who find themselves able to embrace a set of religious doctrines or at least a religious outlook, to convince themselves that certain of their intuitions penetrate into a sacred realm rather than being mere tricks of the brain. It is potentially very appealing to feel linked to a higher power and bound in a profound and intimate way with one's co-religionists.

Arguably we evolved for this; it is natural for us. But reason and - in particular scientific reason, that particularly unnatural mode of thought - stands implacably opposed to religious modes of thought and feeling.

Scientific reason expels us from paradise and gives in return very little from the human point of view.

No wonder, then, that secular conservatism is an unstable and unsatisfying position. Much of what one values one is bound to question and possibly to reject. One is a conservative and yet (in the eyes of many) not a conservative, a liberal and yet not a liberal.

The temptation is always to flick the switch to something radical and irrational and more in line with our deeper, evolved natures. The Romantics knew this well, and out of Romanticism grew a whole range of potent ideologies of radical change and transformation.

Some of these ideologies - the most sinister in fact - looked to the past as well as the future. The radical conservatisms of continental Europe during the 1920s and 30s come readily to mind, and there are signs that groups with (albeit tenuous) links to this tradition of thought and action are gaining some support today, especially in economically distressed areas.

Razib Khan associates such traditions with what he calls rationalism, by which he means social or political thinking based on principles which are accepted as true or appropriate and applied willy-nilly. Top-down thinking as distinct from a bottom-up, empirical approach.

But rationalism can also be understood in a broader sense and contrasted with the irrational. And, in this sense, the author is clearly a rationalist.

Which is fine. But, as I have suggested, I think he fails sufficiently to see or at least appreciate the full extent of human irrationality, its depth, its inevitability.

The fact is that the elements of our nature which motivate action and drive us this way and that are dark and complex and a million miles from scientific reason.

Intellectuals are all too prone to retrospectively rationalize their choices, to present a favored view of things as consistent and empirically justified, as if an ideology were like a scientific theory.

In his article Razib Khan makes some good Burkean points about the wisdom implicit in cultural traditions etc., but the talk about human flourishing doesn't quite ring true to me.

This is partly because it is a jargon phrase based on reheated ancient philosophy. It is also because it is being presented as an ideal, a standard against which different systems may be empirically measured, and it seems to me too vague a concept to be so applied.

Vague, and maybe (in the wrong hands) dangerous.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The cult of food

There are two broadly distinct ways of dealing with food as a cultural phenomenon; and, you guessed it, one is good and one is bad.

One of these food cultures is eclectic and multicultural and puts food into the foreground. Food becomes a constant topic of conversation, as there is a constant need to choose, constant pressure to assess, to compare tastes and textures. Food becomes something of a cult object, an obsession even. This is the bad food culture (and, increasingly, the dominant one).

A good food culture (in my admittedly conservative opinion) puts food into the background, as is the case in any community which maintains the traditions of its national or regional cuisine. There is a limited repertoire, a pattern or cycle to go with most of the time, and no need continually to make choices and assessments and judgements, no need to talk about food much at all.

There is the health side of things of course. We know a lot more now about how particular diets can have dramatic effects on one's health and longevity, but, interestingly, traditional diets do pretty well on this front, certainly when compared to the sorts of diets encouraged by the proliferation and ready availability of convenience foods and confectionery. Eating used to be more restricted to certain times and places, healthily constrained by certain rituals.

But these rituals also had a civilizing function. Only when such traditional practices are functioning - and the focus is not primarily on the taste experience - can food and eating play their social and civilizing role.

Food talk is fine - to a point. But it is well to bear in mind that food is one of those dangerous topics which tend to expand exponentially to fill mental and conversational voids.*

* Like some forms of gossip. Or talk amongst older people about ailments. Or talk about the achievements of one's children. Or - worst of all, and worse than food talk by far - accounts of plans for the renovation of one's home and the implementation and progress thereof.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ethnic loyalties

People are naturally tribal in the sense of wanting or needing to be part of a close-knit group (or groups). It's a powerful instinct and any realistic political or social philosophy has to take account of it.

Ethnicity needn't come into it, of course. In an increasingly complex world, our group identities - more often than not - have nothing to do with 'race' or genetic relatedness.*

But our tribal instincts were originally based on such factors, and such factors still play a significant role.

My question is: how should one respond to this phenomenon?

Disapproval seems silly and futile.

On the other hand, encouraging a sense of racial identity and 'national self-determination' seems to me dangerous and irresponsible - though many (often well-meaning) groups, political leaders and governments encourage such thinking with great enthusiasm.

The only sensible approach seems to me to be to accept that ethnic loyalties are a fact of life, potentially dangerous, but not altogether negative.

The liberal left generally presents an incoherent - or at least inconsistent - view. They hold 'racism' to be a totally unacceptable attitude, and yet actively encourage a sense of racial identity in certain selected groups. In other words racial consciousness is good if your particular ethnic group has had a bad run in recent times, and bad if your people have done okay.

Ethnic or racial identification will be more important to some people than others, but it is arguably a universal human phenomenon and a constant of human nature.

Certainly not to be encouraged as a path to liberation and fulfilment (a crazy Romantic notion); or damned as an abomination if indulged in even in non-violent and moderate forms by white Europeans, for example.

There are problems with European racial consciousness, of course. People seeking to return to some imagined mono-ethnic paradise are deluded and maybe dangerous.

Associating oneself too strongly with the fortunes of a particular ethnic group (defined in racial terms) is, in my opinion, an unnecessary, misguided and often ultimately pathetic move. Those who identify with groups traditionally seen as having been exploited etc. run the risk of perpetuating a mentality of victimhood; just as those who identify with dominant groups often fool themselves (like football fans) into believing that they somehow share credit or glory for the achievements of others.

* Reflections on ethnic self-identification and nationalism always take place within (and are affected by) broader political and historical circumstances. My perspective here is decidedly Western, and most significant for recent debates have been memories of the colonial period and of the Nazis, and the current situation in various Western countries.

I would suggest, however, that the (at least in part ethnically-based) nationalism of a rapidly rising China will increasingly constitute the context - and perhaps the focus - of future discussions on these issues.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The concept of cool

Cool*, more often than not, is stupid. It's cool to live dangerously, but stupid.

Actually, I feel more comfortable talking about what's not cool than what is: the not-cool is more my area of expertise.

So, let me say that scholarly pursuits are not generally considered cool (though some scholars manage to be cool in spite of this fact). It is not generally considered cool to put a premium on safety and good health. To be too careful about one's diet. To plan. To spend any time or effort, for example, working out an investment or retirement plan. Definitely not cool.

Genes have got a lot to do with this. They want us (I am personifying them as a form of shorthand) to reproduce, and so distort everything to favor behaviors conducive to reproducing, but once we have passed the peak reproducing age they lose interest. They certainly have no interest in our leading long lives, healthy or otherwise.

I, by contrast, like the idea of staying alive; and I like the idea of having enough money and not having to work for any longer than necessary.

Cool is a trick, like fashion is a trick, like peacocks' tails are a trick played on peacocks by their genes.

People smoke cigarettes because it's dangerous and cool (in some circles). It may help attract mates. But it's stupid.

Drugs of course, and the whole rock culture (the culture, note, not the music). Some other music cultures. Driving fast. Unprotected sex. Getting into fights. Sky diving, scuba diving, white water rafting...

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Okay, so some people might have a good reason to jump out of an aeroplane or ride a wild river or go deep beneath the surface of the sea: soldiers, escapees, professional divers. They are not thrill-seekers; they are exempted from my criticisms.

Work aside, most of what most people do and are interested in is stupid.

Even if much of it is cool.

Cool may be stupid, but stupid is certainly not always cool. The really sad people are the ones who manage to be both stupid and uncool in their behavior.

So cool is not entirely negative. I am happy to concede this.

It is a fact everybody knows perfectly well as it happens: cool has its compensations.

* I know the word is hopelessly vague and ambiguous, but this is all part of the mystique of the concept I am trying to explicate here. You can't tie it down or describe it explicitly because its very nature is to be not explicitly definable.