Monday, 23 December 2013

The Forces of Conservatism versus Relativism

Conservative is a misnomer for extremists
There is nothing more annoying than when commentators refer to radicals and militants as “conservative”.  By definition radicals are not conservative.  They throw away the lessons built up over centuries and go back to the root.  So the Islamic radical rejects the wisdom of ages in Muslim thinking, that has taken on board Aristotle, living amongst Christians and Jews and accommodated real human-nature.  In the same way the political radical, whether Bolshevist or Jacobin, rejects the institutions that have evolved over the centuries, in the hope of reverting to some ideal original state of nature.

Islamic extremism has been in the public eye recently with the trial of the two murderers of Drummer Rigby, in a brutal and barbarous attack.  It is the argument of this blog that what leads to extremist evil is a subjective approach to life that rejects the shared lessons of history.  In effect the radical attempts to shake off shared values accumulated over time and assert their own opinion in the place of common values.

Thus the young Islamist extremist living in Britain attempts to define himself against the more moderate and conservative Islam of his parents.  For the extremist the wisdom of the ancestors, the building up of knowledge and tradition, should be rejected in favour of the original, pure “truth”, which happens to be his own subjective view of the truth.  In Mali the Islamist extremists set about destroying traditional Islamic art and historical artefacts. 

Just because it's your opinion doesn’t mean you are right

The real danger to Western society is not dogmatism, but the rejection of shared dogma in favour of “my opinion”.  People talk about their opinions as though because they own them they somehow possess a special validity.  Actually it is only that person’s opinion and it cannot contain the experience of generations that exists in our traditions and inherited values.  It is inevitably a partial and limited view.

It also commands no intrinsic legitimacy.  For example, one of the late Drummer Rigby’s murderers claimed to be a soldier and justified his atrocious crime in this way. He did not really belong to an existing army it was just his own opinion that he was a soldier.  There is no existing army that I know of, with commissions, paid salaries and a duty to serve a head of state that gave him such an order.  I have not heard of such a State that would give this order, outside of the conventions of war, in violation of the Geneva Convention.  There was no call from the established institutions of the Islamic faith for a crusade; only some madman in a cave in Afghanistan had unilaterally created his own violent creed.  This so-called army has been set up without legitimacy and without authority.  The murderer’s view that he belonged to an army was nothing more than his subjective viewpoint – it was only his opinion, with no authority.  He is in fact a subject of Her Majesty protected by Her Majesty’s forces that he attacked and will now be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.  Whatever he thinks, that is what the case is in the real world.

Contrast this pretend “Islamist” soldier with Drummer Lee Rigby.  He belonged to a real army that serves an actual head of state and works to defend a physical nation state, with real boundaries and a rule of law and a Parliament.  This State is a signatory to international conventions on what its army will do and not do in war.  When individuals violate these rules, they are prosecuted by the State they serve.  Drummer Rigby’s real army is a vivid contrast to the imaginary army serving an imaginary nation that his murderer claimed to belong to.

The other extremists are just as subjective
This subjectivity and idolatry of one’s own opinion manifests itself in many other ways.  We see it in the animal-rights extremists, who have set up their own warped, subjective moral code and demand that others adhere to it – a code that justifies abuse of their fellow human beings in the name of their own idea of what rights animals possess.  We see it when traitors such as Edward Snowdon, who took the view that his own nation fell short in his own opinion and therefore acted in breach of the laws of his land to reveal secrets he was under a duty to keep.  A particularly dreadful example of this subjectivity and vainglorious philosophy is of course Julian Assange, who would rather see the West’s enemies benefit and her allies suffer than put aside his own ego.

Well, the common trap that ensnares all these people together is the sanctity to which they grant their own opinions, regardless of common values and shared traditions.  Whether in the name of religion, as with Drummer Rigby’s murderers or in pursuit of some skewed political ideology as with Juian Assange, these people share the same idolatry of their own opinions.

The danger of Liberalism leading to relativism
The danger is that the West, in attempting to remain true to its values of freedom and liberty is falling into the very same trap of accepting someone’s opinion is true simply because it is held – the danger of relativism and multiculturalism.  Tolerance is the sacred value of the West, which stems from its Christian heritage.  Tolerance means not persecuting that with which you disagree, it does not mean the values of society and our culture are neutral.  Replace tolerance with relativism and the moral authority is lost.

For example, how can you argue with the Islamic extremists without any grounding in faith yourself?  It is impossible to reject beliefs as false if you yourself do not believe in truth!  The greatest disrespect to all religions is to say that they are all equally valid, which means in effect they are all nonsense and invalid; rather the truly tolerant outlook is to remain true to our Christian values and to tolerate and speak to other faiths on that basis.  Not all beliefs are equally valid, many beliefs are wrong (as manifested on the Woolwich street)– but that cannot be said without we ourselves holding to a belief in something that is true.

Conservatism is the way to counter extremism
Conservatism is about accepting that our values are handed down to us and that we are shaped by that heritage.  We are not able to reinvent a whole set of universal values ourselves as we can only have a partial view.  Reject what is handed down to us and we lose the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors.

Now that does not mean accepting longstanding injustices, but continually comparing what is with what should be according to those inherited values.  Thus William Wilberforce in light of his Christian faith opposed slavery and Emily Hobhouse fought against Lord Kitchener’s camps for the Boers.  On the other hand, the Islamist extremist, the animal-rights extremist, the followers of Assange have all lost touch with their inherited values and turned their own, partial opinions into idols.  Only conservatism, by recognising civilization is based on shared, tried and tested values, can resist this subjective relativism and act as a force for moderation and piecemeal reform.     

Thursday, 12 December 2013

A Tale of Two Revolutions

In January 1649 the House of Commons’ High Court of Justice convicted the nation’s King, Charles I of High Treason and sentenced him to death.  Around forty years later Charles’ son, James II was chased out of Britain and replaced by a new King, Willliam of Orange.  These two different revolutions speak volumes about what works in terms of political reform and what makes matters worse.

The excesses of Charles I were to be supplanted by the far-worse sanctimonious-oppression that was the Commonwealth.  A judgemental, puritanical view had been taken of the real world and found it wanting.  Its solution was to tear down institutions and attempt to replace them.  The experiment did not work because it failed to follow the grain of human nature and relied on ideology.

This nation’s second revolution four decades later was pragmatic and worked with the grain of human nature.  It maintained the institutions of state, but reformed them and rearranged them to be more in balance with each other.  In the first revolution of Oliver Cromwell, Parliament and the New Model Army, Monarchy and House of Lords were abolished.  Anglicans and Baptists persecuted.  Folk traditions were stamped out.  Rather than recognise that all human institutions are maintained by flawed humans, the Roundheads seemed to believe abolition of institutions would mean human flaws could be overcome.

Parliament had learnt the second time around in 1688 that the flaws lay with the men who held these institutions on trust, not the institutions themselves.  They therefore kept the monarchy but constrained the power of the individual who filled the office. 

The argument of this blog is that the institutions themselves are natural, right and indeed Providential.  The blogger argues further that all institutions of Western, Christian Europe that are prescriptive and longstanding are legitimate in their own right.  Monarchy, Parliament, Church, nation and family are gifts handed down to us.  If we attempt to straighten out Kant’s crooked timber of humanity by stripping away these institutions we will cause that timber to splinter and shatter.  Because of the crookedness of the timber the answer is piecemeal not radical reform.  That is the lesson of our nation’s two revolutions.

This principle can be applied to the local and the domestic too.  Many families have their problems undoubtedly, but the family itself is a valuable gift to be treasured.  It is completely mad to say that because some individuals are bad and ruin family life that this means family life is itself bad.  No, it is our own flawed nature that can prevent us from living family life to the full.

Because some men are bad husbands to their wives or are unfaithful, it does not follow that the tradition of Man and Wife should be abolished, as some radical feminists might argue.  The problems are specific to the individuals and do not lie in the institution of family itself.

The answer from government and law should be to protect the wife from being disadvantaged, but not to downgrade marriage itself.  The specific mischief should be addressed not the institution attacked.  In the same way our longstanding institutions such as the Monarchy should be valued not abolished.  Our current constitutional set up means no individual could now abuse the office for the purposes of arbitrary government as James II did.

This is the lesson of our history:  When we attempted to abolish the institutions in an attempt to create a utopia we were confronted with a dystopia, where the institutions that bind us together were no longer there to hold our society together.  When we instead reformed specific parts of the mechanism of government in the Glorious Revolution we created a lasting settlement centred on the continuing institutions of constitutional monarchy and the established church.  That is the tale of our two revolutions and it is unfortunate that the French copied and took to its extreme of terror our first revolution rather than our second revolution. 


Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Nostalgia is good - Progressives might not like it, but there was a lost golden age

The current political class is dominated by the ethics of vanity identified by Jesse Norman MP in his book on Edmund Burke MP as liberal individualism.  This liberal individualism permeates the thinking of the metropolitan class that has the time and money to govern the rest of us.  It is the nadir of a gradual decline in Western thinking that puts the material before the spiritual, the modern and novel before tradition, the atomised individual before society and science before religion.

On the Left we see this reductionist outlook represented in its disparaging of institutions that make up the fabric of our society, sneering at valuable institutions from monarchy to marriage.  If we are all individuals the Left says we should not be oppressed by conjugal vows or subject to a Queen.

Meanwhile the Right has forgotten its duty to conserve our institutions and has turned a legitimate institution, the market, into an idol. It regards market economics rather than values and norms of behaviour as explaining human actions.  Patriotism and faith are replaced by rational choice theory.

Things really seemed to go wrong after the wonderful scientific discoveries of men of faith such as Isaac Newton.  This great deepening of our understanding of the material world, which began as a wonder at Creation was turned into idolatry of science, where science was claimed as the explanation of all things and our institutions and traditions were only seen as valuable if they could be justified by scientific tests.

Not only was this so-called Enlightenment anti-religious it was also in a sense anti- human.  The one man who did most to pervert our new scientific understanding was that serpent in the garden of philosophy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  At university the blogger undertook a whole module on this leading thinker of the Enlightenment and discovered a misanthrope.  He seemed to regard human interaction as leading to a destructive amour propre.  For him the human institutions that bind generations together with their accumulated wisdom were forces of oppression.  He therefore detested the society Man had built up in the light of religious faith. 

The French revolution with its belief that Rationalism independent of tradition could explain everything followed, with Rousseau as its hero.  Since then this rationalist and materialistic outlook has continued to attack tradition and faith.  It has chipped away at our social bonds, questioned the norms of behaviour that make living together possible and indeed life enhancing.

Much is attributed to the Enlightenment from individual freedom to parliamentary democracy.  England gives the lie to this.  Much of what people give the Enlightenment credit for was already underway in these Islands before Rousseau and the others put pen to paper.  Religious pluralism came about following the new settlement of the Glorious Revolution (one hundred years before France committed regicide), but this was only implementing ideas that were gradually developing following the Restoration in 1660.  Charles II’s reign might have seen reversals in the journey towards religious pluralism, but a compromise was being worked out.  It was finally achieved with the accession of William III, but not by reverting to the narrow Puritanism of Cromwell and the Regicides.

A middle of the road solution was reached without reference to abstract theory.  In good Anglo-Saxon fashion a compromise was cobbled together that allowed people to worship God true to their own interpretation of the Bible, Parliament was given freedom from Royal Prerogative and the Whigs therefore got what they wanted.  It was a compromise that worked however because it realised men live by tradition and affections not rationalist theory.  So the settlement preserved the monarchy and indeed the pageantry of monarchy.  It preserved the House of Lords and it continued with the Church of England as an established church – so the Tory affection for tradition was acknowledged too.  It recognised that while we must be free we are also social creatures who need institutions and traditions.

 Over the Channel, when abstract principles were followed rather than the lessons from history, the Terror and the guillotine resulted.  That is not to say that only the French make such a mistake.   While atheism and materialism took power by force in 1789, in the United Kingdom its growing strength has been more insidious and by stealth.  “Clever” people no longer respect our traditions.  They act as though our institutions survive by some strange accident, some oversight when we were embarked on dismantling the structure of oppression while on the road to liberty.  What they do not realise is that true liberty depends on these institutions rather than the false freedom of liberal individualism which is to be lonely and weighed down by the material world.

So people are right when they look back nostalgically to better times, because as these abstract, rationalist ideas have gradually permeated our nation more and more we are constantly losing what is life enriching. 

As we approach Christmas however the whole country returns home, casting off abstract rationalism.  Family, tradition and the Christ Child are seen again for how central they really are to our lives.  It is a return to the Merry England of carolling and wassailing, Christmas pudding (banned by the Puritans), Father Christmas, hunting (banned by New Labour), hawking and feasting.

So our resistance to the liberal individualists with their economic theories and their scientific explanations of religion begins when we wish each other “Merry Christmas”.  Certainly if we start to wish each other “happy holidays” instead, we have given up the fight.