On The Instinct To Conserve

19th May 2020

I have found the 2016 election of Donald Trump challenging. But not in the manner that I first anticipated.

Even before the President’s inauguration, in January 2017, I felt the Left’s, and progressives’ response to Trump was loud and empty, like the cracked kettle on which we beat crude rhythms, for bears to dance.

I became frustrated by the media’s obsession with every bawdy, inane stunt of the President, the enacting of which is his governing tactic. Unburdened by strategy, Trump’s genius resides in tone. Through it, he gains popularity in notoriety.

The United States elected a needy, unloveable anti-hero mostly because he was a willing henchman for what many voters perceived as whimpering progressivism. Trump was odious, but also made sense. My enemy’s enemy is my friend.

In exploring beyond the Left’s shallow and obtuse response to America’s election result, I came to question my own media instincts, and some of my own beliefs. 

What is it that irked these voters about the Left’s and Clinton’s agenda? And what is it that the Right had to offer in response, despite the imperfections of its morbidly obese (Pelosi’s jest, not mine) messenger?

My path was a simple one. 

I sought out intelligent, thoughtful spokespeople who espoused views with which I was unlikely to agree. I sought to understand what they had to say – and to challenge those things I believed I believed in, and stood for.

The great benefit of such an enterprise is that one must ultimately land in the grey. There are few absolutes in nuanced thinking. The dappled Friesian on yonder hill is neither white nor black; it is both, simultaneously.

The central tenet of the Right is an instinct to conserve. That is to say, what we have inherited from multitudinous generations before us has merit. 

Conservation is not that same as freezing in aspic, for all time. One needs to reform in order to conserve – a sentiment of Edmund Burke, who is oft quoted by conservative thinkers, but rarely accorded his Irish roots. Burke’s exact words, dressed in 18th century swagger, are these:

“A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman”.

And thus, the Left and the Right are not so left-ish and right-ish as I had presumed. There is much of the Friesian about them. I had understood the nomenclature of Progressivism to stand in opposition to Conservatism.

It is not so simple. Conservation is less about full stops, and more about semicolons. It acknowledges what we have; and also seeks to make it better. 

One of my favourite articulations of this concept comes from Sir Roger Scruton, a public intellectual and hearty bombast who died in January of this year. Born of humble East Midlands stock, Scruton went up to Cambridge to fashion himself into a gentleman (his jest, not mine). He has many interesting and provocative things to say.

I have become comfortable in the presence of ideas I do not, ostensibly, agree with. Perhaps this is a rite of passage of middle age, to wade through a morass of incendiary tenets, never to lose one’s calm. 

It was not always so. 

I once pursued a man in the Irish Midlands (a participant in a research group I was facilitating) who commented that too many of the assistants in his local supermarkets were “foreign”. 

My knee-jerk ambition was, metaphorically, to have him repent. His words sounded so wrong. Our conversation became semi-heated. He protested that I was interpreting his words as racist. We finally found neutral ground and the confrontation diffused.

I left the room rattled – knowing that I had brought my own views into the neutral act of research. I learnt that listening is the first duty of learning. [It turned out that what he wished for were people who spoke colloquial English, and who understood his requests first time].

And I extend that duty to my life as citizen. 

Which brings me back to Sir Roger. He’s a philosopher with a doctorate in aesthetics, and a champion of Beauty. His believes that Beauty matters, and that without it we can find ourselves in a spiritual desert. In expressing his desire to preserve and enhance that which is beautiful, he gives a compelling explanation for the meaning of culture itself. 

Culture, Scruton holds, is the vestige of love. 

Preceding generations, in their wisdom, have decided on what is so beautiful that it is worth preserving. The result is culture. And culture is the thing that sticks, through time. The culture handed to us (to preserve, to improve) is the active imparting of love. 

It is a revolutionary idea, this instinct to honour the beautiful tradition, and distinguish it from the metallic allure of fashion. Where are my impulses to tear down those traditional forces which have controlled my life and judged me harshly for who I am? What of my interest in pluralism, progress, and diversity?

Well, these things are true and important too. The world is gilded in grey. 

One need not be just one thing; though one must vote just one way. 

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