AN UNCOMMON THOUGHT

"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

11 February 2018

Defence.

Nicholson, On the Downs, 1924


Leftists are, on the whole, hostile to aesthetic solutions, dismissing them as cosy, comfortable or kitsch. They campaign against the classical revival in architecture as “pastiche,” and against the New Urbanism of people like Krier. They see the countryside conservationist movements as the work of privileged people trying to monopolize the views from their windows. Sometimes their arguments have a point; but their hostility to aesthetic judgement goes deeper than the arguments that occasionally justify it. Consensual solutions, like the old pattern books of vernacular architecture, which enabled people to slot their houses into a common street, and to build side by side without offending the neighbor, typify the conservative approach to society. These consensual solutions take the form of traditions, conventions, easy-going ways of accepting one’s lot and making common cause with one’s neighbors. They are quintessentially unthreatening, and contain no admonitions of the puritanical kind that appeal to leftists, whose fundamental desire is to shake people up, to undermine complacency, and to appear at those tranquil windows like a vision of the apocalypse. The reason why the environmental movement has been captured by the left is that it lends itself to this ambition. It provides terrifying scenarios, which seem to justify the total overthrow of existing orders, while encouraging the kind of control from the top that would put enlightened leftists at last in charge of the endarkened middle class. But it could be that the middle class, with its plodding adherence to aesthetic norms, might have had the solution to the environmental problem all along, and that it was only the growth of the modern state, with its arrogant schemes and inability to respond to its own massive failures, that has jeopardized our future.

That brings me to the second important motive from which conservatism arises, which is the love of home. This too is anathema to leftists. All attempts to build the love of home into some kind of political order offend against the cosmopolitan uprootedness of the left intellectual. What is worse, they smack of nationalism, of xenophobia, of those fundamental distinctions between “us” and “them” which are the natural effect of settlement and which cause people to do and think the appalling things of which leftists so much disapprove. Thanks to the love of home people defend their country from its internal enemies (McCarthyism); they campaign against illegal immigration (xenophobia); they resist multiculturalism (racism) and insist on bringing up their children in their own ancestral faith (Christian fundamentalism). All the lamentable habits of Middle America can be seen as expressions of this single instinct, and all are under attack for that very reason.

Yet it is the love of home that provides the most effective motive on which the environmental movement can call—more effective even than the habit of aesthetic judgement. I think that leftists, over the years, have become aware of the greatest weakness in their philosophy, which is that the ordinary citizen has no motive to go along with it. He may have a grievance against the person who got the job he was aiming for; but that does not make him an advocate of “social justice”; he may be interested in contributing to sports facilities at the local school, but that does not mean that he wants the state to own the children or dictate what can be taught to them. On the whole his motives are as the conservative supposes them to be: love for his family and his home, and a desire to get along fine with the neighbors. This love of home spreads outwards to include his country, its customs, and its flag; and it is this outreach of the homing instinct, which will awaken him, when prompted, to the environmentalist’s cause. It is precisely because conservatism, in its political form, is a systematic defence of the nation and its future, that environmentalism is the natural conservative cause.

Many environmentalists on the left will acknowledge that local loyalties and local concerns must be given a proper place in our decision-making, if we are to counter the adverse effects of the global economy. But they will tend to baulk at the suggestion that local loyalty should be seen in national, rather than communitarian, terms. However, there is a very good reason for emphasizing nationality. For nations are communities with a political shape. They are predisposed to assert their sovereignty, by translating the common sentiment of belonging into collective decisions and self-imposed laws. Nationality is a form of territorial attachment. But it is also a protolegislative arrangement. And it is through developing this idea, of a territorial sentiment that contains the seeds of sovereignty within itself, that conservatives make their distinctive contribution to ecological thinking.

Rather than attempt to rectify environmental and social problems on the global level, conservatives seek local controls, and a reassertion of local sovereignty over known and managed environments. This means affirming the right of nations to self-government, and to the adoption of policies that will chime with local loyalties and sentiments of national pride. The attachment to territory and the desire to protect that territory from erosion and waste remain a powerful motive, and one that is presupposed in all demands for sacrifice that issue from the mouths of politicians. For this motive is the simple and powerful one, of love for one’s home.

Roger Scruton

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