Something I have observed: Conservatives often like to call people like me—social democrats, communitarians, people who believe that the job of society is to help us better take care of each other—"naive," as though over my entire life, I hadn't had ample opportunities to watch people treating each other pretty badly, hadn't had ample opportunities to see how the world works.

 

Okay, I just finished reading a bunch of classic Conservative writers: Smith, Huxley, Buckley, even that appalling reactionary Scruton. And their thinking—Smith's invisible hand, Buckley's supposed universal principles on which to organize a society, and Scruton's horror of passive entertainment that doesn't involve thinking about God—is all predicated on the notion that the world is other than the way it is. Smith's Invisible Hand works only if you accept that it's okay for some people, somewhere, to be virtually enslaved so that other people can get their goods cheaper, and completely ignores the environmental cost of transferring goods from one place to another. I can kind of forgive Smith, who was, after all, living a long time ago, for ignoring environmental costs. I can't really forgive the naivety of modern proponents of the Invisible Hand, who apparently think that the environmental debt will never have to be paid. 

 

Buckley's universal principles that must be upheld work only in a society in which everyone comes from the same background and shares a set of beliefs about universal principles. Nowhere does he acknowledge that in order to continue to thrive in a pluralicstic society, we must acknowledge that there are very few principles and customs that are universal. I guess he just assumes that everyone else should acknowledge that HIS customs and principles are awesome and govern themselves accordingly? Sadly, in the real world, real people tend to feel oddly attached to their customs and principles and may be unwilling to just give them up and acknowledge the supremacy of the Gospel according to William F. Buckley Jr. If you want to get along in a pluralistic society, then you have to acknowledge that all customs, all culture, all principles are socially constructed and socially mediated, and you have to come up with a way to negotiate common principles among parties from diverse backgrounds. Simply saying "Well, MY culture is the best, and you should all behave that way," is a recipe for strife. It is naive to think otherwise. 

Huxley and Scruton, bless their aristocratic snobbish little souls, both predicate their beliefs of an ideal world on the goals of a leisure class. Huxley, inveighing against what he sees as the hubris of the progressive, equates mass transportation with weapons of mass destruction (seriously!), and looks longingly back to a time when literacy was the prerogative of the upper classes only, and the great unwashed didn't sully it with their advertiser-supported newspapers. Apparently the only free press is that which is paid for by a single, monied individual. I'll be the first to acknowledge the problematic nature of advertiser-supported journalism; but I'm pretty sure that newspapers and news outlets originally courted advertisers in part because of a stunning lack of monied benefactors willing to support potentially critical media outlets. I guess if you've never had to start from scratch, you don't really get how difficult it can be to raise capital.

Scruton, similarly, inveighs against mass entertainment. Basically, any entertainment that doesn't involve thinking about Man's relationship to God is not really worthy, Scruton seems to think. But mostly, TV is bad because we don't have to work at it. (Though, bad, unworthy entertainment didn't start with TV: Scruton mentions that Aeschylus and Sophocles were also getting away from talking about the gods as anything real, and Shakespeare might as well have been an aetheist. But TV is the worst.) The only good entertainment is entertainment you have to work at. And the only good work is the work that leaves you with enough leisure to engage in worthy pursuits in your leisure time. Aristotle said so, and Aristotle was right about everything. And had slaves. Ditto Schiller. I don't think he had slaves, but I'm pretty sure he had a servant or two. Looking at art is good, because you have to think about it. Watching TV is bad because you don't. No mention of opera, or plays, so I don't know whether they count as active because snobby cultured people like me enjoy them and because they're expensive, or passive because someone else is telling the story. (Maybe it depends on whether the opera is by Mozart or by Gluck? Guys, thinking like a conservative is HAARD.) Scruton completely fails to acknowledge that it's entirely possible to have a job that doesn't leave you with leisure time to contemplate your position with relation to god and the universe, and that, indeed many jobs just don't leave people with the mental energy or acuity, let alone the hours, to gaze at paintings in a gallery. Basically, in Scruton's world, as I understand it, everyone has a nice job that they do for eight or so hours a day, and then they spend the rest of their time in active leisure contemplating the world and their place in it. Sounds nice, doesn't it. Too bad the Real World, with economic necessity and families and other petty distractions doesn't let most people live like that. 

It seems to me that in order to be a conservative, you have to be pretty privileged, and not really acknowledge how real people work, live, and struggle, that real people in the real world care about their families, their cultures, and their ideas, and that you can't borrow against the future in order to have cheap goods today. So who's naive? 
 



 

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