We are pleased to publish this guest feature by Bryan Baise.
On Monday, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) rescinded their invitation to Milo Yiannopoulos after a video recording emerged which many interpreted to be a defense of pedophilia. Milo has since clarified his comments (which are no less worrisome). Yet this did not prevent CPAC from pulling the plug on his keynote address to their conference.
Milo’s absence means two things.
- First, CPAC organizers now have a vacant speaking slot.
- Second, and more importantly, they also have an opportunity to replace the reactionary antics of Milo and the alt-right with a principled, intellectually serious spokesman for conservatism.
I submit that the best man for this moment in American conservatism is actually a Brit. Sir Roger Scruton, knighted in June 2016, is exactly the kind of conservative that CPAC, and the movement conservatism that it represents, desperately need.
The impetus for safe spaces and the restriction of free speech has been a clear issue for some time. Multiple campuses, from Yale to Missouri, have, in varying degree, sought to restrict free speech. Unsurprisingly, this restricted speech has often pressed back against the hegemony of illiberalism. Milo is, no doubt, one of the few individuals willing to challenge the status quo here. Yet Scruton has as well—and for longer.
Sir Roger was stigmatized out of academia for holding to conservatism. He writes in How to Be a Conservative that when he began teaching at London University he discovered that his colleagues were, to the man, standing against conservatism. They told him conservatism was everyone’s enemy. Scruton is well-aware of the hostility found on university campuses; he has written and defended free speech, and even has defended the right to offensive speech. This, it would seem, provides the same function of what they reportedly appreciated about Milo but with a markedly different form. Free speech should be defended, but it can be done in a way that is instructive rather than through cults of personality that merely parrot the worst characteristics of the left.
Conservatism is undoubtedly in the midst of an identity crisis. Wherever one wishes to pinpoint that origin of breakdown, the conversation has to begin to move beyond a mere airing of grievances. Milo reinforces the paradigm. Scruton could be a breath of fresh air for conservatives. Instead of continuing to play the political gamesmanship seesaw that is endemic of these kinds of gatherings, Scruton could lend a steadied voice that says what many of them no doubt are feeling (justified or no) but can do so with the kind of clarity that moves beyond headlines and soundbites. He can model the kind of principled conservatism that doesn’t, for example, conflate patriotism with nationalism, nor imagine the latter as some higher virtue to which we should aspire. To echo Yuval Levin, he would understand that constructive political change requires stability and prudence.
This is not a call to retain the status quo, but it is a reminder that the contemporary clarion call amongst some in the conservative movement, especially those who supported Donald Trump, sounds far more like French Revolutionism than it does anything that resembles conservatism. Conservatives fight, yes, but we learn how. Failing to fight effectively, even for a long time, does not necessitate mindlessly throwing punches, desperately hoping one will land.
Scruton would be a voice crying in the nattering nabob of negativism wilderness. What better place for such a case to be made than CPAC? CPAC’s rosters of speakers through the years do not inspire confidence that such a case will be heard elsewhere; indeed, the 2017 gathering looks primed to be yet another sampling of red-meat economic conservatism, preoccupied above all else with limited government, lower taxes, and a mentality that reduces human beings to homo economicus.
Scruton teaches us to see conservatism as more than political positions. Rather, it is a reinvigorated moral imagination that speaks to heart as well as head. It is a conservatism that can sustain when anger and resentment reside.
As he says in A Political Philosophy:
Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. This is especially true of the good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull. That is one of the lessons of the twentieth century. It is also one reason why conservatives suffer such a disadvantage when it comes to public opinion. Their position is true but boring, that of their opponents exciting but false.
Scruton, having imbibed the great ideas of the classical conservative tradition, stands ready to dispense wisdom to those willing to listen. Conservatism needs more of this. You may question if this is the proper platform to attempt such a coup.
My answer is simple: have you seen the conservative movement lately? Isn’t saving the soul of conservatism worth at least a shot? I’ll gladly take a gentlemen (or lady) unpacking conservatism as a disposition first and politic second for 30 minutes, instead of a vile empty suit that calls the President of the United States, “Daddy.” Want to make CPAC, and conservatism, great again? Invite Roger Scruton.
Bryan Baise, Ph.D, is assistant professor at Boyce College, where he directs the Worldview and Apologetics Program and the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) degree. He’s married, has three children, and is an overly committed sports fan.
It would be absolutely wonderful if CPAC invited Roger Scruton! His books are amazing. If there was any justice in the world he’d be a tenured prof at a top university. The academy should hang its head in shame for the way it treated this man.
Scruton is a better fit for CPAC but why go to all the bother of calling Milo a “vile empty suit that calls the President of the United States, “Daddy.”” when you could have just written “faggot”?
I enjoy reading Scruton, but I have difficulty accepting his commitment to a kind of Kantian idealism. The last block quote sums up exactly where I disagree with Scruton. At core, Scruton is an epistemic idealist. In that sense, I’d refer to him more as a sober-minded reactionary than a conservative. Put another way, Scruton is generally more concerned about achieving certain cultural objectives as opposed to the means by which they are achieved (although those two elements are not wholly inseparable). By contrast, Burke was much more concerned about ensuring that cultural ends are achieved through deliberative processes grounded in reality. In that sense, Burke is a pragmatist where Scruton is an idealist.
So, while I think that inviting Scruton would be a significant advance over inviting Milo. I’d much rather that conservatism drink from the font of realism and pragmatism than from the font of a more same idealism. In my view, we’ve ended up with Trump precisely because conservatives became reactionaries, and started becoming much more concerned about ends than means.
Robert Lacey has a great book on Burke, where he shows how the post-WWII tilt toward idealism has actually betrayed the conservatism and made it into a kind of alternative progressivism. Below is a quite from the inside jacket of Lacey’s book.
“Pragmatic conservatives posit that people, sinful by nature, require guidance from traditions that embody enduring truths wrought by past experience. Yet they also welcome incremental reform driven by established elites, judiciously departing from precedent when necessary. Mindful that truth is never absolute, they eschew ideology and caution against both bold political enterprises and stubborn apologies for the status quo. The book concludes by contrasting this more nuanced brand of conservatism with the radical version that emerged in the wake of the post-war Buckley revolution.”
I would make the same assessment regarding evangelicalism. It assumes that we can know truth in some absolute sense. We can’t. We’re called to trust in Christ despite life’s uncertainty. As C.S. Lewis so aptly put it, “We can never be more than probably right.” I feel that I can generally assess things like harm and transactional efficiency. But I don’t suppose that I can know more than that. Thankfully, our Father has so wired the world in such a way that reality eventually rebukes idealism. In that sense, I tend to see culture as very stable. In fact, most human misery is the result of efforts to overcome the hard limits of our humanity via idealist programs.
I’ve read Scruton over at the Future Symphony Institute at the suggestion of a friend and it’s a mixed bag. I love the Western art music tradition and am interested in its preservation and continuation but many of the polemics over there are beating dead horses. People on the left and right can appreciate that atonality was popular for a time and had the imprimatur of Cold War era academic prestige and foundation funding. Trouble is that it wasn’t the only avant grade stream in the last century.
Same goes for John Cage, whose music can be understood as an angry alternative to the critical double bind American composers and musicians were subjected to throughout the 19th century by a German-obsessed critical establishment that insisted that if you didn’t sound like Beethoven or Wagner you were trivial but that if you did sound like them you were derivative. Thanks to a rigid high/low cultural stratification vernacular styles were frowned upon. People may not know Dvorak’s suggestion that American composers draw from the music of black and Native American communities was met with hostility by white mainstream critics and musicians.
It’s possible to reject Cage’s ideological gambits while granting a historically understandable reason for them.
And, in any case, if we ignore the Ives/Cowell/Partsch side of the avant garde we’ll forget that there’s been a history of polystylistic experimentation that precedes Rochberg (I get why Scruton respects Rochberg and his work offers an interesting path for future composers but if Scruton’s wish is that we keep going back to Wagner’s Ring he’s going to lose people who love the art music tradition but find 19th century German Romanticism in music, philosophy and ideology to be a persistent problem).
Matt’s comment about attention and symphonic apprehension reminded me of something, how even in formal music schools certain traditional developmental forms or processes are increasingly difficult to each even at college levels because the canonical examples are too long for contemporary collegiate attention spans.
“A colleague in Music History at a major American university reports that it has become difficult to teach sonata form because sonata forms transpire over 15 minutes and more. This topic – shrinking attention-span — is obviously not irrelevant to the future of orchestras.”
In fact there are plenty of sonata forms that stay comfortably under the 9 minute mark but since many of those are classical guitar pieces it would require music departments in higher education to treat guitar music as part of the art music tradition, something that frequently doesn’t get done. That’s where I regard Scruton’s Future Symphony Institute as having some admirable goals that are too mired in the expectation that the future is in the symphony when we might want to be more pragmatic. When Europe was ravaged by war Heinrich Schutz didn’t double down on the idea that Christian worship had to be symphonic in scope. He began to write the little sacred concert pieces that were possible with the musical resources he actually had at his disposal.
There’s a robust stream of musical activity that isn’t post-Schoenberg 12-tone or serialism on the one hand or post-Cage aleatoric music on the other. The just intonation/microtonality stream started by Partsch and lately kept alive by composers like Kyle Gann and Ben Johnston won’t be to everyone’s liking but it can’t be described as strictly embodying either of the dead horses Scruton and his associates like to keep beating down.
Xenakis was on point to highlight an embarrassing conundrum on the part of traditionalists who set themselves against non-tonal music by invoking the overtone series: 1) this wasn’t always presumed to be the basis for the tonal idiom since it wasn’t discovered until a few centuries ago and 2) more important, defending an intuitive approach to music composition in the form of traditional major/minor tonality by invoking Fourier analysis is using an explicitly mathematical foundation to defend Romantic music and its intuitions. Or as Leonard B. Meyer put it, “The fact that something is conventional and learned doesn’t mean that it is arbitrary, any more than showing that it is “natural” is to assert that it is necessary.” If atonality advocates erred in the first direction traditionalists have erred in the second direction while Xenakis proposed that anything that is conventional relies on a convention that is, in principle, modifiable. That doesn’t mean everyone should or will go out and be fans of Xenakis, obviously. But it’s not difficult to provide some counter-arguments to Scruton’s advocacy for traditionalist 19th century music by pointing out that while much of it is beautiful it absolutely has some ideological baggage that Christians, in particular, may want to divest themselves of.
The last century has featured an immense proliferation of styles and idioms, a breakdown in a commonly accepted musical mainstream thanks in no small part to a global conception of humanity. This kind of fracturing of an accepted mainstream happened in Europe centuries ago and the century and a half of fragmentation and consolidation gave us the historical period in music we now call the Baroque era.
Across both sides of the Cold War there have been experiments toward musical fusion, more generally at a popular than a scholarly level. Cuban composer Leo Brouwer has highlighted this and that the quest for a successful fusion of multiple styles has been a goal for communists and capitalists alike across the divide of the Cold War might be instructive.
If there’s a proverbial race to see which ideology or tradition can most successfully assimilate a panoply of ostensibly competing or conflicting musical idioms it would seem the global Christian community can truthfully say “we got there first” because the history of the Baroque era would seem to be a case study that this was what happened. That part’s not surprising, the surprising part is that someone as studied as Scruton seems to have not picked up that this happened. Perhaps it’s because he’s been so busy making a case for Wagner’s Ring cycle. :) I’m persuaded that Christian musicians would do better to study the precedent of composers who successfully straddled the high/low divide like Villa-Lobos in the 20th century or Haydn in the 18th century. The 19th century musical canon has some attention-span demands that we’re finding college professors are discovering can’t be met in the age of the internet. A Burkean response to this would be to scale down the musical argument of sonata forms to the cognitive bandwidth you estimate your audience can handle. So I’d suggest Ponce’s guitar sonatas as an alternative to Mahler symphonies for explaining how sonata forms work. Of course I’m biased by being a guitarist.
Not to sound like a middle age fogey, but inviting the brilliant Scruton to CPAC would be a case of casting pearls before swine. Most of the youthful “conservatives” who attend the annual conference want to hear some red meat sound bites and bromides before embarking on a night of imbibing and carousing.