Monday, July 27, 2009

Saul, was verfolgst du mich?

I am currently re-reading The Unconscious Civilization, a transcript of John Ralston Saul's 1995 Massey Lectures. Having originally read the book some eight years ago and remembered it as a cogent analysis of North American social ills, I was disappointed to find Saul's case is stated more poorly than I thought. The book is to a great extent a critique of the "corporatist" ideology of the contemporary Right, which views the unrestrained operation of free markets - despite all evidence to the contrary - as an economic panacea. Saul argues that this utopian view is fundamentally flawed. We don't need Plato's Republic, Saul tells us, with its prescriptive recipe for a perfect society - instead, we need followers of Socrates, who will question received wisdom and unconsidered ideas, from whatever source.

So far, so good; I have no quarrel with any of the above. Indeed, regular readers of this blog will recognize the above as an attack on neon arrows. But the devil, as always, is in the details. For Saul's examples of the supposed corporatist, ideological trend in right-wing politics are, of all people, Michael Oakeshott and Allan Bloom. That this is ridiculous should be apparent to anyone familiar with the work of these thinkers: the author of Rationalism in Politics would undoubtedly be surprised to be told that his book was advocating rationalism rather than condemning it, and Bloom would likely wonder what on earth The Closing of the American Mind has to do with neoconservative ideology. (Indeed, Saul spends some pages condemning the demise of liberal arts education, which is one of the most characteristic tropes in Bloom's book.) Saul ends his second chapter by suggesting that Oakeshott and Bloom, were they alive in the 4th century B. C., would have voted in favour of Socrates' execution. Yeesh.

(I pass lightly over Saul's repeated jabs at the medieval schoolmen, and the fact that one of his notes misspells the ablative plural ending of a Latin noun. "De legibas"?)

The problem here is a distressingly common one in political writing: the tendency to conflate conservatism with free-market ideology. By its nature, conservatism is opposed to ideology of any political stripe, favouring continuity with the past and a moderate, carefully considered rate of change. A demagogue who advocates the immediate dismantling of social institutions according to the strictures of Chicago School economics, therefore, is the opposite of a conservative. The contemporary political scene, unfortunately, is so dominated by competing social and political ideologies that no current political party represents a consistently conservative political agenda, and so it's easy to forget what the word "conservative" once represented - a moderating impulse seeking to slow the force of ideologically-driven change. But if you fail to make this crucial distinction, you won't know what to make of a thinker like Oakeshott. Certainly Oakeshott would not have been pleased that Saul compares him to Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, both of whom were dedicated exponents of liberal, free-market doctrine.

The point is this: Saul wants to attack thinkers who hold up neon arrows, but he fails to distinguish between his enemies, the free-market radicals, and his natural allies, the traditional conservatives. And so his catalogue of ideological offenders doesn't quite fit together - for every three starfish he lines up, there's one crab. Understood properly, Saul's project should lead one to an essentially conservative view of the dangers of utopian politics, from either the Left or the Right - but because the author is committed to a decidedly left-wing political stance, he feels compelled to reject everything "conservative," and thus throws the baby out with the bathwater.

Why should classical musicians care about any of this? Because in today's multicultural society, only traditionally conservative arguments can justify the maintenance of classical music at all. The ideologues of the Right won't help us - they're committed to the unfettered operation of market forces, and so if your local symphony orchestra can't pay for itself, it deserves to die away. The ideologues of the Left won't help us - they're committed to a relativistic, multicultural agenda which sees the Western literate tradition as an artefact of imperialist hegemony. If classical music deserves the support of society, equal funding should be offered to all other musical traditions, since every cultural expression has the same validity.

But there's a third option - not a bland, milquetoast compromise between the two or, heaven forbid, a Hegelian synthesis, but an entirely different viewpoint on the matter. From a conservative standpoint, classical music deserves preservation because it is a unique example of a highly developed literate tradition in music, and one which connects us to the broader tradition of Western culture of which we, like it or not, are a part. If we abandon a tradition of such immense historical and cultural value, we will lose an important connection to past generations; and unless we retain the sense that we are part of a broader, intergenerational community, we will lose our sense of responsibility to either the past or the future. Cutting our ties with the past, and relegating the traditions of our forebears to museums, can only lead to anomie, alienation, and eventual social disintegration.

This is not a fashionable argument to make to ideologues of either political stripe. It has nothing to recommend it except that it is true, and that it is the only intellectually honest and consistent way of defending what we do from encroaching social forces.

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