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The Drabness of Conservative Philosophy
On the conservative desire to build philosophical systems out of mere distastes.
I’m pretty sure music peaked in when I was in high school and college. I’m also pretty sure that most people feel the same—regardless of when they happened to be in their teens and early 20s.
We tend to form our cultural preferences—the music and movies we like, the slang we use, the social structures we feel most comfortable in—when we’re young adults, and then they stick. The music the youth listen to isn’t just a departure from what we like, but a decline. The movies that come out today aren’t as good as the classics. Modern art isn’t as interesting and sophisticated as what came before. The social structures of the dynamic young lack the wisdom of those we find more comfortable.
This kind of thinking—that tastes don’t just change, but that the change is in the wrong direction—is common and understandable. At the same time, so much bad philosophy on the right is basically taking this personal distaste for the new and, without much self-awareness, spinning it into a grand social theory. Suddenly, conservatives tastes aren’t mere tastes. They’re what made civilization possible, and what are holding it together. If the youth win out—if rock and roll replaces string quartets—then civilization will find itself displaced by barbarism.
This isn’t just wrong, it’s a deeply drab and unhelpful way to approach the world.
Trad conservatism takes this distaste for the new and overreacts to it further, imagining that the solution to not liking what the youth are up to isn’t to go back to what you dug in high school, but to run as far from novelty as one can reasonably manage. To demand a return to an imagined social past when people like you were, as you daydream it, centered instead of marginalize, and of high social status. It’s a whole philosophical superstructure built upon what amounts to, “If only we returned to the Middle Ages, I could get a girlfriend.”
It’s fine to daydream about a mythological past where you think you’d be happier, or where things might seem more stable. It’s fine to believe that the hip new trends aren’t improvements upon the bygone trends. It’s fine to say, “I don’t much feel like changing with the times.”
The problem is in imagining it’s something more than that, that you have sound and deep philosophical reasons for, say, hating rock and roll, or disliking pride flags, or getting uncomfortable around men wearing dresses, or thinking that your particular view of religion is the one true and necessarily unchanging faith. This is basically Roger Scruton’s entire schtick. It’s the core of Russel Kirk and much of Bill Buckley. It hides its basic nature in voluminous quotations from classic texts, and high-minded rhetoric about the human need for hierarchy, and the naturalness of old ways of being. It tries to wring intellectually robust conclusions from basic prejudice. But it’s transparently empty.
No matter how much you dislike modern architecture, hate modern art, or think children should always be just like their parents, tastes are true only for the person holding them. They’re not Truths in any objective and universal sense.