By Andrew Petiprin
Conserving Western civilization is an increasingly popular and controversial topic for discussion among political Twitter types, and something of a quiet or even unconscious project in mainstream entertainment. Downton Abbey was a wildly popular show throughout the English-speaking world, as The Crown and Victoria are now. Perhaps the very best specimen is the French/Canadian production, Versailles. In a different way, the History Channel’s Vikings belongs in the same group. These meticulously produced shows present themselves as low-stakes indulgence; but they belie a deeper longing for a world rapidly replaced by indifference, if not disdain, for the heritage of a flawed but exceptional Western patrimony.
Two 2017 Oscar-nominated movies capture the same spirit: Darkest Hour and Dunkirk. Both films brilliantly depict the moment when the West’s best virtues stood up against its worst perversions. And both remind us that the world that came into existence after Hitler’s insane experiment came to an end can sometimes seem a sad shadow of hundreds of years of truly admirable (if imperfect) striving for cultural ideals. The mesmerizing closing scene of Dunkirk, set to Hans Zimmer’s electronic adaptation of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, says it all. It is a beautiful intertwining of victory and defeat.
Sir Roger Scruton was born four years after Winston Churchill’s encouragement to his people after Dunkirk. Scruton is unabashedly Western and English. He is a nationalist and Christian, and he is extremely skeptical of the post-war values that have subsumed his society and culture. He worries about the West, and in his advancing years he is increasingly unafraid to explain why. He said in an interview in 2015, “If you’re a philosopher who is self-employed at the end of his career, then it’s pointless to engage in self-censorship. It’s great, I can just say what is true.” And what Scruton believes to be true is that the people Churchill said would “fight on, if necessary for years, if necessary alone” are hanging themselves in a noose of well-intentioned (and Western) tolerance and multiculturalism. Three of Sir Roger’s recent books explore these themes in different ways.
Where We Are: The State of Britain Now is an exploration of British identity in light of enormous social upheaval in recent decades. The Brexit vote is the immediate occasion for this extended essay, a “personal response” to a political outcome that Scruton had advocated for years but doesn’t specifically argue for here. His concern: What is Britain today? What are her values now? As always with this giant of conservative thought, the answer to the questions of the present are rooted in a proper understanding of the precious inheritance received from previous generations. To Scruton, ignoring our love of the past leads to deeper hurt and increased fragmentation in society in the present:
What happens when the issues closest to people’s hearts are neither discussed nor mentioned by their representatives, and when these issues are precisely issues of identity — of who we are, who is included and who is not?
Scruton rehearses the highlights of British identity that were once taken for granted as unifiers but are now ignored or scoffed at: common law, the Church, civic associations, local attachments, and a “first person plural,” a we, that cut miraculously across many differences.
Scruton’s critics are quick to belittle, if not demonize, his nostalgia. Why, in the end, would we want a world in which national identity creates any chance of excluding outsiders? For whom, after all, were things better in the past than they are today? On the first question, Sir Roger easily reminds us of the relativism of any boundary question:
Every inclusion is also an exclusion: however big the group there will always be a test of membership and those who fail the test will be excluded.
At the moment, the “somewheres” find themselves at the mercy of the “anywheres” in Western democratic societies. Lovers of home and nation are dictated to by those who fear both. In such an environment, Scruton wonders whether it should seem such a bad epithet after all to be labeled nostalgic, “a ready, and often unthinking, response to those who hesitate to turn their backs on what they love.” Intellectuals do not have to be rooted in a place, but most everyone else has nowhere else to go. To love a place as one’s ancestors did is at the heart of misunderstanding among social classes in Britain and America alike.
But was the England of years past really loveable? What about the rest of Europe and the New World? As one would expect, the answer is complicated. But on the whole, Scruton’s answer is Yes. While we join in the work of rectifying past injustices, we also carry on celebrating what was, rooted in an abiding love of place that makes such realizations possible at all. Identity politics and an automatic baptism of anything left wing jeopardize the possibility of a truly cohesive, pluralistic society. Scruton appeals to Christian piety, and to repentance and forgiveness in particular, to make his point. Competing worldviews, often given an admiring pass by today’s Western elite, simply do not create the same space for unity amid diversity:
It is precisely the habit of confessing our faults that is the first casualty of those totalitarian movements that warred against the spirit of compromise during the twentieth century, Islamism being merely the latest successor to them.
And the “I” word there is the rub. At the end of Where We Are, Scruton states it baldly: Radical Islam is “the greatest problem that Europe now encounters.” But is Scruton right? And what is to be done about it? There is a subtler and more controversial issue related to the assimilation of Muslims into Britain and other Western countries. Scruton bears numerous scars from considering this very problem, and perhaps most notably in the Honeyford Affair of 1984, when The Salisbury Review, which Scruton edited, published an article questioning Muslim integration in the schools of Bradford, England. Forging a new, more colorful British identity may serve to welcome new arrivals better.
But this is a tall task that first requires coming to grips with the shocking degree of criminality among some of Britain’s Muslim communities: from terrorist attacks by second-generation Muslim Britons to the systematic malevolence shown in recent years by a series of grooming and child sexual abuse scandals in Northern cities, involving thousands of children (Newcastle, Telford, Rotherham). None of these can be ignored for the sake of not betraying the spirit of multiculturalism. To address these matters both thoroughly and carefully, Scruton opted for fiction. His offering is the almost completely ignored 2015 novel, The Disappeared.
The Disappeared is a harrowing page-turner, albeit no masterpiece. Scruton’s characters are well drawn, beginning with the up-and-coming tax lawyer, Laura, who is mistakenly kidnapped by sex-slave traders in the book’s opening chapter. The intended target of the abduction is Sharon, a bright but troubled teenage girl whose idealistic teacher, Stephen, makes a mess of his life out of affection for this seemingly lost cause. Justin is an environmentalist designer who rethinks his progressive values when his life gets entangled with Muhibbah, an Afghan refugee whose family is in the human trafficking business.
Scruton’s novel is incendiary in parts, but it ultimately radiates more light than heat. It is a story of heartfelt concern both for individuals and society, and an invitation not to let our well-intentioned compassion rush us to judgments that will dismantle things that have long stood. Sharon, who is neglected by everyone who should care for her but noticed by people who aim to abuse her, can only cry out for help through words borrowed from Shakespeare, Emily Brontë, and other giants of the Western canon. Sharon finds the best of the West to be the tools she needs to overcome a paralyzed bureaucratic system unable to name evil for what it is. Her future is in her country’s literary past. The sacrificial lamb of Scruton’s ideological point, therefore, transforms into a symbol for a resurrected society. Sharon’s former teacher Stephen, a broken wretch, sees her at the end of the novel in a new light, a woman of “remarkable character … who appeared out of nowhere to bring him a message of hope.” Perhaps she, and Scruton’s novel more generally, may offer a message of hope for us too.
As Scruton has demonstrated over and over again, however, hope is not synonymous with optimism. And in a recent collection of essays, Confessions of a Heretic, Scruton explores options for addressing various Western concerns. In general, he is not cheery. The volume’s final essay, “Defending the West,” is of the greatest interest. Scruton warns against ignoring the cultural shift in the West that has welcomed Islamism, “a new opponent, who believes that the Western way of life is profoundly flawed, and perhaps even an offense against God.” He notes that the West is going through “a dangerous period of appeasement.”
I wonder if Scruton considers seriously enough that the West’s own selfishness and secularism may be a much greater problem than any external threat. In any case, Scruton reflects extraordinary maturity of thought here that ought to be taken seriously and not dismissed as “get off my lawn” invective. To Scruton, the West’s precious ethos of self-criticism and political representation is at stake. Our unique capacity to build on past mistakes — even the most egregious ones — is under threat from an unnatural mix of New Marxism and Islamism with no room for compromise, and no irony, humor, or genuine open-mindedness. He concludes with a sincere and entirely Western invitation to have a drink, “the necessary lubricant of the Western dynamo.” Hear, hear.
But perhaps the hope for the West will take a much different shape than anyone expects, with its conserving leaders embodying the kind of true inclusivity, even catholicity, that eludes identity partisans on all sides today. When I see my son’s second-grade, public-school class, full of different colored faces, belting out “This Land is Your Land,” with no one stopping to ask either about ancestors’ crimes or anyone else’s right to be there, I begin to wonder.
I wonder again when I read and listen to one of the most senior churchmen on earth, Cardinal Robert Sarah, who grew up in poverty in the West African country of Guinea learning about “our ancestors the Gauls,” before suffering for years as a bishop under an oppressive and corrupt regime. Now he visits the great population centers of the West and critiques anti-Christian “ideological colonialization” and the “diabolism” of its secular values.When asked to describe the relationship between Western colonialism and the spread of Christianity in Africa, Sarah replies with disarming brevity and beauty: “God loves Africa.”
For now, we should be grateful for Sir Roger Scruton’s participation in the big debates of our age — full of questions we cannot shy away from discussing. Perhaps Masterpiece and Julian Fellowes and the nostalgia media industry will help remind us what is at stake. God loves the West too, because he loves the whole world he has made. As Scruton concludes in “Defending the West”:
Christians should follow the path laid down for us by Christ, and that means looking soberly and in a spirit of forgiveness on the hurts that we receive, and showing, by our example, that these hurts achieve nothing save to discredit the one who inflicts them. This is the hard part of the task — hard to perform, hard to endorse and hard to recommend to others.
Indeed it is. In the cross of Christ, as at Dunkirk, victory and defeat are always beautifully intertwined. May the West, in her triumphs and failures, continue to bear witness to this excellent way.