In Defence of Inconsistency
Peter King on a further contradiction of conservatism
We like to think that we are rational and that we act in a consistent manner. If we are conservatives we are consistently conservative and so dislike modern art and architecture. We have an image of what a conservative is, just as we might of any other ideologue. But do we have to be consistent in all things? After all, those of us who oppose change have got used to antibiotics, modern transport and we even communicate to each other through the World Wide Web. No one sees any of this as inconsistent.
Likewise, it is quite common to hear conservatives accused of wanting to return Europe back to the some earlier golden age. But do we really want to do this? And if some of us do, while some do not, again does this matter?
Clearly, not all conservatives agree with each other. They will emphasise different points: some will stress monarchy and aristocracy, while others focus on education or religion. But all of these fit within the general sense of what we assume conservatism to be.
For myself, I am quite happy to admit that my views are not particularly consistent. Unlike some conservatives I see nothing necessarily objectionable about migration, as long as the emphasis then falls on assimilation rather than multiculturalism. I would also favour free markets rather than agree to a system of direct central planning. Yet when I married I saw this as an unbreakable commitment made before God. Marriage for me is for life and not a contingent relationship that can be ended when I get tired of it. My view on the issue of abortion is similarly uncompromising: I cannot countenance the idea of abortion and this even includes when a pregnancy arises as a result of rape. I do not see why we would make a child suffer as a means of dealing with the sins of (one of) the parents.
But what I would say is that I can justify all of these arguments, and I do not particularly concern myself that they may be considered inconsistently conservative. Indeed, I actually see problems in too much consistency. I have a great deal of respect for someone as intellectual rigorous as Robert Nozick, but I also appreciate that not many of us can be so consistent. Indeed, perhaps not many of us would really want to be so rigorous. Nozick tests an idea – free market libertarianism – to destruction and, in doing so, makes its limits for practical politics all too apparent. Such rigour and consistency is just not politically tenable: it would cause too much controversy and not enough people would vote for it. Compromise is always a necessary part of politics, and this is because it involves accommodating a diversity of firmly held views. This is something that conservatives will realise almost innately.
But the issue of consistency should not just be reserved to politics. What about art, music and literature? Should we be consistent here? Can, or perhaps rather, should a conservative like modern art and modern music? Indeed it is all too common to hear conservatives criticising artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin or modern composers like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen: ‘How is that art?’ or ‘How can you call that music?’ Now I must admit that I have little time for either Hirst or Emin, other than to admire the manner in which they can make a little talent stretch a very long way.
But I have a confession to make: I do enjoy a good deal of modern art and my taste in music is decidedly eclectic. For example, I consider the work of Mark Rothko deeply spiritual and inspiring. I have literally spent hours looking at Rothko’s Seagram Murals in Tate Modern in London. But I also enjoy a lot of contemporary music, including composers such as Gyorgy Ligeti, Giacinto Scelsi, John Cage, Terry Riley and John Zorn. The two latter composers, who are both still active, have, like Rothko, a wonderful spiritual intensity to their work, but neither can be called traditional in the sense of obviously relating to the classical tradition. Does this mean there is something wrong with me?
By way of an answer I would say first that these musical choices are not instead of J S Bach and Claudio Monteverdi, but in addition to them. I do not like Bach or Monteverdi any less, and if I had to choose anything to die for it would be Bach’s cello suites (Paulo Pandolfo’s masterful transcriptions for the viola de gamba, just to be perverse). But also many antimodernists, such as Ezra Pound, have not always eschewed the new or have distanced themselves from the avant-garde. In contrast, John Zorn is in some ways the proto-typical New York bohemian, but his music refers to many traditional spiritual ideas as well as to his Jewish cultural roots. I assume that he is not by any means a conservative in terms of politics and culture, yet his music is full of ideas that I find inspiring and, no less important, I enjoy how it sounds.
What we have to realise is that whether or not we want to return Europe some former golden age we are very unlikely to manage it. We are rather more likely to remain exactly where we are, which means that we will remain within modernity. Conservatism as we now know it is derivative of modernity and we would have to work very hard to consistently remain outside of the modern. This being so, we had better make use of those non-toxic elements of the modern to help us pursue our ends. Indeed, we need to distinguish between ends and means: we should remember that the medium is not the message and it never has been.
Of course, we still may prefer Bach and classical architecture. Much of what we are, as thinking and acting agents, does not come about by choice. I am the mix of the contradictions that I am. I have not chosen to be inconsistent, any more than friends I have who consider themselves left of centre but will not listen to anything later than Bach.
And finally, do we only ever do things just because we want to agree with others or because we seek their approval? Do we take up positions, whether it is on politics or music, because of what others might think of us, or do we live according to our own principles and get on with doing the things we enjoy?
PETER KING is Reader in Social Thought at De Montfort University. His most recent books are Keeping Things Close: An Essay on the Conservative Disposition and Here and Now: Some Thoughts on the World and How We Find it, both published by Arktos in 2015