Cultural Conservation

by Richard Hall (Moby)

One problem with cultural conservation:

To put it simply, and it’s not a problem that only conservatives have, conservatives very often confuse (or conflate) ethics and aesthetics. When Gertrude Himmelfarb lambasts our (as she percieves it) ‘amoral’, ‘sexually deviant’ and ‘polymorphously perverse’ culture she is primarily responding to something that she finds culturally foreign and aesthetically threatening.

I agree with her that values are oftentimes a good thing, but only when they are born of an ethical and pragmatic perspective, not an aesthetic one.

The conservatives want a seemingly neat and compartmentalised society wherein stable appearances are maintained and archaic cultural archetypes are adhered to religously. I grew up in a world of rigid cultural archetypes. I grew up with white businessmen going to office buildings while their wives stayed at home and their kids went to school. Or, more accurately, I grew up with alcoholic, adulterous businessmen who lived culturally insular lives while their wives took sedatives and smoked cigarettes and vented their frustrations on their kids, and these same kids took reams of drugs, got abortions, drove drunk, and victimised the weaklings. I grew up in what most conservatives would consider a utopia: lots of money, prestige, cultural cohesion, and good conservative values.

But their values were in fact aesthetics, and maintaining these aesthetics ruled and ruined their lives. Almost everyone in this suburban bourgeoisie system hated their lives, but because they had been brought up to worship these aesthetic myths they felt to question them was an admission of personal failure.

What are these myths? They’re old and platitudinal but i’ll trot them out again: that money makes you happy, that society is right, that poverty is bad, that maintaining convention in every aspect of your life is the ultimate good, that aberrance from these ideas is sin, etc.

I’m not going to say that the polar opposites of these clichés is true, that would be one of the failings of the radical left. I believe that for the most part these criteria are irrelevant. Money can make life easier, but it can also make life miserable. Poverty can be bad, but it can also be fine. Convention has some good points and some bad points. What it all comes down to is a flexibility that should allow for the well being of the individual without compromising the rights of other individuals.

When conservatives trot out their litany of evils – homosexuality, single parent families, multiculturalism, etc, I’m always left asking ‘why?’. If people are happy being gay then what’s wrong with that? It may be a lifestyle that’s aesthetically different from what we’ve been brought up with, but so what? And single parent families? Better a loving single parent family than a ‘conventional’ family wherein the parents hate each other and the father is a demagogue.

One reason that we have such a wide variety of alternative lifestyles is that the conventional lifestyles that the conservatives champion are often quite flawed and restrictive.

Restrictive mores can be terrific when applied to people’s violent impulses, but restrictiveness is terribly unhealthy when it’s used to get people to conform to arbitrary social archetypes. This restrictiveness can make people feel inadequate and inferior and it needs to be done away with.

If someone’s gay, let them be gay. If your son wants to marry a black woman (or white or yellow or jew or muslim) then let them. We need to love each other and support each other even if we choose to live in alternative but harmless ways. Obviously if your son is a rapist or wifebeater or a child molester then you need to question your support of his actions and values.

I’m not championing a retreat from responsibility. I believe that personal and social well being is built upon a foundation of hard work, loyalty, honesty, diligence, respect, tolerance, and other good ‘values’. But it doesn’t matter what the cultural manifestation of the values looks like. It can be straight or gay or male or female or white or black or anything so long as it’s respectful of others and makes the practitioner feel well.

So my advice to cultural conservatives (and others) would be to cultivate an approach to values that’s based on principles rather than aesthetics. I would also say that any pronouncements on the values of others, especially pronouncements veering into the pre-scriptive realm, need to be cautious, pragmatic, logical, and not just the typically hateful and reactionary vacuities that we’ve grown so accustomed to.


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