Back to the land

Some younger person, a self-declared “conservative,” who reads these essays even though I am not, asks me what I think is the most important single thing to be “conserved” in politics and society, through the lifetime he may be facing.

As a reactionary, I of course immediately replied it is something to be less conserved, than recovered. It is no particular law or institution. Our laws and institutions, within both Church and State, have been so thoroughly subverted, that the conservative impulse is obviated.

They are, as our architecture, comparable to the buildings that have been erected in the last generation or two. Almost all of them could be cleared away, on the argument that a parking lot would have more substance and dignity. The failure of conservatism is apparent in those buildings that were replaced. If there is a site where something better, or even more solid, was constructed, it has not yet come to my attention.

Much blather is devoted to our recent ideals of “efficiency,” “functionality,” “accessibility,” and so forth. Much attention is devoted to economic calculations — on the large, inhuman scale. The fact that inefficiency, dysfunctionality, and inaccessibility are common, is justified on the argument that “nothing is perfect,” and thus striving for “perfection” (in the sense of “completeness”) is a waste of time. Craftsmanship, once taken as essential, is systematically eliminated, for it gets in the way of our idiot-proofing schemes.

Here I refer only to the physical machinery of modern life and “progress.” The mental and spiritual machinery runs parallel.

To my mind, the common feature is the decline of truth (which is sacred), and its replacement with bullshit, as defined in e.g. Professor Frankfurt’s book (On Bullshit, Princeton, 2005). While the author (about to turn ninety) could fairly be accused of Cartesian and Humean feints, he grasps the rhetorical divide between those who acknowledge the truth as something external to them and valuable; and those who only care for persuasion, and are indifferent to whether what they say is true.

A liar is to be preferred to a bullshitter, for a liar is aware of the truth he is avoiding. He has thus some relation to it. Strictly speaking, most politicians and journalists are not liars. They never rise that high.

Truth is not reducible to a few checkable facts. In my experience, bullshitters make diligent fact-checkers, for “facts,” even true ones, can be used as persuaders. Truth requires an elaboration of context, whereas the use of statistics is, no context required. Cause may be attributed to mere statistical correlation, so that once we have that, the truth doesn’t matter any more. Thus the statistics are gathered in an anti-scientific way — in order to make a point, not to discover anything.

Yet we should know from an elementary experience of nature, that the truth is more likely to be surprising. It is often implausible. The ideological mind is totalitarian, as well as technological, and fanatically plausible. Where nature fails to cooperate, its bulldozing instinct is to change nature.

The demand for truth, which must be recovered, is not for something ethereal. Instead, it is a demand for the real. It offers an escape from our Unreal City. Perhaps only a holiday, under present conditions, but to the young I would advocate: “back to the land.”


A piece I wrote some years ago on the decline of politics,
as a trade, may be relevant. (Here).