The British public intellectual Sir Roger Scruton passed away at the beginning of this year. If you aren't familiar with his work, do yourself a favor and watch this lengthy interview he did with Douglas Murray in 2019 on the nature of conservatism, and make it a point to read a few of his innumerable books or essays.
I've been thinking of one such essay quite often of late, as we've been watching riots and general disorder overtake so many of America's great cities. Specifically his account of the intellectual journey which led him to recognize himself as a conservative.
Scruton begins by explaining that, though roughly half of the Britain of his youth voted for the Tory party, "almost all English intellectuals regarded the term 'conservative' as a term of abuse," and that conservatism wasn't an intellectual path that he or any of his fellows seriously considered. That changed in an instant, however, when he found himself watching the May 1968 riots through an apartment window while visiting Paris. From that vantage point he witnessed Parisians, mostly students like himself, smashing windows, overturning cars, building barricades in the streets, and hurling cobblestones at the police.
That evening he found himself chatting with a friend who had spent her day on the barricades and was elated by the whole thing, which she believed to be "the artistic transfiguration of an absurdity which is the day-to-day meaning of bourgeois life." From her perspective, "The bourgeoisie were on the run and soon the Old Fascist and his régime would be begging for mercy." (The "Old Fascist," it should be noted, was Charles de Gaulle, one of history's great ANTI-Fascists, as demonstrated by his political leadership of la Résistance during World War II.)
Scruton found all of this troubling, and he challenged his friend's embrace of the bedlam in the streets:
What, I asked, do you propose to put in the place of this “bourgeoisie” whom you so despise, and to whom you owe the freedom and prosperity that enable you to play on your toy barricades? What vision of France and its culture compels you? And are you prepared to die for your beliefs, or merely to put others at risk in order to display them? I was obnoxiously pompous: but for the first time in my life I had felt a surge of political anger, finding myself on the other side of the barricades from all the people I knew.
She replied with a book: Foucault’s Les mots et les choses [published in English as "The Order of Things"], the bible of the soixante-huitards, the text which seemed to justify every form of transgression, by showing that obedience is merely defeat. It is an artful book, composed with a satanic mendacity, selectively appropriating facts in order to show that culture and knowledge are nothing but the “discourses” of power. The book is not a work of philosophy but an exercise in rhetoric. Its goal is subversion, not truth, and it is careful to argue—by the old nominalist sleight of hand that was surely invented by the Father of Lies—that “truth” requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the “episteme,” imposed by the class which profits from its propagation.
The revolutionary spirit, which searches the world for things to hate, has found in Foucault a new literary formula. Look everywhere for power, he tells his readers, and you will find it. Where there is power there is oppression. And where there is oppression there is the right to destroy. In the street below my window was the translation of that message into deeds.
Scruton goes on to explain that, while his friend is now "a good bourgeoise," like so many of the grown-up '68ers, Foucault's books have come to be enormously influential in the Western academy. "His vision of European culture as the institutionalized form of oppressive power is taught everywhere as gospel, to students who have neither the culture nor the religion to resist it." Unsurprisingly, this has inspired what our editor Michael Walsh has called (in his indispensable book The Devil's Pleasure Palace) a "lack of cultural self-confidence" in Western man, leading to
[H]is willingness to open his ears to the siren song of nihilism, a juvenile eagerness to believe the worst about himself and his society and to relish, on some level, his own prospective destruction.
This is, of course, what we are seeing play out in our streets today -- unemployed, but over-educated, young people, having been indoctrinated into the nihilistic belief that there are neither heroes nor principles, and that reason is merely a tool of oppression -- have given themselves over to iconoclasm, howling at anyone who disagrees with them on any point. You would feel bad for them if they weren't attempting to obliterate the memory of better men than themselves.
True, lockdown fatigue has likely contributed to the protests and riots, but I can't help thinking that a lot of the young rioters who felt the thrill of throwing a brick through a store window or a molotov cocktail at a cop car are going to have trouble going back to living normal lives. Partly, of course, because the lockdowns are technically still in effect, and protests are the only place anyone's allowed to party these days. But also because the resentment and nihilism that animate these events are self-sustaining and self-justifying.
Still, there are reasons for hope. For one thing, there's a real possibility that the pandemic is going to bring about the long-expected destruction of America's education racket. It likely won't take down the Ivy League, unfortunately, (though the Ivyies will have to deal with their own unique challenges), but a lot of mid-tier colleges will probably close. Which means that the young adults who would have given them $80,000 in borrowed money in exchange for worthless degrees in grievance studies will, instead, have to go out and get jobs, make friends, start families, and get involved in their communities. As "bourgeois" as those things might seem, they have provided lives with meaning from time immemorial. And, who knows, maybe they'll even enjoy the occasional good book without having some Marxist professor ruin it for them.
For another, as much as it seems like the world is collapsing right now, there's some evidence that normal people are disturbed by these events. The events of 1968 drove Americans into the arms of Richard Nixon and (after a brief interlude) Ronald Reagan. They also, as noted above, motivated a young Roger Scruton to rebel against their mendacious, destructive spirit. It may well be that many young people out there are similarly disturbed by all of this pandemonium. Perhaps that will ultimately impel them to embrace instead a worldview based on that sentiment which is at the heart of conservatism, namely gratitude.