Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
“The conservative adheres to CUSTOM, CONVENTION, and CONTINUITY.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles*
In Part 1 of this series we discussed the image problem conservatives have among a diverse generation of Millennials. Conservatives mean to conserve biases of the past; unfortunately, bias has become a four-letter word. In Part 2 we explored how unhealthy culture and crumbling institutions leads to unhappiness. If you’re reading this series for the first time, be sure and check out Part 1 and Part 2.
We might think of culture as a tool, but not just any tool—it’s not a hammer or a screwdriver; it’s a nail gun or a power drill. Properly used, the immense power of culture can spur a nation to face seemingly insurmountable challenges, lead to historic productivity and prosperity, or contribute to literature, arts, philosophy, and music that will inspire awe for centuries to come. But a culture can also be a significant stumbling block, leading to centuries of stagnation or regression.
Cultures are inherently logical, no matter how illogical cultural traditions may appear to a contemporary audience, because they were built by what worked over a period of time. Traditions may be thought of as the collective wisdom of those who came before us. Without cultural continuity connecting us to our historical heritage, we will become no wiser than the sum of those of us who just happen to be living. “The common man is not ignorant; but his knowledge is a kind of collective wisdom, the sum of the slow accretions of a thousand generations,” observed Russell Kirk, “This lost, he is thrown back upon his own private stock of reason, with the consequences which attend shipwreck.” Culture is a manual for life passed from one generation to the next. It would be the height of foolish arrogance, having identified some typos in the manual, to toss the whole thing and begin anew.
Few have contributed as much to the conversation of culture and its influences as the incomparable conservative scholar Thomas Sowell:
“Any culture—whether in or out of the mainstream—is not just a badge of identity or a museum piece to be admired by others. A culture is a tool for serving the many practical purposes of life, from making a living to curing diseases. As a tool, it has to change with the ever-changing tasks that confront every culture as time goes on…Unfortunately, in this age of "multiculturalism," there are too many outsiders who want all sorts of cultures to be frozen where they are, preserved like museum exhibits. Worse yet, too many multiculturalists want many groups to cling to their historic grievances, if not be defined by them. But among the many ways that various groups around the world have advanced from poverty to prosperity, nursing historic grievances does not have a promising track record—except for those who make a career out of keeping grievances alive.”
Generally speaking, the conservative is a proponent of Western culture as he believes the values found therein—the ideas embodied in the Enlightenment; the scientific method; contributions to the arts; social contract theory; freedom of religion, speech, and thought; equality of human value; sanctity of life; the rule of law; and representative governance among others—are worth conserving. This doesn’t always mean the West is best. But the only way we can call aspects of a culture right or wrong is to have some preconceived notion of right and wrong.
Rather than celebrate the achievements of our culture, Americans are often made to feel shameful for the transgressions of Western civilization. Instead of embracing the culture some have adopted multiculturalism as an ideological safe-haven from perceived ideas of racism or imperialism or being the protégé of white privilege. You can feel safe from the accusations of racism if you absolve yourself of the responsibility of making value judgments on culture and race altogether; all that is required is that you vigorously defend the idea that no culture is to be criticized (except, of course, your own). Author and political commentator Mark Steyn has built a career out of poking fun at the inherent folly in multiculturalism. “Multiculturalism is the slipperiest ism; it doesn’t invite an argument, it says there’s no point to having an argument. It says basically, if everything is of equal value, what the hell is the point in talking about any of it?” Steyn protests, “If the purpose of your culture is to celebrate multi-culture, you’re in effect saying that our bedrock belief is that we believe in everything, which is the same thing as saying we believe in nothing: our core value is that we have no core value.”
Multiculturalism is a unique privilege of the same white privileged culture the multiculturalist means to discredit. It is a view seldom expressed outside the West. “You can’t be a multiculturalist in Saudi Arabia,” Steyn observes. Expressing the idea that all other cultures are equally valid and that minority cultures should be afforded preferential treatment under the guise of some sense of fairness is liable to get you imprisoned, or worse, in most of the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin-American Communist regimes, large swaths of Asia, and the ever-expanding Russian Federation. But from the safe vantage point of Western civilization, which doesn’t imprison those expressing political views that differ from the ruling majority, it can be easy to lose perspective. Indeed, multiculturalism celebrates the loss of perspective. Mark Steyn further quips that a feature of multiculturalism is “it absolves you of knowing anything…[it’s] not about knowing anything about other cultures, it’s just about feeling warm and fluffy about them.”
Multiculturalism attempts to impose an unworkable burden on the majority culture and an unjust responsibility-waiver on minority cultures. Sowell observes, “The multicultural dogma is that we are to ‘celebrate’ all cultures, not change them. In other words, people who lag educationally or economically are to keep on doing what they have been doing—but somehow have better results in the future than in the past. And, if they don't have better results in the future, it is society's fault.” What we recognize on a personal level—that individuals who forgo taking personal responsibility are likely to lag behind their peers—is true of entire people groups. Yet the multiculturalist seeks to find fault with the majority culture where instances of inequalities are present. Both parties lose: the majority culture is made to feel “guilty” and perhaps reprimanded for perceived slights and the minority culture is trapped in a perpetual cycle of stagnation.
Of course, not all allegations of wrongdoing are wrongheaded—far from it. “Nothing has been more common in human history than discrimination against different groups, whether different by race, religion, caste or in innumerable other ways. Moreover, this discrimination has itself been unequal—more fierce against some groups than others and more pervasive at some periods of history than in others,” Sowell continues, “If there were not so many other powerful factors creating disparities in income and wealth, it might be possible to measure the degree of discrimination by the degree of differences in economic outcomes. Even so, the temptation to do so is seductive, especially as a means of reducing the complexities of life to the simplicities of politics. But the facts will not fit that vision.”
And therein lies the problem: the multiculturalist seeks to reduce the suffering of whole people groups to simplistic explanations that often prevent progress from taking place. The patient complaining of a cough is given cough suppressant without diagnosing the cause of the cough. It’s not that the cough isn’t real; it’s that it may merely be a symptom of a larger problem. No civilization has been without sin, so judging the merits of a civilization requires that we maintain a sense of perspective. As irksome as any instance of discrimination may be, it should be graded on a cultural curve. Western civilization has been far more tolerant of other races and cultures than many of its counterparts. That’s not to make an excuse for past grievances, but to maintain perspective in the hopes of a world free of race-motivated violence and oppression. The conservative believes it is better to build upon the culture headed in the right direction, comparatively speaking, rather than to tear it apart and start anew. If we are ever to make progress in reducing the harmful effects of racial discrimination, it would be best to begin by bolstering a culture with the potential for progress.
It is easier for a foreigner to assimilate into Western culture than almost any other. We don’t require that you denounce the faith of your ancestors or pledge allegiance to some autocrat. Citizenship “…has been freed from religious affiliation, from racial, ethnic, and kinship ties, and from the ‘rites of passage’ whereby communities lay claim to the souls of their members, by guarding them against the pollution of other customs and other tribes…nothing more is required of the immigrant than the adoption of the civic culture, and the assumption of the duties implied in it,” notes English philosopher Roger Scruton. And this value of inclusion is worth celebrating. But it can be taken too far as we traverse the murky waters of multiculturalism. The bare definition of multiculturalism is innocent enough: the presence of, or support for, several distinct cultural or ethnic groups within a society. But things quickly go awry when we overemphasize the support for diverse cultural expressions. When taken too far, multiculturalism is cultural relativism; the belief that no culture has anything more to offer than any other and that there’s no distinction to be made when one culture is replaced by another. From this lens, multiculturalism is one of the more destructive ideas en vogue in Western civilization today, because it threatens the very culture conservatives mean to conserve.
I said earlier that some may adopt multiculturalism as an ideological safe-haven from accusations of racism. Here they can take security in absolving themselves of the responsibility of making value judgments on culture altogether. But this line of thinking contains a fallacy: the untruth that culture and race are inseparable. You didn’t choose the race or the culture you were born into, but you can choose to modify or abandon the latter. “Once we distinguish race and culture, the way is open to acknowledge that not all cultures are equally admirable, and that not all cultures can exist comfortably side by side,” Scruton observes, “To deny this is to forgo the very possibility of moral judgment, and therefore to deny the fundamental experience of community.” Cultural relativism and an unwillingness to criticize culture destroys the glue that holds community together. If everything is of equal value, what’s the point in distinguishing between communities?
During a brief stint in Haiti, I met a retired Canadian carpenter who’d spent decades traveling to impoverished countries and working with local mission and humanitarian groups to build affordable housing. When Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early 90s and it became more accessible to Westerners, he began to work in that country as well. He told me that back then—just after Ukraine had been freed from the shackles of communism—the rampant poverty one encountered in that country was on par with what he witnessed in Haiti. But, over the course of a few decades, much of Ukraine was unrecognizable from its past while Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. While reasons for such economic dissimilarities are many and complex, my Canadian friend was resolute that the primary culprit was the difference in culture. Both countries had been freed from the oppression of powerful foreign governments: one progressed within decades whereas the other has remained stagnant for centuries.
As impoverished as they were, I found much to be admired in the Haitian culture. I was impressed by their cheerfulness and openness. In spite of their lack of basic necessities they seemed more content and grateful than most Americans, not to mention their powerful devotion to their faith. And yet, their culture taught them that past grievances from outside powers were to blame for their poverty, past, present, and future. Having been mistreated by the American and European powers after gaining independence, Haitians charted their own course and have been struggling ever since. While material prosperity is not the only measurement of a healthy culture, it is noteworthy that the vast majority of immigrants have consistently moved from non-Western to Western cultures.
The Haitian response to Western civilization is nearly the opposite of the nation of Japan. Sowell notes that, upon learning of their own backwardness in comparison with Western powers “a major cultural transformation had to take place among the Japanese people. A painful awareness of their own backwardness spread through Japan. Western nations in general and the United States in particular were held up as models to their children. Japanese textbooks urged imitation of Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin, even more so than Japanese heroes. Many laments about their own shortcomings by the Japanese of that era would today be called "self-hate." But there were no cultural relativists then to tell them that what they had achieved was just as good, in its own way, as what others had. Instead, the Japanese overcame their backwardness, through generations of dedicated work and study, rather than redefining it out of existence.” Today Japan accounts for nearly 6% of the world economy. By and large, countries that reject the values of Western civilization regress compared to their Western counterparts.
Closer to home, Sowell has written numerous books, essays, and editorials on the history of his own race within the United States. The provocative title of his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals stems from his argument that the regressive culture of black ghettos in America originated in the culture of the Southern United States and don’t represent the cultural heritage of African Americans:
“By the end of the 19th century, the small numbers of blacks living in Northern cities had, over the generations, assimilated the culture of the surrounding society to the point where they lived and worked among the white population more fully than they would in most of the 20th century. In New York, Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia and other Northern cities, black ghettos became a 20th century phenomenon. It was after the massive migration of far less acculturated blacks out of the South in the early 20th century when a massive retrogression in black-white relations took place in the Northern cites to which the migrants moved. The blacks who moved to these cities were of the same race as those who were already there, but they were not the same in their culture, values, and behavior. No one complained of this more bitterly than the blacks already living in these cities, who saw the newcomers as harbingers of a worse life for all blacks.”
Being a critic of culture does not require one to be discriminatory of race. Nor does prejudice require one to be a bigot. “Prejudice is not bigotry or superstition, although prejudice sometimes may degenerate into these,” wrote Russell Kirk, “Prejudice is prejudgment, the answer with which intuition and ancestral consensus of opinion supply a man when he lacks either time or knowledge to arrive at a decision predicated upon pure reason.” It is imperative, therefore, that we carefully distinguish between the prejudice of cultural tradition and the prejudice of racial discrimination. To the conservative, bias isn’t just a four-letter word; it’s the lifeblood of cultural continuity.