Towers toppled, hedges uprooted

The West and the Rest
February 28, 2003

Roger Scruton has spent most of his adult life as a professional philosopher, and was initially best known for his work on aesthetics. In recent years he has acquired a much wider audience as a defender of threatened folkways, stout champion of endangered bloodsports and stern foe to the imposition of metric weights and measures. This is plainly a conservative posture; but its links to party politics are fairly tenuous, whoever now happens to be leader of the Conservative Party.

The title of his very short book on a great many different topics is less informative than its subtitle. Its principal thesis is that globalisation is not merely the source of the current threats from Islamic terrorists (a relatively open secret), but a very mixed blessing, even an occasion for regret, in itself. Scruton is no Islamic terrorist; but he goes to some lengths to make clear just how and why he sympathises with many of the confused and angry sentiments that have recently found such hideous expression. He does not do so, of course, by manifesting confusion (or even anger) of his own, still less by condoning the regressive enormities of al-Qaida. But the effort of understanding is admirable in itself and many of the judgements in which it eventuates have considerable force. What is less clear, even if he is right in every respect, is quite what would follow from his being so.

Scruton's diagnosis of the sources of global terrorism is tacitly anti-imperialist. The questions he sets himself to answer - what exactly western civilisation is and what holds it together - pull in opposite directions. What western civilisation really is, it turns out, cannot hold it together any longer in the world it has inadvertently made, a world with too much movement of people and goods, too much mutual intrusion and offence, too much waste and destruction, and far too much obtrusive rubbish, material and spiritual, for anyone to feel fully at home in it any longer anywhere. This is an extension of a familiar German Romantic lament, best expressed by Herder well over 200 years ago.

Within itself, nation by nation, western civilisation has relatively potent means for mitigating the damage: above all the political institutions of a democratic nation state, as and where this operates on behalf of and over a body of citizens who feel and endorse their common membership within it.

Scruton's account of the point and character of such a state is in no way distinctively conservative. What links it to his wider themes is his robust but thoughtful emphasis on the fragility and practical importance of the citizenry's sense of membership. Across these national boundaries, and with a still more etiolated sense of commonality, western civilisation may still have a conspicuous defender in the massive bludgeon of US military power; but it has little, if any, shared sense of quite what there is to defend or why it deserves to be defended.

By "the Rest", as Noel Malcolm has pointed out, Scruton simply means the Islamic world. (There is nothing here about Japan or China, or even Latin America.) The Islamic world has had a discouraging last two centuries. But even today, in Scruton's eyes, it is often better at conserving its sense of membership than western societies have proved. The terrorist threat today is a nasty fusion of its accumulated frustrations and its retained, or in many respects enhanced, capacities for collective consciousness and some types of collective action.

So much for the interpretation. But what of the remedies? What is now to be done? Here Scruton's attention becomes too centrifugal to risk converging on an answer. Part of the trouble, as he sees it, lies in the self-wounding impetus of much western thought and feeling. The message of feminism, for example, he bluntly avers, is "Down with us" (a judgement in jeopardy, at least, in its choice of pronoun). The terror of political correctness, obscurely linked here with the subterranean manoeuvres of the European Union, has broken all confidence in the good old ways. Along with yards and feet and inches, and hedgerows, hounds and scarlet coats, all long cherished forms and values have been cast aside: family, faith, country.

One possible response would be to gather up the discarded remnants and seek to breathe life back into them. But even Scruton clearly hesitates to recommend such ambitious and comprehensive re-inflation. Like many conservatives, he is better at evoking the pathos of loss than in convincing even himself of the prospects for recovery.

When he tells the reader that we (human beings) "are rational beings", he shows no sign of feeling under sceptical pressure. But when he goes on to insist that "we are also religious beings with a need to submit to divine imperatives and to find comfort in the community of our fellow believers", the divine imperatives resubmerge almost at once and never really resurface. Islam's more vital sense of continuing membership is duly credited where it belongs; but the idea that western civilisation may not merely have derived largely from Christianity but may still depend upon it for its own residual coherence is given short shrift.

To accept so much of the political and intellectual upshot of the Enlightenment, but reject the "culture of repudiation" that it has somehow nurtured and protected, leaves him in understandable discomfort, greatly accentuated by acute ambivalence towards the alien element, capitalist growth, that has done most to generate globalisation.

Reason may well suggest that in many ways we would be wise to engage reverse gear: travel less, waste less, be less rude and myopic (not an infallible consequence of travelling less), be less superficial, greedy and conceited, improve our dismal educational performance for most fellow citizens. Few of these, however, translate into clear lines of action. The one clear recipe from the book as a whole is to resist in every way the malign tentacles of the European Union. This seems a slender basis on which to save the West, let alone reconcile the Rest (or even Islam) to its vagaries. Perhaps, indeed, a slender basis on which to save the Conservative Party?

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

The West and the Rest: Globalisation and the Terrorist Threat

Author - Roger Scruton
ISBN - 0 8264 6496 3
Publisher - Continuum
Price - £12.99
Pages - 187

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