Why Beauty Matters
Philosopher Roger Scruton presents a provocative essay on the importance of beauty in the arts and in our lives.
In the 20th century, Scruton argues, art, architecture and music turned their backs on beauty, making a cult of ugliness and leading us into a spiritual desert.
Using the thoughts of philosophers from Plato to Kant, and by talking to artists Michael Craig-Martin and Alexander Stoddart, Scruton analyses where art went wrong and presents his own impassioned case for restoring beauty to its traditional position at the center of our civilization.
A Speech by Roger Scruton, Antwerp, 23 June 2006
On Immigration, Multiculturalism and the Need to Defend the Nation State
When I was invited to give this talk by my old friend Paul Belien, my first reaction was one of pleasure that a political party in Belgium should be interested in my ideas. I have never been asked to address a political party in Western Europe, and I long ago concluded that a voice like mine is irrelevant to the practice of European politics, and must be regarded merely as a vague murmur in the stratosphere of thinking, with no clear application in the realm of political facts. I had heard of the Vlaams Belang, and its predecessor, the Vlaams Blok, as a controversial party, with widespread support among the Flemish population of Belgium. I knew that the party had been targeted by the liberal establishment, had been accused of ‘racism and xenophobia’, and had been disbanded, in its previous incarnation, by a Belgian court. On the other hand, there were plenty of explanations of the accusations apart from their truth, and it seemed likely to me that the true offence of the Vlaams Belang had been to threaten the vested interests of the European Union.
That suspicion was to a certain measure confirmed when e-mails began to arrive from concerned ‘colleagues’ in Belgium – people who had never before shown any interest in my views, but who were now beseeching me to cancel this engagement, asking me not to give credibility to a dangerous right-wing party, and warning me of the damage to my reputation, should I be associated with a party of extremists. It became immediately clear that the controversy surrounding the Vlaams Belang is one that goes to the heart of Belgian politics, and that the opponents of the Vlaams Belang do not wish merely to defeat it in fair and free elections, but to destroy it as a political force. And because they cannot destroy it by democratic means, since it has the habit of receiving the largest number of votes in Parliamentary elections, they wish instead to destroy it through the courts, and to silence and intimidate those who might otherwise confer legitimacy on its efforts. The very suggestion that, by addressing the Vlaams Belang – whether in tones of agreement or tones of rebuke – I have somehow associated myself with it, indicates the intention of the Party’s opponents, which is to put it beyond the pale of dialogue.
Now my instinct, when it comes to intimidation, is to side with the victim. If people tell me that I must not associate with Jim because all decent people are boycotting him, then my instinct is to associate with Jim. I may discover that there are very good reasons for boycotting Jim. But if I have not made the effort to know him and to bring him back into the fold of human society, then I have failed in my duty as a Christian. And what goes for individuals goes for political parties too. I don’t deny that there are parties that should be outlawed – as the Nazi Party was outlawed, many millions of deaths too late, as the Communist Party ought to be outlawed, and as certain Islamist parties are being outlawed in Europe today. Parties, in my view, are like people: they must conform to the categorical imperative. They must not practise or justify murder, and must not incite hatred towards any minority or towards any recognizable sub-community within the state. And if they do those things, the state has the right and the duty to disband them. And of course, that is what I shall begin by saying to you today, confident in the conviction that it does not need saying.
It should be pointed out, however, that socialist parties have not always obeyed the ground-rule against incitement. For many years our own Labour Party existed on a diet of class hatred not entirely dissimilar to the hatred that had been a cornerstone of communist ideology between the wars. The most striking feature of the left-wing movements of the sixties – movements to which many of today’s political élite belonged – was the fervour of hatred that they expressed towards the ‘bourgeoisie’, meaning anyone who owned property. Incitement is never far from the surface in politics, and we must all of us continually examine our conscience to make sure that this crime, of which it is so easy to accuse our opponents, is not one of which we too are guilty. It is only in a condition of calm deliberation, after all, that we can begin the urgent task facing Europeans today, which is that of achieving a new negotiated settlement that will embrace all the citizens, old and new, of states that have been irreversibly changed through immigration.
That is why the charge of ‘racism and xenophobia’, which has been levelled at your Party, is such a serious one. For it is designed to suggest that the Vlaams Belang cannot form part of any such negotiated settlement; that it offends not only against the ground-rules of democratic politics, but also against the primary goal of the New Europe, which is to incorporate large immigrant populations into a form of citizenship that transcends race, religion, culture and creed. If we do not establish this form of citizenship, then we can look forward to a future of conflict and disaffection, in which inter-communal strife is the norm. And if ‘racism and xenophobia’ stand in the way of this new form of citizenship, there are very good reasons for thinking them to be unacceptable features of any party that expresses them.
However, reading some of the attacks on the Vlaams Belang I cannot help recalling the time, twenty years ago, when I too was accused of ‘racism and xenophobia’ by the left-liberal media in Britain, and was forced to run the gauntlet of disgrace by my university colleagues. My offence was to have argued, through the Salisbury Review which I edited, and through my weekly column in the London Times, that the official policy of ‘multiculturalism’ was a mistake, and that the future of Britain depends not on encouraging immigrants to live apart in cultural ghettoes, but on integrating them into a common culture of nationhood. The very same liberal establishment that reacted then with outrage to my arguments, has since quietly accepted them, and the received view today is that we need a culture of Britishness, in which all our citizens can share. Having been the object of this charge that I know in my own case to be false, I am bound to be sceptical towards those who make it, and who seem to make it so costlesssly and with such self-righteous contentment that it is the Other, and not the Self, who is guilty. Rather than examine your case, therefore, I propose to talk more generally about the meaning of the charge of racism and xenophobia, and about the circumstances that have led to its supreme rhetorical importance, so that it has become the equivalent of a charge of heresy in medieval Europe, of witchcraft in colonial Massachusettes, or of ‘deviationism’ in the Stalinist state.
Someone who is in a state of denial regarding his mortal illness, his wife’s infidelity or his child’s delinquency will turn angrily on the one who refers to the forbidden truth. Likewise, a political culture that is in denial about a serious social problem will condemn those who seek to discuss it, and try its best to silence them. For a long time now the European political class has been in denial about the problems posed by the large-scale immigration of people who do not enter into our European way of life. It has turned angrily on those who have warned against the disruption that might follow, or who have affirmed the right of indigenous communities to refuse admission to people who cannot or will not assimilate. And one of the weapons that the élite has used, in order to ensure that it is never troubled by the truths that it denies, is to accuse those who wish to discuss the problem of ‘racism and xenophobia’. People of my generation have been brought up in fear of this charge, just as the people of Salem were brought up in the fear of being denounced as witches. We saw what happened to Enoch Powell, as a result of a public speech that warned against the dangers. I don’t say that Powell’s speech, in which he referred to ‘the river Tiber foaming with much blood’, was wise or helpful. On the contrary, it was all too easy to accuse him of scaremongering, and his quotation from the Cumean Sybil in Aeneid Bk VI – which of course nobody recognized – was instantly re-written as ‘rivers of blood’, and he himself dismissed as a dangerous madman. That was virtually the last time that a British politician dared to warn against the effect of large-scale immigration. Since then an uneasy silence has prevailed at the political level, while discussion at every other level has been hampered by the periodic show-trials of those judged to be guilty of ‘racism’ – for example, because they have argued that immigrant communities must integrate, and that separatism is intrinsically dangerous: the position adopted by The Salisbury Review under my editorship, and which was the cause of my own castigation.
By denying a problem you prevent its discussion, until discussion is too late. Throughout the thirties the European political élite lived in denial over German re-armament. By the time the truth could no longer be hidden, it was impossible to deter Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia. Reflecting on such examples it is surely reasonable to conclude that we have a duty now to brave the charge of ‘racism and xenophobia’, and to discuss every aspect of immigration. We owe this not just to the indigenous people of Europe, but to the immigrants themselves, who have just as great an interest in peaceful coexistence as the rest of us. Here is how I see the matter:
Every society depends on an experience of membership: a sense of who ‘we’ are, why we belong together, and what we share. This experience is pre-political: it precedes all political institutions, and provides our reason for accepting them. It unites left and right, blue-collar and white-collar, man and woman, parent and child. To threaten this ‘first-person plural’ is to open the way to atomisation, as people cease to recognize any general duty to their neighbours, and set out to pillage the accumulated resources while they can. Without membership we risk a new ‘tragedy of the commons’, as our inherited social assets are seized for present use.
Membership is defined in different ways at different times and places. For many societies, religion is an important part of it, so that the infidel is cast out or marginalized, as in traditional Islamic society. Although religion has been an important part of European identity, it was gradually, under the influence of the Enlightenment, pushed into the background by nationality, and subsequently by the rise of the nation state. And it is thanks to the nation state that we enjoy the freedoms and secular jurisdictions that are so attractive to immigrants – and especially to those immigrants who define their pre-political membership in religious, rather than national, terms. For national loyalty is a form of neighbourliness: it is loyalty to a shared home and to the people who have built it. It makes no specific demands of a religious or ideological nature, and is content with a common obedience to a secular rule of law, and a common sense of belonging to the land, its customs and its habits of peaceful coexistence. Communities founded on a national rather than a religious conception of membership are inherently open to newcomers, in the way that religious communities are not. An immigrant to a religious community must be prepared to convert; an immigrant to a national community need only obey the law.
The European nation states have tried to encapsulate the pre-political idea of national loyalty in legal criteria of citizenship. The relation of the citizen to the state is conceived in terms of reciprocal rights and duties. To claim the status of the citizen is to bring the power of the state to one’s aid against malefactors and also to promise one’s aid when the state is in danger. It is to enjoy state-protected rights that make one, legally speaking, the equal of all other citizens in any conflict, and as bound by the duty of obedience as they are.
Hence we, as citizens of nation states, are bound by reciprocal obligations to all those who can claim our nationality, regardless of family, and regardless of faith. Freedom of worship, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and opinion offer no threat, we believe, to our common loyalty. Our law applies to a definite territory, and our legislators are chosen by those whose home it is. The law therefore confirms our common destiny and attracts our common obedience. Law-abidingness becomes part of the scheme of things, part of the way in which the land is settled. Our people can quickly unite in the face of threat, since they are uniting in defence of the thing that is necessary to all of them – their territory. The symbols of national loyalty are neither militant nor ideological, but consist in peaceful images of the homeland, of the place where we belong. National loyalties therefore aid reconciliation between classes, interests and faiths, and form the background to a political process based in consensus rather than in force. In particular, national loyalties enable people to respect the sovereignty and the rights of the individual.
For those and similar reasons, national loyalty does not merely issue in democratic government, but is profoundly assumed by it. People bound by a national ‘we’ have no difficulty in accepting a government whose opinions and decisions they disagree with; they have no difficulty in accepting the legitimacy of opposition, or the free expression of outrageous-seeming views. In short, they are able to live with democracy, and to express their political aspirations through the ballot box. None of those good things are to be found in states that are founded on the ‘we’ of tribal identity or the ‘we’ of faith. And in modern conditions all such states are in a constant state of conflict and civil war, with neither a genuine rule of law nor durable democracy.
It does not need me to tell you that the account of national loyalty that I have just offered does not fit easily to the case of Belgium. For modern Belgium is a state in which two nations are being held together, largely against the will of one of them. Belgian citizenship is not rooted in a shared national loyalty, and has become a purely legal privilege, which can be bought or sold with the passport. This buying and selling of citizenship, often to people who think of it purely as a right and never as a duty, is common throughout Europe. The political élite sees nothing wrong in people collecting passports as they might collect memberships of clubs. But it seems that the trafficking in Belgian passports is especially popular, perhaps because there is no pre-political loyalty which the passport represents.
For the same reason no efforts are made to ensure that immigrants to Belgium acquire loyalty to the secular state, or respect for the customs that have shaped it: Belgian citizenship is what immigrants are seeking, and Belgian citizenship has been treated by the political class as a commodity, to be bought and sold like any other.
Finally, the Belgian political class has fixed its sights on Europe, as the collective enterprise that will extinguish all those old national loyalties, and put a cosmopolitan indifference in their place. The European Union has meant a lot to the Belgian élite. It places them at the heart of the continent, transforms Brussels from a provincial town in Flanders to the capital of Europe, and provides a project that will distract attention from the growing disintegration of the country, and from the problems which they are determined in any case to deny. No wonder they are angry, when a popular party calls for the separation of Flanders, and for its re-constitution as a self-governing nation state. Even if there is no ground for the charge of ‘racism and xenophobia’ you can be sure that the plan is to make it stick. Just imagine what would happen to the EU, were Flanders to become a nation state! What a step backwards this would be – a step towards loyalty, accountability, democracy and all the other superannuated things that the EU seeks to extinguish.
Now I do not doubt that there is such a thing as racism, that it has been immensely destructive and that our governments are right to look for methods to prevent its expression. Racially motivated crime carries an added penalty in English law, and incitement to racial violence is regarded as a serious offence. However, the adoption of such provisions should not blind us to the many double standards that haunt discussion of this issue.
First, the double standard over ‘racism’: a charge constantly levelled against innocent members of the indigenous majority, and almost never levelled against guilty members of immigrant minorities. This is not a European phenomenon only. On the contrary, there is a kind of collective guilt-feeling that imbues all discussions of racial difference in the West today. I recently had cause to study an academic article in the journal of the American Psychological Association, setting forth its official policy regarding multiculturalism and the treatment of minorities. And I was stunned to come across the following sentence: ‘All whites are racist, whether or not knowingly’. There you have it, endorsed by a prestigious academic and professional body: all whites are racist, whether or not knowingly.That, to my mind, is a racist remark of the lowest kind, one that attributes to people of a certain skin-colour an enormous moral fault, and one which they can do nothing to overcome, since they possess it unknowingly. And the sentence is indicative of a widespread approach to racial and cultural relations in the modern world. Racism is defined as a disease of the indigenous majority, from which incoming minorities are genetically immune, even when they bring with them the visceral anti-semitism that prevails in much of the Arab world, or the Malaysian hatred of the ethnic Chinese. Why is our political élite so keen to charge their own people with racism, and to turn a blind eye to the racism of immigrants? The answer is to be found in another double standard, encapsulated in the charge so frequently associated with that of racism – the charge of xenophobia.
I do not doubt that there is such a thing as xenophobia, though it is a very different thing from racism. Etymologically the term means fear of (and therefore aversion towards) the foreigner. Its very use implies a distinction between the one who belongs and the one who doesn’t, and in inviting us to jettison our xenophobia politicians are inviting us to extend a welcome to people other than ourselves – a welcome predicated on a recognition of their otherness. Now it is easy for an educated member of the liberal élite to discard his xenophobia: for the most part his contacts with foreigners help him to amplify his power, extend his knowledge and polish his social expertise. But it is not so easy for an uneducated worker to share this attitude, when the incoming foreigner takes away his job, brings strange customs and an army of dependents into the neighbourhood, and finally surrounds him with the excluding sights and sounds of a ghetto.
Again, however, there is a double standard that affects the description. Members of our liberal élite may be immune to xenophobia, but there is an equal fault which they exhibit in abundance, which is the repudiation of, and aversion to, home. Each country exhibits this vice in its own domestic version. Nobody brought up in post-war England can fail to be aware of the educated derision that has been directed at our national loyalty by those whose freedom to criticize would have been extinguished years ago, had the English not been prepared to die for their country. The loyalty that people need in their daily lives, and which they affirm in their unconsidered and spontaneous social actions, is now habitually ridiculed or even demonized by the dominant media and the education system. National history is taught as a tale of shame and degradation. The art, literature and religion of our nation have been more or less excised from the curriculum, and folkways, local traditions and national ceremonies are routinely rubbished.
This repudiation of the national idea is the result of a peculiar frame of mind that has arisen throughout the Western world since the Second World War, and which is particularly prevalent among the intellectual and political elites. No adequate word exists for this attitude, though its symptoms are instantly recognized: namely, the disposition, in any conflict, to side with ‘them’ against ‘us’, and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours’. I call the attitude oikophobia – the aversion to home – by way of emphasizing its deep relation to xenophobia, of which it is the mirror image. Oikophobia is a stage through which the adolescent mind normally passes. But it is a stage in which intellectuals tend to become arrested. As George Orwell pointed out, intellectuals on the Left are especially prone to it, and this has often made them willing agents of foreign powers. The Cambridge spies – educated people who penetrated our foreign service during the war and betrayed our Eastern European allies to Stalin – offer a telling illustration of what oikophobia has meant for my country and for the Western alliance. And it is interesting to note that a recent BBC ‘docudrama’ constructed around the Cambridge spies neither examined the realities of their treason nor addressed the suffering of the millions of their East European victims, but merely endorsed the oikophobia that had caused them to act as they did.
Nor is oikophobia a specifically English, still less specifically British tendency. When Sartre and Foucault draw their picture of the ‘bourgeois’ mentality, the mentality of the Other in his Otherness, they are describing the ordinary decent Frenchman, and expressing their contempt for his national culture. A chronic form of oikophobia has spread through the American universities, in the guise of political correctness, and loudly surfaced in the aftermath of September 11th, to pour scorn on the culture that allegedly provoked the attacks, and to side by implication with the terrorists. And oikophobia can be everywhere read in the attacks levelled against the Vlaams Belang.
The domination of our national Parliaments and the EU machinery by oikophobes is partly responsible for the acceptance of subsidised immigration, and for the attacks on customs and institutions associated with traditional and native forms of life. The oikophobe repudiates national loyalties and defines his goals and ideals against the nation, promoting transnational institutions over national governments, accepting and endorsing laws that are imposed from on high by the EU or the UN, and defining his political vision in terms of cosmopolitan values that have been purified of all reference to the particular attachments of a real historical community. The oikophobe is, in his own eyes, a defender of enlightened universalism against local chauvinism. And it is the rise of oikophobia that has led to the growing crisis of legitimacy in the nation states of Europe. For we are seeing a massive expansion of the legislative burden on the people of Europe, and a relentless assault on the only loyalties that would enable them voluntarily to bear it. The explosive effect of this has already been felt in Holland and France, and of course it is now being felt in Belgium too.
But there is a third double standard that can be perceived in the official policies of the EU when it comes to nationality. Where national sentiments pose a threat to the centralisation of power, the European machine is determined to extinguish them. Such is the case when it comes to Flemish nationalism, which threatens the very heart of the machine. Where, however, national sentiments serve to break down rival centres of power, the European machine gladly endorses them. It has dealt with my country as though Britain were a wholly artificial creation like Belgium, has encouraged Scottish and Welsh nationalism, and imposed on us an official map in which Scotland and Wales exists, but England is not mentioned, being merely the arbitrary sum of four independent ‘regions’ by which it is to be eventually replaced. Britain won the war, and established thereby its immovable place in our affections, a place that it cannot yield to a power-hungry bureaucracy situated in a once occupied country. The only way to destroy Britain, therefore, is to emphasize the rival loyalties that will blow it apart and at the same time destroy its center which is England.
It is in the light of these double standards that the charge of ‘racism and xenophobia’ should be assessed. It is a charge almost invariably levelled at members of the indigenous communities of Europe, and in particular against those at the bottom of the social scale, for whom mass immigration is a cost that they have not been schooled (and through no fault of their own) to bear. It is levelled too at political parties that attempt to represent those people, and who promise them some relief from a problem that no other party seems willing to address. Those who level the charge are almost invariably in the grip of oikophobia. Their sense of belonging is fragile or non-existent. They look on the old forms of European community, and in particular on the old national identities that shaped our continent, with barely concealed distaste. And by focussing on their cosmopolitan visions of politics, they are able to turn a blind eye to the fact that European states contain a growing number of people who have neither national loyalty nor the Enlightenment ideals that have stemmed from it. It is in this way, therefore, that we should explain the charge of ‘racism and xenophobia’: it issues from the bad conscience of a liberal élite living in denial.
Well, you might respond, why shouldn’t they live in denial if it makes them more comfortable? In conclusion, let me say what I think is wrong with this kind of existential dishonesty. The ordinary people of Europe are now deeply anxious about their future: they are looking for someone who will represent their anxieties, and take measures to reduce them. The recent Islamist atrocities, and the general state of alert against terrorism, have done nothing to reassure them. And when people are in a state of anxiety they pose a threat, both to themselves and to those whom they fear. It is vital that the European states achieve an effective integration of their immigrant communities; but if the liberal élite will not discuss the matter, and continue to put all blame for the growing anxiety on the xenophobia of the indigenous population while ignoring the oikophobia which is an equal contributory cause, then the likely long-term effect will be a popular explosion, and one from which no-one will benefit, least of all the immigrant communities.
And this returns me to my initial remarks. I came here to talk about something that is of vital interest to you, and also to me. But it seems that there are many people in this country who believe that I should not talk to you at all, and that by doing so I become tainted with the very charge that has been levelled at you: the charge of racism and xenophobia. By talking about this charge, I hope to deflect it. I am neither racist nor xenophobic; I am in the habit of assuming that the same is true of others, until they have shown evidence to the contrary; and I am glad that a Party exists that is willing to brave this charge, in order to discuss the problem that is in the minds of all ordinary Europeans today. To those who wrote to me, saying that I must boycott the Vlaams Belang, I replied: why don’t you invite me? Why don’t you initiate the discussion that we all of us so much need, if you cannot entrust it to them? And of course not one of them has responded.
Republished from The Brussels Journal