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In the Footsteps of Moll Flanders, Banished to Rappahannock

Roger Scruton

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Daniel Defoe‘s heroine, found guilty of prostitution, was sent as a punishment to Rappahannock—which then comprised most of Northern and Western Virginia. Today, this beautiful Indian name applies only to the Rappahannock River and to a small county in the Blue Ridge foothills. Like Moll Flanders, the Scrutons were banished to Rappahannock by English puritanism. Not that the puritans had arrested us; but by making our favorite pastime into a crime they have, nevertheless, made us into criminals. And make no mistake: fox hunting is as offensive to the puritan English of today as prostitution was to their eighteenth-century forebears. Labour Members of Parliament, who condone every kind of sexual excess and seem to rejoice in the breakdown of family values, become pale with horror at the thought that someone somewhere might be enjoying ‘the sport of kings‘.

The Hunting Act, forced through Parliament by measures which are at best unconstitutional, at worst downright oppressive, exemplifies the decline of British politics, and the almost total loss of direction that we have experienced in the years of New Labour. Every now and then, a desperate report is put before Parliament concerning the preparations being made by Islamic terrorists, the escalating levels of immigration, the collapse of school discipline and a hundred other causes of social unrest. The Labour Members, who dominate Parliament, barely read to the end of the document and leave all action to the Prime Minister, who passes the buck to the spin-doctors, who brief a broadly sympathetic and, in any case, left-wing media to the effect that the problem has been exaggerated and besides the Government has it under control. Even the decision to enter the war in Iraq occupied Parliament for only 18 hours. It seemed, to most Labour Members, as though the matter hardly concerned them. When it came to hunting, however, they were gripped by the only political passion that they know—a vindictive desire to settle scores with the English upper class. As a result, Parliament spent 225 hours debating the issue, with rant upon rant against the evils of a sport that not a single one of its critics had ever witnessed.

In these circumstances, who can wonder if we conservatives look with envy to the United States, where the real issues of modern politics are debated and confronted; where conservatives seem to be not only permitted to speak their mind but also invited to act on it; where outspoken journals like National Review continue both to express conservative ideas and also to influence policy, and where conservative think-tanks like AEI and the Heritage Foundation push the university bien pensants into the background, where they belong.

Arriving in Rappahannock, however, we have become more keenly aware of the deep difference between English and American conservatism. Without intending any such thing, the English conservative finds himself embroiled in class warfare, in which his posture is always defensive. Whatever the cause—monarchy, private schools, the House of Lords, the Union, the countryside, field sports—he finds himself defending privileges associated with a landed upper class. Even if the aim is to make those privileges more widely available, they are nevertheless privileges, and by definition a privilege is something that not everyone can share.

In America, by contrast, conservatism means getting closer to the people, and adhering to a Constitution designed to give every citizen the right to pursue his own happiness in his own chosen way. It is not that America is without class-distinctions or that American conservatives are unaware of the social utility of hierarchies or of their need for protection. It is, rather, that hierarchies cause less offence when they are seen as the innocent results of choice. The democratic ethos liberates American conservatives from the burden of class, and enables them to address the fundamental issue of modern politics, which is freedom. By defending freedom, we also defend tradition, which is its spontaneous by-product. But there is no need to labour the point, when there is no party of Labour. Moreover, thanks to 9/11, Americans have woken up to the fundamental fact of modern politics, which is that freedom breeds resentment and will, therefore, always be under attack, not least from its own spoiled children, once they are comfortably installed, at public expense, in their university chairs.

For the Americans, ‘democracy‘ does not denote a political system only. It describes a way of life that is continuous with the Judaeo-Christian inheritance, imposing its constraints on behaviour in much the same way that a religion does, right down to the ritual ‘Have a nice day‘ which has replaced the ‘God be with you‘ of the Pilgrims. The conservative Renaissance in America is not some exceptional ‘storm cloud in the political sky.‘ It is not the result of a takeover by the ‘neo-cons‘ or ‘néo cons‘ as the French mockingly describe them; nor is it a fundamentalist movement that has banished the old ways of compromise. Still less is it, as European intellectuals tend to believe, a reaction against the modern world as perverse and dangerous as the Islamic revival. It is simply the political expression of a way of life that has retained, through all the changes that have intervened, the moral contours of old Rappahannock—the Rappahannock of Moll Flanders. So, at least, it seems to me.

Immediately on our arrival we found ourselves caught up in this way of life. Before two weeks had elapsed we had attended fund-raising dinners for local schools and charities, witnessed a baptism in the river and another in church, been guests at two hunt parties for landowners, and enjoyed a theatrical production, a rally of ATV enthusiasts and a festive day at the races. Our taut English reserve gave way before the hundred friendly invitations. For that is what freedom means to the Americans — the freedom to join. From this spirit of association there flows a self-renewing patriotism, and a shared sense, crossing all social, professional and political boundaries, of the essential blessedness of America.

This last point is the most difficult to express in a way that will engage the sympathies of sceptical Europeans. For the paradoxical truth is that America, child of Enlightenment philosophy and universalist ideals is, in a fast-dissolving world, the last bastion of the nation-state. Germans are brought up to distrust the national idea, and to regard their society as founded on nothing more meaningful than a contract for mutual support. The French have repudiated ‘La France,‘ with its Catholic faith, high culture and peasant rootedness. Their country is governed by an elite poised between Paris and Strasbourg—between the sophisticated sneering at ‘bourgeois‘ norms, and the ludicrous project of pan-European government. Even in Britain, where a quiet patriotism still survives from the Second World War, it is all but impossible to salute the flag, to sing patriotic songs, to praise national heroes or even to defend our inherited culture against the tide of Islamist hatred, which is a hatred of the nation-state. The idea of the country, as a God-given home and a call to service, has virtually disappeared from European politics.

Yet all around us in Rappahannock this idea shines from the landscape, from the faces of the people, and from the customs whereby they live. One house in three has the Stars and Stripes hanging from its porch; our local village of 400 people has clubs and committees devoted to every matter of public concern; we have a volunteer Rescue Squad for whom we pray each Sunday and a private school that teaches our children to sing ‘God Bless America‘. We are self-evidently living in the Promised Land.

That thought was brought to mind on our first Saturday in Virginia, when we found ourselves host to The Rappahannock Hunt‘s annual landowners‘ party, taking credit for a hospitality that we did nothing to provide. People of all ages and occupations—farmer, teacher, pastor, carpenter, banker, mechanic—mingled on our lawn on terms of complete equality. They had assembled to do what Americans spontaneously do whenever someone suggests it, which is to rejoice collectively in the fact of being alive. Food and drink appeared as though by a miracle, and in milk-and-honey abundance. And our neighbours came forward to shake our hands, to establish Christian names, to pat our shoulders and to affirm their complete and unquestioning endorsement of whatever we might turn out to be. Some of them will help us, some will cheat us, some will regard us as weird. But the essential point was established: we are all free together, and togetherness is what freedom means. A band of young musicians emerged from the gathering darkness, to play the indigenous Blue Grass music of Rappahannock, with a sixteen-year-old violinist improvising impeccably on the pentatonic scale that her ancestors brought here from the Irish bogs. The knowledge that she was classically trained and leader of a string quartet only enhanced the sense that in America, where progress and experiment are the official ideals, the important things don‘t change. Soon young and old were dancing on the lawn, with the peculiar Virginia step called ‘clogging,‘ just as they did when a fiddle sounded and spoons rattled in Moll Flanders‘ day.

People cannot be happy like this without arousing puritan resentment. The faults of America—the sprawling torsos, sprawling exurbia, sprawling sentimentality, sprawling TV-engendered ignorance—spring from the same freedom as the virtues. Hence it is easy to hate the democratic spirit. The contempt for other people‘s choices that has driven us to Rappahannock has caused the mad mullahs to declare war on America. But this antagonism shows why we should believe in America, and in the project of nation-building on which it depends. Maybe it was this project that William Buckley, III, had in mind, when he called his journal ‘National Review.‘ At any rate, I imagine that the great Bill Buckley would have joined in on that memorable Saturday with his own sense of dancing on the Promised Land. For that experience, so far from the cramped defensiveness of the English Tory, is the root of American conservatism.

©2005 by National Review, Inc., 215 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016. Reprinted by permission.

Read the entire article on the Rappahannock website (new window will open).

Posted: 16-Jun-08



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