Peter Hitchens managed to make some waves with his recent opinion piece recommending England secede from the United Kingdom. Aside from the audacity and simplicity of the proposal, the piece is striking for its distinctly conservative tone. Why is it that when the SNP calls for independence, it is “left-wing,” whereas when Hitchens makes the argument, it is “right-wing?”
I think we have gotten used to associating political movements with the policies they happen to support in the present, but forget how often these policies change across the years. Up until the 90s for instance, virtually all politicians opposed gay marriage; now in the 2020s, virtually all support. Only for a brief window in the 2000’s was there a discrepancy, where Democrats largely supported gay marriage, while Republicans largely opposed it.
This is not to say that certain policies don’t align more consistently with the left and right as such (abortion, for instance), but it does imply that policy alone doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Rather, policy expresses a difference in underlying reasoning or belief, a different worldview that is expressed in political affiliation and expression.
This difference in reasoning has been explained by psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt, who expresses conservative and liberal values along five “moral foundations” — specifically, harm, fairness, authority, ingroup, and purity (plus the later addition of “liberty”). Such an evaluation treats political affiliation as a kind of personality, something you might be born with… and, indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that political inclination is at least partially heritable.
However, experience shows that political orientation is at least as malleable as personality, and that people can and do change their minds not merely on policy, but even on political affiliation, more often than they change their degrees of openness or agreeability. I think the moral foundations can be thought of not as inborn traits, but as symptoms of a worldview that the individual holds. This worldview is not inherited at birth, but accepted — perhaps instantly, perhaps gradually — as the individual grows into social and political awareness.
These stories can be thought of as the political myths that drive history.
Myth in Politics
The talking points and narrative framing of the political left and right revolve around two essential myths. Here, “myth” is not meant in the sense of a “falsehood” or “misconception,” but as a kind of sacred and unifying story that frames the world and orients its adherents within it.
On the “right,” there is the myth of the Golden Age.
On the “left,” there is the myth of Utopia.
The myth of the Golden Age is a myth about the past. The belief is that Man is on a path of degeneration. Mankind was once strong and noble, living at peace in a Garden, acquainted with the Gods themselves, but entropy and corruption have taken us down below what we once were. The best mankind can do is attempt to hold on to what little we have left of that Golden past. Its essential mechanism is legacy; its mood, pessimistic; its unifying sentiment, nostalgea.
By contrast, the myth of Utopia is a myth about the future. The belief is that Man came from a sorry state, but is on a path of gradual improvement. It is only a matter of asking the right questions, implementing the right systems — and overcoming our fear of change and loss that would otherwise hold us back — and we might reach a refined and perfected existence. If not in fact, then at least in principle. Its essential mechanism is progress; its mood, optimistic; its unifying sentiment, oikophobia.
These sentiments may need some explanation, beginning with a definition.
“Oikophobia” comes from the Greek “oikos” (house) + “phobos” (fear), and it describes a fear or hatred of the home and of the familiar. If it is not clear why such a sentiment should be connected with optimism and progress, we need only look at the theory by which progress is supposed to play out. It can be simplified in the following way:
- An existing paradigm holds de facto dominance
- Criticism exposes a flaw in the existing paradigm
- New theories are proposed which account for the flaw
- One (or several) of the new theories is adopted in place of the old, and becomes dominant
Progress requires criticism, and a belief in progress in some sense requires belief in the imperfection and even inadequacy of the present. Like a monkey who won’t open his hand to escape a monkey trap, attachment to old ideas and modes of thought become an impediment to completely solving problems that historical men could only solve partially.
So the believer in progress and the myth of Utopia tends to become critical and disdainful of his own society’s past and present. Granting platitudinous concessions about certain goods in history, they will say that they choose to focus and dwell on the failures because that is where the opportunity for improvement lies. But whether or not they claim this logical position, the oikophobia itself follows from a pre-logical acceptance of the Utopian myth, which makes disdain for the present world an aesthetic and moral position — more akin to taste than to reason.
We see this play out ceaselessly today. The political left is forever criticizing the home nation and culture, forever berating the “problematic” nature of anything inherited or old, whether it be a founding set of laws, a venerable national hero, or even a statue.
Clarity requires a more precise word for right-wing sentimentality than “nostalgia,” which has become primarily a personal word in recent years. Nostalgia is what we say when we hear a song that reminds us of our high school years, or drive through the neighborhood we grew up in.
What I want to describe as “nostalgea” comes from the same meaning — Greek “nostos” (“homecoming”) + “algea” (“pain”), describing a kind of homesickness — but describes something beyond the merely personal. When we reminisce on our high school “glory days,” we might be experiencing “nostalgia,” but here I want to reserve and distinguish “nostalgea” for the longing we experience for times beyond our own experience of the world. Only the latter truly recognizes and expresses belief in the Golden Age myth, whether that Golden Age is the suburban 1950s, the patriotic 1770s, or the primordial Bronze Age. Personal nostalgia might even be seen as narcissistic by the conservative who believes the best times in the past, and the present generation as weak shadows of the grandeur that preceded our time.
Nostalgea expresses a yearning for the “nobler times” of the past. But because it extends beyond his experience, it simultaneously expresses a person’s learned connection with that time. It is a strong feeling of attachment to something that perhaps he will never actually, truly, authentically, feel a part of… and yet feels somewhat closer to for this yearning.
Such a person would go to great lengths to preserve and protect all reminders and memorials to the past, and find deep personal — even spiritual — fulfillment in spending his attention in its pages and walking its grassy battlegrounds. He might say that such a feeling is essential to preserve the legacy that grows with generations and provides food and indoor plumbing and electricity to the future. Such legacies grow by accumulated knowledge and respect, not by ceaseless criticism and rebuilding. But he would still have this feeling even if his offered justifications were proven false, and if society degraded into third world poverty and barbarism with no hope of ever recapturing his nations’ faded glory.
The classical criticism of nostalgia applies also to our less personal, more connected “nostalgea”: you can’t go back. Heraclitus famously said that no man can step into the same river twice, and we can no more relive our “golden years” than we can relive our personal youth. The bittersweet attachment of nostalgea not only impedes the path to a better future (blocked preemptively by the presumption that the best years are already behind us), but also stagnates the individual in the false hope of the impossible.
It is also charged by the left that the “Golden Age” was not so golden. The past is a place of horror, death, and oppression, and those who did well did so on the backs of the conquered and the enslaved.
But the Utopia of the future — says the right — looks no better. The mechanisms of enslavement are only more sophisticated and insidious: addiction, debt, manipulation, disorientation, and hedonism is no path to the good life, but have been conscripted as tools by governments and pseudo-governmental corporations for the conquest and enslavement of minds. The planned nature of the “system” of society which the left seeks to perfect into Utopia — which literally means “nowhere,” from Greek “ou” (neg.) “topos” (“place”) — requires the subjugation of its constituent people to its structure.
Goodness — says right — is not the product of human reason ex nihilo, but something inherited, emerging from the legacy we protect. And the destructive fires of progress leave no legacy-foundation to build from.
We see Oikophobia most vociferously today in the hatred of “old white men,” a phrase which has become a kind of dismissal in modern progressive movements. Anything built by white Christian men is tainted with racism, patriarchy, nationalism, superstition, and sentimental obstruction to progress. All of this expresses a disdain and even hatred for the bedrock of American culture and those who created it.