Conservatism is, in large part, about memory; you cannot conserve values if you do not remember them, if you do not remember the time when values where embedded into active and functioning social systems. There are powerful weapons turned against memory these days, including ideologies of “creative destruction” whose main function is to constantly destroy the past and the values associated with the past. But when we destroy the past, we also destroy the future, and that is a process that is becoming painfully apparent today. Politically, both the right and the left have become ideologies of destruction; the right for commercial reasons and the left for cultural (or “multi-cultural”) reasons.
But without remembering our past, we cannot rebuild our future. The memory of the past comes not so much from histories and essays; the main tools of memory were song and story. Today our stories are more likely to be about science fiction, about a future that never arrives, and our songs are not anything we actually sing. Indeed, we don't even share our songs, but listen to them plugged into a tiny box, where no one else can even here them.
R. R. Reno of First Things has brought to our attention some songs that do recover the past, that are worth singing and worth sharing. They are from the English group, Show of Hands. Writes Reno:
The background for the song is the post-Thatcher boom in England that has transformed social patterns. Whatever was left of nineteenth-century industrial society has been swept away. Global agricultural markets have changed farming. The explosive growth of wealth, almost entirely focused in London, has created a large class of the well-to-do. The end result for a great deal of southern England: failing village economies now sustained by money infused by London weekenders, many of whom have bought charming cottages as second homes.
Our free-market friends like to remind us that this is all part of the process of creative destruction. And anyway, aren’t those country folks making their own decisions to sell out and pocket the cash? All good and well, but Show of Hands sings of a different, existential truth: “Redbrick cottage where I was born / Is the empty shell of a holiday home. / Most of year there’s no one there. / The village is dead and they don’t care.” The kitchens have been redone tastefully, but the village empties during the week.
If “Country Life” gives you a Chestertonian tingle, then strap on your seat belt and click over to “Roots.” This song crashes onto the shore of contemporary multiculturalism like a Cornish storm surge.
The major premise of “Roots” is simple: “Without our stories or our songs / How will we know where we come from?” The minor premise is implied: England now encourages cultural forgetfulness rather than memory. The conclusion: an urgent imperative of cultural renewal that gives this song extraordinary emotional power.
Like last year's hit, Dégénération from the French Canadian group Mes Aïeux, these songs remind of us where we came from and what we have lost. And until we recover our past, we cannot rebuild our future.