I grew up alternating between wanting to be an actor and a rock star; specifically a lead guitarist. Rhythm guitarists played the boring, easy stuff like chords. How athletic. I wanted to play flashy, kaleidoscopic leads like Eddie Van Halen (I didn’t understand then that Van Halen’s rhythm guitar skill was superior to his skill as a soloist). I thought very little about politics as an adolescent (if I’m honest, I didn’t really give politics serious attention until after I became a father myself, many years later). I heard someone once say politics was showbusiness for ugly people. I couldn’t have agreed more.
During my teenage years and into my twenties I lived an insular life. It was a comfortable, well-fed, middle-class life, but still an insular life. I joined theatre groups, acted in plays and musicals and tried to put together rock bands (culminating in 1998 with my group Viagra Falls)…. Needless to say, this enterprise did indeed fall, before long. I valued self-expression and the plumbing of musical and dramatic emotional depths above everything else in life. I had no money and very few cares. What money I did make I quickly spent on music, the theatre or the cinema. I was, like so many of my generation, a luxury bohemian.
I do not reflect back on these years with horror for cultivating an interest in music and drama. I believe then as now that young people should explore the avenues that appeal to their passions while trying to ascertain where their skills and talents lie. I do look back with some horror at the kind of person I was during that season of life; moody, self-absorbed and prickly. I treated parents and friends badly and I would even say I treated strangers badly.
Reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in my early twenties was a formative experience. I felt then as now that the great Russian author had extraordinary insight into the depths and knots of the human mind and the human heart. Characters like Raskolnikov and Sonia were multi-faceted and nuanced in a credible and authentic way. I would not read Notes from the Underground until several years after this but that too has since become something I’ve read again and again. One paragraph of Notes from the Underground has cropped up repeatedly with enough regularity for me to orient my whole worldview around it, regardless of weather, season or circumstance. The narrator writes:
Now I ask you, what can one expect of man, as a creature endowed with such strange qualities? Shower him with all earthly blessings, plunge him so deep into happiness that nothing is visible but the bubbles rising to the surface of his happiness, as if it were water; give him such economic prosperity that he will have nothing left to do but sleep, eat gingerbread, and worry about the continuance of world history – and he, I mean man, even then, out of mere ingratitude, out of sheer devilment, will commit some abomination…It is precisely his most fantastic daydreams, his vulgarest foolishness, that he wants to cling to, just so that he can assert that people are still people and not piano- keys…
Dostoevsky captures the paradoxes within human nature so evocatively here – our tendency to sabotage everything that is right in our lives simply to commune with the unexpected; the chaotic and the entropic. Why do we do this? Because the urgency to assert our autonomous will subsumes the need to live in alignment with the world around us. The piano key does not have an independent will; it simply obeys the will of the pianist. There is something uncannily true about his observations from both an interpersonal (micro) level to a broader societal (macro) level. For all our energies to eliminate problems from the horizon of our existence there is a paradoxical desire to fraternise with uncertainty and disharmony. We may fantasise about lying in a hammock on the shores of an exotic paradise, cradling a strawberry- daiquiri and yet, it will not take us long to sabotage such an image if it ever transformed into a reality. We will complain about the length of time the waiter took to bring us the drink, or maybe the string of the hammock chaffs our skin, or the sand underneath the hammock will be too coarse for our liking. We will find something.
Why are we like this? Where does this fervour for self-sabotage come from? The prophet Jeremiah bluntly states: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure”, before asking, “Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). The resigned tone of this rhetorical question suggests that the capacity to grasp the depths of the heart’s depravity exceeds what is possible for us to comprehend.
The apostle Paul was an intellectual, spiritual and moral giant of his era. Even he wrestles with this in Romans 7 when he says the following:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. [c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. 21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.
And so in Australia in 2023, we find ourselves living in a society that is fairer, more affluent, more racially tolerant, more accepting of diverse people groups than at any other time in history, not to mention a life that is more ensconced from the harsh vicissitudes of the natural world with an array of creature comforts: drinkable water on tap, central heating, air-conditioning, and many of us with two cars in the garage. And yet here we are, so many of us complaining about systemic discrimination, encrusted racism and an impending global catastrophe due to excess carbon emissions. Would it kill us to first express some appreciation for all of the benefits we enjoy? Then again, as Dostoevsky says elsewhere in Notes from the Underground, “the best definition of man is: a creature that has two legs and no sense of gratitude.”
For me, gratitude is at the core of the conservative worldview. Every day is a gift. It is not something I’m entitled to. Life; a gift. Air; a gift. It’s free….for the moment, at least. Before I start fulminating about my rights and demand to be treated with dignity and respect by everyone I encounter, it behoves me to be thankful that I have life at all. This expression of gratitude frees me from the blanket assumption that the world owes me for all the things in my life that have not worked out as planned. Before I seek to reform the economy, education, transport, infrastructure, the government and the environment, it befits me to reform myself. How is my temper going compared to this time last year? Am I speaking kindly and patiently to my wife? How is my tone with my colleagues at work? Never mind the neighbour’s house, are there too many weeds in my own backyard? If I can manage life and contribute positively to the immediate and proximal domain of the familial, perhaps then can I consider branching out to the local….maybe even the regional with some kind of benign influence.
If, however I start to adopt a spurious moralistic stance on something as nebulous as the climate before I’ve set my house in order, perhaps I need to rethink my priorities. Not long before he died, the late, great Roger Scruton said something that resonated strongly. The political left tends to have all the best slogans, things like “march forward” or “stand up to the establishment”, whereas if you had to have a slogan for conservativism, it would be something like “hesitate!” which does not exactly have the same galvanising impact. There lies the rub. The people who perhaps most need to be exposed to alternative opinions to their own, tend to be the same people whose knee-jerk emotionalism blinds them to scrutinising these alternative opinions in any depth.
I am a conservative because I have discovered the importance of hesitation. Dennis Prager put it this way in his book Happiness is a Serious Problem: “The Communists who imagined a utopian Russia destroyed the terribly flawed Czarist society but produced a far worse place and gave us the gulag. The Germans who compared the flawed democracy of Weimar Germany to images of a Great Reich destroyed that imperfect democracy and gave the world Auschwitz.”
Hesitation is not a place to pitch a tent or build a summer-home; it is a penultimate but necessary step towards prudent decision-making. Like the terminal of an airport, you need to pass through it, but it’s no place to live. I am a conservative because I believe that a certain epistemic humility is essential: that there is a treasure trove of wisdom and knowledge in the insights (and mistakes) of great writers and thinkers who came before me: C.S. Lewis, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, George Eliot, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Stuart Mill, Nietzsche and Rousseau to name a few. I am a conservative because I believe that part of establishing a political identity means understanding the limits of politics on your identity. I have a fulfilling life outside of my interest in the political domain, which also still includes occasionally listening to Van Halen.
Michael Samild is a Christian teacher and musician with an Arts degree from UNSW dating back to the days when BA's still had some element of academic rigour and merit! He has a Graduate Diploma in Music Therapy and worked internationally in special needs schools for two years. He also earned a Graduate Diploma in Education and now teaches English at a Christian school in NSW. A traditional ‘left’ voter until around the 2013 election which saw Abbott defeat Rudd, he became a father and observed the radical destabilisation of our society and culture, growing in his conservatism and distrust of big government.
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