British writer Tim Stanley pleads for tradition

On the cover of What Happened to Tradition by Tim Stanley, a gargoyle of Notre-Dame Cathedral contemplates the rooftops of modern Paris. Chin cupped in his hands, he looks like he’s fed up; as if, in fact, he was asking himself, with an air of despair, the very question posed by the title of the book.

However, when I meet Tim Stanley on the steps of All Souls Church, right next to BBC Broadcasting House, there is nothing inconsolable gargoyle about him. He had just turned on Women’s Time on Radio 4. The week before, he had switched to Question Time on BBC1.

There are good reasons for its rise to a talking head in demand. Without ever resorting to all-out assaults, he nevertheless has the gift of destabilizing listeners.

This most English-looking (and sounding) man is an expert on American history. This champion of conservatism, and journalist for the Daily Telegraph, has already been a candidate for Parliament for the Labor Party. His book in Defense of Western Tradition includes enriching excursions into Yazidi, Japanese, and a host of other cultures.

Stanley’s affable manners also make him an unlikely participant in the cultural wars raging in Europe and America: the conflicts that unfold in parliaments and legislatures, online and on college campuses, in newspaper columns and television studios, pitting traditionalists and conservatives against progressives and liberals, with the second group now largely on the rise. Stanley is one of the besieged Tories, but his tactics are slightly unusual. He is ready to give ground if he thinks the case is fair, but, a moment later, he will launch a daring effort to outflank his opponents.

Once we retreat to a nearby cafe, we bring up the topic of crop wars very early on, and quite often Stanley knocks him down. His right-wing allies, he says, are too quick to dismiss the material basis of cultural conflicts.

As an example, he cites the reforms of the English university system that began under Margaret Thatcher: country. They privatized and commercialized them and turned students from student status to consumers.

“This is at the root of much of the crop war. So if you just focus on the symptoms of the problem – that is, the students are intolerant – and you don’t look at the cause – that the students are paying huge sums for something that has no guarantee of good performance or performance. good job – there is a risk that you will end up being distracted.

Later in our conversation, he spits a certain type of American conservative: “I always find it funny that Republicans today are big fans of Martin Luther King Jnr. They always quote Martin Luther King when they talk about race.

“They always say, ‘Well, Martin Luther King said that’s the quality and content of a man’s soul …” I can assure you that fifty years ago most of these Conservatives would not have said that. He was a controversial man in his They Would have Hated much of what he had to say about economics and even war.

This willingness to be realistic about flaws on his own means that when Stanley it comes to talking about what he values ​​in lore, his words carry extra weight. The playbook, if there is one, is put aside and it speaks from the heart. Nowhere is this more evident than when he talks about his school years.

Uprooted, lonely, drinking heavily, Stanley was stressed rather than euphoric about the endless possibilities of college life. Growing up, he recalls in the book, he felt “bored in the presence of my own generation because they only knew what I knew. I much preferred the company of adults, of human beings who had seen things that I had not seen and understood things that I had yet to learn. While at sea, Stanley found himself “looking for a piece of driftwood to hang on for safety.”

This piece of driftwood was religion and Catholicism in particular. Raised Baptist, then Anglican, he was always “looking for a way of life that would help me be myself.” “Be yourself?” I ask. To submit to the demands of a religion like Catholicism would seem to many people to be an obstacle to growth, not a help.

Although he speaks fluently and easily, Tim Stanley needs a few runs at this hurdle: “What I love about Catholicism is that it provides you … It helps you know …” He stops and changes sides again, completely simplifying things: “He gives you things to do.” It fills your time. It’s a striking, albeit rather bald, proposition. Stanley clarifies: “If you get disgusted with yourself, there is confession. If you are feeling lonely, there is tea after mass. If you need to relax, there is a priest to talk to. If you need something to read to lift yourself up, there is the Psalms.

He begins to talk about the time when his father was dying. “It was then that I really discovered the usefulness of the Catholic faith,” he says, “because I knew what to do. Now, this can be misunderstood by people to mean, therefore, I give up my personality, my free will, and say to someone “You take care of this on my behalf”.

“But, no, it’s about saying that these traditions have, over thousands of years, found words for things, ways of dealing with things, that I, as an individual, have ten – eight, or twenty-five, or thirty-four, maybe I can’t figure it out on my own – unless I’m a genius, unless I’m a genius at Mozart’s level. can find the words, no one can know what to do in these situations.So, yes, the Catholic Church has helped me to be myself because it freed me from chaos.

The consequences of this liberation from chaos were considerable. “It’s actually only when things are calm and structured that you can grow up to learn and understand yourself, that’s the only way it’s possible. I mean, my God, when you go into a confessional and that you are really discussing what you did wrong, what you know you did wrong, what you can’t help but admit it’s wrong and try to fix… well, that It’s a real exercise in self-understanding. When I ask Stanley how he thinks the tradition unfolded under Covid, religion resurfaces.

“It’s been good and bad. It has been an important experience because we have been deprived of our customs and rituals and many of our traditions, such as going to church, but also being with the dead when they die, the funeral you are together at. in person, baptisms, baptisms… We have been deprived of those things that are the essential fabric of tradition, and the mental health toll has been enormous. We have discovered the value of these things. So in some ways it’s been good because I think people will come out of it enjoying it more.

“It was bad because the institutions failed. The traditions are strong; institutions are weak. And the decision in particular of the churches (in England) to close their doors, on purpose, was a huge mistake, because what they said, arbitrarily and unilaterally, was “We are not vital. We believe that we can do good, but we are not essential.

“And that was the wrong message to send. It showed institutions with a real crisis of self-confidence. Because then the question will come back after the pandemic: “So why should I come back? If you are not there during a life and death crisis then why would I go every Sunday when it’s boring and I don’t want to go and I prefer to sleep in in bed. So I think that the traditions have come out of it well and that the institutions have shown themselves to be very imperfect. ”

In the book, he recounts something that a priest told him during the pandemic: “You must understand that many clerics do not believe in God. They have feared for years that they will waste people’s time. The ability to oversee our health and safety makes them feel useful again. ”

But institutional failure does not start and end with churches. Police in England have also experienced a bad pandemic, Stanley believes. Because of the way they enforced often legally questionable rules, “many white middle class people have discovered what the poor and minorities have known for years, that the police are not without sin. ”

Here he is again, pricking another traditional thought bubble – police reliability. Tim Stanley’s willingness to set the standard assumptions right aside means What Happened to Tradition isn’t always easy reading for conservatives. But, oddly enough, this trend of his liberal pleas can also find the book difficult.

Admitting the faults of his own camp means that, when Stanley goes on the attack, his ideas come with more force and pizzazz; like, for example, when we talk about parents raising their children outside of any religious or cultural tradition: “We think that we are raising children without a predefined identity, but that is really not the case. We give them the alternative identity of a person in search of identity.

Stanley can achieve all of this because by temperament he seems more of a bridge builder than a wall builder and because he can fuse the authority and vast knowledge of a historian with wit and nose to a journalist story.

Over the years he has become “less socialist, more conservative; less political, more religious ”, but without forgetting what attracted him to these other traditions. A man, you might say, who knows what he’s talking about.

What Happened to Tradition by Tim Stanley is published by Bloomsbury, price £ 20

Lola R. McClure