G.K. Chesterton was a sucker for romantic gestures. Lines of soldiers with swords crossed, flags rippling in the wind, cathedral bells tolling: These sorts of scenes moved him, as did visions of lovers pledging themselves to each other in the dusky darkness of a summer evening, monks prostrate on cold, stone, chapel floors as they take their vows, and the quiet, invincible resolution of solitary soldiers who face impossible odds. Life is betterricher, deeper, thickerfor our loyalties and loves.
I share this Chestertonian sensibility, which is why the new music from the English folk band, Show of Hands, gives me goose bumps.
Listen to the band’s bitter lament, “Country Life.” The accompanying video on YouTube features harsh black and white images that match the cutting lyrics.
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.
“Country Life” is not a polemic against free markets or Thatcherism. It thrusts against the left as well. “No one marched to subsidize and save the country way of life,” they sing. We are reminded that so-called progressive politics long ago shifted its focus toward securing lifestyle freedoms for the new-economy winners (gay-pride marches, women’s rights marches), as well as toward movements to satisfy the refined moral palates of the educated elites (animal rights, nuclear disarmament, global warming). The local guy with a high-school education and ordinary expectations from life gets pushed to the side.
Another verse evokes the outsider’s mentality: “We hate the blood; we want the meat.” The London weekenders want the charming atmosphere of an English villagebut without all the difficulties of having to live with the villagers. The song ends with a staccato of loss: “No trains. No jobs. No shops. No pubs.”
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.
We hear the voice of angerready to strike back against the cultural elites who look down on love of place and love of country, assuming that it amounts to a primitive nativism, a reactionary racism, or a weepy nostalgia unwilling to face up to the realities of a global economy. Political correctness be damned: “I’ve lost St. George and the Union Jack / That’s my flag too and I want it back.”
“Roots” ends hauntingly, powerfully. A live audience echoes again and again the band’s refrain: “Haul away boys, let them go / Out of the wind and the rain and snow. / We’ve lost more than we’ll ever know / ‘Round the rocky shores of England.” It’s not great poetry, but as music it galvanizes and calls to action. We will not let our post-national minders seduce us into forgetting that we have forgotten. We will not reduce ourselves to utility-maximizing economic actors or deracinated global citizens. We will love our culture and our country.
No doubt G.K. Chesterton would be roused. But he knew, as we all know, that our loves and loyalties can be cruel, jealous, and wicked. To a very great extent, what flies under the cosmopolitan banner of postmodernism represents a reaction against the bloody consequences of nationalism in the last century. Our multicultural therapists do not counsel moral relativism because they have closely studied questions of epistemology. They want us to be self-critical and non-judgmental so that we can all get along. Let us be lukewarm in our loyalties so that we will be soft in our hatreds. If nothing is worth fighting for, then nobody will fight.
It seems like a good outcome, but at what price? Social capital is a term developed by sociologists to describe the non-economic, non-coercive forces that bind people. Social capital pays out its dividends in all sorts of ways: in community service, in family life, and in often unreflective, habitual acts of courtesy and friendliness. If everything in our lives is run like the futures pit at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange or the local courtroom, then we have mean, miserable lives.
Social capital is not a fixed asset. It requires regular reinvestment, which we do by committing resources of memory, love, and loyalty. One of the signal features of our age is the belief that we can have everything for nothing. Our multicultural therapists imagine that we can discharge the batteries of national identity, reap gains in tolerance, and pay no costs. But there are costs. As the Show of Hands sings, “We’ve lost more than we’ll ever know.” We can’t stand forever at a distance with our critical doubts and moral reservations. Love rewards only those who venture her commitments.
When I first heard “Roots,” I was reminded of “Sweet Home Alabama,” the Lynyrd Skynyrd anthem from the 1970s. Sung against the background of the then only recently triumphant civil rights movement, it rang with a white man’s unrepentant Southern pride. The lyrics don’t say so explicitly, but the sentiment was akin to the Show of Hands anthem: “That’s my flag too and I want it back.”
This isn’t the place to rehash debates about the public display of the Confederate battle flag, any more than to make a decision about whether or not British imperialism stained the Union Jack. More to the point, as Edmund Burke, one of the great English champions of tradition, once wrote, “To make us love our country, our country must be loveable.” Our countries, our communities, and our cultures are always marred and unlovely in some respect, and we suffer from the great temptation to turn a realistic love into an ideological fantasy. Love can blind in order to bind.
Nonetheless, most loyalties to culture and place encourage a nobility of the soul. A man from Mississippi who honors the Stars and Bars no more wants to reinstate Jim Crow than a farmer from Dorset who salutes the Union Jack wants to re-establish the British Empire. He wishes to remember something worth cherishing. He wants to give himself in loyalty to what was good and noble, even as it existed (and perhaps still exists) amidst what was (and perhaps remains) evil and base.
This patriotic impulse is based on a deep truth about culture. When human beings invest in a tradition or community or nation over long periods of time, something of our intrinsic dignity as creatures made in the image of God cannot help but find its way into the fabric of the culture. There’s almost always something in every human society worth honoring, which is one reason why patriotism is a natural virtue.
I understand the widespread sentiment in contemporary Christian theology that judges patriotism, especially American patriotism, a temptation toward idolatry. Stanley Hauerwas has rightly pointed out the theological absurdity of the old Protestant habit of placing the American flag alongside the pulpit, as if the Pledge of Allegiance were on the same existential plane as the Nicene Creed.
But we can go too far in our critiques of political idolatry and end up with a deracinating iconoclasm. Worldly loves such as patriotism and regional pride prepare us for the incorruptible love of God. In genuine patriotism, we give ourselves away to our rootsnot unequivocally, not uncritically, not without reserve, but really and without hedging our bets. All our flags are corrupted by sin, but when we salute them, we prepare the heart for a deeper, life-abandoning salute to the cross and abandonment to God. All the more reason to wish every success to Show of Hands: May they get back their Union Jack.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University.
"Country Life" by Show of Hands (YouTube video)
"Roots" by Show of Hands (YouTube video)