Conservatism and progressivism in tango: real and faux

“In Buenos Aires …”

This sort of gambit is associated with a ‘traditionalist’ attitude in tango, which is thereby also associated with ‘conservatism’. However, most people who are traditionalist about tango are conservative in a very narrow sense, namely, in the sense that they are against progress in tango while being ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ in every other respect. Online discussions about these issues in tango show how difficult it is to maintain even this narrow type of conservatism, that is, how conservative values have come to be delegitimized from acceptable public discourse. As a consequence, conservatism with respect to tango is expressed in progressive-sounding terms such as cultural relativism—”there are different contexts with different social attitudes”— or human rights—”we have a right to our culture”.

All of this is expressed in terms of the defence of the human rights of some oppressed group, and this group is then defended by so-called diversity tourists, progressive people in Western countries who enjoy foreign culture and people so long as it’s at a reasonable distance. I experienced this in Sydney where Argentine teachers were imported at great expense to run overpriced workshops all the while the local Argentine community that had several competent teachers was shunned. So within this social system the conservatism or traditionalism of the oppressed minority is really a tool of the progressive diversity tourist, so it’s really a faux conservatism.

So then the question is what is conservatism and how does it relate to tango? I think that the best source for this is Sir Roger Scruton whose lectures can be found on YouTube about what he thinks conservatism is, what it means to be a conservative, and how this relates to art and culture, ie., things like architecture, painting, music and language. Scruton thinks that most ordinary people are conservative but they just don’t explicitly articulate this. He sees conservatism as characterised by the love of what one has: one’s home and family, culture and history. It is characterised by seeing the beauty that is there and that needs to be preserved. Progressivism by contrast is characterised by an essentially negative attitude that sees the world as full of problems that need to be fixed and that progressives then proceed to fix: inequality, racism, sexism, patriarchy, oppression, cultural appropriation, “gender normativity”, etc.

From this point of view conservatism is not merely the narrow desire to preserve a particular culture which is some sort of a human right of a people who are oppressed. The problem with human rights is that it’s not clear what is their basis coupled with the observable fact that the human right of one person or group tends to clash with the human right of another person or group. The human right of tango traditionalists to maintain their culture will clash with the human right of feminists, gays, transsexuals, gender fluid people, etc. who will find this culture oppressive. Talk of human rights and cultural relativism simply leads to a chaos of conflicting claims that characterises the whole progressive discourse. So old school radical feminists like Germaine Greer find themselves accused of being reactionary bigots when they insist on binary categories such as male and female, that is, when they insist that men and men, women are women, and transgender women are in fact men and are not women.

From this point of view conservatism is a worldview that is opposed wholesale to the discourse of progressivism and rejects its ‘problems’ as completely bogus. Unfortunately conservatism does not have a ‘discourse’ other than the belief that people have a history and a culture, that they have a right to have their own place, that people have a right to private property that is protected by law, to engage in economic exchange free from the interference by the state, that they have a right to associate with whoever they please, to educate their children according to their beliefs and religion, etc. All of these things are currently under persistent and systematic attack. Today a Christian baker is taken to court for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. How long before a milonga organiser is taken to court for refusing people who engage in same-sex dancing, or refuses a transgender ‘woman’ the right to sit in the female section or to use the female bathroom?

It is therefore not really necessary to explain what traditionalism is because any normal person who has not been corrupted by progressive education, who for example has not been subjected by the brain washing of a Gender Studies course in a university, will find that they understand the basic concepts, but finds that holding these ideas opens them to the charge of sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, patriarchy, oppression, binary gender normativism, etc.

It is useful, however, to consider the conservative view of art and culture insofar as this is relevant to tango. Scruton talks about art and beauty, or aesthetic experience, as something that we need but that has been taken away from us by (i) mass culture, in particular, pop music; and (ii) modernism and postmodernism in art. Both of these radically diverge from art and culture prior to the 20th century. In architecture, music and painting beauty has been actively rejected and so we find in all these spheres of creativity works that are boring, ugly or offend our moral and aesthetic sensibility. In popular culture, music is progressively dumbed down and is increasingly pornographic. Hollywood movies have virtually ceased to have a story and comprise a series of 5 second cuts with increasing amounts of social justice virtue signalling and white male bashing.

It is clear that people who consume any of this in their education, entertainment or cultural life are widely at odds with the people who created the Argentine tango. Of course, there is the route outlined above, the Marxist line about oppressed people from the Global South who want to practice their traditional culture, and who are the oppressed victims of cultural appropriation. You can participate in the cultural degeneration of the West while practicing diversity tourism and ‘respecting’ the human right of the oppressed folk to practice their culture. But then as a cultural relativist you figure out a way of corrupting that culture anyway while engaging in some convoluted logic to deal with the cognitive dissonance.

Conservatives suffer none of this because they simply see that contemporary culture is mostly garbage. If they don’t immediately see it, they are easily led to see that, especially once they are offered viable alternatives. The point here is that tango should provide a viable alternative to the trash that is contemporary popular and high culture. It appeals to every conservative instinct being rooted in a historical tradition prior to the corruption of modernism and postmodernism. Of course tango did not escape the modernist/postmodernist corruption in the form of Tango Nuevo and Salon Style Tango, but there remains an older understanding that the conservative, being the ardent archeologist, can unearth and revive.

My view is that in doing so the conservative is not engaging in either cultural appropriation, cultural relativism, nor is he defending anyone’s human rights. The conservative instead is unearthing the remnants of European culture, the heritage that preceded the current progressive dystopia and cultural degeneration, in order to revive it. In painting artists are returning to more traditional representational art that has been abandoned in mainstream art schools. They do so not on the basis that it is a human right, but on the basis that it is our cultural heritage and it is worth reviving, ie., it has intrinsic value. In music composers are returning to tonal music that is beautiful and dignifying. There are similar movements in architecture, sculpture, etc., all rejected by establishment institutions of course.

We are bathed in a culture that presents us with fakes, inauthentic experiences that leave us dissatisfied and longing for something more. Throughout the ages the purpose of art has been to transcend the mundane reality and bring us in contact with the sublime. Tango is no different as in the Golden Era it has attained the status of high culture. It has subsequently been corrupted to provide shallow, transient, fake emotions. But reviving the authentic feeling in tango cannot be done within the discourse of progressivism, of cultural relativism, or oppression, but within a thoroughly conservative and historical understanding of the proper role of art and culture to provide meaning and authenticity in our lives.