"Seton Castle...on the last rampart of the Rockies where the Buffalo Wind is blowing."

Friday, December 9, 2016

Was Seton a Conservative or Liberal?

The White Wind Blows (from winter into spring)



Ernest Thompson Seton didn’t leave a published record of his political beliefs, although there are clues. He greatly admired Theodore Roosevelt (more than Roosevelt admired him as it turned out) but Seton was not a U.S. citizen during the period of TR’s political activity; their relationship seems to have defined by their common interest in natural history. By the time of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt presidency, Seton had become an American citizen and a supporter of FDR.
 
Seton made clear his admiration for the historical communitarianism of American Indians and First Nations peoples. I suspect that he would have liked at least some of what Bernie Sanders stands for as a “democratic socialist.” Ralph Nadar has defined those who use this term in the American context as “New Dealers,” that is,  supporters of government programs meant to benefit a broad segment of the population, as opposed to a select few. That would seem to position Seton on the political left, at least as it was defined in the 1930s and 1940s. He would have been appalled at the current rise of populism.
 
“Politics” as an activity is usually taken to mean partisanship in favor or in opposition to certain issues in economics, domestic social issues, war and peace, etc. In a more general way, an attitude or belief can be political, such as Seton’s belief in Darwinism or his championing of Native Americans or his stance regarding the existence of an emotional life among non-human animals. But ascribing these attitudes to the political “left” or “right” doesn’t fit with our current notion of politics.
 
In this series of essays I have addressed the many aspects of Seton as naturalist, explorer, artist, writer and so on. These parts of his life do not exist outside of the political (in the general sense mentioned above) so the question of his conservatism or liberalism is worth asking in an investigation of his life and views. He was not doctrinaire; he took the best of both positions.
 
Seton called for justice for native peoples (liberalism) while also promoting what he understood as their traditional values (conservatism). He rejected the conservative position of accepting our birth-assigned status place (he certainly didn’t) but rejected a notion sometimes followed by liberals of putting present needs above future concerns. Lifecraft philosophy, while strongly supportive of creativity, also looks to the restraint of authority to hold down the chaos. In this regard, Seton seems to weigh in on order and interest above liberty and choice. 
 
Through Lifecraft, Seton attempted to strike the right balance: the honoring of individual expression and achievement within a community to which one owes service as the price of liberty.

This service to community, moreover, comes out of individual choice, not through convention or force. By contrast, taking a traditional conservative line, Robert Baden-Powell held that service is owed to the prevailing societal arrangements—especially one’s country—because order flows from nationalist respect. The difference between these two approaches is monumental.

Seton took his most extraordinary step when he claimed that animals are different from us only by degree, that they, like us, have emotions, thoughts, feelings and desires. While his stories made him famous (and wealthy), the conservative backlash to this position destroyed much of the literary reputation he had worked so hard to achieve. Theodore Roosevelt, among others, could find no meaning in what Seton was attempting to convey. If Seton was correct, then everything believed by most people at that time had to be mistaken. This was Seton’s most revolutionary position—and it cost him dearly.

His most prescient position was one that cannot be characterized as either liberal or conservative.  Seton began drawing and writing about what I would call our war on nature as early as 1901. By 1925, he felt that damage to the environmental was already spiraling out of control. He did not promote specific policies but through his own life modeled the power that a rising consciousness about our place in the world might hold.

The Seton Legacy offers us an acceptance of the rational (in the case of climate change, conclusions derived from the scientific method) combined with an acknowledgement of history (we can compare conditions from past times to our own) and an obligation to the future (what we do now matters in a deeply moral way).

See my Seton Legacy Project blog on achieving peace through justice posted October 22, 2012, “St. Paul the Apostle.” For a comparison of liberalism vs. conservatism, inspired by a reading of the scholar Yuval Levin, see “Why the Environmentalist Movement Has Not Saved Us (Yet)” December 2016. at www.davidlwitt.com.

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