Recent laments from some eminent British writers provide a somber appraisal of their nation’s current conditions. As ever, one must put such complaints in perspective, but their concerns certainly merit reflection. Peter Hitchens (not to be confused with his brother Christopher) is a provocative journalist who compiled a collection of essays entitled The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2000). As the subtitle indicates, Hitchens repeatedly contrasts Winston Churchill and Princess Diana (and their markedly different funerals) to compare the Britain of 1997 with that of 1965. “The dead warrior was almost ninety, full of years and ready to die. He represented the virtues of courage, fortitude and endurance; he was picturesque rather than glamorous,” whereas Diana, dying young in an accident, “was snatched from life in the midst of youth, beauty and glamour. Her disputed virtues were founded on suffering (real or imagined) and appealed more to the outcasts and the wounded than to the dutiful plain heart of England” (p. 17). More broadly, in society, the independence and tenacity of Churchill gave way, during the last third of the 20th century, to a celebrity culture curdling in an ethos of sentimentalism and victimization evident in England’s response to Princess Diana.
This cultural change has been aided by the erosion of historical knowledge. In an essay entitled “Born Yesterday,” Hitchens laments the demise of historical perspective in a land where “all kinds of rubbish are blown by the wayward winds of modern education and popular ‘culture'” (p. 46). In the schools, the study of history has shifted from knowledge to “skills.” What is studied or learned, say the educationists, is less important than asking questions and (especially) empathizing with those mistreated, for various reasons, in either the past or present. Consequently, many traditional “heroes,” particularly of the military sort, are portrayed as villains, because they fought rather than appeased their enemies. There is, in fact, a “belittling of the Second World War” in the current curriculum (p. 60). For example, a 1995 videotape distributed to the schools to commemorate VE-day “mentioned Churchill only for a few seconds, and then to say he lost the 1945 election” (p. 60).
What’s encouraged in the schools is emotivism, especially self-righteous wrath regarding racists, sexists, or capitalists–all pilloried as oppressors of the weak and marginalized. “The sort of topics recommended” by the educationists “have a weary familiarity for anyone acquainted with the Marxist interpretation of the twentieth century: ‘the working classes’, ‘women in society’, ‘imperialism’ and so on” (p. 56). Re-phrased, Marxist thought fuels Britain’s “class war.” But Marxism is only an updated version of the radicalism unleashed in 1789 by the French Revolution. For nearly two centuries the British resisted the radical, totalizing, Jacobist ideology embraced by many Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries that now “seeks to extinguish Britain, not by revolution, but by stealth” (p. 300). Today’s leftists, intent on cultural rather than economic revolution, believe “education should be used to eradicate privilege and elitism, to spread the gospel of the new society in which everyone (and everything) is equal, a sort of concrete embodiment of that hideous song ‘Imagine’, which has become the hymn of sixties boomers” (p. 64).
The triumph of this trend was encapsulated by Prime Minister Tony Blair who, in 1997, the year of Princess Diana’s funeral, said: “I am a modern man. I am part of the rock and roll generation–the Beatles, colour TV, that’s the generation I come from” (p. 1). Indeed, much about Blair and the left-wing leftists who currently control the nation elicits Hitchens’ scorn. He notes, for example, how prophetically Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, envisioned “the cynical, puerile, bubblegum election campaigns fought by Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and by Tony Blair in 1997” (p. 139). That the Beatles and TV–not Shakespeare and Handel–have shaped a “modern man” like Blair cannot but dismay cultural conservatives.
In “Hell Freezes Over” Hitchens lampoons recent developments in the Church of England. “Hell was abolished,” he writes, “around the same time that abortion was legalized and the death penalty was done away with” (p. 105). Eminent ecclesiastics, such as Bishop John Robinson (of Honest to God fame) led the way on every front in the war against traditional, orthodox Christianity. “The Ten Commandments, once blazoned behind every altar in the kingdom, were frequently left out of the Church of England’s Communion service . . . . The King James version of the Bible, with its majestic but sometimes frightening language, was rejected by modernizers who sought to make it more ‘accessible’, replaced new versions which nonetheless somehow lacked the old scriptures’ force'” (p. 106). The ancient majestic liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer was subtly subverted by “alternative” services. Hymns disappeared. “At the funerals of the young, entirely secular pop songs are often played as substitutes for hymns. In the last few years, mourners have taken to telling jokes during funeral eulogies, as if they were at a wedding” (p. 126). And the ancient Gospel of personal redemption from sin through the work of Jesus Christ was replaced by a Social Gospel urging folks to support political activism of a leveling, leftist sort. Consequently, the Church of England is hardly more than an empty shell–emptied of theology, worship, beauty, and (much to the dismay of the “reformers”) people.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Theodore Dalrymple shares Hitchens’ evaluation of his native land: “In the past few decades, a peculiair and distinctive psychology has emerged in England. Gone are the civility, sturdy independence, and admirable stoicism that carried the English through the war years. It has been replaced by a constant whine of excuses, complaints, and special pleading. The collapse of the British character has been as swift and complete as the collapse of British power” (p. 5). Dalrymple is a medical doctor who has worked for the past two decades in an inner-city hospital and prison in London. Though without religious faith, he seems to sense a humanitarian “call” to work among what he calls the “underclass.” Along with his medical work, he has also flourished as an essayist, and he is, Peggy Noonan says, “the best doctor-writer since William Carlos Williams.” Some of his essays appeared in Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, c. 2001). “A specter is haunting the Western World,” he says “the underclass” (p. vii). His first sentence, of course, replicates Marx’s opening line in The Communist Manifesto, substituting “underclass” for “communism.”
This “underclass” Dalrymple deals with on a daily basis demonstrates the power of pernicious ideas, for “the social pathology exhibited by the underclass” has been promulgated by an intelligentsia intent on denying free will and personal responsibility, promoting a fashionable moral relativism. Educators discount correct grammar or spelling. Artists claim there is no higher or lower culture. Highly educated folks dress and talk like the less educated “workers” they feign to understand and emulate. “Differences” between cultures and behaviors there may be, but nothing is qualitatively better that anything else, nothing is absolutely right or wrong. Consequently, “the aim of untold millions is to be free to do exactly as they choose and for someone else to pay when things go wrong” (p. 5). Sadly enough, those responsible for such behavior, the elite “intellectuals were about as sincere as Marie Antoinette when she played the shepherdess” (p. xi). Their play-acting “is a crude and simple one, a hangover from Marxism: that the upper and middle classes are bad; that what has traditionally been regarded as high culture is but a fig leaf for middle- and upper-class oppression of the working class; and that the working class is the only class whose diction, culture, manners, and tastes are genuine and authentic” (p. 81).
Thus he cites in Shakespeare’s King Lear to clarify the book’s theme: “This is the
excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and teachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star!” (I, ii). Dalrymple beholds Shakespeare’s truth, on a daily basis. Prisoners he treats routinely use the passive mood when describing their crimes. Thus three men who stabbed others “used precisely the same expression when describing to me what happened. ‘The knife went in,’ they said” (p. 6). They weren’t responsible! The knife simply went in, killing a person–acting on its own, one assumes! Another prisoner, a car thief, claimed he could not stop stealing and blamed the doctor for not stopping him! These ill-educated criminals are, without knowing their source, voicing ideas spawned by some of the 20th century’s most powerful ideologies–”Freudianism, Marxism, and more recently sociobiology–in denying consciousness any importance in human conduct” (p. 22-23).
And the criminals know how to use criminologists’ rhetoric to legitimate their crimes! “The great majority of the theories criminologists propound lead to the exculpation of criminals,” Dalrymple says, “and criminals eagerly take up these theories in their desire to present themselves as victims rather than victimizers” (p. 218). So too they latch on to the ideas of social reformers, leftist philosophers and politicians who call for economic egalitarianism and denounce the wealthy. The thieves he deals with generally “believe that anyone who possesses something can, ipso facto, afford to lose it, while someone who does not possess it is, ipso facto, justified in taking it. Crime is but a form of redistributive taxation from below” (p. 219). He astutely connects the fashionable theories of the professors and journalists with the lawlessness on the streets, noting that “those who propagate the idea that we live in a fundamentally unjust society also propagate crime” (p. 220).
In an essay entitled “What Is Poverty?” Dalrymple insists the real poverty in England is moral rather than economic. Sadly enough, the Welfare State, designed to eliminate material “poverty,” has incubated a more devastating spiritual poverty. He notes that young medical doctors (many of them the children of immigrants) who join his hospital staff initially think that their patients are oppressed by society and in need of various kinds of assistance. “By the end of three months,” he says, “my doctors have, without exception, reversed their original opinion that the welfare state, as exemplified by England, represents the acme of civilization” (p. 142). After working with London’s tax subsidized underclass, a Filipino doctor said: “‘life is preferable in the slums of Manila'” (p. 142). Dalrymple himself, having worked for a time in Tanzania and Nigeria, declares that “nothing I saw–neither the poverty nor the overt oppression–ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centeredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live that I see daily in England. In a kind of pincer movement, therefore, I and the doctors from India and the Philippines have come to the same terrible conclusion: that the worst poverty is in England–and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul” (p. 143).
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Theodore Dalrymple revisits many of the same issues in a more recently collection of essays: Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, c. 2005), and his jaded pessimism grows apace. Civilization, he notes, is a terribly fragile thing, as the horrors of the 20th century demonstrate. And in London, as the 21st century begins, he’s witnessing its collapse–a collapse caused by nihilistic intellectuals who, to this point, have not yet suffered the dire consequences evident in the inner-city. “Having spent a considerable portion of my professional career in Third World countries in which the implementation of abstract ideas and ideals has made bad situations incomparably worse, and the rest of my career among the very extensive British underclass, whose disastrous notions about how to live derive ultimately from the unrealistic, self-indulgent, and often fatuous ideas of social critics, I have come to regard the intellectual and artistic life as being of incalculable practical importance and effect” (p. xi). Sadly enough, economists, novelists, film directors, journalists, and rock stars are waging a relentless war on the very innards of civilization, for barbarism begins, as Ortega y Gassett said, with the collapse of standards.
In a variety of ways, modern intellectuals have dismantled the barriers that restrain evil behaviors. “In the psychotherapeutic worldview to which all good liberals subscribe, there is no evil, only victimhood” (p. 260). Justify, as does George Soros, the legalization of drugs, and drug abuse soon shatters the delicate social bonds of family and neighborhood. Encourage folks to “do your own thing,” and financially subsidize them with the welfare state, and all kinds of destructive things transpire! Consequently, the nation that in 1921 recorded only one crime for every 370 inhabitants suffered one for every 10 in 2001. England has become, especially since WWII, a distressingly crime-ridden land. Fathers, who once accepted the responsibilities of caring for children, now knowingly abandon them “to lives of brutality, poverty, abuse and hopelessness” (p. 13). Social workers have replaced fathers, freeing men to live as perpetual adolescents, forever seeking adventures and entertainments, “petulant, demanding, querulous, self-centered, and violent” when frustrated (p. 14). They’ve simply embodied the fashionable theories of the intelligentsia, whose notions have mounted “a long march not only through the institutions but through the minds of the young. When young people want to praise themselves, they describe themselves as ‘nonjudgmental.’ For them, the highest form of morality is amorality” (p. 14).
Interestingly, Dalrymple recurrently stresses the importance of dress! How one looks seems mysteriously linked to how one acts and who one is. With tongue (slightly) in cheek, he even suggests that tattoos cause crime! He says this because virtually all the prisoners he treats sport a bewildering variety of tattoos. In his younger days, he resisted any notion that appearances matter. He “had assumed, along with most of my generation unacquainted with real hardship, that scruffy appearance was a sign of spiritual election, representing a rejection of the superficiality and materialism of bourgeois life.” Wealthy artists and slovenly professors once seemed avante garde and stylish. Older and wiser now, he says, “I have not been able to witness the voluntary adoption of torn, worn-out, and tattered clothes–at least in public–by those in a position to dress otherwise without a feeling of deep disgust. Far from being a sign of solidarity with the poor, it is a perverse mockery of them; it is spitting on the graves of our ancestors, who struggled so hard, so long, and so bitterly that we might be warm, clean, well fed, and leisured enough to enjoy the better things in life” (p. 26).
Those feigning to reject bourgeois values think themselves (in accord with Marx) champions of the proletariat. Virtually all modern intellectuals claim to identify with and support the poor, the marginalized, the disadvantaged. Focusing on this, in an essay entitled “How–and How Not–to Love Mankind,” Dalrymple compares Karl Marx with Ivan Turgenev. Both men were born in 1818 and died in 1883. “Turgenev saw human beings as individuals always endowed with consciousness, character, feelings, and moral strengths and weaknesses; Marx saw them always as snowflakes in an avalanche, as instances of general forces, as not yet fully human because utterly conditioned by their circumstances. Where Turgenev saw men, Marx saw classes of men; where Turgenev saw people, Marx saw the People. These two ways of looking at the world persist into our own time and profoundly affect, for better or worse, the solutions we propose to our social problems” (p. 77). Consequently, in Marx’s writings “we enter a world of infinite bile–of rancor, hatred, and contempt–rather than of sorrow and compassion” (p. 83). Latent in his Communist Manifesto is the carnage wrought by his followers in the last century. Millions died in the gulags. And millions more today languish, dying spiritually, in the darkening eddies of the Marxist-inspired modern welfare state.
Dalrymple’s essays touch on many themes I’ve not mentioned. His essays on Shakespeare and Virginia Woolfe, for example, indicate his concern for literary culture. His observations on the differences between Hindu and Muslim immigrants are well worth pondering. He is, Roger Kimball says, “the Edmund Burke of our age, eloquently anatomizing the moral depredations of that pseudo-enlightenment which has left large tracts of Western Society the province of thugs, social workers, liberal bureaucrats, and other enemies of civilization and the ordered liberty upon which it depends.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Alice Thomas Ellis is one of England’s finest contemporary novelists. She is also a devout, thoroughly traditional Roman Catholic. Consequently she wrote, for the periodical Oldie, some short, trenchant, columns packed with her distaste for things happening in her Church that were recently published as: God Has not Changed: The Assembled Thoughts of Alice Thomas Ellis (London: Burnes & Oates, 2004). The churches that have emptied, during the past 40 years, did so for a reason–the ancient Faith has been jettisoned by a clergy more intent on being well-liked and respected than on teaching the truth. Many of them “are too nervous to mention their beliefs–if they’ve even got them any more–and subject us instead to anodyne twaddle about their own experience” (p. 65). Allegedly trying to reach the young, they have failed and in the process alienated loyal, older folks like herself. No longer real believers, they’re much like butchers “inclined to vegetarianism” (p. 17) who lack the decency to change vocations!
She’s particularly distressed with the allegedly “Christian” feminists agitating for power and preeminence in the Church. “A group recently carted round a church crucifix with a female on it–happily not a real one–referring to the curious thing as Jesa Crista.” Says Ellis: “Sheer, pure nuttiness can go no further. Never mind it is blasphemous, it is silly to suggest that historical figures can change sex” (p. 2). She’s equally critical of those who reduce to the Gospel to the most fashionable “social justice” movement. What she calls “the Red Guard of the Church, in the Wake of Vatican II” has effectively “completed the work of destruction begun in the Reformation” (p. 33). Indeed, she warns, the “humanist protestantism to which the liberals incline is a first dip in the sea of atheism” (p. 50), and the Church is sinking rapidly into its depths. Ellis is most probably too pessimistic, but her verbal darts deftly call into question certain postures and pronouncements of contemporary churchmen. And one cannot but smile as she skews some of the more outrageous fads and heresies afflicting the Church.