Friday, April 13, 2007

Blair and the Death of Virtue

I am indebted, as ever, to Frank Wilson for drawing my attention to this article by Theodore Dalrymple, a crusty, pipe-smoking, cavalry twill-wearing nom de guerre for a doctor who has done much work in prisons. Dalrymple's thesis is that Blair 'both represents and is a cause of an acceleration in a change in character of the British people.' The old virtues of 'stoicism, honesty, fortitude, irony, good humour and so forth' have been supplanted by 'deviousness, ruthlessness, an eye fixed on the main chance, sanctimony in the midst of obvious wrongdoing, toadying and bullying'. As a result, 'good people are like a defeated class in this country.' Dalrymple's evidence is derived, primarily, from his experience of public servants. I don't doubt that, in this area, he is broadly correct. I am uncertain, however, about Blair both representing and causing this change. Would it have happened anyway? Dalrymple is rightly sceptical about the idea that countries get the leaders they deserve - what did Cambodia do to deserve Pol Pot? - but, in a democracy, there is surely some truth in this. Even the most intensive spinning can only work if people, at some level, acquiesce. And, if they do so with sufficient enthusiasm, then the whole moral climate is changed. The term 'good people' is redefined. Judging this change involves standing, undemocratically, outside this process. At the heart of the matter is the hyper-democratic condition - or pretence - of the contemporary political process. This engenders a new tyranny, validated by a spurious, spun populism. But, happily, it can go horribly wrong as in the case of Downing Street's idiotic, populist decision to let the sailors sell their story. It went wrong because of a feeling that the military in particular should embody values that transcend the ephemera of populism. The incident demonstrates that this feeling has survived intact, in spite of the current moral climate. We need many more such blunders and fewer lies about exactly who was at fault.

33 comments:

  1. 'The old virtues of 'stoicism, honesty, fortitude, irony, good humour and so forth' have been supplanted by 'deviousness, ruthlessness, an eye fixed on the main chance, sanctimony in the midst of obvious wrongdoing, toadying and bullying'.'
    Anyone watch the film 'Ghandi',?. There are many in this world who hold that the second list is the default programming. Shocking, eh.
    While the idea that the military should somehow stand above it all, is just plain dangerous.

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  2. Nothing shocking there, Turbator, I accept that deviousness is the default programming. Civilisation is the occasionally successful attempt to stop us reverting to default. As for the military - it depends what you mean by 'above". I just mean that, like any institution, it should embody a timeless aspect, not that it should have any temporal authority.

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  3. i'm told the military do still, in their training, emphasise qualities such as responsibility, integrity, service, excellence etc.; and recognise the difficulty in recruiting people with these virtues in today's England.

    Almost every decent Englishman i meet was either born before the 50s, or seems as if they should have been. The old virtues, of irony & courage, which distinguished the English from the dastardly and unironic Huns, or the cowardly French, are in short supply these days.

    John le Carre is a good chronicler of our decline.

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  4. I wholly agree.

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  5. Blair was just the right man at the right time to catalyse all the elements discussed above and indeed, he has become their personification. For me the tipping point was Diana's funeral, when the vast sheep-like mass that is the majority of the British public competed to see who could be the most publicly grief-stricken. Not for nothing has this been called TB's finest hour.

    Combine this with the economic wellbeing of the last few years that has bred political apathy and you have a recipe for a culture where every news story is incomplete without a grieving relative &/or victim to give their side of the story, whilst the real news, such as the rape and pillage of our infrastructure at the hands of this stunningly incompetent government, continues almost completely unnoticed.

    Rant over .... phew, I feel much better now :)

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  6. Morality without ethics? Yes? no? maybe?

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  7. I think the only way to have morality without ethics is to be one of aforementioned sheep for whom mass culture defines their sense of morality, without any reference to an internal moral compass. This is why I feel a degree of pity for the sailors who sold their stories - all they were doing was following the conventional wisdom. Where were their stiff-upper lipped role models? Busy writing their memoirs?

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  8. Are you people nuts? I've read some of the accounts of survivors of 7/7 and the behavior of people caught in the Underground tunnels. *Amazing* instances of courage, good humor, selflessness, integrity and so forth. The English spirit is alive and well and it's pathetic that you folks -- Brits yourselves -- would link a few lame politicians to the tenor of your countrymen as a whole.

    For God's sake, the same analogy applied to America would make us all G.W.B. cowboys who can't pronounce "nuclear."

    Real people are never, ever, like writers' generalizations of them. I think Dalrymple's knickers are too tight.

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  9. A bit pessimistic JimN. We may be living in a somewhat fragmented, post-ethical age, but morality in the hands of ordinary citizens, who must grapple with moral their consciences and take responsibity for their actions more often, is safe enough. Moral reasoning will improve. New ethical standards will emerge. And anyway, it's not like we are staring into a moral and ethical abyss. There are pretty serviceable moral principles and ethical standards already in existecne that people can hold onto to steady themselves. I'm not saying it's simple or easy. In fact, it may go horribly wrong. But I have a little faith.

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  10. Susan, I agree. The standard pessimistic refrain is just intellectual ennui.

    Had Hurricana Katrina hit the UK, for instance, I suspect you would have been more likely to hear tales of people making sandwiches and cups of tea for each other than rape and murder.

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  11. Just the other day there was praise for English students who remained calm and helpful and kept their heads while all around them lost theirs, as that ferry ran aground at Santorini.

    Dalrymple has increasingly become a pastiche of himself.

    We all know that as men get older they fall into the trap of thinking that everything is getting worse, and the fallacy that because things are bad now, they were better before. But catch them on another day and they can't wait to lecture the younger generation that "they don't know they're born".

    Another truism is that every grumpy old man thinks that the above observation applies to all generations except his.

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  12. Johnny, you are perhaps right about Katrina in the U.K. However, if many of the victims were trapped in a football stadium with little food or water and a large contingent of violent criminals, well...Might not all be tea and crumpets then.

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  13. Susan, fair point. Obviously wasn't intending to trivialise what happened; just trying to highlight a cultural difference as I see it - but not the best example, granted.

    Brit - grumpy old man syndrome seems about right to me.

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  14. Whenever I hear someone talking about the moral decline of Great Britain I remind them of Britain's finest public servant's - the Coast Guard. An all volunteer, unpaid force of men and women risking their lives to save others. What was that about the decline of the public service etos?

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  15. Theodore Dalrymple is the thinking man's Richard Littlejohn. Is he worth it? He's been posting pretty mean-minded articles about going to hell in a handcart for as long as I can remember. Maybe he should get out more and speak to some of the young, including these here "hoodies". Why are we so arrogant as to think we've made a better job of it than they will, or that they - but not us - have fallen for Blair and his wiles?

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  16. Mr Appleyard, if you watch British TV I suggest you stop doing so right away. Thanks mainly to the BBC, it gives entirely the wrong impression of this country.

    Blair was elected leader of the Labour Party because, like Kennedy or Reagan, he is slightly less grotesque than the generality of creatures who infest Westminster: in other words, he looked good on TV.

    Television rots the mind, as this paper suggests. Ours has long gone, and the household is happier for it!

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  17. Dalrymple is rightly sceptical about the idea that countries get the leaders they deserve - what did Cambodia do to deserve Pol Pot? - but, in a democracy, there is surely some truth in this.

    The thing is, Bryan, Britain believed a pretty face and ignored the total lack of substance emanating from the hole lower front.

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  18. Noel pointed this one out to me Bryan.

    >The old virtues of 'stoicism, honesty, fortitude, irony, good humour and so forth' have been supplanted by 'deviousness, ruthlessness, an eye fixed on the main chance, sanctimony in the midst of obvious wrongdoing, toadying and bullying'.<

    He thinks you should be in charge of my up coming election manifesto, seeing as you would appear to be a like-minded progressive type.

    And I never knew there was a politician called Poo Pot. You are a fount of knowledge. If you can get elected with a name like that, it just shows how stupid people can be. I'm thinking my slogan might be "it's Bertie Aherne - watch out astern." I think that would appeal to the fine sense of irony this side of the water. What do you think?

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  19. Seems to me the comments pointing out Dalrymple's occaisonal decline into cliche are right - he is not always at his best, and the article you quote is not his finest.

    THIS, on the other hand, is amongst the finest defintions of the Blair phenomenon I've seen:

    "Tony Blair’s government is militantly mediocre, and as such is truly revolutionary. Mediocrity triumphs because it presents itself as democratic and because it is dull, and so for many does not seem worth struggling against. In Blair, the mediocrities of Britain have found a leader who understands them from within."

    Can't do links, but this is the address: http://www.city-journal.org/html/eon2007-03-22td.html

    And check out this too: http://www.city-journal.org/html/17_1_oh_to_be.html - It's a criticism of Blair's "omnicompetent" state - that coinage alone shows you what the man's capable of at his best.

    PS
    Petreluk - you say "Maybe he should get out more and speak to some of the young". He was a PRISON doctor for many many years -does that mean he has less, or more, experience of the lives of the underclass and the British state than you? Would love to know...

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  20. Brit:

    Have you never heard that old Chinese proverb: "He who says ' All old men are grumpy bores, but when I am old I won't be a grumpy bore' is already a bore."

    All:

    Whether Dalrymple is overly-pessimistic or exaggerating in a paricular article is fair ball for debate, but he is nonetheless very well-informed testimony to the fact that the bottom half is suffering mightily from the wonderfully free postmodern world. If we are so jealous of our free and sexy lifestyles and so determined to make sure no one takes them away that our only response is to repeat rotely that it was much worse in the bad old days or that (pace neil) everything will somehow work out fine in the end, ok, but don't complain when you suddenly find yourselves gating your houses or watching law enforcement continue to grow into the # 1 growth industry.

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  21. John le Carre is a good chronicler of our decline.

    A sterling personal example as well.

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  22. Perhaps we should also be a little more realistic in terms of what a "democracy" actually means particularly in the modern nation state. The original sense of democracy in Greece was in relation to small self-governing city states...governement of the people by the best of the people and all that. This seems decidedly meaningless in the context of the abstract behemoth of the nation state. Though as the great Krishnamurti would emphasise wisdom begins very much at home rather than waiting for one's disreputable bunch of leaders to lead the way.
    Actually in terms of an upsurge of humanity's well being, I would argue that the greatest force in the last century was by some considerable distance, The Beatles. Mystically inspired artists and the like are deeply needed as an antidote to the sickness emanating from the economic industrial complex, and its various lackeys in arms.

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  23. The reports of rape and murder in post-Katrina New Orleans were false. There was one murder and no rapes in the Superdome and Convention Center. For that matter, there was also no cannibalism, which was also one of the reports circulated during the storm. See, for example, this report

    It is also not true that deaths were disproportionately high among the poor and African American populations.

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  25. Peter:

    I can grump and gripe with the best of 'em when the mood takes, but at root Dalrymple just hates people.

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  26. I'd say my earlier post became a bit flaccid as it progressed but anyway, I'd suggest what we tend to have in terms of political systems are plutocracies with a democratic veneer.

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  27. I would suggest rather than democracies, we tend to have plutocracies with a democratic veneer.

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  28. Eff, I thought the earlier comment hadn't got thru the ether. So I'll keep my head down and not draw attention to the repitition.

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  29. Actually in terms of an upsurge of humanity's well being, I would argue that the greatest force in the last century was by some considerable distance, soap and water.

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  30. Water had existed prior to said century however. But I will admit The Beatles weren't paricularly influential in the public health arena.

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  31. all you rosy-tinters, living in your nice leafy suburbs and drinking your Frappuccinos should take a walk through some of the crack ghettos of Leeds or Manchester of an evening, keeping an eye out for the good-hearted Englishmen and women of your imagination. Maybe some of your imaginary virtuous English persons will come to your aid when the chav packs are kicking your head in?

    Face it: most people are orc-like chavs and culling is required. If we lived in a proper Third World dictatorship, the G would have dealt with the problem, Brazilian death squad style. Things are getting worse and soon The War is inevitable. When it comes, and the chav hordes swarm, orc-like, over the barricades, you'll wish you'd listened to old Elberry and invested in some melee weapons and attack dogs, dobermanns for preference. You'll see, my friends, you'll see.

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  32. Is John le Carre a sterling personal example ? He seems to have gone a bit Bill Haydon in his latter years, with that novel about the evil American drug companies.

    "If we can't have an empire, I'm damned if they're going to"

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  33. So is he claiming that public servants of the past demonstrated, 'stoicism, honesty, fortitude, irony, good humour and so forth'? Didn't he ever watch Yes, Minister?

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