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Seeing Is Not Believing

from the magazine

Seeing Is Not Believing

Autumn 2000
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

The first duty of the modern intellectual, wrote George Orwell, is to state the obvious, to puncture "the smelly little orthodoxies . . . now contending for our souls." Orwell meant by these the totalitarian doctrines that mesmerized the intellectuals of his time and that prevented them from accepting the most obvious and evident truths about their own and other societies: but his admonition holds true even now, when fascism and communism are dead. The demise of totalitarianism has led not to a more straightforward or honest appreciation of reality but merely to a proliferation of distorting lenses through which people choose to look at the world. If humankind, as T. S. Eliot put it, cannot bear very much reality, it seems that it can bear any amount of unreality.

The intellectual's struggle to deny the obvious is never more desperate than when reality is unpleasant and at variance with his preconceptions and when full acknowledgment of it would undermine the foundations of his intellectual worldview. Given the social history of England in the last 40 years, little wonder that collective denial should be one of the most salient characteristics of our national intellectual life.

I am in an unusual position: while I spend most of my professional life as a doctor working in the extensive lower reaches of society, I have, because of my writing, an entrée into literary society. The complacent disregard by the latter of the social catastrophe wrought in the former appalls me almost as much as the catastrophe itself. Never has so much indifference masqueraded as so much compassion; never has there been such willful blindness. The once pragmatic English have become a nation of sleepwalkers.

Recently, for example, I was invited to a lunch at a famous and venerable liberal publication, to which I occasionally contribute articles that go against its ideological grain. The publication's current owner is a bon vivant and excellent host who made several scores of millions in circumstances that still excite considerable public curiosity. Around the lunch table (from which, I am glad to say, British proletarian fare was strictly excluded) were gathered people of impeccable liberal credentials: the one exception being myself.

On my right sat a man in his late sixties, intelligent and cultivated, who had been a distinguished foreign correspondent for the BBC and who had spent much of his career in the United States. He said that for the last ten years he had read with interest my weekly dispatches—printed in a rival, conservative publication—depicting the spiritual, cultural, emotional, and moral chaos of modern urban life, and had always wanted to meet me to ask me a simple question: Did I make it all up?

Did I make it all up? It was a question I have been asked many times by middle-class liberal intellectuals, who presumably hope that the violence, neglect, and cruelty, the contorted thinking, the utter hopelessness, and the sheer nihilism that I describe week in and week out are but figments of a fevered imagination. In a way, I am flattered that the people who ask this question should think that I am capable of inventing the absurd yet oddly poetic utterances of my patients—that I am capable, for example, of inventing the man who said he felt like the little boy with his finger in the dike, crying wolf. But at the same time the question alarms me and reminds me of what Thackeray once said about the writings of Henry Mayhew, the chronicler of the London poor: we had but to go 100 yards off and see for ourselves, but we never did.

On being asked whether I make it all up, I reply that, far from doing so, I downplay the dreadfulness of the situation and omit the worst cases that come to my attention so as not to distress the reader unduly. The reality of English lower-class life is far more terrible than I can, with propriety, depict. My interlocutors nod politely and move on to the next subject.

It is the custom at the lunches of that famous and venerable liberal publication, once the plates have been removed, for one of the guests to speak briefly to a subject that preoccupies him at the moment. And on this occasion it was the BBC's former correspondent in the United States who spoke: eloquently and well, as one might have expected.

And what was the subject upon which he dilated with such eloquence? The iniquity of the death penalty in the United States.

It is not easy to capture the contented mood that settled round the table as he spoke, a mixture of well-fed moral superiority (one of the pleasantest of all emotions) and righteous indignation (another very pleasant emotion). The consensus was that they were benighted savages over there, while we over here, guardians as ever of civilization itself, had not resorted to such primitive and barbaric methods for ages—that is to say, for 35 years.

Everyone agreed with the BBC man, and it was my turn to say something. I confess to not being an enthusiast for the death penalty: it seems to me that the possibility of error, and the historical fact of such errors having taken place (not only in the United States but in Britain and presumably in every other jurisdiction where true due process reigns) is a powerful, if not absolutely decisive, argument against the death penalty, whatever its deterrent effect might be. And having seen photographs of execution chambers, where fatal injections are administered, decked out as if they were operating rooms in hospitals, I cannot help but feel that something sinister is going on: the pretense that execution is a therapeutic procedure. One begins to see the force of Doctor Johnson's argument that executions should be in public, in the open air, or not take place at all: at least there is no danger then that executions might be taken for something other than what they are.

But I was anxious to dispel the cozy atmosphere of rectitude, of sanctity so easily achieved without cost or effort. I said we should look closer to home, to the fact that, with the single (and admittedly important) exception of murder, crime rates in Britain were now higher, and in some cases much higher, than in the United States: and that the chief failing of our criminal-justice system was not its excessive harshness or its liability to wrongful imprisonment but its patent failure to enforce the law or to protect citizens from the most blatant lawbreaking. The result was that for untold numbers of our compatriots life was a living hell.

I briefly outlined my reasons for saying so: the vast numbers of people—thousands and possibly tens of thousands—who have told me about their lives, which are dominated by the possibility, or rather the high probability, of violence and other criminal acts being committed against them, and who quite rightly felt themselves to be totally unprotected by the police or by the courts.

Opposite me was a well-known pacifist, a man of the highest principle, who was by no means a puritan, however, at least with regard to food and wine. His shiny cheeks radiated bonhomie and self-satisfaction at the same time, and he spoke in the plummy tones of the English upper middle class.

"You know funny people," he said, leaning slightly toward me across the table.

I know funny people: I was reminded of a medical-school friend of mine whose mother, when introduced to his girlfriend, whispered in his ear, "NQOCD," the acronym for Not Quite Our Class, Dear. "Funny" those people whom I knew might be, I replied to the pacifist, but there were a lot of them, and moreover they lived in our country, often within walking—and burgling—distance of our front doors.

The man's complacency was by no means unusual. A few days earlier, I had met my publisher for lunch, and the subject of the general level of culture and education in England came up. My publisher is a cultivated man, widely read and deeply attached to literature, but I had difficulty in convincing him that there were grounds for concern. That illiteracy and innumeracy were widespread did not worry him in the least, because—he claimed—they had always been just as widespread. (The fact that we now spent four times as much per head on education as we did 50 years ago and were therefore entitled to expect rising rates of literacy and numeracy at the very least did not in the slightest knock him off his perch.) He simply did not believe me when I told him that nine out of ten young people between the ages of 16 and 20 whom I met in my practice could not read with facility and were incapable of multiplying six by nine, or that out of several hundreds of them I had asked when the Second World War took place, only three knew the answer. He replied smoothly—almost without the need to think, as if he had rehearsed the argument many times—that his own son, age seven, already knew the dates of the war.

"The trouble is," he said in all seriousness, "your sample is biased."

And true enough: everyone's experience is founded upon a biased sample. But it didn't occur to him to doubt whether his sample—of one, the son of a publisher living in a neighborhood where houses usually cost more than $1.5 million—really constituted a refutation of my experience of hundreds of cases, an experience borne out by all serious research into the matter. He accused me of moral panic, as if the only alternative to his imperturbable complacency (he was so serene you might have thought him a monk from a contemplative order) were irrational, agitated alarmism.

"Have you actually ever met any of the kind of people I'm talking about?" I asked him. He replied, not that he had, but that he supposed he must have done.

Complacency and denial dominate public as well as private discourse, and when a little of the unpleasant side of contemporary English reality is allowed an airing, a damage-control exercise swiftly ensues.

A newspaper recently asked me to go to Blackpool, a northern English resort town on the Irish Sea, to describe the conduct of the people who go there for a weekend. Blackpool has never been a place of great refinement and has long attracted people who cannot afford to go to more desirable places for their holidays. Boardinghouses rather than hotels predominate, presided over by formidable landladies. But Blackpool was, within living memory, a resort of innocent fun, with donkey rides and Punch-and-Judy shows on the beach, and a brisk sale of the mildly salacious comic postcards about which George Orwell once wrote with great sympathy and insight, in which weedy men are dominated by large, fat wives in bathing costumes, in which mothers-in-law are always battle-axes, in which unmarried men are always trying to escape the snares of marriage set for them by young women, and whose captions are always saucy double entendres. For example, a judge in the divorce court says to a corespondent, "You are prevaricating, sir. Did you or did you not sleep with this woman?" to which the corespondent replies, "Not a wink, my lord!"

This sophisticated innocence has departed. Without the institution of marriage, mother-in-law and divorce jokes are pointless and passé. Fun now means public drunkenness on a mass scale, screaming in the streets, and the frequent exposure of naked buttocks to passersby. Within moments of arriving on the street along the beach, which was ankle-deep in discarded fast-food wrappings (the smell of stale fat obliterates completely the salt smell of the sea), I saw a woman who had pulled down her slacks and tied a pair of plastic breasts to her bare buttocks, while a man crawled after her on the sidewalk, licking them. At midnight along this street—with the sound of rock music pounding insistently out of every club door, and each door presided over by a pair of steroid-inflated bouncers, among men vomiting into the gutters, and with untold numbers of empty bags of marijuana on the pavement—I saw children as young as six, unattended by adults, waiting for their parents to emerge from their nocturnal recreations.

On the day after the publication of my article, I appeared briefly on the BBC's main breakfast-time radio program, which has an audience of several million. The interviewer was an intelligent and cultivated woman, and having briefly and accurately summarized for the readers my account of what I saw in Blackpool, she then asked me, "Aren't you being a toff?"—that is to say, a social and cultural snob.

The question was, of course, a loaded one, with many layers of deeply derogatory implication. I in turn asked her whether she would herself bare her buttocks to passing strangers, and if she wouldn't, why not? She declined to answer this question, as if it were not serious—just as a future government minister with whom I once appeared on the radio, after asserting that one of the tragedies of some recent urban riots was that they had taken place in the rioters' poor inner-city neighborhood, refused to answer when I asked her if she would rather the riots had taken place in her own rich neighborhood.

Not long after the interview about my experiences in Blackpool, the BBC broadcast letters from a few listeners, who charged that I had failed to understand the nature of working-class culture. They used the word "culture" here in the anthropological sense of the sum total of a way of life, but they were also taking cunning and dishonest advantage of the word's connotations of Bach and Shakespeare to insinuate that the wearing of plastic breasts on the Blackpool promenade is indistinguishable in value from the B-Minor Mass or the sonnets.

The liberal assumption, in this as in most things, is that to understand is to approve (or at least to pardon), and therefore my disapproval indicated a lack of understanding. But strangely enough, the letters that the BBC and the newspaper that published the original article forwarded to me—those they hadn't broadcast or published—wholly endorsed my comments. They were from Blackpool residents and from working-class people elsewhere who passionately denied that working-class culture had always consisted of nothing but mindless obscenity. Several writers spoke very movingly of enduring real poverty in childhood while maintaining self-respect and a striving for mental distinction. The deliberate exclusion of these voices from public expression provided a fine example of how the British intelligentsia goes about its self-appointed task of cultural destruction.

Violence, vulgarity, and educational failure: three aspects of modern English life that are so obvious and evident that it requires little observational power to discern them. Indeed, it requires far more mental effort and agility not to discern them, to screen them out of one's consciousness: the scenes in Blackpool, for example, being only slightly worse and more extreme than those to be seen in the center of every English town and city every Saturday night of the year.

It is worth examining the mental mechanisms that liberal intellectuals use to disguise the truth from themselves and others, and to ask why they do so.

First, there is outright denial. Increasing crime, for example, was long dismissed as a mere statistical artifact, before the sheer weight of the evidence overwhelmed the possibility of denial. It wasn't so much crime that was increasing, we were told, as people's willingness or ability to report it—via the spread of the telephone. As to educational failure, it was long denied by the production of statistics showing that more and more children were passing public examinations, a classic half-truth that omitted to say that these examinations had deliberately been made so easy that it was impossible to fail them (the concept of failure having been abolished), except by not turning up for them. But even the most liberal of university professors has now noticed that his students can't spell or punctuate.

Second, there is the tendentious historical comparison or precedent. Yes, it is admitted, violence and vulgarity are a large part of modern British life; but they always were. When English soccer fans ran amok in France during the European cup finals (the kind of behavior now universally expected of them), even the conservative Daily Telegraph ran an article to the effect that it was ever thus, and that Hanoverian England was a riotous, drunken era—thereby implying that there was nothing to be alarmed about. For some reason not fully explained, it is supposed to be a comfort—even a justification—that antisocial behavior has persisted unabated over hundreds of years. In the same way, intellectuals depict alarm over rising crime as unreasonable (and those who express it as lacking in historical knowledge), because it is not difficult to find historical epochs when crime was worse than it is now. I have even seen worry about a rising murder rate treated with mockery, because in medieval England it was very much higher than it is now. Thus, historical comparison with a period hundreds of years ago is held up as more relevant than comparison with 30 or even ten years ago, as long as that comparison fosters an attitude of complacency toward undesirable social phenomena.

Third, once the facts are finally admitted under the duress of accumulated evidence, their moral significance is denied or perverted. Do children emerge from school as ignorant of facts as when they entered? Well, of course: this is because they are no longer taught by rote but instead are taught how to go about finding information for themselves. Their inability to write legibly in no way lessens their ability to express themselves but rather accentuates it. At least they have not been subjected to the learning of arbitrary rules. Vulgarity is liberty from unhealthy and psychologically deforming inhibition; it is merely the revival of popular bawdy, and those who oppose it are elitist killjoys. As to violence, any quantity of it can be explained away by reference to the "structural violence" of capitalist society.

A BBC television producer recently outlined the phases of liberal denial for me. His colleagues, he told me, regarded him as a maverick, a tilter at windmills, almost a madman. And what was his madness? He wanted the BBC to make unvarnished documentaries about life in the lower third of society: about the mass (and increasing) illiteracy, the mass (and increasing) illegitimacy and single parenthood, the mass (and increasing) hooliganism, violence, lawlessness, drug taking, welfare dependency, and hopelessness, so that the rest of the population might begin to take stock of what was happening on their very doorstep. And he wanted, in particular, to concentrate on the devastating effects of the fragmentation—no, the atomization—of the family that liberal legislation, social engineering, and cultural attitudes since the late 1950s have so powerfully promoted.

His BBC superiors greeted his proposals with condescension. First, they denied the facts. When he produced irrefutable evidence of their existence, they accused him of moral panic. When he proved that the phenomena to which the facts pointed were both serious and spreading rapidly up the social scale, they said that there was nothing that could be done about them, because they were an inevitable part of modern existence. When he said that they were the result of deliberate policy, they asked him whether he wanted to return to the bad old days when spouses who hated each other were forced to live together. And when he said that what had been done could be undone, at least in part, they produced their ace of trumps: the subject was not interesting, so there was no point in making programs about it. The British public would be left to sleepwalk its way undisturbed through the social disaster from which a fragile economic prosperity will certainly not protect it.

But why so insistent a denial of the obvious by the very class of people whose primary function, one might have supposed, was to be what the Russians called truth bearers?

The answer is to be sought in the causative relationship between the ideas that liberal intellectuals advocated and put into practice and every disastrous social development of the last four decades. They saw their society as being so unjust that nothing in it was worth preserving; and they thought that all human unhappiness arose from the arbitrary and artificial fetters that their society placed on the satisfaction of appetite. So dazzled were they by their vision of perfection that they could not see the possibility of deterioration.

And so if family life was less than blissful, with all its inevitable little prohibitions, frustrations, and hypocrisies, they called for the destruction of the family as an institution. The destigmatization of illegitimacy went hand in hand with easy divorce, the extension of marital rights to other forms of association between adults, and the removal of all the fiscal advantages of marriage. Marriage melted as snow in sunshine. The destruction of the family was, of course, an important component and consequence of sexual liberation, whose utopian program was to have increased the stock of innocent sensual pleasure, not least among the liberators themselves. It resulted instead in widespread violence consequent upon sexual insecurity and in the mass neglect of children, as people became ever more egotistical in their search for momentary pleasure.

If liberal intellectuals recalled their childhood experiences of education as less than an unalloyed joy, education had to become a form of childish entertainment: for who, in any case, were mere adults to impose their ideas on those equally sentient beings, their children? Were not grammar and arithmetic—indeed all disciplines—mere bourgeois (or, in America, racist) tools with which to maintain social hegemony? And self-respect being radically incompatible with failure, the very idea of failure itself had to go. The only way to achieve this was to do away with education altogether—an experiment that could be carried out in full only on that section of the population least concerned about education in the first place, thus creating a now-hereditary caste of ineducables.

And if crime was a problem, it was only because an unjust society forced people into criminal activity, and therefore punishment constituted a double injustice, victimizing the real victim. By what right could an unjust society claim to impose its version of justice? Empathy and understanding were what was needed, provided they absolved the criminal of his responsibility. The creation of a universal disposition to do good, and not the creation of fear of the consequences of doing evil, was what was needed to extirpate crime. Not surprisingly, these were glad tidings to those tempted by the life of crime and demoralizing ones to those who upheld the law.

Every liberal prescription worsened the problem that it was ostensibly designed to solve. But every liberal intellectual had to deny that obvious consequence or lose his Weltanschauung: for what shall it profit an intellectual, if he acknowledge a simple truth and lose his Weltanschauung? Let millions suffer, so long as he can retain his sense of his own righteousness and moral superiority. Indeed, if millions suffer, they are additional compassion fodder for him, and the more of their pain will he so generously feel.

And so the prescription is: more of the same. The Liberal Democrat Party, Britain's third party, which is dominated by the middle-class liberal intelligentsia and is gaining an unthinking popularity born of disillusionment with the government and of the patent incompetence of the official opposition, recently held its annual conference. And what were the most important proposals put forward there? The legal recognition of homosexual marriage and shorter prison sentences for criminals.

Nero was a committed firefighter by comparison.

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