Two articles in weekly journals at opposite ends of the political spectrum demonstrate just how completely the attack on civility has succeeded in Britain. Both articles looked at the predictably awful conduct of English soccer fans in Portugal during the recent European soccer championships, with rampant drunken hooliganism and even threats made against a referee of such seriousness that he fled the country.
The first article, in the liberal Independent, suggested that the English had always behaved badly in Portugal, going back to the Middle Ages. Sailors had rioted in Portuguese ports; soldiers had roughed up the locals; aristocrats had behaved as if they owned the place. It was as if bad behavior in Portugal were hard-wired into English brains. The second article, in the conservative Spectator, suggested that English soccer hooliganism was simply another expression of the national spirit that had won the Battle of Agincourt, among many other feats of arms—a sign of a healthy belligerence that we should celebrate rather than rue.
Underlying both articles was a refusal to look clearly at what has been wrought in our society, a refusal that masqueraded as a sophisticated, relaxed attitude to boorish behavior based on knowledge of the historical precedent. ’Twas ever thus, and therefore there is nothing to worry about. National disaster has not struck us before; therefore it is perfectly reasonable to sit on our hands and do nothing. Indeed, it is altogether the wisest thing to do, and only ignorant fools grow alarmed over such trifles.
The use of historical precedent to deny the existence of a social problem extends beyond the problem of soccer hooliganism. You can’t mention the mass public drunkenness that afflicts all British towns and cities on Friday and Saturday nights without someone piping up about Hogarth’s Gin Lane. ’Twas ever thus, and therefore nothing to worry about.
In Britain, journalists often view comparisons with our society going back two, three, or seven centuries as more relevant than comparisons going back two, three, or seven decades. Drunkenness centuries ago is more illuminating than comparative sobriety 30 years ago. The distant past, selectively mined for evidence that justifies our current conduct, becomes more important than living memory.
Why should this be? First, I think it is because much of the unpleasantness of modern society (accompanied by great technical and even some moral advances, of course) has resulted from liberal reforms that even conservatives now accept as irreversible. The intellectuals have a guilty conscience, and it manifests itself in a refusal to see the changes they have wrought. They thus must deny that any such changes have come about. Hence, the English have always behaved badly in Portugal, just as they have always indulged in mass public drunkenness.
Second, to recognize the undesirable changes in English conduct would be to call for counter-reform. But any such counter-reform would require restraint not only of the hooligans and the drunkards but also of the intellectuals and the liberal middle classes themselves. Unwilling to curtail their own hard-won license, they would rather deny the evidence of their own eyes. To adapt slightly Nietzsche’s famous dictum about memory: “‘I have seen that,’ says my vision. ‘I have not seen that,’ say my pride and my desire. At last—my vision gives way.”
Americans who bewail the absence of historical perspective should be cautious about what they bewail. The misuse of history may be worse than no use of it at all.