Returning briefly to England from France for a speaking engagement, I bought three of the major dailies to catch up on the latest developments in my native land. The impression they gave was of a country in the grip of a thoroughgoing moral frivolity. In a strange inversion of proper priorities, important matters are taken lightly and trivial ones taken seriously.
This is not the charming or uplifting frivolity of Feydeau’s farces or Oscar Wilde’s comedies; it is the frivolity of real decadence, bespeaking a profound failure of nerve bound to have disastrous consequences for the country’s quality of life. The newspapers portrayed frivolity without gaiety and earnestness without seriousness—a most unattractive combination.
Of the two instances of serious matters taken with levity, the first concerned a 42-year-old barrister, Peter Wareing, attacked in the street while walking home from a barbecue with two friends, a man and a woman. They passed a group of seven teenagers who had been drinking heavily, one of whom, a girl, complained that the barrister and his friends were “staring” at them. Nowadays, English youth of aggressive disposition and porcelain-fragile ego regard such alleged staring as a justified casus belli.
The girl attacked the woman in the other party. When Wareing and his male friend tried to separate them, two of the youths, aged 18 and 16, in turn attacked them. They hit the barrister’s friend into some bushes, injuring him slightly, and then knocked the barrister to the ground, knocking him down a second time after he had struggled to his feet. This second time, his head hit the ground, injuring his brain severely. He was unconscious and on life support for two months afterward. At first, his face was so disfigured that his three children were not allowed to see him.
The doctors told his wife, a nurse, that he was unlikely to survive, and she prepared the children for their father’s death. She wrote in a journal that she kept as she sat by his bed, “Very scary feeling that all his natural life is gone.” Nevertheless, he made an unexpected, though partial, recovery. His memory remains impaired, as does his speech; he may never be able to resume his legal career fully. It is possible that his income will be much lower for the rest of his life than it would otherwise have been, to the great disadvantage of his wife and children.
One of the two assailants, Daniel Hayward, demonstrated that he had learned nothing—at least, nothing of any comfort to the public—after he had ruined the barrister’s life. While awaiting trial on bail, he attacked the landlord of a pub and punched him in the face, for which he received a sentence of 21 days in prison.
Before passing sentence for the attack on Wareing, the judge was eloquent in his condemnation of the two youths. “You were looking for trouble and prepared to use any excuse to visit violence on anyone you came by. It is the callousness of this that is so chilling. . . . You do not seem to care that others have been blighted by your gratuitous violence.”
You might have thought that this was a prelude to the passing of a very long prison sentence on the two youths. If so, however, you would be entirely mistaken. Both received sentences of 18 months, with an automatic nine-month remission, more or less as of right. In other words, they would serve nine months in prison for having destroyed the health and career of a completely innocent man, caused his wife untold suffering, and deprived three young children of a normal father. One of the perpetrators, too, had shown a complete lack of remorse for what he had done and an inclination to repeat it.
Even at so young an age, nine months is not a very long time. Moreover, when I recall that for youths like these a prison sentence is likely to be a badge of honor rather than a disgrace, I cannot but conclude that the British state is either utterly indifferent to or incapable of the one task that inescapably belongs to it: preserving the peace and ensuring that its citizens may go about their lawful business in safety. It does not know how to deter, prevent, or punish. The remarks of the policeman in charge of the case were not encouraging. He said afterward that he hoped that “the sentences . . . send a clear warning to people who think it is acceptable to consume large quantities of alcohol, then assault members of the public in unprovoked attacks.” If the law supposes that, as Mr. Bumble said in Oliver Twist, “the law is a ass—a idiot.”
As for Peter Wareing, even in his brain-damaged state, he had a better appreciation of things. He was evidently a man of some spirit: having been a salesman, he decided to study for the law, supported himself at law school by a variety of manual jobs, and qualified at the bar at the age of 40. The extent of his recovery astounded his neurosurgeon, who attributed it to Wareing’s determination and “bloody-mindedness.” He is avid to get back to work, but the contrast between the nominal 18-month sentence for his attackers and his own “life sentence,” as he called it, of struggle against disability is not lost on him. “If there were real justice,” he said, “they would have gone to prison for life.” Could any compassionate person disagree?
Perhaps the final insult is that the state is paying for him to have psychotherapy to suppress his anger. “I have this rage inside me for the people who did this,” he said. “I truly hate them.” Having failed in its primary duty, the state then treats the rage naturally consequent upon this failure as pathological, in need of therapy. On reading Peter Wareing’s story, ordinary, decent citizens will themselves feel a sense of impotent rage, despair, betrayal, and abandonment similar to his. Do we all need psychotherapy?
A second case similarly illustrates the refusal of the British state to take the lives of its citizens seriously. An engineer—Philip Carroll, the father of four—was tinkering with his car outside his home. Four drunken youths sat on a wall on his property, and he asked them to leave. They argued with him, and one of them threw a stone at his car. He chased this youth and caught him, but between 20 and 40 more youths loitering drunkenly nearby rallied round, and one 15-year-old hit the engineer to the ground, where he too banged his head and received severe brain damage. Unconscious for 18 days, he needed three operations to survive; and now he too has an impaired memory and might never work again.
According to his parents, the culprit, Michael Kuba-Kuba, felt deeply ashamed of what he had done, but this did not in the least prevent him during the trial from claiming (unsuccessfully, in the event) that he had been acting in self-defense. This does not sound like genuine shame to me but rather an attempt to get away with it. Before passing sentence, the judge said: “I have to try to ensure that the courts will treat incidents like this with great severity, to send out a message to other young people that violence is not acceptable.”
Another prelude, you might think, to a stiff sentence—but again you would be wrong. The young man got 12 months, of which he will serve six. Six months for the active life of a man—for having caused 30 or 40 years of disability, as well as incalculable suffering to the disabled man’s family! It is not difficult to imagine Kuba-Kuba returning from prison to a hero’s welcome, because he had simultaneously gotten away with near-murder and survived the rite of passage that imprisonment now represents. The message the judge sent out to other young people, no doubt unintentionally, was that youths may destroy other people’s lives with virtual impunity, for the British state does not care in the least about protecting them or deterring such crimes.
Two aspects of the case went unexamined in the newspapers. The first was that Kuba-Kuba’s parents were the owners of a grocery store specializing in African foods, and were deeply religious. The young man doubtless did not grow up in abject poverty, then; nor would he have derived his readiness for violence from anything his parents might have taught him.
The second was that Kuba-Kuba was a talented athlete, apparently of Olympic standard. He was a promising soccer player, so promising that several major teams were seriously interested in recruiting him. If, as seemed likely, he had made the grade, he would have become a multimillionaire by his early twenties, earning more in a year than most people in a lifetime. Lack of economic prospects and the frustration it entails can hardly explain a propensity to violence in his case, therefore.
We must look elsewhere for the source of his violent conduct. Possibly he was born a sport of nature, a creature biologically destined to violence—no doubt there are such cases. But far more likely was that an aggressive popular culture that glorifies egotistical impulsivity and denigrates self-control influenced him. Although his parents presented him, in their statements, as a paragon of virtue, he already had a conviction for theft, and he clearly hung about with teenagers who drank a lot and made a nuisance of themselves. Carroll confronted the youth who threw the stone precisely because he was exasperated by the unruly behavior that prevailed in his neighborhood, undeterred and unpunished by the state. A senior policeman said after the attack, “We have gangs of young people hanging around on street corners being abusive, intimidating and causing trouble. . . . They don’t give a damn about the police or the criminal justice system.”
And who can blame them? What deterrent, punishment, vengeance, or protection for society is six months in prison for having injured a man so badly that he did not recognize his wife or children for several months afterward, that he now has poor eyesight, has lost his sense of smell and taste, has to wear a brace on one foot and a hard hat to protect his skull, and says of himself, “I just have no interest in anything or anyone”—having previously been a highly successful man?
Having seen how the British state takes the serious lightly, let us now see how it takes the trivial seriously.
The newspapers reported the case of an Oxford student who, slightly drunk after celebrating the end of his exams, approached a mounted policeman. “Excuse me,” said the young man to the policeman, “do you realize your horse is gay?”
This was not a very witty remark, but it was hardly filled with deep malice either. It was, perhaps, a manifestation of the youthful silliness of which most of us have been guilty in our time. And Oxford was once a city in which drunken students often played, and were even expected to play, pranks on the police, such as knocking off their helmets.
The policeman did not think the student’s remark was innocent, however. He called two squad cars to his aid, and, in a city in which it is notoriously difficult to interest the police in so trivial a matter as robbery or burglary, they arrived almost at once. Apparently, the mounted policeman thought—if thought is quite the word I seek—that the young man’s remark was likely to “cause harassment, alarm or distress.” He was arrested and charged under the Public Order Act for having made a “homophobic remark.”
The young man spent a night in jail. Brought before the magistrates the following day, he was fined $140, which he refused to pay. The police then sent the case to the equivalent of the district attorney, who brought the student before the courts again but had to admit that there was not enough evidence to prove that his conduct had been disorderly.
The degree to which political correctness has addled British consciousness, like a computer virus, and destroyed all our traditional attachment to liberty, is illustrated by the words of one of the student’s friends who witnessed the incident. “[His] comments were . . . in jest,” he said. “It was very clear that they were not homophobic.” In other words, the friend accepted the premise that certain remarks, well short of incitement to commit violence or any actual crime—words that merely expressed an unpopular or intolerant point of view—would have constituted reasonable grounds for arrest. One consequence of the liberal intelligentsia’s long march through the institutions is the acceptance of the category of Thoughtcrime. On the other hand, political correctness permits genuine incitement to murder—such as the behead those who insult islam placards carried by Muslim demonstrators in London four months after the publication of cartoons of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper—to go completely unpunished. Other people, other customs.
Goodness knows how much time of how many people this episode in Oxford had wasted, and at what cost to the taxpayer—all in a country with the highest rate of crime (that is to say, of real crime) in the Western world. I could not help comparing the alacrity with which the police dealt with the “homophobic” remark with their indifference to an act of arson my wife witnessed shortly before we left England.
She noticed some youths setting fire to the contents of a dumpster just outside our house, a fire that could easily have spread to cars parked nearby. She called the police.
“What do you expect us to do about it?” they asked.
“I expect you to come and arrest them,” she said.
The police regarded this as a bizarre and unreasonable expectation. They refused point-blank to send anyone. Of course, if they had promised to make every effort to come quickly but had arrived too late, or even not at all, my wife would have understood and been satisfied. But she was not satisfied with the idea that youths could set dangerous fires without arousing even the minimal interest of the police. Surely, some or all of the youths would conclude that they could do anything they liked, and move on to more serious crimes.
My wife then insisted that the police should at least place the crime on their records. Again, they refused. She remonstrated with them at length, and at considerable cost to her equanimity. At last, and with the greatest reluctance, they recorded the crime and gave her a reference number for it.
This was not the end of the matter. About 15 minutes later, a more senior policeman telephoned to upbraid her and tell her she had been wasting police time with her insistence on satisfaction in so trivial a matter. The police, apparently, had more important things to do than suppress arson. Goodness knows what homophobic remarks were being made while the youths were merely setting a fire that could have spread, and in the process learning that they could do so with impunity.
It is not difficult to guess the reason for the senior policeman’s anger. My wife had forced his men to record a crime that they had no intention whatever of even trying to solve (though, with due expedition, it was eminently soluble), and this record in turn meant the introduction of an unwanted breath of reality into the bogus statistics, the manufacture of which is now every British senior policeman’s principal task—with the sole exception of enforcing the dictates of political correctness, thereby to head off the criticism levied at them for many decades by the liberal Left—not always without an element of justification. Proving their purity of heart is now more important to them than securing the safety of our streets: and thus Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
Another story in the newspaper then caught my eye: the government wanted to ban smoking in British prisons.
At first sight, this might seem like a serious rather than a frivolous idea. More than nine-tenths of prisoners smoke, and, if they continue to do so, about a half of them will die prematurely as a result. The evidence that smoking is bad for the health has long since been overwhelming and incontrovertible. Therefore, the government could reasonably claim that the proposed ban was evidence of its solicitude for the welfare of the most despised of all sections of society, prisoners. And after all, what could be more serious, less frivolous, than saving lives, or trying to do so?
In general, I am not sentimental about the rights of prisoners. I don’t think the proposed ban infringes any of their rights; but it seems to me that there are plenty of reasons for treating prisoners decently and humanely other than the observance of their supposed rights. Decency and humanity are goods in themselves, after all. The proposed ban was not only hypocritical but gratuitously cruel and inhumane, and likely to prove ineffective into the bargain.
But it would be wrong even if effective.
Smoking is not illegal in Britain, and the government derives large revenues from the consumption of tobacco, indeed far larger than the profits of the tobacco companies. It uses these revenues not to lessen the taxes of non-smokers but merely as one among many other sources of revenue. Although high taxation on tobacco does discourage smoking, that is not, and never was, its primary aim.
At bottom, the proposal looks like the arbitrary bullying of a defenseless population in a fit of Pecksniffian moral enthusiasm. It is to deprive that population of a small privilege long accepted by custom and usage. And, of course, the moral enthusiasts of the government will not bear the practical cost of enforcing the ban; the prison wardens will. The proposal is an example
of the soft and creeping totalitarianism that comes with unctuous offers of benefits and avowals of purity of intention, rather than the boot-in-the-face variety of Orwell’s description. It is the insinuation of the government into the nooks and crannies of everyday life, on the pretext that people are incapable of deciding anything for themselves. Everyone is a child for whom the government is in permanent loco parentis (except children, of course, who can consent to sex at age 16 and are to be given the vote at the same age, if Chancellor Brown has his way).
The newspapers confirmed what I had long perceived before I left Britain: that the zeitgeist of the country is now one of sentimental moralizing combined with the utmost cynicism, where the government’s pretended concern for the public welfare coexists with the most elementary dereliction of duty. There is an absence of any kind of idealism that is a necessary precondition of probity, so that bad faith prevails almost everywhere. The government sees itself as an engineer of souls (to use the phrase so eloquently coined by Stalin with regard to writers who, of course, were expected to mold Homo Sovieticus by the power of their words). Government thus concerns itself with what people think, feel, and say—as well as with trying to change their freely chosen habits—rather than with performing its one inescapable duty: that of preserving the peace and ensuring that citizens may go about their lawful business in confidence and safety. It is more concerned that young men should not smoke cigarettes in prison or make silly jokes to policemen than that they should not attack and permanently maim their elders and betters.
One definition of decadence is the concentration on the gratifyingly imaginary to the disregard of the disconcertingly real. No one who knows Britain could doubt that it has very serious problems—economic, social, and cultural. Its public services—which already consume a vast proportion of the national wealth—are not only inefficient but completely beyond amelioration by the expenditure of yet more money. Its population is abysmally educated, to the extent that in a few more years Britain will not even have a well-educated elite. An often cynical and criminally minded population has been indoctrinated with shallow and gimcrack notions—for example, about social justice—that render it singularly unfit to compete in an increasingly competitive world. Not coincidentally, Britain has serious economic problems, even if the government has managed so far—in the eyes of the world, at least—to paper over the cracks. Unpleasant realities cannot be indefinitely disguised or conjured away, however.
Therefore I have removed myself: not that I imagine things are much better, only slightly different, in France. But one does not feel the defects of a foreign country in quite the same lacerating way as the defects of one’s native land; they are more an object of amused, detached interest than of personal despair.