Public affairs,” Doctor Johnson once told Boswell, “vex no man.” As proof, he said that he had never eaten or slept less well because of any political turbulence. In that restricted sense, public affairs do not vex me. Even my private anxieties don’t vex me by reducing my appetite or causing me insomnia. But reading the British newspapers certainly irritates me. I haven’t actually taken my pulse or blood pressure when I read of the latest fatuity that our government has suggested, but I wouldn’t be surprised if both physiological indexes shot up.
For example, Prime Minister Tony Blair recently hinted that he might lower the voting age to 16. Our prime minister has aged physically rather fast, as it happens, but he nonetheless remains an unreconstructed admirer of youthfulness, especially eternal youthfulness. In his opinion, it is youth and idealism rather than years and experience that confer wisdom upon mankind.
Why stick at 16, then? Why not 12? And why not deprive the aged of their votes, on the grounds that they have little stake in the future of the country compared with 12-year-olds and tend to be not only cautious but attached to the past?
The problem with considering such an idea even in jest is that satire in our society so soon becomes prophecy. A friend of mine, a distinguished economist who died recently, used to say that the only genuine unemployment nowadays is among satirists. The rhetorical method of reducing an argument to absurdity is no longer available, since the sense of the absurd has vanished.
Blair seems to hate the past, feeling it, perhaps, to be a personal affront to his own ego because it is beyond his power to improve or redeem, unlike the present. Because (like Hillary Clinton) he came into the world blessed with original virtue, everything he does or believes in at the present moment is, by definition, good.
He disposes of constitutional arrangements as if they were confetti, since he did not ordain them. His social, or antisocial, ideal—one that we have nearly achieved, unfortunately—is a nation of people that exists in an eternal present, without cultural or historical connection to its own past. Such a rudderless nation has no choice but to cleave to its government, looking to it for guidance about everything.
In the same week, the minister of education in Blair’s government launched a passionate attack on the universities of Oxford and Cambridge for failing to admit enough students from the lowest social class. He spoke not a word about the necessity to raise, or even merely to maintain, Britain’s already dismal academic standards. What is excellence compared with supposed fairness?
The day is not far off when schools will one day choose students not according to their ability and personal achievement, but based on their social origin and no doubt also on their political reliability (the children of the political elite will, of course, be honorary proletarians). As for the idea that some people’s natures may not suit them for university educations, that will be seen as crude and reactionary social Darwinism.
Had the minister decried the appalling standards of the education that state schools offer to children of the lowest social class, I would have been the first to applaud him. To do so, of course, would have required both moral courage and the acknowledgment that it was up to him to do something about the problem. But his implication that the universities should lower their standards further (a friend of mine, a teacher of history at Oxford, tells me that he is already forbidden to mark exam papers down for their bad spelling, punctuation, and grammar) seems to me just another sentence in Britain’s long suicide note.
One of the greatest displeasures of living in the modern world—though there are compensatory pleasures, of course—is that one finds oneself constantly compelled to argue against ideas that are so foolish and shallow that they should be self-refuting. In Britain, at least, stupidity seems to be an unstoppable juggernaut.