Do you know what the most popular post on this blog is? I mean, easily the most popular? It is “Reflections on whether life is now sh1t“, a post inspired by (several posts before) musings by Theodore Dalrymple at the Conservative Party conference on the subject of poverty.
I was not so much reflecting on TD’s solutions to poverty (the prognosis) – for, to be fair, he was not offering solutions, apart from the well known Tracey Emin/Andrew Lloyd Weber device of leaving a country that becomes disgusting or Unfairly Expensive to the Patriotic Emigre, as his general diagnosis – that life in the UK is squalid, dominated by corrupt bureaucracy, utterly malfunctional in a social sense, and best illustrated by the colourful and shocking anecdotes he is capable of producing. Such as: the girlfriend who answers questions about how often she is hit by her boyfriend with “well, normally he headbutts me”. And stories about kids not knowing their fathers, and so on.
So I owe a (polite) thank you to the people at the Sceptical Doctor, a site created to discuss, and indeed extoll Theodore Dalrymple, aka Anthony Daniels, as ‘the greatest essayist of his age’ and “one of the most interesting people alive“. I had the privilege of chatting to Anthony Daniels before our event. It was fun: I like bright people, and people who can disagree in a jovial way. But nothing he said privately – and in particular publicly, when he became much more shrill and melodramatic – contradicts my fundamental beliefs that:
- People who are alive today – above all, in the West – are hugely privileged in material terms compared to previous generations and other countries. Welfare policies have generally helped: without a welfare state, or a biggish government, there would be more material squalor
- It is only snobs -often elitist Lefties (see John Harris here) – who deny or downplay the real value of such materialist advantages. Being able to enjoy long life, healthy children, the ability to travel, freedom from starvation, an absence of marauding warriors, almost 100% literacy, communcation over vast distances – all matter. It ought not to take an effort of the imagination to work out how horrible life before many of these things was. That people don’t actively appreciate them doesn’t reduce their value.
- The other great leaps forward that I am aware of have been in Liberty. You need again to imagine what life was like when the majority were bound to some Lord or other, working in service all their life, deprived of educational opportunities, suffering under real tyrannies, in order to appreciate this. I am greatly enjoying this book about a year in the life of Shakespeare, for example. A bad-tempered wench who muttered angrily about the rich getting away with it might be executed back then. Imagine.
- The flip side of the growth in material wellbeing and liberal values has been a decline in what the Grumpy Conservatives call ‘civil society’. People are less respectful. Women having genuine freedom – for all of 100 years from the last 100,000 – means that family life is restructured. Not living in fear of aristocratic thugs or other forms of arbitrary state power – and actually being supported on welfare- has changed the way people behave. They may be lazier – well, they certainly are: the average annual hours worked was about 3000 150 years ago, down to 1600 now. Theodore Dalrymple’s account of how people are much ruder to a doctor in the West, and now, than in the Third World, or 100 years before, is no doubt true. This must partly be because being rude to a doctor in those other circumstances was a death sentence. No obligation to provide care.
I think these deep historical comparisons matter, because when a Conservative complains about how bad things have got, you need to start thinking about direction of travel, relative changes – and the trade-offs that have got us where we are.
The other persistent theme is about method. How do you tell how things are in this great/once great/miserably declined country of ours? Theodore Dalrymple’s primary method is the colourful anecdote: the savage dregs of society he supposedly meets. Occasionally, he uses statistics, but very selectively, and inaccurately: the figure ‘nearly twice as many children have a TV in their bedrooms as have a father living at home’, quoted uncritically by Jackie Ashley, clearly can’t be true – something like 70-80% of kids are in two parent families. Stats clearly is not his forte.
His adherents also like anecdote: so I’m expected to be convinced about Declinism by a Daily Mail picture of a girl with knickers round her ankles, for example.
I can’t judge whether TD is a great essayist, or the greatest. I personally prefer Julian Barnes. It is a matter of taste, and for my taste I greatly value (a) self doubt (b) balance, without the balance removing from the cut of the point being made (c) good humour and (d) an ability to resist cheap shots, unjustified generalisations, and so on. I don’t rate the public work of TD very high on any of those criteria. But I liked the man personally.
On this subject, here is Jeremy Clarkson ploughing much the same furrow (thanks to our intern Rosie for bizarrely sending this around in the press summary). Clarkson seems to be our Rush Limbaugh, with his hordes of ditto-heads underneath to boot. Like the great patriots Dalrymple, Emin and Lloyd Weber, he drags out the tired old trope of people leaving the country when they get pissed off:
There’s talk of emigration in the air. It’s everywhere I go. Parties. Work. In the supermarket. My daughter is working herself half to death to get good grades at GSCE and can’t see the point because she won’t be going to university, because she doesn’t have a beak or flippers or a qualification in washing windscreens at the lights . She wonders, often, why we don’t live in America.
How sad that his teenaged daughter is infected with his own white male resentment (see Dillow’s analysis): when to be 15, educated and the daughter of a fabulously wealthy man must be very heaven. The only obstacle to a happy life is the inability to appreciate her good fortune, and there the poison of Tory miserabilism has infected her, already.
He ends a long diatribe about the things that ‘ordinary’ people get cross about thusly:
they see the stupid war on drugs and the war on drink and the war on smoking and the war on hunting and the war on fun and the war on scientists and the obsession with the climate and the price of train fares soaring past £1,000 and the Guardian power-brokers getting uppity about one shot baboon and not uppity at all about all the dead soldiers in Afghanistan, and how they got rid of Blair only to find the lying twerp is now going to come back even more powerful than ever, and they think, “I’ve had enough of this. I’m off.”
But the ordinary Joes don’t really experience most of these things, unless their job is to review newspapers for day time TV. Clarkson’s logic is that people who get cross about what they read in the papers will move to, say, Spain to ‘get away from it’. But they have British newspapers everywhere – and blogs, and the ability to be a ditto-head on the TimesOnline. Plus, there is less to do in sozzled ExPat Furious Retirement – so in all likelihood the idiots who emigrate to ‘escape Mandelson’ will end up even more exposed to him abroad.
To those liberals endlessly annoyed by the right-wing fools just literate enough to shout their comments at the bottom of such unreflective bigoted rubbish, here is the antidote: I have just discovered sPeak Your Brane. There you can read endless such twaddle, in the safe knowledge that it takes the IQ of a semi-utilized computer chip to generate it:
It makes me sick! Open your eyes people! pc liberalists are pandering to ethnics and gays because they hate our freedoms. when will this government bring back flogging and the death penalty i say. What happened to GREAT Britain?!!!!!