Notes & Comments: September 2005

New Criterion, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Notes & Comments: September 2005


"Oh, to be in England ..."

We know what Robert Browning meant. We have long wished that The New Criterion were more readily available in England. Nor are we alone. Writing recently in The Claremont Review, the historian Paul Johnson observed that "One of the cultural treasures Britain lacks, and America happily possesses, is the monthly review New Criterion." We are pleased to report that the lack Mr. Johnson lamented is about to be filled. Beginning this autumn, The New Criterion will be available at select bookstores and newsstands in Great Britain.

To celebrate this happy event, we have assembled in this issue a special section on British cultural and political life today. With contributions by Theodore Dalrymple, John Gross, Daniel Johnson, Rodney Leach, Peter Mullen, Kenneth Minogue, John O'Sullivan, David Pryce-Jones, and Andrew Roberts, this colloquy is a wide-ranging cultural damage report, at once sobering and invigorating. In "Potemkin Vistas," Mr. Pryce-Jones limns the problem:

   Over the last fifty or sixty years the sometimes
   indistinguishable combination of decline and
   change has shredded its tradition and its spirit,
   even its identity. The revolution has been accomplished
   by peaceful and often imperceptible
   degrees, but it is a revolution all the
   same.

It has been a revolution in character, in politics, in religion, in the everyday virtues that made Britain Britain. As recently as twenty-five years ago, Theodore Dalrymple reports, visitors from abroad were struck by the survival of those traditional, those Victorian, virtues whose practice helped to define Britishness: "politeness, lack of self-importance, stoicism, fortitude, emotional self-control, and an ironic detachment from their own experience, especially when it was unpleasant." Today, by contrast, these virtues seem as outdated as powdered wigs. "[T]he ideal that I have described" Dr. Dalrymple notes, "has been abandoned as absurd, oppressive, and anachronistic by more than one generation of Britons. Self-control now seems merely ridiculous to them, and even harmful."

What happened? One might resort to shorthand, say "The Sixties," and leave it at that. Britain--Europe generally--has suffered from the same latitudinarian impulses that swept through the United States during the last few decades with such fearsome consequences for social, cultural, and moral life. The bill for that assault has yet to be fully tallied. Ponder what has happened to our notions of decency, for example--we can barely use the word today without an embarrassed smile--of intelligence, of self-reliance, of aesthetic delicacy and moral circumspection. Kenneth Minogue registers some of the deeper reasons for this decay. Curiously, ironically, it is deeply bound up with that unmodulated craving for perfection that often goes under the name of idealism but really is one of the more destructive allotropes of sentimentality. "Could it be" Mr. Minogue asks,

   that our very greed for social perfection has
   destroyed our grip on the real moorings of
   human life? Perhaps our sentimental addiction
   to the superficialities of social perfection has
   eroded our capacity, for the hard and demanding
   work of moral integrity. Certainly,
   tolerance and benevolence are often shallow
   virtues. But it may well be that this personal
   loss of integrity, merely reflects a similar collapse
   of integrity in the institutions of civil
   society as they respond to the sickly embrace
   of government and of projects of social perfection.

To a large extent, the shape of British culture today--like the shape of contemporary American culture--illustrates some of the less beneficent effects of the law of unintended consequences. What our leaders sought--not just our political leaders, but even more our cultural and moral leaders--was liberation: from the burden of the past, from poverty, from spiritual narrowness, from social opprobrium.

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