Magazine article The Spectator

Rank Ignorance

Magazine article The Spectator

Rank Ignorance

Article excerpt

Sir Vidia Naipaul's passionate denunciation this week of the present government for its cultural vandalism was wholly justified. Indeed, cultural vandalism is likely to prove Mr Blair's most enduring legacy.

Philistinism is not a new thing in British public life, of course. Whereas in France, no candidate could expect to reach office unless he paid at least lip-service to high culture, aspiring British politicians have long needed to conceal both their high intelligence, if they possessed it, and their cultural interests, if they had any.

This anti-intellectualism is not wholly to be regretted. Indeed, it could be said that a healthy scepticism about intellectuals is what saved Britain from the ideological excesses that resulted in untold millions of deaths on the Continent during the last century.

But the philistinism of the present government is of a totally new order. It is profoundly ideological, whereas the philistinism of the past was largely an instinctive reaction to the humbug to which an overintellectualised or over-aesthetic view of the world often gives rise.

The ideology of modern philistinism is a poisonous concoction, composed of rank egotism, cynical populism and a genuine, though unjustified, loss of confidence in the worth of the cultural heritage that has been handed down to us.

Only egotists wish systematically to denigrate the achievements of the past, imagining that wisdom began with them. By doing so, they inflate their own importance and significance; it is therefore well for Mr Blair that British children know nothing of Walpole, Pitt, Wellington, Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone or Churchill, for then there is no painful comparison to be drawn.

An undervaluation of the cultural achievements of the past flatters the present, and is thereby also a manifestation of cynical populism, which seeks to assure people that their cultural tastes, activities, desires and achievements are as good as any in the world, past or present. What the people admire is, ipso facto, admirable. And who (other than a cultural snob) is to say that Hamlet is better than EastEnders, and more worthy of serious consideration?

By claiming that Bob Dylan is the Schubert of our times, a politician can demonstrate that he is a man of the people, and no elitist. Popularity is the measure of all things.

At the same time, intellectuals have long been undermining the claims of high culture to superiority over low. Cultural relativism is the intellectual orthodoxy of the age, so it is hardly surprising that cultural slumming has become a sign not only of enlightenment but also of virtue. …

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