I wake this morning to find that some Texan has littered my electronic inbox with pictures of “Will & Kate,” in the bath suds with Prince George of Cambridge (age three months). A quick Internet check, to the filthy Daily Mirror, yields the explanation: “The pictures were taken by artist Alison Jackson who is renowned for her spoof reproductions of palace and celebrity life.”
In other words, they were faked.
This little joke was perpetrated for the day Prince George was to be christened. (Today.) It thus creates an association in the public mind, between this Holy Sacrament, & nude royals cavorting in the bath. I do not know whether this was the conscious intention of the “artist.” Nor do I need to know.
For reasons mysterious even to me, I continue boffering with email correspondents. (The term “boffer” refers to a foam weapon, used in simulated hand-to-hand combat.) In this case, adjusting the argument to the mentality of my opponent, who is viscerally contemptuous of British royalty but earnestly respectful of Tea Party media stars, I compared the case to that of Sarah Palin. She was brought down from a suddenly powerful political position by a series of foolish quotes & gestures. Each was actually scripted for Tina Fey, “spoofing” her on the television programme, Saturday Night Live. Anyone could see the “joke” being played. But in little time the lines were being mockingly recited as if they were genuine; & soon after, in the settled conviction that they were.
Please don’t try to correct what I report from first-hand experience. This included an impromptu “debate,” on one occasion, with graduate students from a Toronto philosophy department. One young woman in particular had the Alaska accent down, & persisted in repeating the Tina Fey lines (“I can see Russia from here,” &c). Her friends were equally convinced that these fairly represented Ms Palin’s point of view. There was no correcting them. Their indifference to fact was too perfect.
Ms Palin is herself a mass-market politician, & neither genius nor sage. Yet I admired her for common sense, & a refreshing detachment from the cynicism that plagues our political life. She was reasonably honest & straightforward, unlike her rivals. On this ground alone, I thought her worth defending. Had she not been attacked so unworthily, I might myself have dismissed her as a lightweight. But in the context of the U.S. presidential election of 2008, it was worth noting that she had more native smarts, saner attitudes, more impressive personal accomplishments, & rather more executive experience than, say, Barack Obama. The one thing she lacked was the “cool” factor. She was too “authentic,” too salt-of-the-earth, had too much starch & integrity, to survive long in democratic politics. The gliberal infotainment media went urgently to work on trashing her lest she appeal to voters (women especially) over their heads. They had little trouble scoring points, however: for they can invent & widely publicize specious charges faster than anyone can refute them.
But back to my philosophy majors. On reviewing the preceding discussion, before the name Palin had been gratuitously raised, I noted that their whole view of Western intellectual history was of the same quality: cheap & extremely misleading parodies of thinkers vastly beyond their understanding, delivered with the same smug self-satisfaction. For these unpleasant children were the shallow products of our “democratized” higher education — against whom one finds oneself defending even David Hume.
It would be wrong to hold them responsible for public opinion; they are symptoms not causes of the disease. It would be wrong to assign to any human being (Obama certainly included) the responsibility for contaminating our public life with lies & misdirections. There is not & has never been a plot on any significant scale. Sleaze has never required much calculation.
“For our wrestling is not against flesh & blood; but against principalities & powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”
Note that by “high places,” Saint Paul was not referring to Caesar’s court at Rome.
The replacement of aristocratic with democratic forms of government, & with that the politicization & depravation of every dimension of human life, is an old story. We have been on this slide for well over two centuries, arguably for much longer. The basic egalitarian notion, that “I’m as good as you are,” plays to the vanity of the peasant class, that has provided the bulk in every human society: whether in their old agricultural, or in their newer industrial & post-industrial masses. Jacob Burckhardt was astute in attributing the success of the French Revolution to this: you win the peasants over by promising them the rich man’s possessions. It’s not the vote they crave, nor intellectual freedom; the peasants were never so stupid as that. The rich man’s possessions are the allurement. But more, too, the chance to get even with men so spectacularly superior to themselves, & bring them down to the common level, by means of riot & the guillotine. This is so much easier than raising oneself up.
The politician must appeal to the vanity of low human nature, through the flattery implicit in all demagogic speech. The class resentment, that is unambiguously at the heart of Marxism, is also at the heart of democracy in its less violent forms; the demand for equality because, “I’m as good as you are.” Finally it pulls down not only the rich from their stations — the landed, the responsible, the titled — but with them every noble aspiration a natural hierarchy exists to serve. In its place, & to assuage their iconic longings, the crass are provided with a theatre of “celebrities” instead; of the morally worthless, “famous for being famous.” Monarchy, where it survives, itself descends to the Hollywood level, in the vagrant hope of appeasing this mob.
Après eux, le déluge. One returns to the Age of Enlightenment to recall the prescience of those not in the bag. In for instance his old essay series, entitled The Idler, Samuel Johnson explored from many successive angles the exploitation of human vanity, at the root of all politics — the putting of one’s betters in their place, by the presumptuous, acting upon others both above & below them in actual social position. Jane Austen was another subtle student of the means, in her elegant Toryism, examining the matter at the sparkling microcosmic scale; rather than at the macro, where we see only the crudely homogenized results. Pressing against the natural order, was the spirit of “whiggery,” or Cain. To the mind of those infected by the lust for power, all nobility of aspiration is hypocritical affectation. It cannot be quantified. They have no use for it.
Families rise & families fall, over time, maintaining a balance within the larger society which, undisturbed, would last for long ages. No hierarchy depends on any individual member, in such an organic order. It would be wrong anyway to expect too little, or too much, from the representative of a moment. It is enough to keep up the pressure for improvement — by setting good example from wherever one may stand; by putting obstacles in the path of bad behaviour. Then let the failures fail. It will never be necessary to smear individuals, to make one’s envious, egalitarian point. There will always be real examples, if one has the low journalistic impulse to seek them out; or even the slightly higher impulse to expose a fraud.
I am expounding a view of society almost incomprehensible to the present day, accustomed as it is to social engineering, & organization by written law. The idea of an order legitimated by nature, of acceptance in the vicissitudes of life, of the freedom that comes with this acceptance, is foreign to us. Let me put it in terms likeliest to ignite the gasbags of equality: “A place for everyone, & everyone in his place.” For this is what I have seen in every backward, essentially joyful community, East or West.
My Loyalist ancestors were not unaware of foibles among the British ruling élite. Yet they held it better to endure, what would be resolved in the course of nature, than to turn the world over, & deliver the government into the hands of the ideologues of a humanly-engineered “Enlightenment.” It made more sense to get on with one’s life, than to meddle systematically in the lives of others; hence their old saying, “Better one tyrant three thousand miles away, than three thousand tyrants one mile away.” They were defeated, of course; but they did put up a fight for their lives & their property, before they were dispossessed. In their bones, but also in their neighbours’ eyes, they saw the menace of “Revolution.” They knew their Shakespeare; their Wat Tyler & Jack Cade. I like to think they could see Obamacare coming.
But alas the Revolution followed them everywhere, & in our contemporary world there is no place to hide from the arrogance of “democracy.” It is globalized now. The principle of unhappiness has been made universal.
I cheered myself the other day by re-reading Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse — by Nirad Chaudhuri, written in 1997, in his ninety-ninth year. There is a wonderful rant against Princess Diana, published just moments before she died. He says she never had the class to be a royal; then extends his remarks to the rest of the Spencer family, whose decline into unspeakable vulgarity he adumbrates (witness her brother, &c). It is really quite forceful.
Chaudhuri, as I have surely mentioned in the past, was pretty much my favourite Subcontinental. This is because he was an extraordinarily perceptive teller of home truths, who would never give his persecutors the satisfaction of shutting up. He had also been a member of India’s rising political class, personally familiar with all Nehrus & Gandhis, & able thus to tell us, with considerable precision, just what was wrong with them.
He waited until he was almost my age to have his first book published: The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951). It is a penetrating account of the stages by which India was suckered into misery & destruction by the adepts of Progress. The book was hardly read, but from the sharp promise in its splendidly paradoxical dedication (to the departed British Raj), it was immediately attacked. Chaudhuri was blackballed, pursued, stripped of livelihood & pension by India’s new democratic champions of “free speech.”
There is more to it than that, as always in any book by Chaudhuri. He makes me weep with nostalgia for the Calcutta of a century ago, upon realizing I had seen its ghost, three generations later. He makes one see the utterly unwestern beauty in the flat, sodden, village-ridden landscape of the vast Gangetic delta, so intensely green, sky blue, & river grey. He makes us love the very people he chastises, & chastise the very people he loves.
Altogether, he spent about seventy-five years making enemies by telling the truth about India, the whole truth & nothing but the truth; plus about twenty-five telling the truth about England, from his Bengali sense of fair play.
My personal acquaintance with him — after he had migrated to England in old age — was too brief. He was among the most inspiring men I have met: for his learning, as much as for his courage; for the poetry in his reasoning, as well as the scathing wit. He embodied, to my mind, a real nobility of spirit, formed in a very broad acquaintance with the Classics, both Eastern & Western. Perhaps only an Indian, in his position, could see the secular realities of our world with such clarity. And nothing & no one could buy him off.
Not to give away the plot, but the Three Horsemen are taken to be Individualism, Nationalism, & Democracy. Death would be the fourth, but Chaudhuri leaves it out as self-explanatory.