Flashman, Ron Paul, James Kirchick — And Liberty
An elderly character in one of Barbara Pym's novels grumbles, in the presence of some youngsters, about the awfulness of the pop music they are listening to. One of the youngsters turns on her rather nastily: "Of course you don't like it. It's not for you. Nothing's for you any more."
This came to mind while I was reading the "last testament" of the writer George MacDonald Fraser, who died January 2. Fraser was 82 when he died, and quite out of tune with the Britain he had been born in, and spent most of his life in. Fraser wrote a great many books, both fiction and nonfiction, but he is best remembered for the Flashman series of comic-historical novels.
The "testament" — you can read it here — is in fact a curmudgeon's rant, sputtering angrily against political correctness, Dianafication (that's the British word for "Oprahfication"), political parties ("inventions of the devil")[∗] , the collapse of standards, "the stifling tyranny of a liberal establishment, determined to impose its views," and so on.
Naturally I read the thing with great enjoyment. I did wonder at first, though, if Fraser hadn't perhaps over-egged the pudding. Take this passage, for example:
[The present generation] regard themselves as a completely liberated society when in fact they are less free than any generation since the Middle Ages. Indeed, there may never have been such an enslaved generation, in thrall to hang-ups, taboos, restrictions and oppressions unknown to their ancestors … We were freer by far 50 years ago — yes, even with conscription, censorship, direction of labour, rationing, and shortages of everything that nowadays is regarded as essential to enjoyment. We still had liberty beyond modern understanding because we had other freedoms, the really important ones, that are denied to the youth of today. We could say what we liked; they can't. We were not subject to the aggressive pressure of special-interest minority groups; they are. We had no worries about race or sexual orientation; they have. We could, and did, differ from fashionable opinion with impunity, and would have laughed PC to scorn, had our society been weak and stupid enough to let it exist.
Is that actually all true? Liberty-wise, surely not having conscription and censorship beats having them. Sure, you can play some libertarian games here. How much of my time is the government "conscripting," by way of income taxes, to support the current non-conscript, military establishment, … etc., etc. I still think we come out ahead on these points. Let's grant Fraser some poetic license, though, and ask: Are we ahead net-net on liberty over our fathers and grandfathers?
My mulling over the "testament" had just about reached that point when I saw Mark Steyn's post on The Corner, linking to the videos Ezra Levant has been posting, of his (Ezra's) interrogations by Canada's totalitarian "Human Rights Commission." Levant has been dragged before this horrible "Commission" for having reproduced the Danish cartoons mocking Mohammed in the Western Standard, a paper he was publisher of, two years ago. The bureaucrat Levant is confronting across the interrogation table is particularly keen to probe Levant's intentions. She is, in other words, hunting for Thoughtcrime. Reader, you should watch those videos.
Fraser was right. Anglo-American civilization has drifted into an era of Human Rights Commissions, at which whining troublemakers with hurt feelings can enlist government power to punish and silence the hurter. Canada, as Ezra Levant's videos show, is far gone into the darkness. Britain is close behind. You can be arrested, brought before a court, and fined (though not yet, I think, imprisoned) in Britain for saying out loud, in a public place, that you find homosexuality, or Islam, objectionable. (If you are a Muslim who finds homosexuality objectionable, or vice versa, things get knotty. I refer readers to the works of Mark Steyn for elucidation.) The U.S.A. is a few steps behind on the road to prosecutions for Thoughtcrime, but plainly heading in the same direction. Fraser was right.
You might quibble with his details, but Fraser was right that there has been a mass change of heart, a cratering of the collective will. When, back in 1957, Malcolm Muggeridge scandalized polite opinion in Britain (and in Canada too) by writing an article that mocked the Royal Family — he described the public fascination with Royals as "a sort of substitute or ersatz religion" — he was fired from the BBC, lost his newspaper-column contracts, and was cut in the street by friends. However, nobody said, nor even thought, that he should be required to explain himself to government bureaucrats for all the hurt feelings he had caused. That kind of thought was not thinkable fifty years ago. It is all too thinkable now.
It's hard to be cheerful about the prospects. I deplore all the things Fraser deplored, but with the awareness, which I suppose he too probably had, that he was railing against the elements, like poor mad King Lear — that all his anger, all his denunciations, would not make a bit of difference.
The things that Fraser hated, and that I hate — the smug moralistic conformism of Political Correctness, the prissy horrified shrieking at commonplace observations and plain facts, the deception and (far worse) self-deception about human nature and human differences, the grovelling and self-abasement before inferior civilizations, all the weasely lies and hypocrisy and preening moral vanity of the PC-niks, all the bullying and witch-hunting and anathematizing, all the gas and the crap and the cant, all the terror of everyday reality, and the yearning to hide from it behind a thick, warm, soft comforter of wishful thinking — all those things are, alas, mighty in the world, and will not be dented by Fraser's vituperation, much less by mine. That he and I detest them is of no importance. They are not for us. Nothing's for us any more.
Once you have passed fifty it gets harder and harder not to notice that you are being left behind. Styles and manners change, of course: that you can cope with, if you are willing to put forth a little effort. Thinking changes too, though, and for that there's no coping. You can change the outer man, just as you can buff up at the gym, if you follow a few sensible precautions. The inner man, though, is fixed by middle age (if not much earlier). As you lip-sync your way through the new manners, the new fashions, the new cant, the inner man will be whispering inside your head, louder and louder as the years go by: This is all so bogus! These kids don't know squat!
You may drop the facade at last and just let the inner man speak out, succumbing to "Elderly Tourette's Syndrome," saying things that can't be said any more (but which you know to be true, and which you further suspect that the canters also, at some subliminal level, know to be true), scandalizing and horrifying all the young fools within earshot. You might even — I've some way to go yet, I'm glad to say, so this is hearsay testimony from an ETS-afflicted geezer known to me — you may even find that you have righteous fun doing so, though you get invited into polite society less and less.
Hard on the heels of George MacDonald Fraser's death and the publication (re-publication, actually — I have seen it before) of his "last testament," came the flap over newsletters that Ron Paul's people had put out, under his name, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. James Kirchick, a writer for The New Republic, had been reading back copies of the newsletters, and swooning at the horrors therein. He invited us to swoon with him at sentiments like:
- "only about 5% of blacks have sensible political opinions …"
- [black representative Barbara Jordan described as] "the archetypical half-educated victimologist" [whose] "race and sex protect her from criticism."
- "the right of secession should be ingrained in a free society … there is nothing wrong with loosely banding together small units of government. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, we too should consider it."
- [describing the aftermath of a basketball game] "blacks poured into the streets of Chicago in celebration. How to celebrate? How else? They broke the windows of stores to loot."
- [of a reporter from a homosexualist magazine] "who certainly had an axe to grind, and that's not easy with a limp wrist."
- "The [radical homosexualist group] ACT-UP slogan, on stickers plastered all over Manhattan, is 'Silence = Death.' But shouldn't it be 'Sodomy = Death'?"
I read the whole of Mr. Kirchick's piece, and I invite you to do the same (link up above).
What's your reaction? Mine was: So what? I simply didn't see anything much wrong with any of the quotes that the 14-year-old Mr. Kirchick was retailing so breathlessly.
I didn't necessarily agree with them. The late Barbara Jordan, for example, seems to me to have been quite reasonable, as Democrats go. On the other hand, it is surely true that black Americans do often celebrate sports victories in the way described, while nonblack Americans very seldom do so. Since this is, as we all know perfectly well, true, why can't it be said out loud? How are the people concerned ever to be shamed out of behaving that way, if we can't mention the subject?
In any case, I just didn't see anything about the newsletters, as presented by Mr. Kirchick, to make me think an iota less of the guy whose name was on them (and who has denied writing any of those things — very plausibly, though the exculpatory evidence is circumstantial, and the responsibility unavoidable). My reaction to the Kirchick piece was, in short: What a fuss about nothing.
Was that also your reaction? If you are over fifty, there's a good probability it was. If you are under thirty, there's a high probability it wasn't. That's what I'm talking about.
Supposing I am right on that last, what does it show? That older people know things that younger people haven't got round to learning yet? Or contrariwise, that older people are stuck with ignorant notions long since proved false? That, as George MacDonald Fraser says, "The philosophy of political correctness … [has] at its core … a refusal to look the truth squarely in the face, unpalatable as it may be"? Or that, contra Fraser, the Anglo-American society of 2008 is a great moral and veridical improvement on the one of 1969, the year the first Flashman book came out?
Now, it is of course true that there were benighted features of the previous age, the one that Fraser (born 1925), Ron Paul (born 1935), and John Derbyshire (born 1945 — there's a pretty arithmetic progression for you!) experienced first-hand, to varying degrees. It is also true that the benightedness had different qualities in Britain and America, mainly because Britain — the home islands, not the Empire — was monoracial and, with some slight allowances for the Scots, Welsh, and Irish, monocultural, while the old U.S.A. — "the old, weird America" — was, though reasonably monocultural, multiracial.
What is not true is that the attitudes widely held by thoughtful people in that previous age made those people wicked. Winston Churchill, whose views on race and homosexuality would have excluded him from public office nowadays — from any kind of paid employment, probably — and would have required a whole battery of Human Rights Commissions to investigate, was not wicked. Nor was my father, who regarded black Africans as childish, dimwitted, irresponsible, and dangerous, and who further believed, like the writer in a Bush-41-era Ron Paul newsletter, that "Homosexuals, not to speak of the rest of society, were far better off when social pressure forced them to hide their activities." Churchill was the savior of his country. Dad was a hard-working and law-abiding citizen, a faithful husband and loving father, and a patriot who voluntarily served that same country in bitter combat. I'm supposed to think less of Churchill and my Dad because they were "racists" and "homophobes"? Feugh! They were good men both, and I honor them.
As we sputtering fogeys, with our disgraceful opinions, shuffle off the stage into darkness and silence, and the young fools, with the purity of their hearts shining out through their toned, depilated pecs for all the world to see and admire, take up their birthright, is there any consolation we can find, any hope of some moral victory over their vanity and folly, how slight soever that victory might be, and even if it comes when we no longer have the pleasure of witnessing it?
Well, yes, I think there is such a hope. In the first place, of course, as the Preacher reminds us: "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh." The young fools will be old fogeys in due course. The manners and fads of the world will then not be for them. Nothing will be for them any more.
In fact, their plight may then be worse than Fraser's was, or than mine will be, if the Acceleration Principle is true. This is the principle that says history is always speeding up. It took homo sap. 50,000 years to get to agriculture; then 10,000 to civilization; then 3,000 to nation-states, 1,000 to industrialization, 200 to information technology, 50 to genomics, and ... Well, to quote the old futilitarian again: "Who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?" When today's thirtysomethings are eightysomething, they may find themselves at a far greater distance from their grandchildren than Fraser was from his. They may even be a different species, one heading to extinction. (Biologists' joke: "To a first approximation, all species are extinct.")
At the very least, the new science of human nature just now beginning to emerge from the genetics and neuroscience labs, and from the data-mining work of social scientists, will by then have given us some new truths as indisputable as the orbit of the Moon. So far as one can judge in these early stages, some of those new truths may turn out to bear a very striking resemblance to old ones — to the things your grandpa, and George MacDonald Fraser, and Winston Churchill, believed. They will not, to put it the other way round, bear much resemblance to the kinds of light-as-air postmodernist pseudo-facts that all good citizens of the present day have to pretend to believe, at peril of losing their jobs and their friends.
None of the new truths will justify cruelty, or arrogance, or even bad manners — truth can never do that. They might, though, justify those of us who believe that in getting rid of old benighted laws and practices, we threw out the baby with the bathwater; and that, as George MacDonald Fraser correctly said, the name of the baby was Liberty.
* Amusing to see Fraser say that: "My favourite prime minister was Sir Alec Douglas-Home, not because he was on the Right, but because he spent a year in office without, on his own admission, doing a damned thing." The U.S.A. has been blessed with a number of Presidents who likewise clove to the wu wei principle. We had, for example, Ronald Reagan, inspiration for the quip that saying "I have slept with the President" meant you had attended cabinet meetings. We also had Calvin Coolidge, of whom Will Rogers said: "He did nothing, but that was what people wanted him to do." Ron Paul will be another in this illustrious line of presidential snoozers, if we can somehow get him elected. All these men know/knew, of course, that there are times when it is necessary for the Executive to act. It is only that they set the word "necessary" behind a high bar.