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Monday, 7 February 2011
Mediocrity in Equal Measure

The often-remarked British obsession with class, which strikes me frequently as insincere in so far as those who denounce its iniquities usually wish to retain all their social and economic privileges while acquiring a reputation for generosity of spirit, has made the social engineering of supposed equality the aim of almost all public endeavour. Hospitals are not to treat ill people as best they can, but to close the gap between the healthiest and least healthy classes of society; schools are not to educate children, but to ensure that all children are educated, or at least miseducated, equally. And so forth.

Needless to say, we are no nearer equality than ever we were; indeed, on some measures we are farther away from it. The conclusion to be drawn from this, however, after more than sixty years of strenuous endeavour, or at least of the employment of very large bureaucracies, is that more must be tried. You don’t take no for an answer, even when the no emanates from the nature of things. Like heaven, equality can be stormed.

In one important matter, however, the egalitarians have succeeded: in the mores of society. One has only to look at a picture of the young prince Harry, for example, to grasp that this is so. He is often caught on camera with the gestures and manner of a standard British lout out on a Saturday night, utterly indistinguishable either in dress or facial expression from someone who has come from the worst of housing estates.

He is, moreover, no Prince Hal, and his companions are no Falstaff; rather, he is a typical product of a culture that equates sympathy for, and identification with, "the people", with behaving in the crudest possible way. Nowadays, there is no deeper expression of virtuous democratic sentiment than to brawl drunkenly or vomit in the street.

The obsession with class and its attendant emphasis on social engineering as the principal aim of all human activity insinuates itself into surprising corners. For example, last weekend I found it in the long cover story, titled The Death of the Critic, in the review section of The Observer newspaper. Under headlines such as "We're all critics now…" and "The death of cultural elitism", the question was considered whether the ability of almost everyone to express his opinion about almost everything, and to post it in a public place (the internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) meant that there was no space left for the professional critic.

As someone who, in his time, must have reviewed, and been paid for reviewing, upwards of five hundred books, this was a question that interested me more than a little. Is the opinion of the man of letters, the specialist, the scholar, the musician, the art historian, etc., in short the practised critic, more valuable than that of the common reader, the casual listener, the occasional viewer? To this question, I can give only a very limp answer: it depends.

My attention was caught by the contribution of John Naughton, a professor at the Open University and the newspaper's technology columnist, in particular the following paragraph:

The erosion of social deference had a cultural impact because until the 1960s professional criticism was also, if not a toff's preserve, certainly a highbrow, Oxbridge-dominated enclosure. The nation opened its heavyweight newspapers every Sunday to learn what Raymond Mortimer (Malvern and Balliol), Cyril Connolly (Eton and Balliol) or Philip Toynbee (Rugby and Christ Church) made of the latest books… In the circumstances, Geoffrey Madan's description of the British cultural elite as "an arboreal slum of Balliol men" sounds peculiarly apt.

This sounds like watered-down Zhdanov, according to which a man's work is not to be judged by its merits but by the social origins of its author. Four legs good, two legs bad. What I find peculiarly dispiriting about this is that there is no assessment of the value of the work of the men cited in the paragraph; for the author of the article, it appeared not even to enter his mind to ask the question, let alone to answer it.

Of course, had he written that "Cyril Connolly was a very bad writer, with no literary ability or judgement at all but, because of his social background was able nevertheless to obtain prominent positions as a critic," he might have had a sociological point (but his description of Connolly would have been absurd, for Connolly is still worth reading many years after his death, which is unlikely to be the case where most authors of literary criticism on Twitter and Facebook is concerned). One might as well object to nineteenth-century Russian literature because none of it was written by peasants, and quite a lot of it by aristocrats.

The author of the article goes on:

It couldn't last, of course, and it didn't. Rupert Murdoch arrived and made vulgarity respectable.

This seems to confuse what is respectable with what is widespread. One might as well say "Hitler arrived and made anti-semitism respectable". Again there is a dispiriting absence of judgement as to the worth of, say, Murdochian vulgarity, and the products of the "arboral slum of Balliol" (a phrase that I personally find neither descriptively apposite nor even witty as an insult).

If social radicalism appears, can snobbery be far behind? When the author says that "The nation opened its heavyweight newspapers every Sunday", he is clearly using the word "nation" in the le tout Paris sense of the word. The heavyweight newspapers never reached more than a minority of the nation; far more people opened the News of the World and the People every Sunday than ever opened Connolly's Sunday Times or Toynbee's Observer.

I remember as a child trying to get my hands on the News of the World and the People in the flat of my grandparents (whose English was never more than rudimentary), but they were not deemed suitable - respectable - publications for nippers to read, even though I did not fully understand their import. Later, I read Connolly and Toynbee in my father's house.

The British intelligentsia - I speak in generalisations - is unable or unwilling to distinguish between cultural elitism and social exclusivity. Of course, in our imperfect sublunary world there is some overlap between the two; but the wilful failure to understand the distinction explains a good deal about the unutterable mediocrity (to put it no stronger) of contemporary Britain.

Originally published at Social Affairs Unit.

Posted on 02/07/2011 6:45 AM by Theodore Dalrymple
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