Entry from November 9, 2009

A few days ago, there appeared in the London Daily Telegraph an article by Jeff Randall that fell into the class of journalistic screed that the British call the “Why-oh-why?” article. Mr Randall had, along with many others in the British media, seized upon the much publicized arrest of a drunken student for urinating upon some memorial poppies, ubiquitous in Britain at this time of year, as a reason for thinking that modern Britain itself can be characterized by, in the words of the article’s headline, “No respect, no morals, no trust.” It wasn’t, thought Mr Randall, just the failure of reverence for the glorious dead, but a more general sort of disrespect that shows up even in the propensity of demoralized Britons to litter.

Litter is annoying, but in the grand scheme of a society that has traded personal responsibility for blame transfer, it is little more than a pointer to a deeper malaise: the corrosion of deference in our schools, the abandonment of manners on our streets and, yes, the death of respect for civility and integrity. We are close to the point where ethical behaviour is regarded as an affliction to be pitied, a loser”s burden. In a piercing summary of what has gone wrong, Britain”s Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, concludes: “Concepts like duty, obligation, responsibility and honour have come to seem antiquated and irrelevant. Emotions like guilt, shame, contrition and remorse have been deleted from our vocabulary, for are we not all entitled to self-esteem? The still, small voice of conscience is rarely heard these days. Conscience has been outsourced, delegated away.”

And he goes on to a fairly routine tour d’horizon of media horror stories about “an all-embracing culture of grievance” criminals who “have learnt to claim victim status” dishonest bankers and members of parliament for whom “freedom means pursuing that with which it is possible to get away.” He recalls Tony Blair’s exemplary declaration a few years ago that “a decent society is not based on rights. It is based on duty… the duty to show respect,” but “after 12 years of his New Labour project, the respect to which Mr Blair referred is in the sewer.”

Teachers who seek to reprimand offensive pupils are attacked by yobbish parents; train drivers who ask unruly gangs to get off are beaten up. A vulnerable mother kills herself and her disabled daughter after years of brutal abuse from thugs. This, I’m afraid, is the reality of contemporary Britain, a sprawling no-respect zone. According to a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research, Britain’s teenagers are among the most badly behaved in Europe. It paints a picture of adolescents immersed in consumerism, who are drunk more often and involved in more fights than their Continental counterparts.

Generally speaking, I am as keen as the next man on the “Why-oh-why?” brand of conservatism and can only applaud when the Americanized Briton, John Derbyshire produces, as he has just done, a book titled: We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism (Crown Forum, 272 pp. $26). Doubtless, too, pessimism is all the more attractive to the middle aged and older when it is, like Mr Randall’s, pessimism about the young. But I always have the feeling about the why-oh-whys that they are a “why” short. They never seem to get to the point of discovering that the real “why” is that this is the way we want it; this is the way we have designed and built our world since the demise of the honor culture, and it is a necessary corollary of the therapeutic one that has succeeded it.

Take the case of the teacher and the yobbish parents mentioned by Mr Randall above. He is referring here, I assume, to a story that had appeared in the Telegraph a couple of weeks before about a father, Tim Walton, who was said to have taken the side of his 15-year-old son, Daniel, after the latter had allegedly been “excluded” from Macclesfield High School in Cheshire for refusing to stand up out of respect for his headmaster. “I teach my kids respect is earned,” said Walton, pere. The headmaster, he added, “hasn’t been there long enough to earn my son’s respect so why should he stand up for him?” Where does such a crazy idea as this come from, I wonder? Why, from the collapse of any system of honor by which parents and children alike might have understood why respect had to be earned by pupils but can only be lost by teachers. This was once the culture of all of us, and we quite deliberately trashed it in the wake of the revolutionary 1960s. Now it would take a similar effort of all of us to get it back, and I see no sign of such an effort in the offing. That’s the melancholy answer to why-oh-why? We have made our bed, and we must now lie in it.

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