The Dignity of Scandal. . .

From The New Criterion

Boris Johnson Loftily De-Dignified

The London Olympic Games not only provided lots of entertainment and something to talk about other than politics in the doldrums of summer, they also challenged the liberal suspicion of patriotic spectacle and, indeed, of patriotism. For liberals, however patriotic they may be themselves, always know that patriotism is the major obstacle standing in the way of the one-world utopian dream to which modern liberalism is committed. Here, for instance, are the thoughts of a Colorado radio talk-show host named David Sirota, writing at

As I’ve grown older, I find my “U.S.A.!”-chanting reflex increasingly interrupted by pangs of discomfort, and not because I’m ashamed of our country or our Olympians. . . Missed in the ensuing red-white-and-blue hoopla, of course, is the fact that we are not so exceptional outside the Olympic village. . .We are not gold, silver or even bronze medalists when it comes to healthcare; sadly, we are 39th for infant mortality, 43rd for female mortality, 42nd for adult male mortality. . .If we do stand atop a dais anywhere other than at a sporting event, it is for military spending, carbon emissions and incarceration rates.”

Old-timers like myself have been reading this kind of thing for more than 40-years now — back then patriotism was ruled out for the progressive-minded by racism and Vietnam — and yet with every reiteration the point is repeated as if it were the writer’s own triumph of ratiocination, an airtight logical proof which he fancies he is the first to discover that the kind of patriotism such people call “unthinking” must be the only kind of patriotism there is. In a sense they are right, too. For if thinking involves imposing on love of country a test of worthiness, it can hardly be said to proceed from real love, any more than such a test imposed on one’s mother or father, son or daughter. The fact that nobody ever does propose such a test, outside the columns of journals such as Salon, is what makes aperçus like Mr Sirota’s seem so perennially striking. It’s the worst ideas that usually sound the most original, even when they are not.

Olympic fever was particularly strong in Britain itself where, as The New York Times reported, an entirely unaccustomed patriotic fervor seemed to possess people. “I’ve never seen so many Union Jacks,” the paper quoted a teacher in Sheffield as saying: “They’re on cars and houses in [sic] people’s gardens.” In America, ordinary people display the Stars and Stripes in and around their homes and cars routinely, but in Britain the national flag has for some years past been associated with anti-immigrant and other suspect political causes and, until now, has rarely been seen outside their rallies. Nor is it just the flag which has been the problem. Britain has long had a particularly troubled conscience about patriotism, at least among its elites. Left-wing historians, who have dominated British historiography for even longer than their counterparts have dominated in America, have persuaded many people and a strong majority of the country’s cultural and political establishment of a Sirota-like stain on their national honor. In particular, they have come to believe that those who held power in Britain before 1945 (and many who have done so since) were bad men who were the thralls of those they call “capitalists” and “imperialists” and therefore complicit in the oppression and exploitation of their own and other people. Patriotism was and still is thought up and down the scepter’d isle to be the means by which these victims are rendered blind to their own victimization, not to mention being the cause of the wars of the last century, of which they were also the principal victims.

British patriotism, therefore, where it exists at all, is typically of the apologetic kind that you could see in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony with its allusion to the “dark Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution — also present, of course, in Blake’s “Jerusalem” which, set to the music of Sir Hubert Parry, has been Britain’s favorite patriotic anthem for generations — and its celebration of the state run National Health Service, an institution which may be supposed to represent a partial correction to the evils of that capitalist hell out of which it is thought to have arisen. Without being obtrusive about it, Mr Boyle was providing Britain’s answer to Mr Sirota’s means-tested patriotism. That is, so long as his fellow-Britons could point to the glory of political good intentions that is the NHS, they could feel easy in their minds about cheering on “Team-GB,” as people took to calling it, to a really remarkable total of medals and therefore, though they finished in fourth place, a kind of victory.

The other feature of Britain’s Olympians which gave permission for patriotism was their ethnic and racial diversity, which still seems something of a novelty, at least to older Britons. Thus Sarah Crompton in The Daily Telegraph wrote that

The Games have allowed Britain, almost for the first time in memory, to celebrate its history while acknowledging its rich multicultural present, which is now leading the way into the future. We have seen a country at ease with its past, capable of sticking a ritzy beach volleyball court in the middle of Horse Guards Parade, or its monarch in a sketch about a spy and a helicopter. But that narrative must also encompass the tolerance that welcomed Mo Farah when he arrived as a child from Somalia — and which has been rewarded with one of the best pictures of the Games, the sight of Britain’s greatest distance runner wrapped in a flag, hugging his wife and child, applauded to the skies.

If Mo, whose chummy diminutive is short for Mohammed, succeeds in reclaiming the Union Jack from the British National Party, he will have accomplished something on a par with his victory in the 10,000 meters. In any case, for many it seemed that it was OK to cheer for Britain because it doesn’t mean just cheering for white people anymore. That was not a load off everybody’s mind, however. It was widely reported, even in the US, that a popular singer who goes under the uninominal brand of “Morrissey” wrote on his website that “I am unable to watch the Olympics due to the blustering jingoism that drenches the event. Has England ever been quite so foul with patriotism?” He saw in the games “the spirit of 1939 Germany” — surely he means 1936? — and he found particularly disgusting the association of Team GB’s fortunes with the royal family at a time when “the England outside London shivers beneath cutbacks, tight circumstances and economic disasters.” Less overtly political in his objections was Matthew Norman who felt constrained to remind readers of The Daily Telegraph of the moral and philosophical down-side to patriotism.

The elemental power of tribal loyalty to distort, suppress and reverse the usual sensibilities is the most natural and uniform thing in the world, and it never fails to astound. The patriotic fervour we relish for the lachrymose joy and sense of unity it delivers is its light side. The dark side is the reflex support for unjust foreign wars in which the loss of one soldier, immutably tragic as that is, is mourned infinitely more than the deaths of 5,000 hapless civilians. But they are mirror images of the same. It is not so much my country right or wrong. It is that what your country does wrong is right when done by mine.

The occasion of this observation was some disputed bits of refereeing — it was the umpire and not the empire which exercised Mr Norman’s conscientious scruples — but, for once, his was not the majority view. More typical of the Telegraph, anyway, was Boris Johnson, London’s mayor and the paper’s long-time columnist, who wrote at the peak of Britain’s fortunes that “Team GB has amassed an El Dorado of bullion, enough to . . . put us — yes, folks, little old Britain — in third place on the medal table. It isn’t so long ago that French leader François Hollande was over here, gloating about how France was beating us hollow. Well, M le Président, mettez-ça dans votre pipe et fumez-le! Bien je jamais, eh!” Mr Johnson, acting as their perhaps too-genial host, was generally thought to have had a good Olympics — a fact which, taken together with the unpopularity of the austerity government led by his fellow Tory, David Cameron, had some people talking of him as a future prime minister. Philip Collins of The Times, however, was having none of that. Calling the mayor “the Olympic Village idiot,” he drew a distinction between Mr Johnson’s clowning and Mr Boyle’s light-hearted opening ceremony. The latter showed the world

this is a serious country that has enough self-esteem not to take everything seriously. It’s not a joke country making a fool of itself. . . Allow for a moment that the timing problems disappear. Boris Johnson is still not going to be prime minister. That is because, like long distance running, politics gets harder at a higher altitude. Traits that are virtues at sea level become vices as the air gets thin. Mr Johnson trades heavily on being the antidote to politics. But that’s not a shtick that will work when you are aiming for the top.

Not to put words in his mouth, but I think what Mr Collins is writing about here, what he thinks Boris Johnson lacks, is dignity — a word whose connections with patriotism, broadly understood, are explored in a new book by Michael Rosen called Dignity, Its History and Meaning (Harvard University Press, 200 pp., $21.95). Reading between Professor Rosen’s lines, I would say that dignity has in recent years become a particularly useful concept because it is the politically correct form of honor, a word which has been in bad odor even longer than patriotism. Dignity tickles our “Like” buttons in a way that honor does not because it belongs to everyone, merely by virtue of being human, whereas honor must in principle be earned, like Olympic medals, even if it sometimes sheds its grace on those who have not earned it. It was Immanuel Kant who was the first to make this momentous discovery, according to Professor Rosen. “The Kantian idea of acknowledging the inherent dignity of morality underpins a strongly egalitarian — bourgeois, if you like — conception of honor as something that we owe to everyone (ourselves included) in equal measure, quite different from the aristocratic understanding of honor as part of a status hierarchy between inferiors and superiors.”

Like the kinder, gentler patriotism now rendered safe for the British elites by their Olympic success, dignity may seem to be something that can be enjoyed guilt-free, and yet, like honor, dignity is also something that can be lost, as the example of Mayor Boris (at least in Philip Collins’s eyes) shows. We used to be able to take dignity for granted in our public figures, but since the rise of scandal-politics it has been in somewhat shorter supply than once was the case. Nowadays, politicians may aspire, as Mr Johnson evidently does, to be celebrities, but too often they must pay in dignity the media’s price of celebrity if they are to remain celebrities for long. Certainly that’s what happened with our first celebrity president, Bill Clinton, who only became a celebrity after he was elected. His post-presidential career, however, offers hope that, out of office, a celebrity politician can reclaim some of his dignity while doing nothing more humiliating than accepting (on average) a quarter of a million dollars per speech.

I wish I had Mr Collins’s confidence that people still expect their politicians, at least at the highest levels, to be dignified. Back on this side of the Atlantic, it is often said that Mr Mitt Romney, set to be proclaimed the Republican nominee for president by the time you read these words, suffers from the opposite handicap. His oversupply of dignity renders him “stiff” and “artificial” and to that extent inauthentic, at least in the media’s view of him — a hard man to worship and adore as his opponent is worshiped and adored, and as the media think it appropriate for their favored candidates and ideological brethren to be. This is what The New York Times calls with some considerable self-satisfaction, “the Empathy Gap.”

A bruising summertime campaign by Democrats to tarnish and define Mr. Romney before he could fully introduce himself has contributed to a significant empathy gap with Mr. Obama. It is a rising concern among Romney campaign advisers, who are feverishly working to find ways to persuade voters that even though Mr. Romney is not like them, he can still relate to their lives.

I think we can gather what The New York Times thinks of these efforts. To Professor John McWhorter of Columbia, even Mr Romney’s use of the “burgherly substitutions” golly, gosh and gee for riper sorts of expletives bespeaks his inauthenticity. “There are few better ways to connote the air of a mannequin in 2012 than by saying gosh with a straight face,” he wrote in a New Republic blog early in the summer. Still, I’m not sure I would advise the candidate to take the Professor’s implied advice to start swearing more unabashedly. His dignity would suffer, and he may need it after all.

For in this respect, his opponent enjoys a clear advantage over him. It’s hard to imagine anything President Obama could do that would deprive him of dignity, if only because of the racially fraught nature of the transaction. Even those parts of the media less inclined than The New Republic to worship at Mr Obama’s shrine would surely hesitate to treat him with the kind of disrespect which was routinely visited on his immediate predecessors, since it may easily be imagined what racialist overtones would appear at once in any treatment of the First Black President as in any degree lacking in dignity. And this may be more of an advantage than at first appears, as it cannot be entirely unrelated to the negative campaign waged against Mr Romney in the so-called “battleground states” during the summer, among whose less edifying moments was an ad featuring a former steel-worker from Kansas City named Joe Soptic who suggested that Mr Romney was indirectly responsible for the death of his wife from cancer because Bain Capital, some time after he had left it, closed the steel plant in which the man had worked, thus depriving him — though not, as it turned out, his wife — of health insurance.

I would like to think that a comparable ad by a Republican, targeting a Democrat, would not just deprive its author of his dignity but would make him into a laughing-stock, but I’m not so sure even of that anymore. One of the most popular movies of the summer, The Campaign, depicted a fictional electoral contest for a North Carolina House seat pitting two candidates (Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis) who are equals in buffoonery against each other with nothing at issue between them but which can make the other look a bigger fool in the eyes of the media. Naturally, the media are all for it. Even allowing for satirical exaggeration, I think it’s true that this is not only how the movie sees the political process in America today but how it expects its audience to see it. The one issue it takes seriously is that of the influence of “Big Money” on that process, and it offers up a clumsy caricature of those new bugbears of the left, the Koch brothers, to represent it. Yet the only thing Big Money has politically to do in the movie — and, one suspects, in the movie’s view of real life — is to cover up scandal on one side, or expose it on the other.

In other words, the exaggerations are rather of the nature of the scandals — which are mostly sexual in the movie — than of the centrality of scandal, either hiding it or exposing it, to the political process. That, as the first taste of the advertising wars to come in the autumn suggests, is all too true to life. The media are obviously the chief beneficiary of scandal politics, but there is a strong subsidiary benefit to the media’s favorite candidates who, this time around, have a record of political success on matters of substance which is not such that they have reason to expect more advantage from talking about that than about the sins, real or imagined, of their opponents. That we have come so far in the direction of assuming that this is how things must be in our election campaigns is both cause and consequence of the decline of truth in those campaigns. Even where the media’s “fact-checking” is not simply a cover for partisanship by other means — since the media are themselves complicit in the degrading of the meaning of “fact” to “what I think” — it is increasingly irrelevant to the campaigners. As John Dickerson wrote in Slate, “The upside from a strong distortion is better than the downside from the hall monitors. If you’re not getting four Pinocchios or a pants-on-fire, you’re not doing it right. Let them boo — as long as the message gets through.”

My impression is that most people, educated by the media’s never-ending scandal quest and movies like The Campaign, are now predisposed to accept that both our political leaders and those who aspire to replace them are and will always be liars and that, if nothing better can be expected of them, it’s because there is nothing better. The truth is inevitably of partisan manufacture, and each side is therefore entitled to its own truth, even if it is a truth as obviously false as that Mitt Romney was guilty of the death of Joe Soptic’s wife. That’s what tribal loyalties will do for you. To paraphrase Matthew Norman, it is not so much my party right or wrong; it’s that what your party does wrong is right when done by mine. Yet, paradoxically, it is hard to see what either a party or a country reduced to this level of cynicism has to be patriotic about.


Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts