Entry from April 11, 2013

Both the celebrations in parts of Britain of Lady Thatcher’s death and the media controversy they have spawned suggest one reason why civility is as endangered as it is these days: namely, that people don’t understand what it is for or what the value of it is. Tribalism is a permanent part of political life in a democracy, but the form of manners known as civility is an attempt by the political culture to contain its primitive passions and loyalties within a framework which will allow the different tribes to live and work together peacefully. It’s not surprising to me that there remains in Britain a hard-left faction, many of the members of which were not born or politically aware while Mrs Thatcher was prime minister, who consider it a point of pride to stand outside that framework in order to proclaim their undying hatred, shocking though some of those expressions are — and are meant to be.

More shocking, in some ways, is a report in The Daily Telegraph of how

Audience members at the West End production of Billy Elliot were asked to decide whether a song anticipating Margaret Thatcher”s death should be performed hours after she passed away. The second act of the musical, which is set during the miners” strike, begins with the song Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher which has lyrics that refer to celebrating the death of the former prime minister. It was announced earlier that the show, staged at the Victoria Palace Theatre, would go ahead as planned but that no decision would be made on the song until just before the performance began at 7.30pm. A Billy Elliot insider said: ””It was taken seriously and debated and finally decided that it would be best to put it to a democratic vote to the audience. “It was a near unanimous verdict to keep the song in and go ahead. It was an electric show.” Only three audience members voted against the song being performed in the light of Baroness Thatcher”s death.

This was a presumably middle class theatre audience, at least a majority of whom must have been taught elementary manners as children and, so, at least some awareness that respect for the dead and those who have been bereaved by their deaths is a gesture of inclusion, an acknowledgment of common humanity all the more necessary with those who belong to different tribes. I wonder about those three holdouts in the Billy Elliot audience and whether there weren’t many more who simply hadn’t the courage to be counted among them, or who had been persuaded (or had persuaded themselves) that manners could and should be overruled by the gestures of tribalistic loyalty. The irony is that so many of these people criticized the late Prime Minister — who, of course, would never have dreamed of being so ill-mannered herself — for being “divisive.”

Daniel Finkelstein of The Times has a good column (pay wall) exonerating her of this charge, but he could have gone further to engage with those who claim, like A.C. Grayling in The Independent, that respect for the dead is outdated and hypocritical, “a hangover from a past in which it was believed that the dead might retain some active influence on the living, and that one might re-encounter them either in this life or a putative next life.” Jacqueline Rose in The Guardian holds a similar view, insisting that the planned “state funeral in all but name” amounts to “an act of coercion and a masquerade. It will be pretending, at a time when the social divisions of her legacy have never been more acute, that on this at least the British are at one.”

Dear, dear! Pretending, eh? But pretending that the British are at one is the only way of making them at one. For the space of a moment or an hour the dream of unity can come true — “on this at least” — by pretending. Why is that a bad thing? The honor culture, out of which both the theory and practice of manners arose, understood the virtues of hypocrisy, and what a world of trouble we make for ourselves when we insist on doing away with it for the sake of the right we demand to speak our minds about those with whom we disagree, or who are not members of our tribe. In doing so, our minds change. So as to justify to ourselves our inextinguishable hatreds, we must persuade ourselves that in some important respect the hated person does not share a common humanity with us, is in fact the possessor of a unique wickedness and ill will which obviates the need for civility.

The perspective of the tribe is therefore all that is left to those who reject such hypocrisy, if they choose to call it so, though it is no more than ordinary good manners. But then the left tend to dismiss good manners generally as mere “bourgeois” affectation, thus cutting themselves off from a fertile source of grace and graciousness in the name of hatred for those who created it. It’s really that refusal, that turning away from the wisdom of the past and not Baroness Thatcher’s recognition of economic, social, political and diplomatic realities that many in Britain mistakenly believed — and still believe — ideology could have saved them from having to recognize which has been so “divisive” for the last 30 years and upwards.

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