A Sense of Responsibility and a Will to Provide Leadership

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

John Derbyshire notes that there is an odd conservatism in the common perceptions of life in other lands:

I grew up among English people who still thought of France — a rather stuffy and puritanical country in the 1960s — in terms of the “Gay Paree” of seventy years earlier, a place of unbridled license and monocled boulevardiers swilling champagne at the Folies Bergère.

In the same way, many Americans carry in their minds an image of England as a polite and civilized land, where impeccably courteous David Niven types sit around at their clubs in antique leather armchairs sipping port, while, at the other end of society, stoic cockneys converse in rhyming slang and cheer each up other with cups of tea in the parlor.

In fact today’s England is a rather coarse and violent place, whose crime statistics now surpass the U.S.A.’s in most categories (homicide being the principal exception). The nation’s everyday culture is dominated by the most brutish of proletarian values: politicians like Tony Blair from perfectly sound bourgeois families affect the dropped aitches and glottal stops of the slums, while the old codes of chivalry, patriotism and restraint have been shoved aside in a snarling, clawing assertion of “rights.”

American jaws drop when I say, in response to inquiries, how much I enjoy the comparative tranquillity, security and civility of life in the U.S.A. and the exquisite manners of Americans — especially in the South, the best-mannered large region in the English-speaking world.

This is from Derbyshire’s review of Theodore Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom, which examines the “values” of today’s (nominally) English underclass:

[T]he hedonism of the postwar middle classes has also been a large factor in the collapse of morality over at the left-hand tail of the bell curve. It is a bad thing, but not an irremediable one, if the daughter of an architect has an illegitimate baby or acquires a minor drug habit. If the daughter of a janitor does these things, she has taken a headlong leap over the precipice into a lifetime of destitution. If any of the people who make social policy in England are aware of this simple fact, they probably regard it as another form of unfairness, to be resolved by lavishing money and attention on the janitor’s daughter.

A better remedy would be for the middle classes to behave themselves, and to give a good example to those beneath them, and to stop feeling so all-fired guilty about everything under the sun. That, of course, would be “elitist”: but if there is a lesson to be drawn from Life at the Bottom, it is that a society’s choice is never between having an elite and not having one, it is always between having an elite with a sense of responsibility and a will to provide leadership, and having an elite with neither.

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