The refutation of nonsense has long been a preoccupation of honest intellectuals, but to this noble task has increasingly been added that of trying to find good reasons for what was previously so taken for granted that no one had previously thought it worthwhile or even possible to question it. The unexamined life is not worth living, perhaps, but the too-closely examined life is intolerable. Where no question is regarded as settled, everything becomes a matter of contention, and hence of bitterness and accusation.
The recent dispute over Australia Day fills me with gloom not because I have any emotional attachment as such to the day—after all I am not Australian—but because it is yet another manufactured grievance (typical of the modern world), a grievance whose underlying function or purpose is rent-seeking by political entrepreneurs who claim they will lead their people, or clientele, to the promised land of something for nothing.
The last time I was in Australia I was forcibly struck by the ritual Pecksniffian incantations to Aboriginal ownership, or at least first occupancy, of the land on which events—the Sydney Harbour opera, for example, or the celebration of Anzac Day—were held. I doubt that I was the only person to think Thank God that’s over once the incantation had been read out and the event could continue as normal. This incantation produced in me much the same sensation as the bad piece of chalk squeaking on the blackboard at school when I was a boy: but at least the teacher with the bad piece of chalk did not claim moral superiority for having used it.
The problem with verbal gestures is that people often take them with deadly seriousness—language, after all, which distinguishes Man from the rest of creation, is a kind of gesture—and therefore these ritual incantations will one day be taken as literal IOUs. But the logic of appeasement does not work: every satisfied demand leads to a further such demand, which curiously enough likewise fails to satisfy or even reduce resentment. Of the staking of claims there is no end.
I do not mean by this to deny that the history of the Aborigines in Australia—as those of Canada and the United States—since the arrival of the Europeans has been, and continues to be, tragic. But having caused tragedy (or more precisely being the inheritors of those who initiated the tragedy) is not the same as moral guilt, nor is the wound to be healed by turns of phrase which are about as sincere as Iago’s friendship to Othello. I do not claim to have the solution to the problem, though I suspect that in the long run it will come only from full integration into modern Australian life and that in the meantime the enunciation of unctuous pieties will at best do nothing positive and at worst be inflammatory.
Anthony Daniels columns appear in every edition of Quadrant.
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However, breast-beating, so long as it does not lead in practice to any tangible self-sacrifice, such as financial penalty or that requiring personal effort, has its own pleasures and rewards. The first, of course, is that it allows the breast-beater to believe that he is good, indeed exceptionally so: for how can anyone who assumes so much guilt be other than a very good person?
Allied to this is the gratifying feeling of moral superiority over those who do not profess the same sense of guilt, or not to the same extent. This sets up a kind of arms race of guilt, or rather of protestations of guilt. Since everyone wants to be the best person he knows, he finds himself constrained to be ever more extravagant in his protestations. It is not even unknown for people to desire the end of humanity in order to save the fish, whales, birds and bacteria.
The greater our sense of guilt, the more moral we are: but also, not coincidentally, the more important we are. If we are in some way party to a great crime, at least we are significant: and it is far more wounding to our vanity to be of no account at all than to be deeply wicked. I have known many criminals, usually of above average intelligence but not sufficiently gifted to make their mark in any positive way, whose ambition was to be exceptionally bad or even first in their class of wrongdoing (doing exceptional harm is much easier than doing noteworthy good). Among intellectuals, it is not enough to be a citizen of a country that, however many achievements to its name, has done reprehensible things in the world: these things should be at least as bad as anything ever done, if not uniquely wicked.
The acme, perhaps, of this tendency was reached by Susan Sontag who, notoriously, once wrote:
If America is the culmination of Western white civilization, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization. This is a painful truth; few of us want to go that far … The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al, don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone—its ideologies and inventions—which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.
Sontag is reported later to have regretted her intemperance—with regard to cancer, that is.
The question with assertions of this nature is whether they can ever correspond to any genuine feeling, or are but the manifestation of a straining after feeling. To me, at any rate, they have the authentic ring of humbug, which is the besetting sin of our age (which, of course, is not to say that it has existed or been prevalent in no other).
Hazlitt tells us that “Sincerity has to do with the connexion between our words and thought”, to which he might have added feeling, for expressed feelings can be as divorced from true as cant can be from true belief. As if this were not bad enough, the complexity of the human mind is such that we can easily disguise the divorce from ourselves and deny that it exists, the denial leading us to act as if the false were true. I do not believe for a moment that Susan Sontag thought or felt of herself as a cancerous cell, for such a sincere thought or feeling is really possible only to someone with a mental state akin to Cotard’s syndrome, the rare delusion that one is already (and deservedly) dead or putrefying: and people with Cotard’s syndrome do not write essays, not even for the Partisan Review.
The grandiose moral exhibitionism of which the Sontag quotation is so notable an example (now half a century old, and therefore ahead of its time) serves another function in our moral economy: namely to divert the locus of our moral concern from the pettiness of our own daily existences to the largest general problems facing the world. It renders alien to us the Blakean thought that:
He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer …
This might appear at first sight to be going too far, and it would be a logical error to suppose that if the scoundrel pleads the general good, the person who pleads the general good is a scoundrel; all the same, the figure who uses his disgust with the general state of the world and a supposedly burning desire for its betterment as a smokescreen for, or mitigation of, his own misconduct or licentiousness within his own little circle is far from unknown.
An age of communication such as ours is also an age of logocracy, the rule of words and those who have mastered them, in which expressed sentiment is the beginning and end of virtue (and vice). Alas, it is not true that words are cheap and easy, at least not in the long run. You cannot continually proclaim your own guilt and hope to go forever unpunished, irrespective of whether your proclamation of guilt is sincere or not, justified or not. Plenty of people have been punished severely on false confessions, which are more easily made than withdrawn, especially when, as nowadays, they are grist to the mill of political entrepreneurs.
Anthony Daniels’s most recent book is his first collection of short stories, The Proper Procedure and Other Stories, published last August by New English Review Press under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.