Would one rather be known as a liar than as a dimwit? The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, indeed they frequently go together; but my guess, admittedly on no scientific basis, is that most of us would rather be called liar than dimwit, insofar as the accusation of moral turpitude wounds our amour propre far less than that of stupidity.
Anyway, the question arose unbidden to my mind when I read what Mrs Carrie Johnson, the wife of the present Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and widely believed to be his eminence grise, said to a meeting at the Conservative Party’s annual conference. She said that she was “committed to equality and acceptance of everyone, whoever you are and whomever you love”.
Of course, she was talking of sex. She continued, “The idea that your sexual or gender identity should determine your politics is now as illogical as saying that your height or your hair colour should.”
Could she possibly have meant any of this? Equality and acceptance of everyone, no matter what? The variety of human sexuality is, if not quite infinite, at least very wide. No doubt many sexual orientations remain to be discovered, as do species of insect in the Amazonian jungle, but it is not necessary to explore the wilder shores of sexual gratification—Szilveszter Matuska, for example, who achieved orgasm, perhaps exclusively, by blowing up trains, or Jeffrey Dahmer, who found playing with the entrails of his murdered victims sexually alluring—to realise that equality in this field would be either impossible or appalling. What about the rape of small girls? Polygamy and polyandry? Necrophilia? Incest? (I thought of running a sweepstake on the next stage of sexual liberation: personally, I should go for incest, there being no rational argument against it anymore, now that we have good contraception, pre-natal genetic testing and safe abortion.)
In any case, what does acceptance mean? It is a weaselly word, meaning anything from a failure to prosecute violators of laws to hugs and kisses before dinner parties of those previously reprehended to mass parades through the streets and compulsory classes in school, possibly with practical demonstrations. The word acceptance in this context belongs more to sloganeering or advertising than to thought. It has about the same intellectual gravitas as the slogan Be all you can be—once used in recruiting advertisements for the American army—that demonstrated either a condescending contempt for the intelligence of the people to whom it was addressed or a very limited imagination as to the possibilities that lie, not necessarily very deeply hidden, within most people.
Why do people say the kind of things Mrs Johnson said? We seem to be surrounded by, or constantly wading through, odious moral treacle, insincere or stupid or both. Presumably the supply is in response to some demand, imagined or real, though there is also the possibility that the supply eventually creates its own demand. Who, after all, dares now stand for intolerance, even of the intolerable? Mrs Johnson’s face, at least as photographed in the Daily Telegraph, bore all the stigmata of someone who is secure in the awareness that she is beloved of God and is doing His work. The spirit of Mr Pecksniff lives on.
The principal emotion nowadays of the liberal conservative—that is to say, the kind of conservative who is content to live and let live within certain limits and who, like good Queen Bess, does not want to make windows into men’s souls, leaving such fenestration to literature and philosophy rather than to politicians and legislation—is impotent rage. Confronted daily with evidence of governmental incompetence and corruption, he or she is at the same time bombarded by highfalutin drivel of the Carrie-Johnsonian type, which is not so much moral philosophy as para-moral para-philosophy, and which stands in relation to real reflection as does kitsch to art. In fact, moral kitsch is the characteristic of our age.
Kitsch is one of those many things that is easier to recognise than define. A great deal of environmentalism is obviously moral and emotional kitsch: for example, no one’s speeches could be kitschier than those of Greta Thunberg, whose relative absence from world’s airwaves has been one of the few consolations of the Covid pandemic.
Sentimentality might be defined as the straining after emotion that is deemed desirable but is not truly felt, and kitsch is the public manifestation, in art, speech or thought, of this straining after emotion. The difference between genuine and bogus, or strenuously desired, emotion became clear to me when I attended in quick succession two exhibitions of Danish and German romantic art of the nineteenth century. It was obvious to me that the Danish artists felt emotion and the German artists wanted desperately to feel emotion, this desire inevitably leading to an exaggerated but cold mode of expression, all the worse for its technical proficiency. I think that if people had been asked to guess in which of the countries of the two schools of painting Nazism had arisen, 99 per cent of people at least would have guessed correctly. There was something saurian, inhuman, cold-blooded, in the German romantic eye.
When kitschy emotion informs and even determines public policy, severe problems, indeed disasters, are bound to follow. It does not matter much if a person chooses to hang a print of a Tretchikoff painting on the wall, but if emotional kitsch infects the political class, or at least encourages it to act in a certain way, nemesis is likely.
We can see this in something as mundane as British energy policy, which has suddenly exposed the country to the risk of real and severe hardship, at a time when the population regards a delay of a day in the delivery of a parcel of something for which it has no need as being intolerable.
The country has completely phased out coal as a source of energy upon which it was dependent for a quarter of its supply less than ten years ago. The reason for this, of course, was that coal was highly polluting.
Very well: but what was to replace it? Not nuclear energy, because of the risk of accidents. Other forms of fossil fuel were also frowned upon, for the same reason as was coal frowned upon. No attempts were made to develop oil and gas fields in the North Sea, again to protect the environment. The country’s large, indeed huge, reserves of natural gas could not be tapped for the same reason. This left solar and wind energy, which unfortunately have proved to be (predictably) not only inconstant but may also, all things considered, be no more environmentally friendly than other forms of energy. Certainly, they are not aesthetically friendly: but the aesthetic dimension is of no interest to environmentalists.
As a result, the country is now entirely dependent on energy supplies from Europe at a time when its relations with Europe are, again predictably, at a very low ebb. It would be only too delightful to the politicians of the European Union to be able to cut off Britain’s energy supply on the pretext that looming and possibly real shortages of energy in Europe itself make export of energy to Britain inexpedient. After all, it was Britain itself that insisted on its sovereignty.
As if this were not enough, the government is applying price controls to protect the population from rises in energy prices. Six impossible things before breakfast is now government policy, because it has for so long sentimentally mistaken the desirable for the possible. Reality, however, is that which will not be mocked; and reality’s first cold bath, in this case not metaphorical, will demonstrate just how deep is the intelligentsia’s commitment to saving the planet.
Nevertheless, the British government has insisted on its policy of the total electrification of vehicles, again allegedly to save the surface of the planet. The almost pagan attachment to the propitiation of the biosphere has led to a situation in which a country which cannot guarantee that its lights will remain on next winter will electrify tens of millions of vehicles—at great cost, as usual, to the poorer half of the population. This is either stupid sentimentality or corruption, the capture of the political class by certain lobbying visionaries. I hope that the explanation is corruption, for there is no cure for stupidity.
Anthony Daniels recently edited the Everyman anthology The Best Medicine: Stories of Healing,
which was published in March under his pen-name Theodore Dalrymple.