'Rights' without obligations, and Britain's spiral into moral decay
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, December 30, 2008
An adolescent British girl is imprisoned for murdering her younger lesbian lover. One of several children by a mother given to serial unwed pregnancies who is then habitually abused by a half brother, she finds herself among the spawning British underclasses subsisting on social housing and regular welfare payments -- not much but enough to feed herself, allow regular sleeping in and sustain an alcohol and drug habit.
It is under these influences that she chases her lover down the hall brandishing two butcher knives and then weeps as her victim lies bleeding in her arms, complaining about the pain and feeling cold.
Once imprisoned she is relieved, concludes one-time prison psychiatrist and author of Not With a Bang But a Whimper, Theodore Dalrymple. Here, at last, is a place where others have expectations of how she should behave and clear rules to follow.
What's astonishing about this story is not its crushing senselessness but rather how it came to this. To be sure, knife crimes -- according to the Telegraph -- exist at a rate of 400 per week in England and Wales. But that isn't the point of Dalrymple's latest collection of essays. His point is that this young murderess had all the advantages of the liberal state -- welfare payments that met all her material needs, an education that nurtured her self-esteem, easy access to as-good-as-legalized drugs, and non-judgmental, unrestricted sexual licence.
I arrived in Britain in 1967 as a new University of Alberta graduate intent on seeing what I could of the world. The country where I would reside for the following 12 years was anything but a hot-bed of social decay.
In Canada, Expo 67 had set the stage for Trudeaumania in the following year -- a year in which Canada's distinguishing legislation was liberalized divorce laws. Elsewhere, a convergence of events defined an era in which the Baby Boom generation, arguably the most influential in history, came of age. In America, student protest, often violent, challenged the Vietnam War while the civil rights movement incurred the blood sacrifice of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. In France too, students were rioting and, in Germany, they were igniting bombs. In Czechoslovakia, where I would also be a tourist, Russian tanks were invading.
But Britain? Here, the music played on.
Replete with fabulous costumes from London's Carnaby and Kensington High Streets, the western world's anything-goes hippies galvanized around sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. At the Royal Court theatre, not far from where I would inadvertently find my first bedsitting room in the Upstairs, Downstairs world of West Eaton Place, even upper crust trendies watched the new kitchen-sink drama.
In the West End, Hair trumpeted the Boomers' sexual liberation with the theatre's first naked cast.
But contrary to the Beatles-induced reverie of the time, not everything was unfolding like the traditional English rose.
The generation -- or what was left of it -- that defeated the Nazis in the Second World War was now war weary. And unlike today's war in Iraq, Britain had managed to avoid fighting in Vietnam, freeing its post-war intellectuals to question not only war, but the whole of Britain's colonial history -- a "mistake" the guilty and the angry classes were determined to overcome by flinging Britain's doors open to immigration from the whole of its Commonwealth.
So 1968, too, became the year in which British parliamentarian Enoch Powell delivered his rivers-of-blood speech. "Racial strife," he said, "that tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect." Adding that immigrants to Britain, unlike the early American slave population in the U.S., arrived as full citizens equal under the law, he warned that according them special rights was not only unnecessary but dangerous and divisive. For his attempt to avert the Brixton riots in 1981 or the London bombings in 2005, Powell was relieved of his shadow cabinet post by Tory leader Ted Heath.
The popular culture was also sounding its warning notes. Patrick McGoohan, an actor/writer made famous by his role in Danger Man, had launched his cult television classic, The Prisoner. Its world of drugs, identity theft and social indoctrination by an all-consuming state, in McGoohan's own words, warned against progress as "the biggest enemy on earth."
By the sixties, social liberalism and creeping political correctness had decreed collectivism the answer to history's ills and this is where Theodore Dalrymple takes up the story. But rather than historical events, he uses literary figures to chart Britain's decline. The sterling work and moral uprightness of Boswell's Johnson, for instance, establish the benchmark of high British character, while Henrik Ibsen's self-absorbed feminist, Hedda Gabler, and John Updike's American-born young terrorist -- at once attracted and repelled by the social morass in which he is being raised -- are benchmark steps on its way down.
"Modern culture and the welfare state discourages the self-examination necessary for the development of character," says Dalrymple. By encouraging the "imputation of all miseries to others," he suggests, the state further indulges our sense of victimhood by offering all manner of rights, programs, bureaucracies and tribunals to ensure we stay that way.
And the result? One-quarter of all British citizens are state employed while unemployment and disability benefits service a further eight per cent.
The infantilism of those caught in this "corporatist government pyramid scheme" becomes apparent when you consider there are more health care workers than hospital beds and more education bureaucrats than teachers.
If the British virtues of self sufficiency, tolerance, deference to custom and tradition, and suspicion of authority are eroded, Dalrymple looks hopefully to America to avoid Britain's social decline which, by my estimate and like Canada's, lags behind Britain's by five to 10 years. Others too are watching, though for different reasons.
At the close of the 40th anniversary of 1968, the ascendance of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States brings the civil rights movement of the sixties to fruition. Through this first-ever black-American president, every constituency in the world will hope its particular grievance, legitimate or not, will be addressed.
But if the Prisoner-like cloak of the all-encompassing collectivist state at once seduces and threatens (as it does today economically as well as socially), Enoch Powell's caution is more applicable than ever. In modern democracies where equality of citizenship prevails, it is a mistake to confuse lifestyle or cultural grievances with the fundamental injustices endured by the American black slave population.
Equality under the law should not include any obligation from society to rearrange the laws, institutions or customs that have formed the bedrock of human psychological and reproductive health, social and political stability, or workplace productivity, in order to accommodate the kind of progressive thinking and "rights" that today are leading, among other things, to the killing of children by children.
MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.