I am still immensely enjoying Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, as I blogged about last week. As I continue to read, however, I am struck by a recurring theme regarding the makers of Western culture about whom James writes.
Many of them have been victims of one, or sometimes even both, of the two secular ideologies which dominated so much of the last century — to the right, Nazism, and to the left, Marxism. Almost inevitably, these individuals come across as tragic, and indeed are often heroic.
Yet at the same time there are others, for the most part no less talented or dedicated to their particular field, who have actually lent their support precisely to these ideologies. And this surely raises some interesting questions about the whole ‘cultural’ enterprise.
Here we have people who can rightly be regarded as cultured intellectuals. Indeed, they are themselves culturally creative. Yet sometimes they are entirely blind to movements and forces inimical to human, and therefore cultural, flourishing.
It has to be said, moreover, that this is particularly noticeable regarding attitudes on the ‘left’. Here, it seems, people of considerable intellect have, nevertheless, been constantly willing to justify self-evident wrongs and to deny every allegation of moral deviance, in a manner that seems entirely at variance with their own evident capacity for understanding and analysis in other respects.
Thus people who really should have known better have supported, at various times, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong and even Pol Pot.
To go beyond James’s own examples, many of us remember Jane Fonda’s visit to, and endorsement of, North Vietnam in the 1960s. And what of the World Council of Churches’ support for violent ‘liberation’ movements in the Third World?
Part of the picture is, of course, that the political left tends to align itself with causes that appeal to the best of human instincts — the desire to help the physically poor and the socially oppressed.
The problem is that organizations and individuals who have been able to talk the right talk in this regard have often walked a very different walk. There may even, as seems to be the case with Mao Zedong, be a transition from a good start to a truly disastrous finish.
Nevertheless, it is a lesson of history that intellectual and cultural brilliance is by no means a guarantee that the individual will possess an accurate moral compass, or pay any attention to it even if they do.
It should also, however, be an encouragement to the rest of us, who do not possess such brilliance, not to be intimidated into silence. Sometimes it is possible to wonder whether, given the mental abilities of those who lend their support to one dubious-looking cause or another, the Emperor for whom they are cheering really is wearing the fantastic outfit they describe, rather than being as stark-naked as the objective evidence suggests.
Reading through the ‘broadsheet’ media today, the Western intellectual opponents of the West, for example, seem to be overwhelming both in their numbers and in their evident learning. “Surely,” we find ourselves thinking, “they must be onto something.” And so we go on listening to the argument that the real threat to human flourishing today comes not from the radicalization of Muslims or the growing brute economic power of China, but from America, or from our own history.
It is said by clever people, and it is said well — so who are you, or who am I, to contradict it?
At times like this it is good to remember that clever, erudite people have been notoriously wrong about such things in the past. They really have done the same for mass murderers and political sociopaths. And sometimes what we need is common sense, not intellectual brilliance.
The title for this post comes from the Dire Straits song, Ride Across the River. There is another Dire Straits line I am fond of quoting as an antidote to the modern mindset, which comes from Industrial Disease: “Two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong.”
Of course, it is possible that they are both wrong, but certainly during the 1990s it became possible to scandalize quite intelligent people with the first suggestion: “Who are we to say who is wrong?” became the typical response, even when it was self-evidently true that someone was.
But it is this same moral certainty about the uncertainty of our moral judgement that allows perfectly sane commentators and journalists to condemn ‘Islamophobia’, for example, without ever coming down hard against Islam, or to judge the West by ‘Western’ standards whilst excusing the otherwise unpardonable when it is part of a non-Western ‘culture’.
There is, however, a third Dire Straits line, again from Industrial Disease, that comes to mind at this point: “Philosophy is useless, theology is worse.” When the intellect fails us practically, then only the truly practical person can help us. The wise person in such circumstances may well not be the clever one. They will just be the one who can accurately see and declare what is going on.
John RichardsonPlease give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.