Thursday, 21 November 2019

In praise of the bourgeois virtues

Let me tell you a story you've heard before - at the cinema, or on TV, or in pop music. A young, clever person chafes at the tedium, stasis and bigotry of their community and family, whose representatives exhibit a combination of unpleasantness, ignorance and dullness. Some of these representatives are well-meaning, but all are a barrier to achievement, colour, adventure, real life. Through a combination of circumstances, and a meeting with a roguish but good-natured and attractive representative of the wider world, the person strikes out into that world and becomes happy and fulfilled, away from the stultifying expectations of their traditional milieu. This happiness is explicitly achieved through repudiation of, and hostility to, that traditional milieu.

I am not describing a particular film or TV series or song. But in a sense, I am. With various tweaks as required, this is the general framework of many of the stories our culture tells, especially those aimed at children and young people. If it is not the main story, it is a sub-plot or a background assumption. To find happiness and contentment, you must break away from the world into which you were born, and from the people who formed you, and seek your "real self", which is to say the pattern of living that delivers the experiences and sensations which give you pleasure. Rules and ways of life which you did not or would not choose for yourself have no validity or authority; you must decide your own path, in accordance with your own feelings.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Why has Remembrance become weird?

Remembrancetide has become a bit weird. I don’t think there is any getting away from it. I previously outlined some examples in this blogpost. This year we have had a restored Dakota dropping hundreds of thousands of poppies over the White Cliffs of Dover. We’ve had a sporting mascot dressed as a giant poppy. We’ve had the usual unedifying squabbles about who did what incorrectly at the Cenotaph. Poppy branding is everywhere.

It’s hard to put your finger on the best way to describe the weirdness. It’s not quite sentimentality, though sentimentality is part of it. Nor is it hyper-patriotism or militarism. I’d maybe describe it as a kind of desperate reverence; an artificial and overwrought deference to any ritual, person or item linked to Remembrance. It seems to be more and more common, for example, to describe all military personnel as “heroes”, wherever they served, for how long and in what capacity. That seems to me to devalue the very concept of heroism. Now, don’t get me wrong: to have worn the Queen’s (or King’s) uniform in any capacity is enormously admirable, and as someone who has never done so I would not like to cast doubt on the martial virtues of those who have. By comparison with my cushy and cosy existence, line infantrymen are extremely heroic. But equally “hero” means, or should mean, something quite exceptional, above and beyond the normal fortitude expected of those who see active service.