The Next City
December 21, 1998
Edited by Digby Anderson and Peter Mullen (The Social Affairs Unit, 1998. 217 pages) $35
YOU MIGHT REMEMBER THE SCENE LAST SEPTEMBER 6TH ON THE STREET outside Westminster Abbey where thousands had gathered for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. An American television reporter, her voice choking with emotion, repeatedly referred to the “parade” that would soon take Diana’s body into the cathedral.
Eventually, the reporter twigged to her mistake and turned the “parade” into a “procession.” Perhaps, though, her choice of words wasn’t inappropriate. Perhaps she was unconsciously expressing some new zeitgeist. Perhaps in the age of entertainment, funerals have become carnivals.
You might come to such a conclusion after reading Faking It: The Sentimentalization of Modern Society, which skewers many of western liberal civilization’s cherished shibboleths. The editors, Digby Anderson and Peter Mullen of The Social Affairs Unit, a London-based conservative think tank, encapsulate the book’s theme this way: “There is a word for the decadent disposition in our culture which falls for the fake: it is ‘sentimentality.’ The sentimentalist is a person in denial, and what he avoids or denies is reality. He likes to think that good ends can be achieved without unpleasantness. He would rather not be reminded that pain, effort, personal responsibility, self-control and patience are inevitable. He is attracted by schemes which offer good ends without the need for any striving — learning, a just society, community and even pleasure. Most of all the sentimentalist is frightened by the idea that men have a natural capacity for evil. For to admit evil, and the will to evil, is to destroy his world which rests upon the supposition that utopia may be ushered in by the mere adoption of the right plan.”
Building on this foundation, Faking It‘s 12 essays depict a flaccid and phony society in which self-indulgence, fakery, and a “voracious appetite for sentimentality” shape politics, religion, art, and even our eating habits. (Most of the essays focus on British society, but readers will have no difficulty finding Canadian parallels.) One contributor castigates our fondness for therapeutic relief and feel-good counselling as a refusal to grow up; another describes the psychologists who indulge us as “peddlers of utopia.” And yet another portrays alternative medicine as catering to immature people unable to accept medical realities with fortitude. According to these writers, radical environmentalism reflects the false assumption that nature is benign and that the manmade world is alienating. Contemporary literature and music represent, in the main, emotional fakery.
Trendy religious practices come in for a particularly scathing critique. Peter Mullen, an Anglican cleric, writes that our sentimental society is reducing mainstream Christianity to a clap-happy form of wish fulfilment that seeks to evade the realities of life and death. “The new sentimentality in religion glosses over our dark side, and therefore it is not only a doctrinal failure; it is psychologically inaccurate and so finally incoherent.”
Nicholas Capaldi, an American academic, argues that sentimentality has eroded the values and coherence of middle-class virtues, resulting, in less than 20 years, in “a dependent underclass — the drug-addicted, the violent, the unemployed and the promiscuous.” Moreover, as Capaldi writes, “The lifestyle of this underclass is sentimentalised — as poverty once was — as real life. The word disadvantaged is used to identify the underclass with the stultifying badge of dependency. This has now reached the extreme limit in which we even sentimentalise crime and so abolish the moral distinction between right and wrong. No one is to blame for anything, except wicked capitalists and conservatives.”
However, the most devastating essay in the book — and the one that created the most controversy in Britain — is “Diana, Queen of Hearts” by Anthony O’Hear, a professor at Bradford University. The Princess’s funeral, the extreme grief shown at her death, and her subsequent idolization betray a fake society that has shifted away from traditional standards of conduct. “Diana’s personal canonization, for it amounts to no less, was at the same time a canonization of what she stood for. What she stood for was the elevation of feeling, image and spontaneity over reason, reality and restraint. The Britain of our fathers and grandfathers, the Britain of World War II has been replaced by the New Britain in which the mother of the future King publicly weeps at the funeral of a vulgar and self-publicizing Italian dress designer.”
This surrender of the traditional civic virtues of reason, reality, and restraint is, finally, what most concerns the book’s contributors. Diana’s story is the story of many. We have become a society obsessed with selfhood, self-expression, self-actualization. We think that self-fulfilment — the satisfaction of our own desires — forms our ultimate and perhaps only responsibility. As O’Hear writes, “In the Diana story, duty is a notion which is entirely absent.”
At the personal level, this results in psychological and even spiritual distortions, which reveal themselves in self-destructive behavior, such as Diana’s bulimia. At the public level, this self-obsession wrecks the institutions — education, religion, politics, and medicine — on which society depends for stability and order.
The chapter on education, “Sweetness and light in schools,” by academics Bruce Cooper and Dennis O’Keeffe soundly supports this argument. “In recent decades, education has set aside discipline and obedience and replaced them with false love and slackness,” the authors assert. “Sentimentalists romanticise children, ostensibly proclaiming the natural goodness of children, but in fact pandering to human idleness.”
Cooper and O’Keeffe conclude that sentimental teachers — really ideologically blinkered social engineers — strive to erase competition and intellectual distinction, so everyone can be a winner and maintain his self-esteem. But promoting self-esteem at the expense of genuine education is a delusion: Students who leave school unable to read, write, and think properly will have little self-respect and no way to gain any when they find themselves unemployed. Put simply, the sentimental educator fails to see the difference between self-esteem and self-delusion.
Health food fanatics also suffer from self-delusion, argues Digby Anderson in another essay. Instead of realistically seeing food and drink as a source of nourishment and pleasure, they view it as a threat to their longevity, a harbinger of obesity, or even a conspiracy by the food industry to give them heart disease.
SOME OF THE BOOK‘S ARGUMENTS GO TOO FAR IN THEIR POLEMICAL ATTACK on all things modern. Undoubtedly, much of alternative medicine borders on quackery, and stoicism is a lost virtue. But surely, not all of the interest in healthy eating — vitamin supplements, a balanced diet, and suspicion of a food industry that pumps drugs into livestock — can or should be dismissed as “a form of wishful thinking.”
The chapter attacking environmentalists’ concerns also requires skepticism. Technology has unquestionably improved the lot of the human race; no parent with a sick child ever objected to penicillin. Yet we should not dismiss worries about technology’s direction. Apocalyptic environmentalism may reflect a kind of irrational neo-paganism, but it is not irrational to worry about the indiscriminate use of pesticides and the spread of industrial contaminants.
Nonetheless, these essays ring true: Western society is increasingly sentimental. Instead of viewing life as a mystery to be met with courage and joy, too many view it as a problem to be solved by some ultimate utopia. Perhaps, as T. S. Eliot once wrote, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” But Faking It‘s contributors offer a fearsome analysis of false-fronted institutions and of a society whose members are willing to believe in anything because, fundamentally, they believe in nothing beyond themselves. Thus, this book serves as a salutary warning for the new century.
If this book has a damning problem — besides offending most of the unquestioned assumptions of a self-absorbed populace — it is in obtaining it. While Canadian newspapers have reported the controversy that greeted the book in Britain, so far no Canadian distributor has obtained rights for this country.