Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Lies: Sentimentalisation of the West (4)

Who among us would be surprised to read in the headline of today's newspaper that three teenagers dead in a car accident last day is an "ABSOLUTE TRAGEDY."

Who would be surprised to find that the schools where these people attended will be swarmed by "Grief Counsellors." That's not a question either. That's a fact of daily living. The government, in its infinite wisdom, hires grief counsellors to -- I don't know what they do. They emote. They play out some sickening sham of sentimentality. They degrade and dehumanise life. They walk home with a pocket full of cash, too. They're trained professionals. The government has radio commercials promoting them. Are you depressed? The government wants to know. They want to help you. If anything disturbs you it's an AN ABSOLUTE TRAGEDY. Seek counselling.

If it's not quite as deep a problem as the death of a few kids in the suburbs, if it's a matter of a head cold, then listen to the angry woman on the radio who is in obvious pain, speaking through gritted teeth, saying "If you think a cold is going to stop me from running even though I have a head cold, then you don't know me. You don't know Advil." Lady, you are a nasty bitch, and I don't want to know you or anyone like you. If you're so self-obsessed that running in a rainstorm is interesting to you even if you should be in bed resting rather than spreading your discomforts to the rest of us, then stay far away from me and my narcissism. And keep you cold remedies too. You are both creepy.

Such is the level of Humanity today in the modern West that if a couple of kids die in a car wreck, in fact, drowned, the city goes into mourning and seeks counselling; but a paragon of self-sufficiency and determination to beat all obstacles is a bitchy woman jogger on cold pills.

Below we have a further review of Faking it. Following that an obituary.

Sentimentality, the New Totalitarianism
Ruben Alvarado

Digby Anderson & Peter Mullen,
Faking It: The sentimentalisation of modern society (London: The Social Affairs Unit, 1998), pp. viii, 217.

I have spent many a moment in recent years pondering one simple question: Whatever happened to the English? You know, stiff upper lip, stoic reserve, laughing in the face of danger, and the like. It seems that lately nothing could be worse than the emulation of such virtues. While Scotland and Wales pursue the development of a national identity, the English seem to be doing everything they can to lose one. This national complex has found expression in particular in a rather interesting psychological phenomenon that foursquare opposes the received English tradition: I speak of sentimentality, what Jane Austen referred to as "sensibility". One saw it in the trial a few years back of the nanny Louise Woodward in the United States, where the question of guilt or innocence took a distinctly secondary place to the question of whether mean-spirited Americans should stand in judgment of a nice teenage English girl. One saw it as well with the otherwise tragic death of Diana, where it seemed that everyone tried to outdo each other in expressing, and this is the key, outwardly, publicly expressing emotion, perhaps with the thought that "what I am doing is just what Diana would have done in my place". Such an un-English spectacle, but that was the whole point. It was as if everyone was saying "We reject our past, our heritage, our image in the history books, and we demand to be seen as a people that can express themselves even if what we express is fathomless triviality."

To my mind this same attitude came to expression in the 1997 parliamentary elections. Labour campaigned on little else than let's change our attitude to Europe, to Britain, to the past; let's be cool Britannica, put on sunglasses and throw that self restraint stuff in the Thames. Actual policy differences were few and far between, with the exception of "Europe," which in a nutshell expressed the difference in attitude. For if there is one thing that separates the English from the continent, it is attitude. At bottom, it is an attitude of self-reliance vs. reliance on government. It is an age-old distinction with deep historical roots, which is why the shift in favor of the continental attitude is so striking. It finds its parallel across the Atlantic in the United States, where the Democratic Party is carrying out a similar transfiguration of the national psyche.

Yes, it is the age of feel-good leadership, and Messrs Blair and Clinton are its most gifted exemplars. Substance is irrelevant, in fact ludicrous. Nothing matters but image and appearance. It is this trend that Faking It so mercilessly exposes. And if the repetition of phrases like sentimentality, fake, sham becomes somewhat monotonous, the inevitable result of the book's comprising a series of separate articles that repetition also signals the pervasiveness of the problem. This is anything but an innocent phenomenon. It is the sign of what Johan Huizinga observed way back in the 1930s, with the rise of fascism (and what parallels can be drawn between the contemporary period and that one!), in what he described as the weakening of the capacity to judge. It seems as if people no longer have a mind of their own, that they allow their minds to be taken over by some collective spirit that moves everyone in the same direction and plants the same thoughts in everyone's heads. One then no longer exercises a critical judgment but allows oneself to be subsumed, and thus intellectually annihilated. Is this the contemporary version of religious ecstasy? Perhaps.

The heart of the book and the heart of the problem finds expression in Nicholas Capaldi's article "Evading personal responsibility: the sentimentalisation of social policy." Capaldi makes the crucial observation that fake behavior has its roots in the Pelagian worldview and that the stoic tradition of self restraint in fact has its roots in the Augustinian alternative. "Sentimentality is a perversion of Christianity." Specifically, sentimentality is Pelagian. Pelagius was a fifth-century British monk who both denied the doctrine of Original Sin and affirmed that our free will was sufficient to allow us to save ourselves.... The denial of the doctrine of Original Sin is of fundamental importance. The constant tension in Western civilisation has been between those who think that salvation is possible in this life (utopianism) and those who deny it. Sentimentality is an inevitable by-product of the former. Sentimentality is simply a veneer over uncontrolled, irrational, appetite-oriented behavior, in which people, selfishly seeking their own interest, cloak that pursuit in emotion which is designed to eliminate accountability and disengage the critical faculty. If one accepts the Pelagian's tenet that human beings are intrinsically good, then one gladly accepts this subterfuge because the alternative that these people actually really are what one deep down suspects is too horrible to contemplate. Such a conclusion would validate the Augustinian notion of inherent human evil.

But the real danger lies in accepting Pelagianism as a sort of civil religion. For in that case this subterfuge takes on public, national, even totalitarian dimensions. It becomes an exercise in group-think where everyone repeats the party line even though privately everyone knows it is a lie. This is what politics in the United States at least has come to. And this Clinton Phenomenon can be carried, who knows how far? It was precisely this kind of emotivism that Hitler used to smooth his way to power. The way it is used by the Clintonistas to paper over untold depths of corruption, and the way such-like misbehavior is not only tolerated but applauded, speaks volumes about the intellectual and spiritual level of the electorate. We know from the Scriptures that the anti-Christ when he comes will take a similar line : "Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness." (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12).

If Capaldi's article exposes the spiritual core of sentimentality, Mark Steyn's article "All Venusians Now" comprehensively summarizes the cultural and political upshot. I can do no better than to string together some direct quotes: "These days almost every subject has been taken out of politics and appropriated to the realm of feeling: health, education, the environment, gun control, drugs policy... There's no point trying to think about these issues; feeling is all." "The presiding genius of the age is John Gray, author of the psychobabble best-seller, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.... Life is from Mars, the media is from Venus -- and when the latter runs up against the former, it inevitably ends up adapting life to the teary plot structures it understands." "For most people, news is something that crops up in between sitcoms, soap operas and commercials, and it is not surprising that, over the years, it should have absorbed the same techniques as its colleagues." "When pop culture congratulates itself on its boldness in 'examining' homosexuality or racism or abortion, what it usually means is that it has bestowed an approved status on certain groups; you can 'examine' these subjects, but only in a narrow way -- and heaven help anyone so unenlightened as to beg to differ." "That's the distinguishing feature of media sentimentality: its intolerance of any dissenting views, and the ferocity with which it squashes them. There is a kind of sentimental fascism abroad."

This is what is so chilling about this development. Sentimentality is the absolute opposite of what it pretends to be. It exudes compassion, but in fact it is a cloak for the most debased and vile forms of corruption and decadence. Take the instance of abortion:
With 'reproductive rights', say, all you need to know is one cold, impersonal statistic: between 25 and 30 per cent of all pregnancies in the US now end in abortion. That couldn't make it plainer: abortion is typically not an 'agonising personal decision', only a routine form of contraception. But the distraught aborter agonising publicly over her agonising personal decision sits so much better between the soaps and talk shows. Without a culture of sentimentality, it would not be possible for a civilised society to tolerate abortion. We would understand all too well what it really is.

Sentimentality serves as a cloak to hide the truth, and the one who dares ask for the truth is then branded an unfeeling scoundrel. It is the world turned upside down.

As Steyn notes, it is the current crop of politicians who are most adept at channelling this predilection for tears to their own ends. Vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore is a master at this. The reader will have to pardon me, for I am again going to quote Mr Steyn at length. My excuse is that, in an election year like this one (in the US) such things cannot be repeated enough. The message exposing the cant and hypocrisy simply must get through.

Al Gore's brazenness knows no bounds. He pioneered the fashion for touting stricken relatives as the basis for public policy: in 1992, it was his son, who was nearly killed in a car crash; in 1996, it was his sister, who died of lung cancer. Gore "loved her more than life itself", he told America in a hushed voice on live television. Then he paused. "Tomorrow morning, a 13-year-old girl will start smoking. I love her, too." By this time, the gaps between words were big enough to smoke half a pack of cigarettes during. " And that is why", he continued, "until I draw my last breath I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking."

No network news anchor covering the speech saw fit to mention a speech Gore made in 1988, four years after his sister's death: "Throughout most of my life, I've raised tobacco", he proudly told a North Carolina audience. "I've hoed it, I've chopped it, I've shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn, stripped it, and sold it." No television correspondent pointed out that in 1990, six years after his sister's death, Gore was still taking campaign contributions from the tobacco industry. And why would the networks mock Gore as a fake? He speaks their language.

When a print journalist belatedly caught up with Gore and asked him why, if he was that devastated, he'd remained a tobacco farmer, the Vice-President's answer was ingenious: "I felt the numbness that prevented me from integrating into all aspects of my life the implications of what that tragedy really meant. We are in the midst of a profound shift in the way we approach issues. I really do believe that in our politics and in our personal lives, we are seeing an effort to integrate our emotional lives in a more balanced fashion." Nobody has mastered the feminisation of political discourse more thoroughly than Gore. Even his habit of speaking. Very. Slowly. Seems to play well with the "soccer moms", reminding them of a concerned grade-school teacher taking the time to explain to little Johnny why eating too much candy is bad for you. Of Bob Dole's economic plan, Gore said: "It's unconscionable. That means it's wrong, and it shouldn't happen." Thanks, Mr Vice-President. For tomorrow's Word-of-the-day, Al Gore defines "patronising". In contrast to Clinton, who declares that every American child should have the right to go to college, Gore seems determined to keep the entire electorate in kindergarten.

I could go on quoting from this book endlessly. Anthony O'Hear's article "Diana, queen of hearts" nicely summarizes the kind of impressions I expressed above on the transformation of modern England. Diana was and is the battering ram for replacing old English virtue with new English drivel. "Because of her life and even more because of her death, what it is to be British has changed, irrevocably.... What [Diana] 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-publicising Italian dress designer." (Oh, there I go quoting again.)

Faking It's other articles similarly punch holes in received wisdom and provide food for thought for famished minds in a range of subject areas: medicine, education, environmentalism, literature, music, even eating. The authors have done a bang-up job. The final article offers a fine exposition of the origins of sentimentality in Christianity. Sentimentality has filled a vacuum left by the departure of Christianity from the public square. It is this knowledge which underlies the feeling one gets while reading this book, a feeling of despair. Because one sees that the only antidote to Pelagianism is full-blown Christianity; the only antidote to works religion, which summarizes all of our misguided contemporary political and cultural efforts, is salvation by grace through faith. And that seems to be the one solution the public cannot accept. "For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth [will let], until he be taken out of the way" (2 Thessalonians 2:7). God is still restraining the full outbreak of lawlessness. The ultimate question is, how long will He continue to do so? How long will He suffer those who have deliberately turned away from Him? And the Antichrist, when he comes, will he bite his lip and choke back the tears as he champions lawlessness and persecutes the righteous? It is looking increasingly likely.



Close readers of the old Alberta Report magazine will probably remember the byline of Terry Johnson, the magazine's agriculture reporter and senior editor of many years. When I was starting out as an AR freelancer I lived with Terry and other magazine inmates for two or three years in the Flophouse, a charming but poorly tended old fleabag on Edmonton's south side. It was a place through which many of the magazine's bylines had passed en route to marriage or a proper gig. Terry was its unkempt, narcoleptic, Maoist chef de mission, grinning eternally from the couch at the know-nothing right-wing twentysomethings who came and went ceaselessly. Word went round the e-mail grapevine on Wednesday that Terry died of a heroin overdose March 29 on Vancouver's East Side. He was 44.

All things considered, he did well to make it so far. Terry was so defenceless against the basic demands of life that he never, to anyone's knowledge, owned a winter coat during the time he lived in Edmonton. A fellow housemate made an annual ritual of frogmarching him to the barber to get his Karl Marx beard and his spirit-of-'68 hair hacked at. No piece of furniture in the common area of the house lacked for holes made by his cigarettes. He had the barest acquaintance with bathing and probably none, in his adulthood, of dentistry. He made do, defiantly. Somehow he acquired a whole wardrobe of other people's clothing; one got the distinct impression he didn't get it from Goodwill or Value Village, but that he just somehow gravitated home from the pub wearing a bowling shirt with "Larry" on the breast pocket.

In short, he seems now to have been an addict in training. When I lived with him I knew him to possess no vices more severe than beer, in modest bachelor quantities, and pot, in quite massive ones. Actually, he had one that was arguably more harmful, at least to his ability to meet deadlines: video games, particularly Sid Meier's Civilization. No one ever burned a deadline with more determination than Terry Johnson . The rest of us copy-breeders began to get nervous around Friday sundown, with the magazine going off to the printer on Sunday, but Terry would carry on Minesweeping until Saturday afternoon and not give it an apparent second thought. He would vanish from home and office for 48 hours at a time when he was supposed to be quizzing farmers about genetically modified seed or fuel prices.

It may seem surprising that someone to Lenin's left could find a home for so long at a right-wing magazine, but Terry had a Marxist's ingrained feeling for the rudiments of classical economics. He might, indeed, have known Adam Smith and David Ricardo better than any other writer to pass through the Report's doors. This is only a suspicion: I didn't talk politics with him often, and in argument he was unpleasantly quick to fall back on an astonished, dismissive snigger and not much else. His occasional talk of The Revolution was never anything but ironic. He could see the facts of post-1989 life clearly enough, and at least once I heard him lament the stopped flow of Soviet gold into the veins of Canada's labour movement.

Around about 1998, after he completely missed an ironclad deadline on a year-in-review issue, Terry was let go from the magazine. (He had been at home in a stupor from which I'd tried without success to awaken him. That day, in retrospect, was a warning that he'd moved into the substance-abuse big leagues.) The cause for dismissal was not reported to the authorities, as an omissive act of valedictory kindness, so he wheeled round and shrewdly filed an Employment Insurance claim for constructive dismissal on the grounds that the magazine was becoming increasingly bigoted and irrational. He won, and must have bankrolled a couple years' worth of Vancouver adventures on the lump-sum proceeds. Upon receiving his congé he disclosed to his housemates that he hadn't paid rent or utilities for nearly four months and skipped town, heading back to his beloved West Coast. When last heard from, he was telemarketing, and trying, in his quixotic way, to organize a labour union. His byline appeared at least once in the Vancouver Courier, but this was, I think, his last appearance in print.

There was something about Terry that resisted the normal sort of semi-intimate friendship; he almost seemed to lack a coherent self you could latch onto. Everyone is agreed in describing him as "gentle", and that is right; it was, and I don't mean this unkindly, a sort of attractive animal gentleness. Like the cats he adored,Terry seemed to mostly want a warm place to sleep and an occasional meal. Much of his own life seemed to be an utter blur to him. People would tell him stories of his own bizarre conduct, and he would just nod along, going "Yeah... yeah..." and laughing through his nose. Only in pensive moments would he strike you as a person capable of deep feeling. At those times, as the cigarette smoke curled around him, he would generate an impenetrable nebula of sadness. Over what, I couldn't say. I doubt anyone else can.

The last time I thought of Terry was on April 2. Oddly enough, he came to mind when I read the San Jose Mercury-News story about an editor who died in his office and was thought to be asleep for at least 24 hours. Anybody who worked with Terry would have thought of him, lying supine on the floor in the oddest positions with only steno sheets full of his own shorthand for a blanket.Terry was, by consensus, the most gifted writer amongst AR's reporters during my time there. His style was neat and lucid, with just the right amount of artistry; he imparted dignity to the sometimes-oddball subjects of his Albertans column and was never defeated by a difficult topic. He was forgiven a great deal in the way of eccentricity and tardiness because he delivered copy that the editors barely needed to nod at. He was an outstanding journalist who probably never should have gone anywhere near the profession.

I think it is wrong to judge people for wasting their talent; it's theirs to waste. I also think it's wrong to subject them to a dehumanizing sentimentality, even after they can make no possible objection: Terry was kind and, in a particular sense, innocent, but far from wholly good. To ask what else might have been done to save him from himself would be plain foolishness. I'm not even sure it's quite right to say I miss him, and my honest best guess is that he was content on Skid Row, a milieu he didn't need to transform into an anarchy or tailor his conduct to in the slightest respect. But my days living with him were happy, in part because of him.

You don't likely know of Pelegius. You don't know the radio jogger bitch. You don't know Advil. You don't know Terry.

The question is, do you know yourself? If not, that is an absolute tragedy.

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