Special Report

Lords of Ill Discipline

The tyranny of egalitarian thinking and other escapes from common sense.

By 11.20.07

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A visit to the Ethics and Public Policy Center recently by Dr. Anthony Daniels, who writes under the name of Theodore Dalrymple for the (London) Spectator, the New Criterion and City Journal, among many other publications, painted a desperately gloomy picture of life among the British underclass -- which he had spent many years as a prison doctor observing at close quarters. Only his wit and unfailing good humor -- though it is often of the gallows kind -- kept his rapt audience from sinking into the darkest despair. But there is or ought to be hope in the fact that, as the doctor always stresses, the social pathologies he observes are invariably the result of individual choices and the resulting cultural breakdown. In theory, if he and others who can see what he sees can also persuade enough people of what is wrong with those choices and that culture, both can be corrected.

In theory.

Alas, the power of ideology is such that the work of persuasion appears to make little headway. Consider the following quotation from an article in the Times of London by Penny Wark commenting on one of the most prominent of the cultural failings mentioned above, the failure of schools to educate properly.

Overwhelmingly, say Professor Robert Cassen and Dr Geeta Kingdon in their report Tackling Low Educational Achievement, it is white boys who fail in Britain. Remove the middle classes from the equation, look just at children from deprived areas, and more than three-quarters of low achievers are white, British and male. They are visible at the age of 3, Cassen says. "The child from a professional middle-class home hears 1,500 different words a day. A working-class child hears 500. They don't recover because we don't have an equalising education system.â€

In other words, a social problem exists because something that has never existed still doesn't exist -- and it occurs to no one what a lunatic thing this is to say. This is the power of utopian thinking which, drug like, teaches us to be happy in our misery since the only thing that could alleviate it is an impossible state of perfection.

The tyranny of egalitarian thinking similarly holds that if everyone cannot be well-educated, then no one should be well-educated. It reminds me of those who think -- or at least act as if they think -- that if everyone can't be rich, then no one should be rich. There has never been a time when the good things of the world have been equally distributed. If such an insane ideology had prevailed in centuries past, the good things of the world would never have come into existence to make the utopians think they should be equally distributed. Now, the remoteness of the prospect of their being equally distributed serves as an excuse for those who say that they should not exist. What kind of moral and intellectual poverty does it take to believe this?

Another but related cultural failure is pointed up in another quotation from Miss Wark's report, this time from one of the working class youths she interviewed whom she calls "Dom":

"There's no respect for the community, just respect between friends....There's no discipline from when you're born. I reckon it's about the no-smacking rule. How else are you supposed to discipline them? My mam couldn't discipline me and there was no one else so I thought I was top dog."

Like Dr. Daniels's grim narrative, this is both terribly sad and terribly funny. The only bourgeois values which have percolated down to the underclass are such fashionable beliefs as this: that the physical chastisement of children amounts to child abuse. So children are not physically chastised, so they are not disciplined -- for as Dom rightly observes, among those with a thin culture and few disciplinary resources, "how else are you supposed to discipline them?" -- so they easily slip into a life of ignorance, idleness and petty crime, perpetuating the squalid conditions under which they themselves were raised.

How did this view of discipline become a bourgeois value? It never was before the 1960s. But along with all the other evils that decade brought us was the notion of "violence" as morally undifferentiated. The ideology that then superseded the old honor culture and that holds sway still told people that there was no moral difference between the parent or teacher who strikes a child and the child who strikes a parent or teacher -- just as there is no difference between a burglar who shoots a householder and a householder who shoots a burglar. This is now the law of the land in Britain. The same idea lies behind the fashionable and progressive view of the war in Iraq, namely that the British and American effort to remove a tyrant and a mass murderer is morally no better than -- and among the most progressive who hold up signs depicting the President and Vice President of the United States as "The Real Terrorists," it is actually worse than -- the tyrant's murders. You have to work hard to rid yourself of common sense in order to believe such stuff.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.