About a quarter of a century ago—how lightly that phrase now trips off my tongue!—I was de facto vulgarity correspondent for a British newspaper that, on the question of vulgarity, faced in more than one direction. It would thunder on one page against the moral degeneration of which modern vulgarity was a symptom, and on the next appeal strongly to that very vulgarity. From a certain point of view, if not that of intellectual consistency, it was a perfect formula; but, as Emerson told us, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
From time to time the newspaper would send me to places where my young countrymen were gathering and behaving badly—which was more or less wherever they were gathering (it is sobering to me to think that they are now middle-aged). Perhaps the nadir of their conduct was on the Balearic island of Ibiza, where they indulged in a kind of prolonged outdoor drunken orgy en masse with, as I discovered, a sense of pride, almost of achievement, in their sheer crudity and unattractiveness. When asked whether they thought the local people might not like the way they behaved, one or two of them justified themselves with an argument derived from multiculturalist doctrine: If to get drunk in public and vomit in the street were part of their culture, what could anyone say against it (all cultures being equal)?
The British were the worst young tourists on the island, but the Germans and Dutch were not very attractive either, only more intelligent and better-educated. The two largest “nightclubs” on the island were called Manumission and Amnesia, names suggestive of a life that was less than satisfying, that consisted of slavery with an annual temporary release to freedom and forgetting on a trip to the island.
The British government’s repeated postponement of the liberation of its own population and its patent discouragement of travel, especially to the continent of Europe, because of the Covid-19 epidemic, will at least have one positive effect, namely that of raising slightly the cultural level of the resorts to which Britons flock annually as herds of wildebeest in their seasonal migrations. Even (or especially) if those resorts remain empty as a result, their cultural level will have risen. Of course, those resorts may suffer economically, for some of them are in the unfortunate position of depending on British holidaymakers for their living, which is the only explanation of why they tolerate the annual influx of the island barbarians who are so proud of their own bad behavior. The worse their behavior is, the more “liberated” they feel. To the multiculturalist argument is added that of psychotherapy: that not to express yourself as you wish is harmful, even dangerous, to your mental health. As William Blake put it in the Proverbs of Hell, “Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” and “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”—which have not been conclusions that I have drawn from my experience of life. Indeed, there is little that is more boring than excess, to say nothing of its other disadvantages.
But if one thing is more certain than another, it is that, as soon as the restrictions are lifted, everything will return to what it was before (which I hesitate to call normal). As the French writer Michel Houellebecq put it, after the epidemic, everything will be the same, only worse.
Are there no glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel, then? Apparently in Saudi Arabia, the epidemic has had a profound social effect. Many of the migrant workers who supplied the country with its cheap labor have returned to their homelands, and thus created an opportunity, or the necessity, for Saudi women to join the workforce, as they have now done in unprecedented numbers. A third of Saudi women are now either working or seeking work, an increase of 60 percent in only a year or two, a veritable silent revolution. It is not surprising in the circumstances that they are paid far less than men—their jobs are mostly in the poorly paid sectors—but they earn far more than the migrant workers whom they have replaced. Whether the migrant workers will return when the epidemic is over is an open question: Will the women simply accept to return to their sequestered lives as before, and will the Saudi government wish to continue to economize on its balance of payments consequent upon the replacement of foreigners by Saudis? As for the effect on the countries that export their cheap labor in return for remittances, what will it be?
On a visit to the Gulf a few years ago, I bought a tanzanite ring for my wife. The server in the shop did not own it; he was a migrant laborer, allowed home two weeks every two years. For the rest of the time, he worked 72 hours a week, and lived and slept in a dormitory. He could not have been from the very poorest section of Indian society because he spoke quite good English. His salary was meager, and what he earned in a month I was prepared to spend in a minute without a moment’s reflection. Nevertheless, he was saving money so that he could marry back home, and in another few years would be able to do so.
In the most obvious sense, he was exploited. His employer took advantage of his poverty to extract a large amount of labor from him for little return. And yet he did not strike me as miserable (of course, he could have been acting) or self-pitying. As he himself said, he had made a choice, he had not been press-ganged, and he had come to the conclusion that he was better off accepting the offered conditions than anything else that was available to him. Would Covid-19 and its economic consequences have forced him home?
I would prefer a world in which a man such as he did not have to make the choice that he had had to make, to sacrifice himself for years in order to achieve what comes so easily to many others. But such as he play their part—a tiny part, but a part nonetheless—in improving the world. I found him heroic. Like all true heroes, he was unaware of his heroism.
Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book is Around the World in the Cinemas of Paris, Mirabeau Press.
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