March 30, 2024

Hampstead Heath, John Constable

Hampstead Heath, John Constable

Source: Public Domain

Sometimes I wonder whether the true aim of modern “progressives”—progress toward what, one is tempted to ask—is to provoke such a strong and even violent reaction among conservatives and old-fashioned liberals that it would retrospectively justify their division of humanity into the woke, which is to say themselves, and the fascists, which is to say everyone else.

Another possible explanation is that they are satirists: that they want to see how far they can fool elites into accepting evident absurdities, thereby exposing those elites for the sheeplike nullities that they are.

With regret, I have come to the conclusion that they are in deadly earnest. I should here point out that earnestness is not the same thing as seriousness, indeed it tends to be destructive of it. Earnestness is to seriousness what sentimentality is to feeling: It is the straining after something that is not authentically felt or believed.

“We are perfectly capable of persuading ourselves that something is so when we know it not to be so.”

In order to persuade himself of the genuineness of his thoughts or feelings, the earnest person has to ramp up the extremity of his views and their expression. Soon throwing soup at a famous painting in a gallery is not enough; it becomes necessary to slash the canvas itself. But there is nothing that better disguises from himself a person’s essential intellectual frivolity or shallowness than his earnestness.

Recently, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge opined that English landscapes—fields, trees, cows, etc.—could arouse dark nationalistic feelings in those (English) who looked at them, because they might take nationalist pride in that landscape.

Assuming that the English are not for some reason peculiarly susceptible to nationalistic feelings when looking at paintings of the landscape for which they feel a deep affection, the director would seem to be suggesting that landscape is a very dangerous genre, for it is capable of arousing the nationalistic feelings of anyone who comes from the country of the picture. The only safe way to avoid this would be to remove landscapes from all galleries around the world, though it would leave some rather large gaps. Chinese painting, for example, would be virtually annihilated; but this would be a small price to pay to help avoid the dangers of nationalism.

Of course, it is true that the human mind is capable of associating anything with anything else. No doubt by means of a few intermediate steps you can associate an elm tree in an English landscape with the public execution of the Cato Street Conspirators (who wanted to blow up the whole of the British government in the early part of the 19th century). But in order to do so, you have first to be strongly determined to do so. What starts out as an effort becomes a habit, and then a matter of unassailable truth.

The question naturally arises as to whether the Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Luke Syson, actually believes what he says when he claims that looking at an oil sketch of Hampstead Heath, now a large and much-loved open space in the north of London, can be the first step to nationalist storm-trooping, as smoking cannabis is said to be the first step in addiction to heroin or cocaine. The subsidiary, and perhaps more interesting question, is whether it is better or worse if he believes it, or only pretends to do so.

If the latter, he is, of course, a careerist, either advancing his career or protecting his job by the espousal of a ridiculous opinion. If the latter, he is in a sense a victim of the times, for more and more people are required, in order to protect their livelihoods, to mouth absurdities and swear allegiance to an ideology in which they do not believe. They go into what in Nazi Germany was called “inner emigration”—their outer conformist conduct having nothing to do with their inner convictions.

I need hardly point out that inner emigration is a purely personal solution to the dilemma posed by the requirement to adhere to ideological idiocies. If anything, it strengthens the hold of those idiocies when good, intelligent, and cultivated people appear to adhere to them. They give them a respectability that they would not otherwise have; and if celebrities espouse them, celebrity now being the highest form of authority, lesser souls will espouse them in imitation.

But perhaps Mr. Syson actually believes what he said, that there is xenophobia, racism, imperialism, and general bellicosity concealed in Constable’s picture of Hampstead Heath, waiting only for an acute interpreter to perceive them there. Would this be better or worse than if he were a mere careerist who intones fashionable absurdities from fear or ambition? True believers have probably done more harm in the world than cynics, but still we are inclined to allow true believers the merit of probity, albeit probity in a bad cause.

The human mind being so subtle an instrument, it is possible that there is not a stark dichotomy between sincerity and having an eye to the main chance. One of the great advantages of wokeness is that it allows for both at the same time. A person can make a very decent career out of being passionately devoted to a cause, for causes these days pay very well, or can be made to do so. Doing good works and doing well have become entirely compatible.

Without going quite so far as Marx, who made of economic self-interest an epistemological principle, it is surely a fact of human nature or psychology that people tend to believe what it is in their interest to believe. It is in the interest of bureaucracies, for example, to believe that all group differences arise from the operation of prejudice and discrimination, to be corrected by—yes, themselves.

Moreover, once such a belief is adopted, it is defended as desperately as any population defends its city from a siege. How many of us give up a belief the first time we hear a valid argument against it? This is so even when nothing much is at stake, let alone when there is something as important as a livelihood.

Therefore, we are perfectly capable of persuading ourselves that something is so when we know it not to be so. Unfortunately, this seems to me more and more necessary for people to make any kind of career in the modern world.

Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book is Ramses: A Memoir, published by New English Review.


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