Monday, January 19, 2009

Dalrymple and Ballard 1

I’ve been meaning to write about this Theodore Dalrymple article on J.G. Ballard’s novels for some time now. I like Dalrymple quite a bit, and in general, I think he gets Ballard right. His point is that Ballard offers a lot to conservatives in understanding the breakdown of modern society, while not being a conservative himself. I think that’s right, but that it illustrates the limitations of terms like "liberal" and "conservative".

The problem with using these terms when dealing with culture is that they seem to be arbitrarily assigned. Certainly, if you live in contemporary urban centers, it’s not hard to be somewhat dismayed by trends within the larger culture; by things such as: widespread vandalism, crime and criminality, compulsive profanity and a constant undertone of violence to much discourse, multiple quasi-legal predatory businesses and outright scams, child abuse and neglect, a certain mainstreamed misogyny, pathological drug and alcohol abuse, the bizarre sexualizing of children, an inability to decouple sex and violence, and what Ballard has referred to as "the death of affect" in mass society. What’s not clear is why liberals or progressives shouldn’t have a problem with these things. The general coarsening of culture is worrying, not just because it’s unpleasant, but because it makes greater violence more likely.

Ballard's point has often been that all the things I listed are now just as prevalent, if not more so, in the sububrs and rich enclaves. Ballard writes- ''The suburbs dream of violence''. Dalrymple writes- ''He is suggesting that, absent a transcendent purpose, material affluence is not sufficient—and may lead to boredom, perversity, and self-destruction.'' And so, what we can expect in the future is not necessarily more violence, but more random and meaningless violence, and no real escape from violence. It’s not clear to me though why acknowledging these things is particularly ''conservative''.

Okay, now, please read the article and report back here when you’re done, so we can discuss it.


Anonymous said...

The conservative belief is that evil, barbarism and vice are inherent in human nature and that individuals can and should control themselves and suppress these instincts. The liberal viewpoint is that humans are inherently good but that unjust society ("civilization and its discontents") limits and distorts our naturally virtuous selves (Rousseau's noble savage). While conservatism thus advocates individual responsibility and self-control, liberalism advocates the loosening of moral standards in order to free the noble savage and excuses criminality as an inevitable response to an unjust society.

But savages aren't noble. Humans are naturally selfish and barbaric, and without the constraints of civilization and its standards of behavior, the type of social pathology that you describe grows unchecked. Liberals typically respond to this social pathology in one of three ways:

1) Those who either deny the existence of the problems altogether or admit them and blame them on insufficiently-liberal policies stay happily liberal and promote even more of the very same policies that caused the behavior in the first place.

2) Those who understand that the problems are caused by liberal policies and therefore change their ideology are called "neo-conservatives", whom Irving Kristol, a founding member, described as "a liberal who has been mugged by reality".

3) Those who blame liberalism for the problems but adopt a watery non-partisanship rather than become conservative meet John O'Sullivan's definition of a non-partisan: "a liberal who has been mugged by reality but refuses to press charges".

I don't know much about Ballard, so I can't say in which camp he would fall.

Anonymous said...

I think that Dalrymple is writing for his audience - City Journal is a quarterly for people who identify as conservatives.

But, yeah, I think the liberal/conservative divide is artificial and limiting. Sure, we gotta call ourselves something but my own personal views tend to veer all over that divide.

Rufus said...

Thank you for this excellent and insightful description of a main strand of liberalism. I think you've captured the limitations of this point of view- I often use the example of Leopold and Loeb here- they had every possible social benefit, including a great education, and were still psycopaths. It's hard to study history and believe that humans are inherently good and virtuous.

I'm confused by your reference to Freud, whose argument, it seems to me, was that we have to be taught to be good- that civilization = repression, but also that all of our higher culture results from this repression. In other words, that civilization is a burden worth bearing. I don't see any Rousseau in Freud, but I see a lot of Nietzsche. He does say that pathology results from insufficient socialization, but I don't see Freud as implying that socialization itself warps us. Of course, I could be reading too much into a parenthesis here!

And, it's also hard to study history and locate any time in which there wasn't a fair amount of barbarism at all levels of society. Conservatives seem to believe in some Edenic golden age before the great cataclysm- be it the sister Revolutions of the late 1700s, 'Modernity', the 1960s, etc. that released all the checks on our behavior. But, what you generally find across history is a 'peasantry' given to the occasional drunken lynching, and an 'aristocracy' whose position was maintained by a moral code that they didn't follow themselves and by a fair amount of violence. Conservatives criticize the liberal attack on traditional centers of authority; but classical liberals also attacked slavery, torture, and public executions, which few of us would want back. Conservatives will talk about the compelling nature of moral truths, while ignoring the fact that traditional centers of authority more often compelled through force. I appreciate your emphasis on self-control instead of external control and the distinction between being compelled by cultural standards or by laws- but in most traditional states the distinction didn't exist. Philip Rieff- certainly a cultural conservative- put it best by saying that no Jew would want to return to Christian Europe.

Incidentally, if culture so strongly shapes our behavior, it's worth noting that a lot less people are murdered in godless secular Europe, or godless secular Canada for that matter, than in Christian America.

So, if there is any real change in terms of social pathology après le deluge, it’s been a matter of degrees. What does seem to have changed is that pathology is more openly discussed in culture, and even lauded, which likely is a result of some sort of cultural liberalism- repression is 'elitist', we should 'let it all hang out', and so forth. On the other hand, it’s hard to listen to right wing talk radio for an afternoon and honestly believe that conservatives stand opposed to the coarsening of culture.

Also, why isn't there a stronger conservative critique of consumer capitalism, with its constant message that our desires alone should be what guides our behavior? Not only are most advertisements openly subversive of traditional morality; but they're arguably more influential than liberals.

Lastly, it's hard to see either picture of 'human nature' as particularly profound. It seems that civilization and barbarism are equally expressions of human nature- it's impossible to describe something as diverse and plastic as human behavior as 'innately barbarous' or 'innately virtuous'- both descriptions are limiting. Besides, none of us can objectively observe the subject!

Perhaps this is why liberalism has a blind spot for criminality, while conservatism has a blind spot for authoritarianism. If social constraints just warp us, there's no explanation for all the crimes that occur when civilizations break down. But if social constraints just ennoble us, one would imagine that the Iranian regime would be the ideal place to live. Certainly, the mulahs also advocate individual responsibility and self-control, and believe that humans are selfish and barbaric in a state of freedom. So what is the social benefit of freedom?

But, if human nature contains a certain amount of both virtue and barbarism, the ideal society would balance constraint and freedom. To be honest, I'd rather not live in a society constructed entirely by liberals or conservatives.

Rufus said...

Brian- I think you're right- Dalrymple is trying to sell Ballard to his readers, so he's stressing the conservative implications there.

But, I'd suggest that Ballard also sees a beneficial evolutionary advantage to psychopathology, which I'm guessing the audience wouldn't dig. The most disturbing thing about Crash is that he suggests that winding up in a car crash sex cult was a happy ending for these people.

Anonymous said...

But, I'd suggest that Ballard also sees a beneficial evolutionary advantage to psychopathology, which I'm guessing the audience wouldn't dig.

I'll take your word for it. I know that I've read a few Ballard stories but nothing really stuck. Back when I was reading everything SF the library had I was probably too young to get it.

The most disturbing thing about Crash is that he suggests that winding up in a car crash sex cult was a happy ending for these people

That is pretty icky - but we all have our twists and turns and if they're happy, who am I too judge?

I think the value a conservative brings to the party is to make everyone aware that for every advance we make there are always unintended consequences.

Rufus said...

Ballard's a tough one to sell- his stuff is definitely weird. I don't think I'd exactly recommend Crash... You'd probably enjoy Empire of the Sun though.

I've often said that most political viewpoints are right about 20 percent of the time, and we just need to borrow from them at those times. But, of course, now you say that and you sound like Barack Obama. The thing is that humans are never going to create a complete and unchanging picture of the world, so ideologies are going to work in some situations and provide no help in others.

As Steve Martin put it, I don't think I'd believe in anything, if it wasn't for my lucky astrology mood watch.