If Politics is Downstream from Culture

Is political iconoclasm downstream from recreational drugs?

Here’s why the question makes sense. If more people drank wine at lunch, would be they be less moralistic? Which is related to how much marijuana have neo-Nazis and antifa smoked to reach their adult years?

The apparent popularity of the idea that drinking at lunchtime is unacceptable tells us two things about Britain today – one is about attitudes to drinking, the other is about the way we assess or evaluate things. The first is straightforward: drinking at lunchtime is becoming more unpopular partly because of changing working habits – people work too hard, essentially – and partly because of concerns about the effects of alcohol on health and the fashionability of the healthy lifestyle.

That is not how things used to be. An academic friend of mine from Switzerland, recently retired, told me he had a glass of wine (or two) every day at lunchtime during his productive and satisfying thirty-five-year career. It’s hard to imagine any of today’s academics telling such a story in twenty or thirty years’ time. But fashions change, and maybe today’s will change too.

The second thing, though, is more insidious: the growing tendency to assess all human activity in moral terms: in terms of obligations, duties and the ideas of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, fair or unfair.

Politics is one area of life that has become deeply moralized. Most political decision-making in peaceful well-functioning democracies concerns practical questions about the allocation of resources, and the structure of social organizations. These decisions are for the most part not moral decisions, nothing to do with obligations and rights and wrongs, but the result of compromises based on what is desirable, practical and efficient. Yet people find it so attractive to think of politics – even in this plonking, practical, reliable sense – in moral terms.

In other words, can’t a cigar just be a cigar? Or an Asian-American sportscaster just a guy with a good voice and telegenic demeanor?

It should be emphasized that things in our lives can be evaluated in ways that have very little to do with morality – for example, whether things are pleasant or disgusting, delicious or bland, funny or boring, gauche or stylish, awkward or harmonious, sensible or silly – and in many ways these evaluations come more easily and naturally to us than the abstract judgements of today’s moralists. Yet the preaching tone of the moralist lurks in the speeches of politicians, on the Left and the Right – whether it is about climate change, what we eat, what art or music we enjoy, how we bring up our children, what kind of gender we identify with, etc. My point is not that these are unimportant questions – but that it is not obvious that they are moral questions. Nonetheless, our current political leaders in the UK find it alarmingly easy to adopt moralizing personae, from the honest and pure teetotal bearded vegetarian, to the stern yet fair authoritarian who knows best. Wouldn’t it be a refreshing change to have politicians who were not preaching to us?

Imagine if U.K. politicians had to live statues of people who executed heretics.

(thanks to one of our Southern correspondents who assures me he is not a neo-Confederate)

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