Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Real Paleo-Cons Mourn Aristocracy

When my sister and I told each other stories growing up, one character always managed to appear under different guises: the Duke of Dorque--or, to give the variants for more contemporary narratives, Duke or Ducas Dorque. He was a kind of Commedia dell'Arte archetype of a boorish, lecherous power-figure. When the good Duke arrived on the scene, the threatening mighty was about to get smacked down.

I had always thought that the many characters in English novels with the last name of "Dalrymple" might have served a similar function: the name is so overwhelmingly associated with snobs whose frailities are usually revealed in short order that it seemed natural to conclude that the name was a kind of insider joke, a nod to one's predecessors.

Then I clicked on a link at Making Light and found this extraordinary piece , penned by one "Theodore Dalrymple." I cherry-pick without mercy:
The signs—both large and small—of the reversal in the flow of aspiration are everywhere. Recently, a member of the royal family, a granddaughter of the queen, had a metal stud inserted into her tongue and proudly displayed it to the press. Such body piercing began as a strictly underclass fashion, though it has spread widely to the popular culture industry—into a branch of which, of course, the monarchy is fast being transformed. [...]

Advertising now glamorizes the underclass way of life and its attitude toward the world. [...]

Diction in Britain has always been an important marker, to some extent even a determinant, of a person's place in the social hierarchy. Whether this is a healthy phenomenon may be debated, but it is an indisputable fact. Even today, social psychologists find that the British almost universally associate what is known as received pronunciation with high intelligence, good education, and a cultured way of life. Rightly or wrongly, they see it as a marker of self-confidence, wealth, honesty, even cleanliness. Regional accents are generally held to signify the opposite qualities, even by people who speak with them.

So it is a development worthy of remark that, for the first time in our modern history, people who would, by upbringing, use received pronunciation as a matter of course, now seek to suppress it. In other words, they are anxious not to appear intelligent, well educated, and cultured to their fellow countrymen, as if such attributes were in some way shameful or disadvantageous. Where once the aspiring might have aped the diction of their social superiors, the upper classes now ape the diction of their inferiors. Those who send their children to expensive private schools, for example, now regularly report that they emerge with diction and vocabulary little different from the argot of the local state school.

See how seamless the transition from the pseudo-sociological terms "underclass" and "regional" to the almost quaintly moralizing "superiors" and "inferiors"! Marvel at how this Dalrymple uses the language of class without talking about money! And finally, wonder at how well he ties the trend into hatred for the pointy-headed! I'm only going to take topic sentences, for this Dalrymple seems to have had rigid paragraph structure spanked into him at some point in his past.
Like so many modern ills, the coarseness of spirit and behavior grows out of ideas brewed up in the academy and among intellectuals—ideas that have seeped outward and are now having their practical effect on the rest of society. [...] British society and culture were additionally vulnerable to attack from the intellectuals, for historically they were openly elitist and therefore supposedly undemocratic. [... skip one] The combination of relativism and antipathy to traditional culture has played a large part in creating the underclass, thus turning Britain from a class into a caste society. [...] Having in large part created this underclass, the British intelligentsia, guilty about its own allegedly undemocratic antecedents, feels obliged to flatter it by imitation and has persuaded the rest of the middle class to do likewise.
And then of course he cops out and wonders, so disingenuously, whether it must ever be so?

In some ways, I find this screed almost endearing in its stupidity. These are the thoughts of a genuine Dalrymple! yearning for a Wodehousian paradise! condemning the aesthetics of people who don't give a shit about him!

Then, slowly, I realize the this Dalrymple has been publishing such poison for years, and that his most recent title, Our Culture, Or What's Left of It (2005), has garnered something of a following.

Enough of one that the above essay was hosted at the Manhattan Institute, whose "about" page headlines a plug by Giuliani and claims that its goals are to win "new respect for market-oriented policies and help[...] make reform a reality." Reform, in the interest of the market, combined with a hosted essay condemning the accents and habits of "social inferiors." Does anyone else smell what I do?

I wouldn't have expected that there was much of an ideological overlap between New York market-conservativism and English nostaglic aristocratic twaddle, but then, I tend towards innocence and optimism. Still, Dalrymple's pseudo-earnest worry about the deleterious message on young people of the Blair-Oasis detente seems so readily translatable, but since contempt for popular culture is filtered here through Englishness, American conservatives can cite Oasis as a completely metaphysical reason to hate gansta rap. After all, our Dalrymple never once mentions race.

And that's why I find myself losing my sense of humor; this silly Edwardian has found an audience in modern-day America, where racial inequality has been one of the most hyped topics of the last three decades, obscuring almost totally economic class structures. And this literary charicature finds an American venue to lecture about the decadent diction of the British upper classes? Are you people daft to host such a loon?


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