Ξ January 6th, 2006 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Politics and Society, Science |

Forward - by Kenneth (kylie's Dad) Minogue

Thomas Hobbes, back in the seventeenth century, based his political philosophy on the belief that one of the greatest of human pleasures--perhaps the greatest--was feeling superior to others. It was so powerful a drive that those who lacked any real superiority would resort to fantasy--what he called `vainglory'. A century ago, the radical American sociologist Thorstein Veblen elaborated this view as a sociology of the rich. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, he documented in great detail how the powerful would demonstrate their superiority--in ways ranging from Chinese mandarins whose absurdly long fingernails demonstrated how far they were above vulgar things, to educated Europeans expressing themselves in Latin tags to show off their education. He called this form of conduct `conspicuous consumption'. Veblen was a utilitarian. He thought that a lot of what we call culture was just showing off.

Patrick West is not a utilitarian, but has made a brilliant use of Veblen's critical machinery to expose one of the dominant assumptions of our age: namely, that to exhibit feelings about public events and public figures demonstrates superiority of soul. His book is a catalogue of the ingenious devices we have developed to make this clear to others. He does not shirk the element of menace sometimes added to the mix, menace directed against those who might think their feelings to be their own business. We want such mavericks to think and feel the way we do. They too must wear their hearts on their lapels. We pretend to feel the pain of others, and signal it by sentimentalising beggars, moments (lengthening rapidly into minutes and minutes) of silence, by apologising for things we never did, by signing petitions, and a variety of other gestures.

The cynics of the seventeenth century were acutely aware of the vice of hypocrisy, which La Rochefoucauld described as the tribute vice pays to virtue. But the hypocrite usually knew perfectly well that he was pretending. His dishonesty was for the outside world, not usually for his inner life. The alarming thing about our own conspicuous compassion is that its bearers seem to believe in their own emotions-- though (as West makes clear) they don't actually believe in their feelings to the point where they lose control of their wallets. Conspicuous compassion, as a simple matter of fact, often correlates with decreasing contributions to charity. The decline of fortitude as a British virtue in the face of new technologies such as counselling and stress management is a well-documented feature of our times, but West's theme is the way in which we actually disapprove of fortitude even in others.

Feelings and thoughts are part of the inner life, but when so much is externalised in gestures, one can only wonder how much of inner life remains. Traditional religious spirituality has long been declining, but amidst the politicised righteousness of the contemporary world, what is left, we may wonder, of integrity, honesty and real concern for others?

West quotes Oscar Wilde's remark that a sentimentalist is someone who wants the pleasure of an emotion without paying the price for it. It's not often that Wilde was profound, but here he cut to the essence of moral gesturing.


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