The False Liberty of the Pop-Cartesians

The destructive urge, said the anarchist Bakunin, is also a constructive urge, presumably because one can, at least in theory, build anything one likes upon a foundation of ruins. The cities of Dresden or Coventry do not really bear him out; but these days the destructive urge focuses more on intangibles, such as social limits or boundaries, than on buildings or infrastructure.

Modern man seems unwilling to accept any inherited limits or boundaries, which is to say any that he has not set for himself or that cannot be justified by a valid argument starting from an indubitable Cartesian point that he acknowledges as such. I suspect that this unwillingness is the consequence of the mass rise in self-importance, but that is by the by. Since we live in a social and even physical world composed more of continua rather than of categories, it is not surprising that limits and boundaries tend to dissolve under this intellectual regime: not any given limit or boundary, be it noted, but limits and boundaries as such.

Let me give an example of what I mean. In the prison in which I worked I would, from time to time, talk to a prisoner who had been convicted of having sexual intercourse with a girl who was too young to give legal consent. The men complained, as often as not, that they had been duped by the girl, who had acted and dressed older than her age; that she had complained only when he had stopped, not when he started, her liaison with her; and that in any case the age of consent to sexual intercourse was itself absurd. For by what strange process was a girl mature enough to give her consent on her sixteenth birthday, but not when she was 15 years and 364 days old? I never heard anyone argue that the age of consent ought to be 14, or even 12 (as I believe it is in Spain, and as it was in Victorian England); no, it was always that it was absurd that someone should not be able to give her consent on her sixteenth birthday minus one day.

This argument in effect dissolves the very notion of an age of consent, for the very obvious reason that the same objection could be made whatever the chosen age of consent might be. The demand that our legal categories should correspond to natural categories, when the world is full of continua, means either that we must fit continua into a procrustean bed of categories, thus doing violence to our intellectual honesty, or abandon legal categories altogether, accepting the terrible social consequences:

… untune that string

And hark what discord follows.

Recently in a British newspaper I saw a relatively subtle attack on the distinction between the private and the public realm. Anyone who knows contemporary Britain knows that the most unattractive public drunkenness is prevalent throughout the towns and cities of the land, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. Young people aged between their late teens and their mid-thirties take pride not only in being drunk, but in acting drunk, screaming and shouting, fighting, falling over, vomiting in the gutter and generally behaving in such a way that people who do not want to participate or witness such scenes stay at home like Transylvanian peasants after sundown. Hardly any foreign visitors to our shores fail to see what I have described; only natives close their eyes to them, either from a feeling of impotence and despair, or because they fear to appear judgmental. As for the participants themselves, the worse they have behaved while drunk, the prouder they are of themselves: for they have fully absorbed the notion that any form of self-restraint is treason to the self, than which there is no worse kind of treason.

The newspaper article that caught my eye was in the liberal Sunday, the Observer, founded in 1791. The headline of the story read:

Elderly abusing alcohol more than the young.

And among other assertions in the story, we find the following:

The number of alcohol-related deaths in the UK remains highest

in the 55 – 74 age group

Leaving aside the question of whether people between (say) the ages of 55 and 65 can properly be called elderly in a society in which life expectancy is 80 years, and in which the retirement age has just been raised to 67, it is probable that the overwhelming majority of people who die of ‘alcohol-related’ diseases between the ages of 55 and 74 die of such diseases that are the consequence of chronic abuse, that is to say of abuse that started years and even decades before the age at death, i.e., when they were not elderly by any possible stretch of the meaning of that term.

What distinction, then, was the article collapsing? In effect, that between the public and the private realm, between what ought and ought or to come under the purview of the public authorities: for not even the Observer would claim that elderly people of 55 who drink too much, even much too much, are the reason for the scenes of violence and debauchery on our streets on Friday and Saturday nights, or the reason why respectable citizens avoid town and city centers on those nights. It is not to avoid drunken 55 year-olds that one stays indoors.

This is important, because to fail to make the distinction (which, of course, is on a continuum rather than being absolutely categorical) is either to promote totalitarian interference in private life or to encourage or fail to discourage public disorder on the grounds that others behave just as badly in private. In fact, the objection to people being drunk in public is not that they are doing themselves harm either in the short or the long-term, which is their choice, but that they are spoiling and even damaging the public space, making it frightening and intolerable to others.

The story serves more than one end. It provides an excuse for the authorities not to do what it is their one indisputable duty to do, that is to keep public order, on the spurious grounds that those who create public disorder while drunk are no drunker than many people at home. This means that the same authorities can dodge a task that would require a little moral courage to perform, the performance of which would upset a large number of young people and some alcoholic drink companies at the same time.

But the story also justifies a bureaucratic opportunity. It reported that £25 million of public money was henceforth to be ‘invested in a campaign to tackle the late onset of drinking problems.’ I think it hardly needs proof that the great majority of this £25 million will end up in private pockets without any necessity or even likelihood that the expenditure will conduce to its supposed end, namely a reduction of excessive drinking and its associated problems among the elderly. And to call such expenditure ‘investment’ is typical of those who habitually spend or advocate spending other people’s money with no thought of the actually economic return. They are the kind of people who would be much impressed by the news that the elderly are abusing alcohol more than the young.