This Can't Last

How, in assessing the dangers that a society faces, does one avoid the Scylla of an undue alarm and the Charybdis of a paralytic complacency? Is intelligence, knowledge, character, temperament or luck more important in being able to distinguish what is important and lasting from what is trivial and fleeting? Is it more important to see the details or the gestalts, or (very difficult to achieve) some combination of the two? Why is it that those who are the most knowledgeable about a society are not always the best judges of its future?

A story is told by the British writer Christopher Booker in his account of the Moscow Olympics of 1980. A sports journalist of one of Britain’s less cerebral newspapers, than which no newspapers in the world are less cerebral, took one look around the Moscow airport on arrival, never having given the matter a moment’s thought before, and said something to the effect that ‘This system can’t last.’ This was not the opinion of almost all the learned Sovietologists of the day; but he had grasped in a matter of seconds a reality that they had not perceived in many years of close and devoted study.

Tiny details can, in my opinion, be very revealing of a society, as are those on a scan to a skilled radiologist. Here is one such, to which I referred recently in a public lecture. I had noticed on the website of the Guardian, Britain’s liberal newspaper, the self-description of a young woman, calling herself curlygirl24, who was looking for ‘soulmate’ (the name of the Guardian’s lonelyhearts service, though most readers of the paper would probably be horrified at the notion of a soul).

I have been told that I am a bit of a paradox: I seem to have the emotional fuzziness that comes with being a girl along with the capacity to drink copious amounts, still stand up and take the p*ss out of my friends and possibly random strangers.

I said in my lecture that it seemed to me remarkable, and not altogether reassuring, that an educated young woman, a financial journalist according to her own report, who was on the lookout for, presumably, an equally educated young man, a member of our society’s intellectual and social elite, should think that drinking to excess and then being impolite to complete strangers would be an attractive quality. What did this tell us about our society, of its cultural level? I left it at that.

There was a public reply to my lecture by a man (more a Guardian type than was I) to whom had been given in advance the text of my lecture; and he had conscientiously gone to the trouble of verifying that I had not made curlygirl24’s self-description up.

His comment upon what I said was that, though I had quoted accurately, the paragraph was not the whole of her self-description. She had, in fact, said many other things about herself, such as that she was interested in the theatre and music, and liked to run: for example she had just completed a half marathon, and as a runner himself, my interlocutor could assure me that it would not be possible to be a binge drinker and run half marathons. The appeal for a potential soulmate ended:

I have strong family values so I would respect seeing a similar quality in a partner. Generosity is a characteristic that I would want someone to have; jealousy or possessiveness is not.

Thus drinking to excess and insulting strangers was a small part of her self-description, and might not even have been true. There was therefore not much to conclude from it.

Now it was a matter of indisputable fact that her description of her drinking took up only a minority of her self-description, and neither I nor my interlocutor was in a position to say which part, if any, of that self-description was truthful. We could speculate endlessly without resolving the matter.

But I argued that my point was not affected by curlygirl24’s actual conduct; it would not be affected by it even if she was, in fact, a teetotaler and was lying about her consumption of alcohol. The point is that, in Britain, we had now reached a stage in which an educated young woman wanted to present herself as a drunk who was impolite to strangers, and thought this might be an attractive feature of her personality or character. She wanted, in appearance at the very least, to conform to the ‘culture’ (I use the word in the American anthropological sense) that is to be witnessed in every British town and city on Friday and Saturday nights. And that in itself would be a straw in the wind. Of course, whether it bothered you would depend on how you estimated the ‘culture’ in whose wind it was a straw.

My interlocutor argued that the binge drinking, if any, would be minor because of her half marathon running. He did not mention, as he might have done, that she was a sample of one, and in a society of many millions all human types are to be found. Moreover, there is nothing new under the sun. Even if curlygirl24 did drink to excess and then insult people at random, she would hardly be the first woman in the history of the world to have done so.

The first point, that she could at the most have spent only a small minority of in drunk and insulting mode, seems to me quite wrong or unrealistic. The social significance of what people do is not necessarily, indeed not often, proportional to the length of time they spend doing it. Even a serial killer does not spend much of his time killing; taken overall, he might even spend more time doing the washing up, but from society’s point of view that is not what is important about him. One could even imagine Adolf Hitler’s self-description for Soulmates: Vegetarian with sweet tooth, antisemite, into films and open-top Mercedes cars, dog-lover.

It is true that curlygirl24 was only one person, and that the importance that one invests in her self-presentation depended to a large extent upon one’s reading or pre-existing knowledge of the wider society in which it took place; but I would say (though I cannot prove) that someone who thought it without significance had a tin ear for reading a society, just as some people have a tin ear for music or poetry.

The faculty of judgment is difficult to reduce to any other. History is replete with learned fools, brilliant dupes and well-informed nincompoops. One must not despise information, but not must worship it either, as if wisdom will emerge from it of its own accord.