In fairness to Professor Grayling, this post could be written about most British academics. I only single him out because I have been reading one of his books, “The Meaning of Things.” I read it in response to his rebuke that I had judged him harshly on too little data. He is, alas, neither better nor worse than the average British academic.
By 1971, when I moved from Cambridge to a permanent lectureship at Birkbeck College, London, I had become a conservative. So far as I could discover there was only one other conservative at Birkbeck, and that was Nunzia—Maria Annunziata—the Neapolitan lady who served meals in the Senior Common Room and who cocked a snook at the lecturers by plastering her counter with kitschy photos of the Pope.
One of those lecturers, towards whom Nunzia conceived a particular antipathy, was Eric Hobsbawm, the lionized historian of the Industrial Revolution, whose Marxist vision of our country is now the orthodoxy taught in British schools. Hobsbawm came as a refugee to Britain, bringing with him the Marxist commitment and Communist Party membership that he retained until he could retain it no longer—the Party, to his chagrin, having dissolved itself in embarrassment at the lies that could no longer be repeated. No doubt in recognition of this heroic career, Hobsbawm was rewarded, at Mr. Blair’s behest , with the second highest award that the Queen can bestow—that of “Companion of Honour.” This little story is of enormous significance to a British conservative. For it is a symptom and a symbol of what has happened to our intellectual life since the Sixties. We should ponder the extraordinary fact that Oxford University, which granted an honorary degree to Bill Clinton on the grounds that he had once hung around its precincts, refused the same honour to Margaret Thatcher, its most distinguished post-war graduate and Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. We should ponder some of the other recipients of honorary degrees from British academic institutions—Robert Mugabe, for example, or the late Mrs. Ceausescu—or count (on the fingers of one hand) the number of conservatives who are elected to the British Academy.
While Grayling is intelligent and articulate the abiding impression left by his book is that he is unremarkable in his thinking. His opinions are as groomed as his flowing locks. There is no cliché out of place. Had he spent his life shaping his views to qualify as one of “the Great and the Good” of our Establishment, this is precisely where he would have arrived. One can predict his view on almost any given subject without effort.
To be fair, let's note the exceptions. I have already acknowledged that he has been laudably robust in opposing New Labour's authoritarianism. He goes rather further than the average academic secularist in his hostility to religion. I don’t fault his opinions on the latter, although I am not nearly as contemptuous of my fellow-men who feel the need for its comforts.
In other respects, however, Grayling is a cookie-cutter British academic; a bog-standard inhabitant of the SCR. Perhaps that - combined with his air of patrician condescension when I heard him speak at my daughter’s school - is why he irritates me so much.
The ideas with which men and women like him have poisoned our nation in recent decades are summarised elegantly, arrogantly and without a scintilla of doubt in this slim volume. I have to say I admire the writing. I wish his undoubted skills were more often better deployed. The Devil always did employ the best musicians.
He has divided the book into three sections. Part I is entitled
“Virtues & Attributes”, Part II, “Foes & Fallacies” and Part
III “Amenities & Goods”. Here’s an example of how predictable he
is. Under which heading would you expect to find “Nationalism”,
“Capitalism” and “Christianity?” I am sure you will guess correctly.
Anyone with exposure to British academia would expect him to attack the economic system which sustains him as a paid thinker. Of course Communist societies paid their intellectuals too, but it takes a capitalist nation to pay the salaries of its enemies. I am happy to pay taxes to sustain the likes of Grayling, but he will must forgive some irritation when he bites my hand as I pass him his daily bread. Especially when, as Scruton points out, I do not even get a gladiatorial contest with intellectual opponents for my money.
No-one would be surprised that a British academic singles out for derision the religion whose values shaped British society. I am an atheist myself. I think that, psychologically, all atheists are “a-” a particular “theism.” An atheist in a Christian country grows up in a culture shaped by Christian thought and is -in a sense - trapped in reaction to Christianity. Grayling’s book rather supports this thesis. True, his “foes and fallacies” include “Faith,” “Miracles,” and “Prophecy,” which are not specific to one religion but he reserves a special chapter for “Christianity.” Astonishingly (given the competition it faces from Islam) he seems to regard it as particularly sanguinary, misogynist and sex-obsessed.
Most of all one would expect any British academic to deride the idea that people should love their nation. After all, all the most famous Cold War traitors were recruited and nurtured in an academia that seemed barely able to restrain itself from treachery. Here, from his essay on “Betrayal” is a sample;
Oddly, patriotism is most virulent [my emphasis] in those countries which do the least for their citizens in the provision of welfare - the United States and China, for instance.
Note the assumption that, in a logical world, citizens would be loyal to their countries in direct proportion to the provision of "welfare." It is the assumption of our current Government, which consistently attempts to bribe supposedly biddable groups. Note also his choice of the word “virulent” [definition: "(of a disease or poison) extremely severe or harmful in its effects"]. It is no accident, as a subsequent passage clarifies;
Betrayal of a person is far worse than betrayal of a country. To a reflective mind the latter is anyway an odd notion; a “country” or “nation” is an abstraction, almost invariably the product of war or dispossession of someone else.
Not for Professor Grayling the notion of nation as super-extended family. It is every bit as "odd" for us to favour the people chance deals us randomly as parents or siblings. Yet good things stem from our doing so. There is also something that just feels right about it - most of the time.
Without belittling in any way those who bring up children well in other ways, few disagree that growing up in a family is good for a child. For a family to provide nurture and security, its members must overcome their rationality and love each other illogically. Nature lends them a hand to do so. In the presence of our DNA, even the worst of us (if not a British intellectual) tends to be more protective than not.
For a nation to provide the equivalent on a larger scale, its members must - to some extent - do likewise. As nations have evolved over centuries, developing their shared languages and cultures, this is not so difficult (if you are not a British intellectual). As adjustments have been made over centuries, with outcasts from one nation seeking refuge with a more sympathetic one, it has arguably become easier to be loyal (if you are not a British intellectual).
In ridiculing such notions, men like Grayling hack away at the bonds that make society work. The anti-social behaviour which is now such a scourge is the logical consequence. For much of the last hundred years, Leftist intellectuals have attacked traditional loyalties to make way for new ones. They wanted us to be loyal to the Party, to the State or to the international proletariat. All constructs no less artificial than “country,” or "nation.” Now that these constructs have been exposed as largely ridiculous in the collapse of Communism; now that all the lies we were told about life in the various “workers’ paradises” have been exposed to History's derision, it seems our leftists continue only from a kind of malicious habit. If we will not be loyal to their discredited constructs, we shall be loyal - they hope - to nothing.
Grayling writes eloquently of morality, of society of community but he despises all forces that, historically, have promoted morality and held societies and communities together. He offers no alternative but some kind of vague "communitarianism" coupled with the now-traditional antipathy to "racism", "sexism", "homophobia", and "speciesism". In an ideal world, perhaps we would all study philosophy and arrive independently at a moral view of the world. It seems fairly unlikely, frankly, that our ASBO’d youths will do so. Their grandfathers were no better than them but they were more subject to the bonds of nation, community, family and religion. Those who seek to cut what little remains of those bonds had better, if responsible, have some replacement in mind that will be attractive to ordinary folk.