The dereliction of duty
by Daniel Johnson
If we seek an explanation of our politicians’ dereliction of duty, we shall find that such phenomena surface first in the infidelities of our spiritual and intellectual elites, in what Julien Benda called the trahison des clercs.
To anybody who has been around for half a century or more, much of what passes for politics today is bound to seem intolerably trivial, ludicrously frivolous, culpably complacent. Serious public consideration of foreign policy has virtually ceased. When we Cold Warriors contemplate the present generation of leaders’ contemptible lack of courage and absence of principle in the face of far less formidable foes than those defeated by their predecessors, we cannot believe our eyes. Meanwhile, domestic politics often seems to have descended into the gutter, a squalid contest between greed and envy, dominated by naked appeals to the lowest common denominators of public opinion. The less trustworthy and statesmanlike our politicians and officials become, the more overweening their ambition to control every aspect of our lives. The malaise of political megalomania afflicts all three branches of government—legislature, executive, and judiciary—and is equally apparent, despite their contrasting constitutional differences, in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The term “hollowing out” accurately conveys the reductio ad absurdum of institutions that once commanded our unconditional allegiance. But I prefer a different term to indicate the moral collapse that has drained the authority of our political systems. The phrase I shall use: dereliction of duty. Duty is an unfashionable concept; yet without a devotion not only to the obligations it entails, but to the sense of vocation that it implies, our societies cannot function. Unless imbued with a sense of duty by those responsible for our respective commonwealths, the noblest ideals of democracy, liberty, and the rule of law become empty vessels, and their institutional embodiments mere shells, emptied of meaning and incapable of inspiring loyalty and self-sacrifice. Duty, in short, is the civic virtue par excellence; its dereliction, by contrast, is fatal to republic and monarchy alike. Indeed, the very word “dereliction” implies the deliberate neglect of a solemn obligation, the relinquishing of responsibility, the ultimate betrayal of citizenship.
In order to understand what has gone wrong with our political practice, we need to take account of the decline of political ideas. That quest obliges us to broaden our perspective. I propose to adopt the scheme of the great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, who defined the three forces that determine the course of world history as State, Religion, and Culture. It was natural for a man of the nineteenth century to extend his horizon to grasp the interdependence of these three “potencies,” die drei Potenzen, as Burckhardt called them, borrowing a term from the sage of Romanticism, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. But how often do today’s political scientists take seriously the power of religion or culture to transform politics?
It seems to me, however, that the symptoms of decline were apparent in our churches and synagogues, our theaters and our lecture halls, long before they were felt in our cabinet rooms, courts, and debating chambers. If we seek an explanation of our politicians’ dereliction of duty, we shall find that such phenomena surface first in the infidelities of our spiritual and intellectual elites, in what Julien Benda called the trahison des clercs.
Let us take religion first. Secularization is not some inevitable fate, but a comparatively recent fact that is, moreover, as contingent as it is reversible. The history of Christianity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain is proof of this. The Church of England went from latitudinarian decay to evangelical revival within a generation or two. That revival did not preclude—indeed, it was stimulated by—the proliferation of new Protestant churches and the re-emergence of the Catholic Church in Victorian Britain.
Industrialization, urbanization, the rise of the working and middle classes, the emancipation of women, and universal education were all harnessed by a new breed of priests and pastors who saw their duty not only as the evangelization but also the elevation of humanity: from John Henry Newman, who in his long career scandalized both Anglicans and Catholics but may now be seen simply as the greatest Christian of his age, to Richard John Neuhaus, who likewise towered above his Protestant and Catholic contemporaries by arguing that the logical extension to civil rights was the right to life for the old, the infirm, and the unborn. Equally important were lay Christians who dedicated their lives to the improvement of the less fortunate: from William Wilberforce, whose conversion led him to drive through the abolition of the slave trade, to Abraham Lincoln, whose faith sustained him through the Union’s worst ordeal and has inspired Americans ever since.
So what went wrong with our religion? The dereliction of duty in this case took the form of an abandonment of the moral foundations on which Western society had rested for two millennia.
Above all, there was a retreat from the concept of sin into a mealy-mouthed relativism that blurred the distinction between forgiveness and indifference: the metamorphosis of the Biblical commandment to forgive the sinner as often as necessary into an aversion to making moral distinctions at all, let alone “being judgmental.” The danger that such a pathological hollowing out of Christian ethics brought with it should have been obvious: a moral paralysis in the presence of radical evil. This failure to condemn depravity first became manifest at the time of the Holocaust. The churches had on the whole been united in their resistance to Communism, because Christianity itself was persecuted in Soviet Russia. But the churches’ silence in the face of the Nazi threat to the Jews exposed the ethical evisceration of many Christian communities. In the post-war period, the capitulation of the churches to various forms of anti-Western ideology further revealed how deeply the decay had advanced. Most recently, the feeble response of the West to the global persecution of oriental churches by Islamists has demonstrated that even when Christians are themselves the targets, the churches lack either the strength or the will to force the hand of secularist governments. But the dereliction of duty runs deeper than the failure to mount campaigns to galvanize public opinion. What we are witnessing is a kind of reversion to paganism, a fatalistic indifference to wickedness and suffering that is born of the eclipse of imago Dei, the Judeo-Christian recognition that we are made in the image of God.
A new book, Secular Faith, by the political scientist Mark Smith, has the revealing subtitle How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics.Professor Smith musters a mass of evidence to show that on social issues such as slavery, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, and feminism, the mainstream Christian churches have been forced to adapt their doctrines to accommodate cultural changes in the secular sphere. But the truth is that while Christian social teachings have indeed developed over time, as Newman explained some 150 years ago, this does not mean that Christianity is a merely sociological phenomenon.
Religion unfolds as an autonomous historical power that cannot be reduced to anything else, as is demonstrated by our abject failure to confront or even to explain the present violent upheavals of Islam.
If Christianity is in decline in the West, it is growing rapidly elsewhere, from Africa and Latin America to Asia, despite persecution. Where Christian leaders in Europe and North America have blown with the wind, their pews have emptied and their institutions—religious orders, universities, schools, and hospitals—have been hollowed out. It is not so much that culture trumps religion as that an anemic religion ceases to have the requisite influence on culture to preserve its own integrity. Dereliction of their duty by priests and bishops ultimately reduces them to mere functionaries of the cultural and political establishment.
This brings us to the priesthood of unbelievers—the votaries of a secular culture that has been drained of much of its moral and intellectual lifeblood, and which has long since ceased to be able to inspire or to elevate politics as once it could.
Today it is almost unthinkable that a British prime minister or an American president would take a sufficiently serious interest in philosophy, history, cosmology, or poetry to wish to spend their leisure hours in earnest discussion with the leading exponents of these arts and sciences. Yet the Metaphysical Society of London, which flourished in the late nineteenth century, boasted such luminaries as W. E. Gladstone and A. J. Balfour, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and T. H. Huxley, Cardinal Manning and John Ruskin, among many other eminent Victorians. Can one imagine David Cameron or Barack Obama at a dining club disputing over mutton and metaphysics—or indeed doing anything more strenuous than “chillaxing” over tennis or golf?
Our “elites,” indeed, no longer have much to do with the high-minded pursuit of intellectual and imaginative excellence that were the connotations of “culture” when Matthew Arnold and his contemporaries adopted the term from German thought. Culture no longer necessarily implies self-cultivation or learning; it is a value-neutral term embracing everything and nothing. Its practitioners are largely oblivious of the noble ambition to transcend time and place to discover eternal truths or to create works of enduring beauty. They are instead fixated by technologically driven ephemera, guilt-induced humanitarianism, and status-defined identity politics. In such circumstances, culture may lose its autonomy and become instead the mere reflection of society that Marxists and utilitarians of many stripes have always taken it to be. Even a superstructure, however, may serve a navigational purpose, just as it does on board a ship. Above the political fray, it is sometimes possible to glimpse what may be approaching from distant horizons. But how often do the grand panjandrums of our academies and museums, our Nobel and Pulitzer laureates, still dazzle us with their visions? The era of sages, seers, and pioneers, it seems, is past; the symbol of our callow age is the selfie. Seldom do the arbiters of our culture confront the perils of the present, or seek their origins in the past; still less do they warn of danger ahead. Rather, they inhabit the hollowed-out husk of a civilization that most have long since ceased to cherish or even understand. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that the unprecedented scale of destruction of the most sublime monuments of ancient Mesopotamia and Syria by Islamic State has been all but ignored by the Western powers, not to mention the non-Western ones. Our political, social, and cultural elites have largely turned a blind eye to this crime against civilization hidden in plain sight.
The elites of the past were often equally philistine, but we owe an infinite debt to the antiquarians, such as Sir John Soane, who not only amassed the greatest cabinet of curiosities of his day, but had the wit to bequeath and endow it to the nation, creating a museum that remains free to the public to this day, and paving the way for such unique family collections as the Frick, the Guggenheim, and the Wallace. Which of today’s patrons of the arts could match the insight of Horace Walpole in his famous letter of 1774 responding to the first engravings of the Syrian desert cities, which had edified Enlightenment Europe? There he already envisages the catastrophe of his own civilization and the rise of the New World: “The next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will, perhaps, be a Thucydides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, and, in time, a Virgil at Mexico, and a Newton at Peru. At last, some curious traveller from Lima will visit England and give a description of the ruins of St Paul’s, like the editions of Baalbec and Palmyra.” We tend to dismiss such cosmopolitan custodians of high culture as dilettantes. Yet the term “dilettante” was once a badge of honor: the Society of Dilettanti included such luminaries as Joshua Reynolds and David Garrick; they helped to persuade Parliament to set up the Royal Academy and to take practical steps to save what was left of ancient Greece. These amateurs were more passionate about preserving their priceless inheritance from the ancient world than many professionals today.
Some of these dilettanti were also diplomats. Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador in Naples from 1764–1800, was an extraordinary polymath: a renowned connoisseur of Greek and Roman vases, the Royal Society’s leading vulcanologist, and a patron of Mozart. It is not his fault that he is chiefly remembered as one of history’s most celebrated cuckolds, after his second wife’s notorious affair with Admiral Lord Nelson, the naval hero of the Napoleonic Wars. Another diplomatic dilettante was Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, ambassador to the Sublime Porte, who was devoted to Classical Greece, and the Parthenon in particular. The temple, later church, had been converted by the Ottomans first into a mosque, then a gunpowder magazine. The Parthenon blew up during the Venetian siege of Athens in 1687; over the next century further damage was done until the Society of Dilettanti sent two English archeologists to draw and survey the ruins. In 1806 Elgin brought back from Athens most of the surviving fragments of the Parthenon’s frieze, metopes, and pediment—an extraordinary feat of archeological rescue and conservation that was recognized at the time by a grateful nation which has referred to the sculptures as the “Elgin Marbles” ever since. Today, of course, such imperial benefactors are seen differently by liberal critics such as the late Christopher Hitchens, who declared: “We can’t live with this embarrassment.” Well, we can and we should. Embarrassment is a small price to pay for passing on works which cannot be replaced to posterity.
When Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacob Burckhardt heard reports that the Louvre had been burnt down in a malicious act of arson by the far-Left supporters of the Paris Commune in May 1871, the two professors could do nothing but weep for the loss of the great art that gave their lives meaning. “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified,” Nietzsche later wrote in The Birth of Tragedy. (In fact, the museum survived, though the Tuileries Palace and other parts of the Louvre, including the royal library, were destroyed.) The reports may have been false but the tears were genuine. Today, I doubt that many academics—the vast majority of whom are sympathetic to the cause of the Left—would have shared that anguish. The incident prompted Nietzsche to denounce “that hatred which has been nourished by Communists and Socialists, as well as by their paler descendants, the white race of ‘Liberals’ of every age, against the arts, but also against classical antiquity.”
If this seems unduly harsh, we should consider what would happen to culture in the name of socialism during the century that began with Nietzsche’s death in 1900: a danse macabre from Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and Saddam to the brothers Castro, now basking in approval from pope and president.
The debasement of the currency of cultural discourse has gone so far that the obliteration of one ancient city after another has evoked only the feeblest of protests—and no action to halt this vandalism. If only the statesmen of the twenty-first century had a fraction of their Georgian predecessors’ entrepreneurial spirit, we would not have waited until the barbarians were at the gate.
If the institutions of religion and culture have indeed been hollowed out by the dereliction of duty, what about those of politics? In Britain, we set great store by our political institutions, which are among the oldest of their kind in the world. The most ancient of all, the monarchy, long predates the conversion of England by St. Augustine of Canterbury in the sixth century AD. Yet it has come to symbolize the idea that we are still a Christian country—so much so, indeed, that it is hard to imagine the monarchy surviving a takeover by any other faith or ideology: National Socialism in the last century, for example, or Islam in this one. In fact, the most radical rupture in the religious history of these islands coincided with the Interregnum, when Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army imposed a Puritan republic. At his future coronation, King Charles III (though he may well choose to rule under one of his many other names) has hinted that he may seek to abolish or at least downplay its Judeo-Christian significance—I stress the Jewish aspect, because the most hallowed part of the ceremony is actually the anthem Zadok the Priest, which predates Handel’s setting by at least a thousand years. If he does so, however, Charles will be hollowing out an institution that may face other challenges, too. My old friend Charles Krauthammer likes to tease me by asking why the British still have a hereditary monarchy. The best answer was given to me recently by an Australian diplomat, who explained the paradox that in his country the monarchy is popular even among republicans. Why? Because it is the only answer to the constitutional conundrum: the people will only have a republic if they can elect the president, but parliament will never vote for a directly elected head of state who would rival its authority. In Britain, too, an appointed or indirectly elected head of state would lack legitimacy, just as the various “presidents” of the European Union—four at the last count—all come across to the British as pretenders. If we keep calm, the monarchy will carry on.
What about Parliament? It has lost much, though not all, of its sovereignty. The institutions of the European Union have encroached on its authority, from above, while devolution has sapped its powers from below. The use of the referendum not merely to ratify but to make constitutional decisions implies that Parliament is no longer trusted by the electorate. Governments are increasingly inclined to bypass the Commons and overrule the Lords, often using the residual powers of the Crown to short-circuit parliamentary procedure. But legislation itself is provisional, ad hoc, and arbitrary. The rule of law, too, has been hollowed out by the erosion of respect for the legal system. This has gone hand in hand with the intrusion of statute law, and especially human rights law, into areas of life that hitherto required only the light touch of the common law. Human rights trump all other rights, just as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg trumps British courts. Parliament has played this game too, but it has lost authority in the process. A British Bill of Rights would help to restore the balance.
Yet one cannot help thinking that the hollowing out of Parliament has as much to do with the individuals who sit in it as any of the more impersonal forces at work. It has long been assumed that the Commons, where almost all the power still resided, was bound to attract a higher proportion of rogues than the Lords. And sure enough, the best-known parliamentary scandals of recent decades have nearly always involved MPs rather than peers—from the Profumo affair of 1963 to the exposure of the abuse of parliamentary expenses in 2009. But some of the most egregious cases of the last five years have actually concerned members of the House of Lords, almost all of whom are now peers who are appointed for life—a circumstance which in theory renders them above fear or favor, but which in practice gives them the sense that they are unaccountable and sometimes above the law.
The recent case of the Scottish Labour peer Baron Sewel, who was filmed giving prostitutes the benefit of his worldly wisdom in between snorting cocaine from their breasts, may have added to the gaiety of nations but lowered the public’s already limited esteem for the Upper House of Parliament to rock bottom. It swiftly emerged that this same Lord Sewel had, in his capacity as Deputy Speaker, been in charge of maintaining standards of conduct in that House and had been much given to lecturing their lordships about honor, decency, and other such matters. It scarcely seemed to signify that the noble Lord had also been vice principal of the University of Aberdeen after a long career of teaching there, even though his moral conduct had presumably been deemed acceptable not only by his peers but also by his fellow academics until it came under scrutiny by the media. The Sewel case illustrates what can happen when politics becomes sufficiently hollowed out that a shameless hypocrite can be elevated to positions of trust, if not of real power, where their hypocrisy can bring an entire legislature into disrepute. It was Molière’s Tartuffe whose thought his only crime was to be caught: Le scandale du monde est ce qui fait l’offense,/ Et ce n’est pas pécher que pécher en silence. (“It is public scandal that constitutes offenses, and to sin in secret is not to sin at all.”)
Hence we are reminded that the only antidote to the problem of hollowed-out institutions is relentless public scrutiny by a press that delights in doing its duty even when others neglect theirs. The power of the press is quite limited, but the deadliest weapon in its arsenal is ridicule. In politics, as in religion and culture, the dereliction of duty deserves merciless ridicule, because ridicule is intolerable to those being ridiculed, and there is no other method by which a hollowed-out institution is more likely to be brought to its senses before it is too late. In “The Hollow Men,” T. S. Eliot famously concluded the poem with a reference to the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament: This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper. Unless we can rid our political institutions of the hollow men whose dereliction of duty has obliged the press to ridicule them, we may end not with a whimper, but with a very big bang indeed.
Daniel Johnson is a historian and journalist who has written widely on Germany. He is also the editor of Standpoint magazine.