01 September 2008

Lock the doors, character's bolted

We sure live in a topsy-turvy political world at the moment. On the 'Right', we have The Party Formerly Known As The Conservatives, who are now (apparently) the party of poverty and fairness, and are busily trying to find new roles for the state (what, we don't have enough already?). On the other side, we have a 'liberal' intelligentsia sufficiently on the defensive about the Left's recent record on civil liberties to indulge in a certain amount of pro-bourgeois posturing. Both phenomena are probably phoney and temporary, but it does mean that some of the more interesting writing is currently coming from the latter camp.

In August's Prospect Magazine, for example, we have Demos director Richard Reeves extolling the virtues of good character, the three key ingredients of which are apparently

a sense of personal agency or self-direction; an acceptance of personal responsibility; and effective regulation of one's own emotions, in particular the ability to resist temptation or at least defer gratification.
We get a little less prevarication than usual about the role of genes in all this. “It is clear that some character traits are inherited” concedes Reeves. The traditional family, long despised by mainstream sociology, is now portrayed as the “main character factory”. However, the desire to see environmental factors as important, providing excuses for intervention, soon creeps into the discussion.
the weight of evidence is that good parents provide good insulation against inherited negative traits — and that being a good parent has little to do with having a good income.
Yes, but is the possibility considered that parenting ability — which includes reacting to potentially maladaptive behaviour in your child in a way that helps rather than makes things worse — is itself heritable? Sadly, no.

Arguing against the mainstream view which (predictably) sees capitalism as the anti-character villain (as for instance in the work of economics professor Avner Offer), Reeves refreshingly notes that consumerism
may in fact build character, by giving people the chance to make real choices and to exercise some power over companies and brands — power which they may lack in the labour market.
Of course, no leftist analysis (under which rubric we may in future have to include anything the Tories draw on for their policies) can go without finding some reason why the state should do more. Having noted that “parental authority is important” and that “it is harder to be a good parent alone”, Reeves manages to conclude that parents should be monitored and, if necessary, forced to attend 'parenting classes'.
Given the evidence linking early years' experience with the development of good character, the state should not leave children to the mercies of bad parents ... compelling failing mothers and fathers to attend parenting classes is not in itself illiberal.
A strange definition of 'illiberal' seems to be being employed here. And no explanation is provided for why employees of the state should have either the motive or the ability to transmit complex and crucial social capital to individuals with whom they have no genetic affiliation, and not even a direct economic relationship.

Reeves also embraces uncritically the ideology of the 'wellbeing' industry, arguing that
The "social and emotional aspects of learning" element of the national curriculum is a step towards seeing educational institutions as factories for character rather than for the production of future units of human capital.
No reason is given for why it should be more virtuous to regard schools as 'character factories' than as providers of economic capital, other than a quote from a former headmaster of Stowe, who apparently aimed at turning out men who would be “acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck”. Perhaps there are many graduates of comprehensive schools who would be unacceptable at dances, and useless in shipwrecks. But is it likely that introducing notional lessons about 'character' will make things better?

* * * * *

On a related note, and also from the Left, Danny Dorling argued in a recent New Statesman article on social class that
Airs and graces no longer matter. In fact, it is crucial to try to avoid them regardless of which end of the scale you are from ... Most of the old markers of class fade as, for men, a ubiquitous "bloke" is created ...
Dorling points out that people used to aspire to a slightly higher position on the social spectrum than their actual one. Now however,
those at the top have to try to appear like the rest: chummy and normal. This year women had to be told to wear knickers to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. How did we get here from there?
How did we get here? Well, apart from the economic decimation of the old upper and upper middle classes by taxation, which Dorling mentions, it might have something to do with a culture that relentlessly stresses the virtues of egalitarianism, and the evils of feeling superior. If wanting to be superior, and feeling superior, are regarded as vices, where are the emotional incentives and rewards for behaving better? They aren't there, and what's more, they have been inverted: rewards have become punishments. Perhaps this has some bearing on why upper class women now think it's cute to behave 'badly' at Ascot, and why there is no longer much desire to emulate the bourgeoisie, or quite so much about the bourgeoisie that's still worth emulating.

Perhaps this in turn has some relevance for the supposed decline of 'character'? But on the question of ideology and popular culture, and their effect on behavioural norms, both Reeves and Dorling are curiously silent.

In other news
Celia Green's Reflection of the Month is about capitalism, communism and tigers.
• The amount of hot air currently being written and blogged about inequality is simply staggering. Did inequality increase more under Thatcher or under Blair? Did Thatcher create the underclass? Etc etc. One thing about the 'underclass': it is considerably less poor* than it was under the Victorians, but arguably worse behaved. Is the bad behaviour of its members attributable to recent supposed increases in inequality (feeling 'deeply excluded', as Tony Blair claimed), or to an ideology, pumped out via TV, that promotes feelings of resentment and automatic entitlement? I wonder whether it is possible for a society to cultivate 'compassion' as a permanent pose towards a particular social group, without this effectively giving the group permission to become monsters. Probably not.
Bishop Hill has a fascinating post about the climate-alarmism industry, which illustrates how modern academia cheerfully tweaks its data to get results which will reinforce the il-liberal consensus**. However, I have some sympathy with the dodgy researchers in question. If you do not produce work that reinforces the dominant ideology, your career will be ruined, and your children will have to go to state schools, where their careers will be ruined.
Heresy Corner makes some useful points about modern education and exams. He says pupils are (contrary to some critics) working harder than in earlier eras, it's just that the work is largely pointless and time-serving. Pointless work, or surplus time dissipation as I call it, is a key feature of mediocracy. It is related to the phenomenon found in modern academia of padding — inflating minor or trivial truths by means of redundant verbiage, often suitably incomprehensible — though it has to be said that academia has always tended to suffer from this. You see a similar effect in certain blog posts, incidentally, which go on for ever but ultimately don't seem to say much. They look learned, but is it just waffle for waffle's sake?
Mencius Moldbug has an interesting post about economics, inspired by an article in the New York Times. He distinguishes modern economics, obsessed with mathematical style to the detriment of meaningful substance, from old-fashioned literary economics, and argues that the former should be renamed 'econology'. I disagree with his explanation for the vacuity of current economics, however. Mathematicisation is not in itself the problem, any more than the internet is responsible for porn: academic technique, like technology, has its uses, and is value-neutral. The real problem is that academia's quality control system has become collectivist and mechanical. What gets you on these days, as in other areas of high culture, is looking clever, and not saying anything too meaningful or genuinely progressive.
• Is blogging bad for your health? Two of the nation's 'top' bloggers are showing signs of middle-aged wear and tear, if blogosphere chatter is to be believed. It has always struck me as a bit unnatural to be available to a global audience 24/7, without even getting large sums of money for it. Must be a bit of a strain, and one reason why I only do this once or twice a week.

* original definition of poverty
** basically, whatever supports a bigger state