Politics & Policy

The Cant of Our Age

Snobbery, far from the deadliest sin.

Cant, n…. 4 : the expression or repetition of conventional, trite, or unconsidered ideas, opinions or sentiments; especially : the insincere use of pious phraseology

–Merriam-Webster’s Third

My colleague Ramesh Ponnuru picked up on that part of the president’s funeral eulogy to Ronald Reagan where he said: “He [i.e. Ronald Reagan] believed that bigotry and prejudice were the worst things a person could be guilty of.” Noted Ramesh on The Corner: “I doubt that Reagan believed that proposition, and if he had, his holding of that view would not have been praiseworthy. I am sure, on the other hand, that Bush believes this proposition, or thinks that he does.”

A reader of The Corner pointed out that the sentiment is actually taken from one of Reagan’s letters, written in 1983: “I was raised from my childhood by parents who believed bigotry and prejudice were the worst things a person could be guilty of.” Acknowledging this, Ramesh added: “It still seems to me to be a strange sentiment.”

I agree with Ramesh. And then some: I think it’s a very strange sentiment. “Bigotry and prejudice,” in current usage, mostly means snobbery on the part of white people towards people of color.

Now, snobbery is certainly a deplorable thing. Having been raised in public housing at the bottom of the English class system, I need no lessons from anybody in the insults and indignities that are endured at the receiving end of snobbery. On a sensible scale of moral turpitude, though, does snobbery really measure as worse than beating your wife, starving your kids, cheating your friends, or betraying your country? This is not even to mention more dramatic aberrations. Is snobbery, even race snobbery, really more flagitious than murder, rape, kidnapping, drug dealing, and bank robbery?

In fact, of course, most of us nurse some degree of this “bigotry and prejudice” at least some of the time, and in 99.99 percent of instances it is perfectly harmless. It arises from ethnocentric pride, which, along with other species of pride–and indeed the other six Deadly Sins too–is just a part of human nature.

Like other regrettable aspects of human nature, race snobbery is best kept in check by the propagation of good manners–which is to say, some fair concern for other people’s feelings. Children should be taught from a young age that to openly express snobbery of this sort for malicious or egotistical purposes is ill-mannered.

(Sinful or not–though I don’t think this should be taught to children–pride can sometimes be excused.

Johnson: “Sir, that is not Lord Chesterfield; he is the proudest man this day existing.”

Dr. Adams: “No, there is one person, at least, as proud; I think, by your own account, you are the prouder man of the two.”

Johnson: “But mine was DEFENSIVE pride.”

Similarly, I think there are times when snobbery can be fairly expressed. For example, defensively, if the snobbed-against category openly insults you with snobbery of its own, or demands a privileged status for itself. And concern for other people’s feelings can be taken to extremes, as we have seen in recent years with the rise of multi-million-dollar settlements for trivial cases of “discrimination” or “harassment.” These complicated things belong to the adult world, though. With kids, you just have to impart the basics.)

To teach children that lurking feelings of this kind are “the worst things a person could be guilty of” is, to my way of thinking, positively harmful. The greatest intellectual gift you can give to children is some basic understanding of the world as it is. This can be done by proper instruction in literature, religion, and history, and by personal example. Human nature has its unpleasant aspects, but they must be understood in their proper proportions; and the means of curtailing them–or contrariwise, when necessary, of unleashing them in an orderly and acceptable fashion (violence in war, or vituperation in polemical writing)–must be taught. To send young people out into the world believing that mild, occasional feelings of superiority towards this or that category of their fellow human beings are “the worst things a person could be guilty of” makes about as much sense as our great grandparents’ sending grandma out with the belief that sexual intercourse is filthy and shameful.

This is, however, the cant of our age, as sex-panic was the cant of grandma’s age. Like the smell of kerosene, cant will seep into everything. Presidents are not immune: They have to say and do a great many things, and can’t always have their wits about them when they are speaking or writing. Sometimes they will come out with cant. I don’t think any the less of Reagan or W. for mouthing this stuff.

I confess I do, though, like Ramesh, nurse a sneaking fear that W. may actually believe this preposterous sentiment, or, more likely, may just never have subjected it to critical inquiry. If I were sure of this, I would think less of my president. Being very unwilling to do that, I think I’ll just drop the whole subject right here.


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