EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the August 8, 2005, issue of National Review.
Mrs. Jellyby, in Dickens’s Bleak House, was so concerned for the welfare of the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger, that she quite neglected to look after her own children, who lived in squalor and misery as a result. How many Mrs. Jellybys, metaphorically speaking, were there among the two billion people who were said to have attended or watched Live 8’s rock concerts?
No scientific research has been done into this question, but I suspect that the number is in the high hundreds of millions. The idea that you can simultaneously entertain yourself and do immense good by watching performances of the Peter Pans of pop music (who are stuck in permanent adolescence rather than permanent childhood) is a most agreeable one, though surely destructive of a truer, albeit less comfortable and undemanding, conception of virtue.
The expression of high-flown sentiment, or rather sentimentality, is thereby made the very model of human goodness; and the more vehement the expression, the more profound the goodness. In the process, the difference between sanctity and sanctimony disappears, and with it our ability to distinguish between the two. . .
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