Sunday, August 21, 2005
CONNECTIONS, CONNECTIONS - LIBERALISM, PLASTIC SURGERY AND SUCH
Two items this week, not superficially immediately linked to each other caught my attention and got em thinking if they're not in fact about something very similar.
First up, Blimpish has this great posting on the relationship between liberalism and patriotism. It's a great posting and I urge you to go and read all of it. But basically this is what I'm interested in right now:
This is a big part of my problem with the current 'values' fetish: it's a symptom of liberal horror at embracing a particular, parochial tradition. As discussed here, the same problem afflicts the Tory leadership campaign - they all line up to say how patriotic they are, but it's only now that a few have made noises about the specific roots of British identity besides vague, abstract values that could be claimed by anybody in the West.
The second piece is by Jo Anne Nadler in the Groan about the return of Bridget Jones. Again, only this short bit is relevant for my posting here:
If a man is what you are after, the message from her diary is to be yourself and ultimately you will have one - or even two competing for you. And in the workplace too, Bridget's lesson is that real personality wins out over contrived perfection.
Sadly it appears that Jones's real-life contemporaries find the conclusions of her fictional story too saccharine. It seems that we don't have sufficient self-confidence to believe that we deserve such happy endings, unless we are as glamorous as celebrities. According to women in their late 30s surveyed for this month's Top Santé magazine, celebrity culture has made men's expectations of women too high. As a result, we feel increasingly obliged to diet, and to submit to makeovers and even cosmetic surgery, to impress men in the bedroom and the boardroom.
It is certainly true that increasing numbers of women, and men, are bringing about a boom in a cosmetic-surgery industry now worth about £300m a year.
What all these two snippets have in common I think is the issue of accepting oneself as oneself or not, and particularly what to do, when you're dissatisfied with yourself, or part of your identity. In a way the liberal running away and trying to submerge his affection for his country into some vague, undefineable abstract such as "tolerance" and the woman (and man too, these days) who tries to change bodily appearances by surgery are doing something quite similar - they are trying to gloss over the essence of their being and their uniqueness.
Now, it is entirely ok to be dissatisfied with certain aspects to one's identity; perhaps xenophobia in one's own country, or having bad skin or whatever. We will always be bound to feel that things could be better, a feeling that is one of humanity's strongest impulses; after all without it, we'd still be hanging in trees eating bananas. (On second thoughts, I love bananas, so perhaps that wouldn't be such a bad thing. . . .ok, ok, but I think you get my point.)
But you know, things are as they are. It is simply self-loathing to want to change the basic givens, whether it be by in the act of turning your country into a set of abstract nouns, or by submerging it into a soulless and meaningless "European" state project, or by having your nose shape reset by plastic surgeons. This kind of self-loating is of course a simple mirroring of an approach of unthinking chauvinism or the kind of people who take no care whatsoever with how they present themselves to their fellow beings or what they do with their lives; you know the type, who seem to do everything to be as unhealthy and visually unappealing as possible, where you can palpably sense the depressive self neglect.
It is clear to see, that these two attitudes are very negative and self-destructive. The better way is of course to accept wholeheartedly those things we can't change, so we can then focus on real self-improvement. Patriotism is an affection that we have for our country, when we feel connected to its fate and also responsible for where it goes and what gets done in its name. Patriotic people vote for example; non-patriotic people will simply shrug their shoulders and say "whatever", after all they don't feel it has anything to do with them. It is similar on the level of personal psychology. Low self-esteem doesn't lead people on a course of improving their lives and what they dislike about them, but rather it drives them either into despairing passivity (with tv and fast food addiction right round the corner), or to frantic attempts to cover up their own identity and to be turned into somebody else.
I sometimes get the impression that there is a trend that these kind of negative approaches have spread. Undoubtedly this has many factors, but what weighs heavy on my mind on a Sunday is certainly the Christian element. Anglicanism once offered a framework in which the more positive approach was centred. By accepting the inherent imperfection of humankind, sometimes extrapolated out to evil, the C of E managed nonetheless to instill in people enough self-worth as God's creatures that they were motivated to better themselves.
All of which brings me on to last week's Economist (yes yes I should stay up to date more), and its article on George Bush's "muscular Christianity":
THE phrase "muscular Christianity" is more resonant of Victorian England than modern-day Washington, DC. The idea was invented by British public-school headmasters (most notably Thomas Arnold of Rugby) who believed that a combination of sport and religion could develop the all-important quality of "character".
This is not really a theological argument about eternal truths, but rathermore an argument about being gratious for the gift of life, and by expressing our gratitude and improving our enjoyment at the same time by making the best of our time. The connectedness to faith that helps in this path, and accepts that problems can be found everywhere, can be conveyed accurately and dramatically as follows:
Where’er ye meet with evil,
within you or without,
Charge for the God of battles,
and put the foe to rout.