Sentimentality, the New Totalitarianism

Another piece that could have been written today, although the details would need updating. Indeed, the forces described here have gone from strength to strength. Have we passed some invisible Rubicon? It is beginning to look like it.

Sentimentality, the New Totalitarianism

Ruben Alvarado

Copyright © 2000 Ruben Alvarado

this edition published 2013 on

Review: Digby Anderson & Peter Mullen, Faking It: The sentimentalisation of modern society (London: The Social Affairs Unit, 1998), pp. viii, 217.

I have spent many a moment in recent years pondering one simple question: AWhatever happened to the English?@ You know, stiff upper lip, stoic reserve, laughing in the face of danger, and the like. It seems that lately nothing could be worse than the emulation of such virtues. While Scotland and Wales pursue the development of a national identity, the English seem to be doing everything they can to lose one. This national complex has found expression in particular in a rather interesting psychological phenomenon that foursquare opposes the received English tradition: I speak of sentimentality, what Jane Austen referred to as Asensibility.@ One saw it in the trial a few years back of the nanny Louise Woodward in the United States, where the question of guilt or innocence took a distinctly secondary place to the question of whether mean-spirited Americans should stand in judgment of a nice teenage English girl. One saw it as well with the otherwise tragic death of Diana, where it seemed that everyone tried to outdo each other in expressing B and this is the key, outwardly, publicly expressing B emotion, perhaps with the thought that Awhat I am doing is just what Diana would have done in my place.@ Such an un-English spectacle, but that was the whole point. It was as if everyone was saying AWe reject our past, our heritage, our image in the history books, and we demand to be seen as a people that can express themselves even if what we express is fathomless triviality.@

To my mind this same attitude came to expression in the 1997 parliamentary elections. Labour campaigned on little else than Alet=s change our attitude to Europe, to Britain, to the past; let=s be cool Britannica, put on sunglasses and throw that self restraint stuff in the Thames.@ Actual policy differences were few and far between, with the exception of AEurope,@ which in a nutshell expressed the difference in attitude. For if there is one thing that separates the English from the continent, it is attitude. At bottom, it is an attitude of self-reliance vs. reliance on government. It is an age-old distinction with deep historical roots, which is why the shift in favor of the continental attitude is so striking. It finds its parallel across the Atlantic in the United States, where the Democratic Party is carrying out a similar transfiguration of the national psyche.

 Yes, it is the age of feel-good leadership, and Messrs Blair and Clinton are its most gifted exemplars. Substance is irrelevant, in fact ludicrous. Nothing matters but image and appearance. It is this trend that Faking It so mercilessly exposes. And if the repetition of phrases like Asentimentality,@ Afake,@ Asham@ becomes somewhat monotonous B the inevitable result of the book=s comprising a series of separate articles B that repetition also signals the pervasiveness of the problem. This is anything but an innocent phenomenon. It is the sign of what Johan Huizinga observed way back in the 1930s, with the rise of fascism (and what parallels can be drawn between the contemporary period and that one!), in what he described as the weakening of the capacity to judge. It seems as if people no longer have a mind of their own, that they allow their minds to be taken over by some collective spirit that moves everyone in the same direction and plants the same thoughts in everyone=s heads. One then no longer exercises a critical judgment but allows oneself to be subsumed, and thus intellectually annihilated. Is this the contemporary version of religious ecstasy? Perhaps.

The heart of the book and the heart of the problem finds expression in Nicholas Capaldi=s article AEvading personal responsibility: the sentimentalisation of social policy.@ Capaldi makes the crucial observation that fake behavior has its roots in the Pelagian worldview and that the Astoic@ tradition of self restraint in fact has its roots in the Augustinian alternative. ASentimentality is a perversion of Christianity. Specifically, sentimentality is Pelagian. Pelagius was a fifth-century British monk who both denied the doctrine of Original Sin and affirmed that our free will was sufficient to allow us to save ourselves…. The denial of the doctrine of Original Sin is of fundamental importance. The constant tension in Western civilisation has been between those who think that salvation is possible in this life (utopianism) and those who deny it. Sentimentality is an inevitable by-product of the former.@ Sentimentality is simply a veneer over uncontrolled, irrational, appetite-oriented behavior, in which people, selfishly seeking their own interest, cloak that pursuit in emotion which is designed to eliminate accountability and disengage the critical faculty. If one accepts the Pelagian=s tenet that human beings are intrinsically good, then one gladly accepts this subterfuge because the alternative B that these people actually really are what one deep down suspects B is too horrible to contemplate. Such a conclusion would validate the Augustinian notion of inherent human evil.

But the real danger lies in accepting Pelagianism as a sort of civil religion. For in that case this subterfuge takes on public, national, even totalitarian dimensions. It becomes an exercise in group-think where everyone repeats the Aparty line@ even though privately everyone knows it is a lie. This is what politics in the United States at least has come to. And this Clinton Phenomenon can be carried, who knows how far? It was precisely this kind of emotivism that Hitler used to smooth his way to power. The way it is used by the Clintonistas to paper over untold depths of corruption, and the way such-like misbehavior is not only tolerated but applauded, speaks volumes about the intellectual and spiritual level of the electorate. We know from the Scriptures that the anti-Christ when he comes will take a similar line : AEven him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness@ (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12).

 If Capaldi=s article exposes the spiritual core of sentimentality, Mark Steyn=s article AAll Venusians Now@ comprehensively summarizes the cultural and political upshot. I can do no better than to string together some direct quotes: AThese days almost every subject has been taken out of politics and appropriated to the realm of feeling: health, education, the environment, gun control, drugs policy… There=s no point trying to think about these issues; feeling is all.@ AThe presiding genius of the age is John Gray, author of the psychobabble best-seller, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.… Life is from Mars, the media is from Venus — and when the latter runs up against the former, it inevitably ends up adapting life to the teary plot structures it understands.@ AFor most people, news is something that crops up in between sitcoms, soap operas and commercials, and it is not surprising that, over the years, it should have absorbed the same techniques as its colleagues.@ AWhen pop culture congratulates itself on its boldness in >examining= homosexuality or racism or abortion, what it usually means is that it has bestowed an approved status on certain groups; you can >examine= these subjects, but only in a narrow way — and heaven help anyone so unenlightened as to beg to differ.@ AThat=s the distinguishing feature of media sentimentality: its intolerance of any dissenting views, and the ferocity with which it squashes them. There is a kind of sentimental fascism abroad.@

 This is what is so chilling about this development. Sentimentality is the absolute opposite of what it pretends to be. It exudes compassion, but in fact it is a cloak for the most debased and vile forms of corruption and decadence. Take the instance of abortion:

 With >reproductive rights=, say, all you need to know is one cold, impersonal statistic: between 25 and 30 per cent of all pregnancies in the US now end in abortion. That couldn=t make it plainer: abortion is typically not an>agonising personal decision=, only a routine form of contraception. But the distraught aborter agonising publicly over her agonising personal decision sits so much better between the soaps and talk shows. Without a culture of sentimentality, it would not be possible for a civilised society to tolerate abortion. We would understand all too well what it really is.

 Sentimentality serves as a cloak to hide the truth, and the one who dares ask for the truth is then branded an unfeeling scoundrel. It is the world turned upside down.

 As Steyn notes, it is the current crop of politicians who are most adept at channelling this predilection for tears to their own ends. Vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore is a master at this. The reader will have to pardon me, for I am again going to quote Mr Steyn at length. My excuse is that, in an election year like this one (in the US) such things cannot be repeated enough. The message exposing the cant and hypocrisy simply must get through.

 Al Gore=s brazenness knows no bounds. He pioneered the fashion for touting stricken relatives as the basis for public policy: in 1992, it was his son, who was nearly killed in a car crash; in 1996, it was his sister, who died of lung cancer. Gore >loved her more than life itself=, he told America in a hushed voice on live television. Then he paused. >Tomorrow morning, a 13-year-old girl will start smoking. I love her, too.= By this time, the gaps between words were big enough to smoke half a pack of cigarettes during. >And that is why=, he continued, >until I draw my last breath I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking.=

No network news anchor covering the speech saw fit to mention a speech Gore made in 1988, four years after his sister=s death: >Throughout most of my life, I=ve raised tobacco=, he proudly told a North Carolina audience. >I=ve hoed it, I=ve chopped it, I=ve shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn, stripped it, and sold it.= No television correspondent pointed out that in 1990, six years after his sister=s death, Gore was still taking campaign contributions from the tobacco industry. And why would the networks mock Gore as a fake? He speaks their language.

When a print journalist belatedly caught up with Gore and asked him why, if he was that devastated, he=d remained a tobacco farmer, the Vice-President=s answer was ingenious: >I felt the numbness that prevented me from integrating into all aspects of my life the implications of what that tragedy really meant. We are in the midst of a profound shift in the way we approach issues. I really do believe that in our politics and in our personal lives, we are seeing an effort to integrate our emotional lives in a more balanced fashion.= Nobody has mastered the feminisation of political discourse more thoroughly than Gore. Even his habit of speaking. Very. Slowly. Seems to play well with the >soccer moms=, reminding them of a concerned grade-school teacher taking the time to explain to little Johnny why eating too much candy is bad for you. Of Bob Dole=s economic plan, Gore said: >It=s unconscionable. That means it=s wrong, and it shouldn=t happen.= Thanks, Mr Vice-President. For tomorrow=s Word-of-the-day, Al Gore defines >patronising=. In contrast to Clinton, who declares that every American child should have the right to go to college, Gore seems determined to keep the entire electorate in kindergarten.

 I could go on quoting from this book endlessly. Anthony O=Hear=s article ADiana, queen of hearts@ nicely summarizes the kind of impressions I expressed above on the transformation of modern England. Diana was and is the battering ram for replacing old English virtue with new English drivel. ABecause of her life and even more because of her death, what it is to be British has changed, irrevocably…. What [Diana] stood for was the elevation of feeling, image and spontaneity over reason, reality and restraint. The Britain of our fathers and grandfathers, the Britain of World War II has been replaced by the New Britain in which the mother of the future King publicly weeps at the funeral of a vulgar and self-publicising Italian dress designer.@ (Oh, there I go quoting again.)

 Faking It=s other articles similarly punch holes in received wisdom and provide food for thought for famished minds in a range of subject areas: medicine, education, environmentalism, literature, music, even eating. The authors have done a bang-up job. The final article offers a fine exposition of the origins of sentimentality in Christianity. Sentimentality has filled a vacuum left by the departure of Christianity from the public square. It is this knowledge which underlies the feeling one gets while reading this book, a feeling of B despair? Because one sees that the only antidote to Pelagianism is full-blown Christianity; the only antidote to works religion, which summarizes all of our misguided contemporary political and cultural efforts, is salvation by grace through faith. And that seems to be the one solution the public cannot accept. AFor the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth [will let], until he be taken out of the way@ (2 Thessalonians 2:7). God is still restraining the full outbreak of lawlessness. The ultimate question is, how long will He continue to do so? How long will He suffer those who have deliberately turned away from Him? And the Antichrist, when he comes, will he bite his lip and choke back the tears as he champions lawlessness and persecutes the righteous? It is looking increasingly likely.