Alexander Deane, author of The Great Abdication and a CentreRight contributor, reviews "Look at Me: Celebrating the Self in Modern Britain" by Peter Whittle, published by the Social Affairs Unit.
The unlikely hero of Peter Whittle’s amusing and sad portrait of
mainstream life in our times is Simon Cowell, the star selector (and,
moreover, rejecter) of aspirant pop stars on various TV talent shows.
Cowell isn’t mean in Whittle’s eyes; he’s just honest about
shortcomings and abilities. For many of those to whom his unvarnished
criticism is addressed, it will be the first time that they have
received a frank appraisal – the first time that they have not simply
been indulged in their desires and urged to “be themselves” and “be all
that they can be.” Put simply, a preference for the former for the
latter, and for objective over the subjective – in standards of
behaviour, in art, in music, in work – is the point of Wittle’s work.
He goes about his theme by seeing modern society through the eyes of
five fictitious “types” – Kayeleigh the wannabe star, Harriet the “Sex
and the City” obsessed, urban socialite single, Jason the over-indulged
thug and so on. The device might not be quite to your liking, but it
is just that, a device; it in no way obscures the ideas Whittle lucidly
seeks to convey. Indeed, it is sometimes used to great effect.
Perhaps his greatest disdain is reserved for Marc and Sue, the
Guardian-toting, rocket-munching Islingtonistas, who exhibit at every
turn a preference for “The Other” and a contempt for the “established”,
for whom “other cultures will have more intrinsic value than one’s
own. The West will always be treated with hostility, shame or
scepticism, the motives of its possible enemies as benign. Black is
always right; white is invariably wrong. New equals good, old equals
bad.” But their problems, Whittle points out, really start “when
offence is taken at your very existence – or at least at how you choose
to live your life. Marc & Sue are slowly catching up on all of
this; but, for the time being at least, they are managing to stick to
their line by not thinking too much about honour killings, burkas and
what many Muslims might think of some of the arty gay friends they have
to dinner on a regular basis.”
At the heart of Whittle’s case is the suggestion – often put in different ways, but seldomly as well as he has marshalled it here – that the rejection of authority and objective truth whilst the defenders of verifiable standards and established traditions hardly noticed. “What started off as a counter-culture became the ruling orthodoxy; and, to a remarkable degree, it is still in place. With one or two exceptions, its effects have largely been destructive, and the air is thick with chickens coming home to roost.” He sets out examples in education, where children blunder in the dark, supposed to “discover” for themselves what they need to be told, in art, where art is art because Tracey Emin “says it is”, in music, and so on. It is depressing but it is worth reading because it is true.
The absence of footnotes or sources for the frequent (and interesting) quotations, and the absence of an appendix, are only minor irritations and are perhaps unjustly observed in any case, as the intention of this very slim book is clearly to set out in relatively brief terms the existence of a culture of self-indulgence, and what has caused it to come about. It does so cogently and well. Only very occasionally does the author of this polite polemic put a foot wrong. He likens those exhibiting the hunger for attention he has outlined to “life-jacketed survivors of the Titanic… on the surface of the ocean, screaming as loud as they can to be heard above the others, desperate to be seen.” Society, one supposes, is the Titanic. Certainly, the sorry state in which Whittle has shown it to be merits the metaphor. But isn’t it logical, then, for those not yet drowned to scream? Indeed, aren’t you screaming? By publishing this book, isn’t Whittle?