»  National Review Online

November 8th, 2005

  The Iron House


Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to waken a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn? But if a few awake, you can't say there is no hope of destroying the iron house.
                    — Selected Short Stories of Lu Xun

Liberalism is a philosophy of consolation for Western civilization as it commits suicide.
                    — James Burnham

On Saturday evening we all went to a show at the local high school, a production of some Fawlty Towers sketches by the school drama club. It was fun. The acoustics of the place were terrible but since the Derbs pretty much know the scripts by heart, that didn't matter much. I could even see my kids mouthing some of the lines: "Herds of wildebeest …,"  "Yes you did, you invaded Poland …," etc., etc.

One thing in the audience that caught my eye was a slogan printed across the back of the T-shirt worn by a guy sitting two rows in front of me. The slogan was the URL for a website, www.one.org, followed by the words MAKE POVERTY HISTORY. When we got home I looked up the website. Yep, they want to end poverty. How? By dint of "fair trade, debt relief, fighting corruption and directing additional resources for basic needs — education, health, clean water, food, and care for orphans." Good grief! How come nobody ever thought of this before? Billions of poor people out there, and all we have to do is direct some additional resources! It's so simple! Yet for decades we've been doing nothing! Shame, shame, shame on us!

I had better explain that I live in the outer suburbs of New York City, amid the leafy lanes of deepest, greenest Long Island, and that my neighbors are pretty solidly of the liberal persuasion. They regard me with a sort of amused bafflement. ("A conservative? Surely he can't mean it. Well, you know, he is British …") I bet there are a lot of those T-shirts around here. This is probably just the first one I noticed.

I have mentioned before my Uncle Fred's contemptuous tag for the legions of gentle, compassionate, do-gooding liberals who infest our civilization nowadays: "The love-the-world people." A thing I've been thinking about quite hard lately is: If we love the world, will it love us back? Suppose we all set about loving the world, and it doesn't love us back. Do we go on loving it regardless? Or what?

There is of course a cranky, disreputable fringe persuasion which argues that eventually the world will get tired of being loved by us and will decide to kill, cook, and eat us, and that the love-the-world people will be just fine with that, like that loopy bear-lover whose ambition was to end up as bear scat. The bears were happy to oblige. Seems to me, reading the news from France, that the folks of that cranky, fringe persuasion are looking like pretty good stock pickers right now.

Take, for example, the BBC News web site, to which I am a frequent visitor. Yes, yes, I know all about the BBC. I grew up with it, for Heaven's sake. I even dated a BBC employee once. I know all about them. The Beeb site is well organized, though, gives you good thumbnail sketches of unfamiliar countries when you're looking at foreign news, and covers absolutely everywhere. It is a particularly good starting point for African news, still very poorly covered in the media.

The Beeb site also has a cute feature that permits readers to post comments on the news stories — a sort of instant Letters to the Editor column. I was reading some of these reader comments about the French riots. Listen.

We must all work together to encourage greater understanding, but it is a two-sided process requiring both sides to work towards a middle ground. — Martin Hollands, Aylesbury, U.K.

Many factors have contributed to this explosive situation. But above all, I feel the main one is the lack of respect and love on the part of the politicians and the police for the citizens, specially the ones of foreign origin. — D. DeHais, Carcassone, France.

Some causes are mainly due to discrimination, poverty, unequality of chance. — Marcel Bicho, Stockholm.

To narrowly and conclusively blame and scapegoat immigration for the unrest is to fall into the hands of, and pander to the interests of such right-wing, fascist demagogues as Le Pen and his ilk. I beg some of you to take a more complex, nuanced view of the situation. — Charles, no location.

The people the French authorities call immigrants were born in France and have nowhere to go to. The French authorities must put an end to racism,create jobs,and develop these areas. — Nfor H.Dama, Bamenda, Cameroon.

 … All sorts of questions would have to be addressed: ranging from C20th. French imperial involvement and withdrawal from North Africa, to the continued effect of a power structure that perpetuates major inequalities of social opportunity and distribution. — Sven, no address.

Maybe this isn't about race … maybe it's about poverty … — Allan, Bangkok.

The riots are a very graphic expression of mass discontent and indicate that profound political,social and economic changes in the name of radical Socialism are urgently needed. The present capitalist system is both completely discredited and simply unsustainable. — Patrick Black, no address.

It is obvious that the French government needs to do something for these poor people before things get comepletely out of hand. — Giselle Hirschfeld, Hawthorn, Australia.

[G]ive them all jobs and give the city some peace. — Bill Derbyshire [No relation! I swear!], London, U.K.

Once Europe truly respects other cultures the way they want to be respected these problems will be history. — Firas, Leeds, U.K.

France has not yet come to terms with its colonial past. There are no "post-colonial" studies programmes in this country … — Greta, Paris (19th).

So there you are. The solution to the rioting in France is plain. Respect! Give them jobs! Set up some Post-Colonial Studies programs! Work together! Socialism! Love! End poverty! It's nothing whatsoever to do with culture, religion, or origin — how absurdly simplistic to think so! We must take a more complex, more nuanced view! Why on earth hasn't anyone tried any of this?

T.S. Eliot observed that "humankind cannot bear very much reality." I have always thought he was right. Now I am beginning to think that in fact old Tom severely understated the case. The normal and natural state of humankind, I am coming to believe, is a drugged stupor, an opium dream. Liberalism is just the opium dream of the modern West. Nothing will rouse us from it, nothing. At last, like the people in Lu Xun's iron house, we shall all suffocate. Then the bears will eat us.

The Jihadists are lost in their own opium dream, of course — a dream of world harmony under a single faith, with all dissent stilled and all poverty and injustice vanquished — not so very different from the liberal dream, when you think about it, though of course the path to the promised land is bordered with primroses in the one dream, with corpses in the other. Now I find myself wondering, really for the first time: Which dream is more likely to attain reality in some form? Theirs, or ours?