The Daughter of the House has developed an attraction to the chauffeur. Her brother wants to become an Actor. Their mother has discovered Krishna and wants to celebrate Janmashtami in the grounds of the House.
For a respectable member of the ruling class1, any one of these would be a crisis. People Like Us don’t do that sort of thing. It’s not fitting, it’s just wrong. What will the neighbours think?
This stuck-up attitude, obsessed with appearances, hostile to “inferiors”, suspicious of difference, has been a target to be opposed for at least a hundred years. For fifty years, it has been worse: openly mocked from all quarters. Today we have a new ruling class, only partly descended from the old one, and identified with Masters degrees and managerial jobs rather than titles and country houses.
The fundmentals of human society haven’t changed though. The members, actual and aspirational, of the ruling class still need to show that they belong there, that they have loyalty to the same principles that the rest of the class does. Luckily, this does not require great effort of calculation2. Fitting in with a clique is a natural instinct. If you speak or act in a way that your peer group will not approve of, you will be very aware of it. You will probably feel nervous, or even nauseous. To break the mores of ones social circle takes a deliberate effort, to avoid doing so is much easier.
Among the mores of the new ruling class, anti-racism has pride of place. Its members are sincerely non-racist, but, in addition, they are terrified of appearing to be racist. Anything that could be construed as or resmbles racism will also produce a gut reaction, as well as a rational concern for one’s social position. Your chauffeur might be a gentle and intelligent young man with good prospects of an engineering career, who could make your daughter happy, but your neighbours won’t understand all that, even if you do.
This semi-rational, semi-reflex attitude is what I was getting at in Fear and Equality. When the coronavirus first appeared, the calls to act to prevent it spreading felt racist. “You must protect yourself from this dangerous thing” makes liberals feel immediately uneasy, and they are conditioned to avoid even digging into that unease. On top of that, coming out on the same side as President Trump and the murky Silicon Valley subculture, felt equally bad.
That was then. Before too long, COVID was blatantly something worth protecting from. It doesn’t seem to me very likely that it could ever have been prevented from spreading across the world, but it was surely worth a try, and even slowing it down by weeks would have been very beneficial.
Today we are not being told not to fear it. On the contrary, the culturally dominant opinion has gone to the other extreme. People should wear masks. Everyone should get vaccinated. More notably, anyone arguing otherwise is basically a murderer who should be silenced, fired, and punished. It’s easy to see how that view fits the ruling class worldview just as well as it’s no worse than the flu, prejudice is the real virus did. We are no longer dealing with an abstract, allegedly-dangerous “other” and Donald Trump’s travel bans. We are dealing with a very familiar enemy: rednecks who like to carry guns and now recklessly go outside breathing. Tucker Carlson. People who think George Soros is conspiring to smuggle slave-children onto secret islands. In last year’s post I said, talking about threats when considering the coronavirus, There is one exception. If the thing you are warning against is rich white people, or if you can at least claim it’s rich white people, you are safe. nobody is uneasy about that. “Rich white people” isn’t quite right; I meant, from the point of view of the UN, “white people in rich countries”, but within the context of Britain or the USA, the acceptable target group is that white outgroup; christians, social conservatives, Brexiters or rural gun-owners. Now if you say that perhaps the benefits of vaccinating children don’t really justify even small risks, or that masks aren’t proved to do much good and people should be allowed to make up their own minds, you might think you have reasonable arguments, but it feels like you are with the “Bill Gates is implanting chips” loonies or the “Assault weapons are a civil right”3 monsters. What will the neigbours think?
Once you start seeing the dominant class of the West as stereotype upper-class characters in an English period drama, it could not be more obvious. While I’ve been writing this, I’ve seen a piece on the blackballing of Amy Chua, and a tweet from Ben Sixsmith referencing the British state shying away from dealing with Pakistani grooming gangs (prior to Nazir Afzal making it OK). All these stories become more comprehensible if, while reading them, you mutter to yourself, “What will the neighbours think?”
This is not just groupthink, it’s groupthink on steroids because maintaining one’s social position requires following the groupthink.
This is a piece about the ruling class of America, not a piece about COVID-19. I know people who believe that we should take all possible steps to eliminate the virus, and people who think we should have let it run rather than sacrifice any freedom. The people I know in both of those groups have reached those conclusions based on their values and view of the evidence, and been consistent in the face of the partisan reversal that happened in the public sphere. I don’t agree with either (though I’m slightly closer to the second group), but I don’t mean this as a dig at any of them: it’s just that I was writing about the WHO and their reluctance to be racist to viruses last year, and when today they went back to their old ways with a campaign against e-cigarettes, the social mechanisms behind my previous post were made clearer to me.