13.11.12

The Rise and Fall of British Character (Theodore Dalrymple)



"Two things are worth noting about this shift in national character: it is not the first such shift in British history; and the change is not entirely spontaneous or the result of impersonal social forces.

Before the English and British became known for self-restraint and an ironic detachment from life, they had a reputation for high emotionalism and an inability to control their passions. The German poet Heinrich Heine, among others, detested them as violent and vulgar. It was only during the reign of William IV—“Silly Billy,” the king before Victoria—that they transformed into something approaching the restrained people whom I encountered as a child and sometimes as a doctor...

... The moralization of the British in the first third of the nineteenth century—their transformation from a people lacking self-control into exemplars of restraint—was the product of intellectual and legislative activity. 

So, too, was the reverse movement.

Consider in this light public drunkenness. For 100 years or more in Britain, the popular view was that such drunkenness was reprehensible and the rightful object of repression... Several changes then came: officials halved the tax on alcohol; intellectuals attacked the idea of self-restraint, making it culturally unacceptable; universities unapologetically began to advertise themselves as places where students could get drunk often and regularly; and finally, the government, noting that drunkenness was dramatically increasing, claimed that increasing the hours of availability of alcohol would encourage a more responsible, “Mediterranean” drinking culture, in which people would sip slowly, rather than gulp fast. It is difficult not to suspect also the role of financial inducements to politicians in all this, for even they could hardly be so stupid.

Habits become character. Perhaps they shouldn’t, but they do...."

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