For two blissful days last week I was at Radley College — what you might call the posh person’s Eton — as the school’s Provocateur-in-Residence.
Delightful place: like an especially agreeable gentleman’s club with a first-rate school attached. My only criticism — and it’s not really a criticism, more a rueful observation — is that even in this Helm’s Deep of immense soundness, the Orcish forces of lentil-eating progressivism have begun tunnelling beneath the walls and infecting the defenders of western civilisation with their malign and slithy creed.
Or to put it another way: if you cannot rely on the boys of Radley College to stick up for man’s unalienable right to hunt foxes, what the hell can you rely on?
We’re talking here, remember, about an establishment so pukka that any boy whose father is caught standing on a touchline and found not in possession of a shooting stick and tweed suit of at least Edwardian vintage is pegged out on the college golf course with croquet hoops and left to be devoured by the school’s beagle pack.
That’s why, when I put it to some of the young gentlemen that anyone who thought foxhunting ought to be banned on the grounds of ‘animal cruelty’ needed his head examined, I was so surprised to find one or two of them disagreeing with me.
Actually, that’s not true. I was not, in fact, remotely surprised by this display of politically correct groupthink. I’d seen flashes of it after all in pretty much every subject we’d broached, from the NHS to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs to the EU. But I had slightly hoped — hoped, note, not expected — that this might have been one of those areas where personal insight would triumph over cant.
So I asked whether any of them had tried foxhunting. One of them put up his hand. ‘And it’s fun, right?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘Why is it fun?’ I prodded. ‘Because it’s exciting, is it not? Because it’s about the most thrilling, high-adrenaline sport there is, with the most flagrant contempt for the culture of health and safety, and by far the coolest kit?’ My young friend agreed that this was so. In that case, I suggested, was it not quite, quite wrong for some modish, upstart notion about vulpine rights to be allowed to trump arguably the finest traditional sport devised in the history of mankind?
The boys weren’t so sure. One of them felt that if you approved of foxhunting, you were halfway towards wanting to revive bear-baiting. Another pointed out that there was a time when folk held similar attitudes towards black people.
‘Ah, but there’s a key difference,’ I suggested. ‘Black people actually are people and always have been, whereas foxes aren’t. At no stage in the future are we going to suddenly discover otherwise and be forced to reconsider our lazy prejudices. Foxes are not people, never have been, never will. Foxes did not write the complete works of Shakespeare. Foxes did not build the Taj Mahal…’
Well my audience conceded me that point, at least. But they still seemed to think I was trying to cheat them with some manner of cunning rhetorical trick. I got a similar ‘does not compute’ response on the morality of the 1945 atom bombs. Even when I pointed out that the bombs had shortened the war and saved the lives of countless Allied troops, the boys had difficulty accepting the notion that the lives of our own men ought to take precedence over those of the innocent Japanese women and children we nuked.
I was reminded, rather, of Allan Bloom’s opening lament in The Closing of the American Mind: ‘There is one thing a professor can be absolutely sure of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test one can count on the student’s reaction: they will be uncomprehending.’
Exactly. Bloom published that book in 1987 — since when, I’d suggest, things have got an awful lot worse. We seem to have reached a state of intellectual decline where virtually the whole of western culture has forgotten to think and argue from first principles. Instead, from primary school onwards, we’re all handed this starter pack of the various right-on notions we’re now supposed to believe in — and if we dare to question them we’re written off as pariahs, freaks, dangerous troublemakers.
‘You want to be a real public-school rebel, not a fake one? Well, I’m here to show you how…’ I told the sixth-formers of Radley (and visiting girls from St Helen’s, Abingdon) at one of my talks. I meant it, too. If there was one thing above all I wanted to instil in these impressionable young minds it was this: take nothing for granted; question everything; think for yourselves. Only that way do you stand a chance of making the world a better place, as opposed to repeating all the mistakes my own generation has made.
And maybe some of them — most of them, probably — looked at where I stood and saw not a role model but a grim and scary warning of what happens to those who make it their business to fight against the intellectual current. But if at least one of them got the message that true rebellion these days does not involve climbing onto the roof and machine-gunning the parents and staff on Founders Day but rather in challenging the cosy right-on shibboleths of our intellectually decadent, relativist culture, then it will all have been worthwhile.
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