From Theodore Dalrymple’s Our Culture, What’s Left of It: Preface pages x-xi:
One might have supposed, in the circumstances, that a principle preoccupation of intellectuals, who after all are supposed to see farther and think more deeply than ordinary men and women, would be the maintenance of the boundaries that separate civilization from barbarism, since those boundaries have so often proved so flimsy in the past hundred years. One would be wrong to suppose any such thing, however. Some have knowingly embraced barbarism; others have remained unaware that boundaries do not maintain themselves and are in need of maintenance and sometimes vigorous defense. To break a taboo or to transgress are terms of the highest praise in the vocabulary of modern critics, irrespective of what has been transgressed or what taboo broken. A review of a recent biography of the logical positivist philosopher A.J. Ayer, in the Times Literary Supplement, enumerated the philosopher’s personal virtues. Among them was the fact the he was unconventional – but the writer did not feel called upon to state in what respect Ayer was unconventional. For the reviewer, Ayer’s alleged disregard of convention was a virtue in itself.
Of course, it might well have been a virtue, or it might equally well have been a vice, depending on the ethical content and the social effect of the convention in question. But there is little doubt that an oppositional attitude toward traditional social rules is what wins the modern intellectual his spurs, in the eyes of other intellectuals. And the prestige that intellectuals confer upon antinomianism soon communicates itself to nonintellectual. What is good for the bohemian sooner or later becomes good for the unskilled worker, the unemployed, the welfare recipient – the very people most in the need of boundaries to make their lives tolerable or allow them hope of improvement. The result is moral, spiritual, and emotional squalor, engendering fleeting pleasures and prolonged suffering.
This is not to say, of course, that all criticism of social conventions and traditions is destructive and unjustified; surely no society in the world can have existed in which there was not much justly to criticize. But critics of social institutions and traditions, including writers of imaginative literature, should always be aware that civilization needs conservation at least as much as it needs change, and that immoderate criticism, or criticism from the standpoint of utopian first principles, is capable of doing much – indeed devastating – harm. No man is so brilliant that he can work out for himself, so that the wisdom of ages has nothing useful to them. To imagine otherwise is to indulge in the most egotistical of hubris.
Having spent a considerable proportion of my professional career in Third World countries in which the implementation of abstract ideas and ideals had made bad situation incomparably worse, and the rest of my career among the very extensive British underclass, whose disastrous notion about how to live derive ultimately from the unrealistic, self-indulgent, and often fatuous ideas of social critics, I have come to regard intellectual and artistic life as being of incalculable practical importance and effect. John Maynard Keynes wrote, in a famous passage in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, that practical men might not have much time for theoretical considerations, but in fact the world is governed by little else than the outdated or defunct ideas of economists and social philosophers. I agree: except that I would now add novelists, playwrights, film directors, journalists, artists, and even pop singers. They are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and we ought to pay close attention to what they have to say and how they say it.
From Imperial Ambitions, Conversations on the Post 9/11 World interviews with David Barsamian, interview recorded 3 December 2004:
David Barsamian: As I travel around the country, and I’m sure you do as well, you here this refrain about, well, ‘what’s the tipping point, what is it going to take for people to go out into the streets and protest?’ and the comments that are made are like, ‘well, you know, Americans are too comfortable, they’ve got it too easy’ and then this interesting one, that material things will have to get much worse before there is protest.
Noam Chomsky: I don’t think that’s true. In fact serious protest is often come from … (sometimes it comes from people who really are oppressed) sometimes its come from sectors of privilege. I mean take the case I mentioned about the [anti-vietnam-war] resistance movement; I mean these were privileged kids. You know, they were college students, almost all of them, from the elite schools. That’s privilege, but within those sectors of privilege, a spark was lit, which was recognized both by the oppressors and the oppressed and in ways that were psychologically extremely difficult, sometimes traumatic, as I said, sometimes they even led to suicide, they were not a joke. And the kids were under terrific strain, but very privileged and they played a big role in changing the country, I mean they infuriated their rich and powerful, I mean, take a look at the newspapers then, there’s all sorts of hysterical screeching about bra burning and all these horrible things that are going on undermining the foundations of civilization, yeah, etc. What was really going on was the country was getting civilized. And of course, that infuriated the people of power and wealth. How can you dare get civilized? You’re supposed to get beaten by our club. And yes, you can find at the fringes of any popular movement things that are crazy, and you can condemn and so on and so forth, part of the job of intellectuals is to focus on those, to try and discredit the important things that are happening, which are undermining of privilege and power.
From Dalrymple’s Our Culture, What’s Left of It‘s essay, ‘A Taste for Danger’; consider his thoughts on dress near the end:
The only thing worse than having a family, I discovered, is not having a family. My rejection of bourgeois virtues as mean-spirited and antithetical to real human development could not long survive contact with situations in which those virtues were entirely absent; and a rejection of everything associated with one’s childhood is not so much an escape from that childhood as an imprisonment by it. It was in Africa that I first discovered that the bourgeois virtues are not only desirable but often heroic. [...] I was still of the callow – and fundamentally lazy – youthful opinion that nothing in the world could change until everything changed, in which case a social system would arise in which it would be no longer necessary for anyone to be good. The head nurse of the war in which I worked, a black woman, invited me to her home in the township for a meal. [...] In this unpromising environment, I discovered, the nurse had created an extremely comfortable and even pretty home for herself and her aging mother. Her tiny patch of land was like a bower; the inside of her house was immaculately clean, tidy, and well – though cheaply – furnished. I would never laugh again at the taste of people of limited means to make a comfortable home for themselves.
Looking around me in the township, I began to see that the spotlessly clean white uniform in which she appeared every day in the hospital represented not an absurd fetish, nor the brutal imposition of alien cultural standards upon African life, but a noble triumph of the human spirit – as, indeed, did her tenderly cared-for home. By comparison with her struggle to maintain herself in decency, my former rejection of bourgeois proprieties and respectability seemed to me ever afterward to be shallow, trivial, and adolescent. Until then I had assumed, along with most of my generation unacquainted with real hardship, that a scruffy appearance was a sign of spiritual election, representing a rejection of the superficiality and materialism of the bourgeois life. Ever since then, however, I have not been able to witness the voluntary adoption of torn, worn-out, and tattered clothes – at least in public – by those in a position to dress otherwise without a feeling of deep disgust. Far from being a sign of solidarity with the poor, it is a perverse mockery of them; it is spitting on the graves of of our ancestors, who struggled so hard, so long, and so bitterly that we might be warm, clean, well fed, and leisured enough to enjoy the better things in life.
From the same Chomsky interview quoted above (Imperial Ambitions, Conversations on the Post 9/11 World interviews with David Barsamian, interview recorded 3 December 2004) with my bolding to highlight another way of considering poverty of dress:
Noam Chomsky: Take where we are [MIT]. You walk down the halls today and you remember what it was like when you walked down the halls forty years ago. It’s radically different. I mean, forty years ago it was white males, well dressed, respectful to the elders and so on and so forth. You walk down the halls today, it’s going to be like any other university: half women, third minorities, casually dressed, informal relations. Those are not insignificant changes, and they’ve gone all through society.
David Barsamian: Are the hierarchies breaking down?
Noam Chomsky: Of course. I mean, if women are not, don’t have to live like my grandmother, or my mother, hierarchies have broken down. Namely the hierarchies that kept them that way. I mean, for example now, in the town where I live (professional, middle class town, lawyers, doctors, so on) I learned recently (I didn’t know this) that there’s a special section of the police which does nothing but answer 911 calls of domestic abuse. That’s what they do, there’s several a week. I mean, if it’s several a week out there, you can imagine what it is in a poor community. Did anything like that exist thirty years ago? Twenty years ago? I mean, I wasn’t even conceivable then, ‘that’s none of anybody’s business if somebody wants to beat up his wife’. I mean, the wife didn’t even complain. They may not like, but that’s life. Is that a change in hierarchy? You bet. And furthermore, it’s one part of a very broad social change.