Sunday, 23 March 2014

Crime and Vice, Tragedy and Farce, Privilege and Rights

My sermon today draws on two readings. 

The first is from an outstanding figure of British, indeed World, Conservatism, Benjamin Disraeli. In his novel Tancred he wrote “what is a crime among the multitude is only a vice among the few.”

By way of contrast, the second reading is from one the founding fathers of modern Communism, Karl Marx. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, he pointed out that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

I found the Disraeli quotation in Hannah Arendt’s excellent The Origins of Totalitarianism. She uses it to illustrate the curious phenomenon of the acceptance of certain, exceptional Jews in aristocratic and wealthy nineteenth-century circles. In such an anti-Semitic environment, being Jewish was a ‘crime’ in the masses, but in rare, privileged individuals such as Disraeli, it was merely a vice – something that added piquancy, a touch of the exotic, and was consequently more to be indulged than reproved.

Benjamin Disraeli: made his way into society
by stressing his status as an outsider
Disraeli seems to have understood this phenomenon, and although baptised, he affected an appearance to emphasise his Jewish origins, his status as an outsider, not least in his style of hair and beard. 

It worked. Doors opened to him which would have been closed to most people, let alone Jews. He became an MP, the power behind one figurehead Prime Minister, and then Prime Minister himself. And he was the friend of the Queen, his fairytale princess to whom he offered the fantasy title of “Empress of India.”

In passing, he became one of the dominant figures of world politics of his period. Not
 always for good, it has to be said: he was a key figure in what became the scramble for Africa, which did little for the wellbeing of the inhabitants of that stricken continent.

Now roll forward a century and more. It may not be as serious a crime as Jewishness among anti-Semites, but it’s still reprehensible to smash a shop window deliberately. The law rightly takes a dim view of such criminal damage, as a great many young people in England discovered after the riots of August 2011. 

A slightly different attitude was taken towards similar antics one Oxford night quarter of a century earlier. A flowerpot was flung though the window of a restaurant in the city. However, the young men responsible were not poor, unemployed or coloured. They were members of the famous – or notorious – Bullingdon Club, an organisation that brings together the wealthiest students of the university so that they can enjoy glorious evenings of drunkenness, sometimes capped by trashing the restaurant where they take place.

Who was in the group that particular night? One was Boris Johnson, now Mayor of London. Another, though it
’s possible he went home before the restaurant window was smashed, was David Cameron, now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

But these are members of the few. The happy few. What’s a crime among the masses is but a vice for them. Youthful indiscretion that shouldn
’t lead to long-term consequences. As it clearly hasn’t for Cameron, current leader of the Conservative Party, or Johnson, his leading rival, or indeed George Osborne, another former member of the Club, current Chancellor of the Exchequer and also a contender for Cameron’s crown.

Which brings me to Marx. 

With Disraeli, the crime to be converted into mere vice, was Jewishness. And the man whose privileges allowed him to do it was a political giant.

Sadly, as Arendt points out, making Jewishness a vice rather than a crime has its dangers, however well it worked for Disraeli. A crime is an action requiring punishment, but vice is inherent in personality and, when it loses its charm, it can only be eradicated. The sense that Jewishness is innate was the grounds for the Nazi programme of extermination in the century following Disraeli’s.

A harrowing tragedy.

Boris Johnson, George Osborne and David Cameron also enjoyed the privilege of having a crime treated as a vice. They’ve inflicted terrible suffering on the most vulnerable among the masses. But not one of them has yet achieved anything more memorable than their buffoonery in the Bullingdon Club.

A grim farce.

The common thread is privilege. Privilege is a gift to the few which, as Arendt explains, denies the rights of the many.

Which makes me wonder why those of us who lack privilege and depend on rights, persist in voting for any of the farcical lot of them.

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