“But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”
Edmund Burke wrote this in 1790. One wonders what he’d say if he could come back in 2013. Can’t you just hear him say it? “This is hell. Can I please go back to heaven?”
And that would be even before he saw a beheading video on Facebook. Mind you, in Burke’s own time people weren’t averse to taking in the odd execution. In the absence of electronic communications it was Tyburn Hill that provided the ghoulish entertainment.
Thousands used to gather to watch people dancing the Tyburn jig, which wouldn’t be my first choice of choreographic display. But different times bring different mores – and different experiences.
Burke wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at the sight of faeces, animal or otherwise, adorning most London streets. We on the other hand would probably wince and pinch our nostrils.
On the other hand, the great Whig would have been appalled by the dominant atheism of modernity, something we regard as par for the course.
It’s in this context that Facebook’s decision to allow decapitation videos must be seen. If in 1790 attending public executions went against the diminishing but still dominant ethos of society, watching beheadings today fits right into the ethos.
It was mostly riffraff that flocked to Tyburn. It’ll be mostly the middle classes glued to the screen as a human head gets chopped off in full colour.
If cheap, vulgar, embarrassing voyeurism was a spice then, today it’s the main course. Our desensitised, dehumanised, debauched masses have little else to dine on.
Oh yes, we have art, as defined and touted by Nicholas Serota and other champions of modern aesthetics. What would Burke say if before returning to heaven he had a short stopover at Tate Britain?
He’d stare with blank incomprehension at the sculpture of a man urinating into a bucket. When told that this foul vulgarity is the frontrunner for our top prize this year, he’d demand a clarification. If Serota or some other subversive cretin then explained to him that this is art, Burke would probably express solicitous concern for the chap’s mental health.
If this is liberty, he’d say, give me tyranny any day. Then he’d try to explain that, when liberty is divorced from concomitant responsibility, it becomes a suicide pact. Serota wouldn’t understand.
This is what people want, he’d argue. There’s no higher law than that of supply and demand. People demand, we supply.
If people’s taste for high art can only be satisfied by pickled animals, unmade beds and men pissing, who are we to argue? And if millions want to watch a torrent of blood spurting out of severed veins and arteries, isn’t it our duty to put the show on their computer screens?
It’s true that these days no higher law than supply-demand exists. It’s also true that a society built around the needs, tastes and interests of common man will inevitably be defined by free-market transactions.
Burke would, in fact on numerous occasions did, argue that such a society could never be just, virtuous and long-lived. But today such arguments would fall on ears deafened by spiritual, aesthetic and moral vulgarity reigning supreme.
On second thoughts, having allowed my imagination to run wild enough to fancy a confrontation between Burke, our great thinker, and Serota, our illustrious director of the Tate, perhaps I should go a step further.
What if the next decapitation video featured Nicholas Serota as the star attraction? Suddenly the idea seems to have some merit, wouldn’t you say?