The Surrealistic States of America
These last couple of weeks I have divided my time largely between talking to cleanup crews, insurance adjusters, and contractors who promise, eventually, to undo the ravages of Hurricane Sandy and restore our house to its antediluvian semi-splendor — “All in good time, Mr. Kimball” — and reading Like the Roman, Simon Heffer’s magisterial 1998 biography of the great, if much and unfairly maligned, British statesman Enoch Powell. To many people these days, Powell is totally unknown. To those who do recall his name, he is the author of the so-called “Rivers of Blood Speech” — what he himself always referred to as “the Birmingham Speech.” In that 1968 address to the Conservative Political Centre at the Midland Hotel, he warned of the consequences to British society of large-scale immigration of unassimiliating, perpetually dependent populations. “It is,” Powell said, “like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre. So insane are we that we actually permit unmarried persons to immigrate for the purpose of founding a family with spouses and fiancées whom they have never seen.” What was extraordinary then is just business as usual today.
Among the several predictions that Powell made that came to pass, the braying excoriation of him by the commissars of established political opinion led the list. “I can already hear the chorus of execration,” he wrote. “How dare I say such a horrible thing?”
I believe — and now I can hear that chorus of execration myself — that Powell was correct in just about every particular of that speech. It ruined his career. And the fact that he was right about the effects of wholesale immigration made it all the more unforgivable.
I may well return to Powell at some point. For the moment, I just wanted to share with readers a comment that Powell’s biographer, the formidable Simon Heffer, made towards the end of his book.
Most politicians, as they become older, become more skilled in compromise. The sacrifice of what were once deeply held, and prominently advertised, convictions troubles their consciences less and less; it certainly leaves no moral imprint. In an age when many politicians have ceased to have a life outside politics, survival and the retention of power become paramount. What in normal society would constitute shameful duplicity is, by a modern politician, executed shamelessly: nobody expects better of them, least of all themselves, and they do not therefore disappoint. Retreating from principle, bending, concealing or sometimes even abandoning the truth are normal, everyday activities. Anyone who points out the depravity of such behaviour is seen as painfully unsophisticated.
Powell did not retreat from principle. He did not abandon the truth. No one could accuse this classics scholar, military man, and consummate orator of being unsophisticated. Instead, he was roundly denounced as “racialist,” the omnibus term of abuse that preceded our own favorite, “racism.”
As I look around at what is happening in the formerly United States of America, I feel the chill wind of disorientation. Are we not, in our fiscal incontinence and pullulating political correctness, piling up our own funeral pyre? Have not our politicians surrendered to a horrible venality as they struggle above all to maintain the reins of power, even to the point of allowing political calculation to trump their duty to save the lives of those diplomats who were murdered in Benghazi? Will the festering swamp of mendacity that surrounds that event ever be drained? The Obama administration has been on overdrive since September 11 to spin the event, lying, covering up, triangulating, and otherwise endeavoring to distract the public’s attention from this extraordinary attack on sovereign U.S. territory — our consulate in Benghazi — and the brutal murder of an American ambassador and three aides. What does it all mean? And what do the revelations about David Petraeus’s amorous adventures and pseudo-revelations about General Allen portend? Does anyone believe that it was a coincidence that they surfaced when they did?
I am not alone, I know, in sensing a fateful shift in the temper, the emotional weather, of America. I cannot pretend to know what it portends. In the course of his infamous speech, Powell quoted Euripides: “Those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.” He focused on Britain’s insane and self-destructive immigration policy. We have before us florid examples of other sorts of insanity. I sense the formation of a steely reaction to our present madness. Whether it will be too little too late is impossible to say. I hope not. But hope, like possibility, is a cheap commodity — the last evil in Pandora’s box of tricks, according to some. This much is clear: a great deal that we have taken for granted in this blessed country — about opportunity, about prosperity, about liberty and the tenor of social relations — is about to change. Whether we’ll manage to restore our former innocence is up for grabs. I’ve retired from the betting game, so I will refrain from offering a prognostication.