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This is not a trick question. Britain is of course comprised of four ancient kingdoms united since 1707; Wales, Scotland, England and (now Northern) Ireland. But in a far more meaningful and dangerous sense it contains only three and America may suffer from the same problem. Bear with me, please, for gay marriage is only an example. Over a postprandial drink in my London club, I spoke to two fellow members about the current controversy over single-sex marriage. One, a young lawyer, is gay while the elderly scholar certainly seems gay but is of a social background and age unlikely to admit such to things, and a respectful person would not ask. Both oppose legalising single-sex unions for the same reason: they said that marriage is a Holy Sacrament uniting a man and a woman to rear children, and altering that would be impious and very wrong indeed. Both of them are devout, observant and well-educated Anglicans. The lawyer added that, since homosexual acts were decriminalised in Britain in the 1967 and civil unions are permitted them, there is no sensible reason for even a homosexual to want government to interfere with churches and Christian teaching. Some irreligious gay writers, usually libertarians, echo his second point.

Now a former Minister of Defence has written to his constituents saying that he will join many of his Conservative Party Members of Parliament, in voting against his party leader Prime Minister David Cameron’s upcoming bill to legalise single-sex marriages. One reason is that the legislation was hastily and incompetently written, he thinks, such that European Union judges will use it to force many British churches, mosques and synagogues, against their wishes, to marry homosexual couples. He has a point; it is a mess of a bill. For complex reasons, chiefly political it seems, Anglican churches will still be forbidden to perform single-sex unions, while other faiths will be able to, only if they so wish (at least until the law is passed and the courts get involved).

About 55% of Britans seem to favour permitting single-sex marriage. The House of Lords mostly opposes it either on moral grounds, or more often because the sloppy wording may open a Pandora’s Box of other problems (three-person or larger group marriages, cross-species marriages and similar examples are sometimes cited). Quakers, Unitarians and Reformed Jews support it; Catholics, many Anglicans, Muslims and other Jewish denominations, etc., are opposed. Most supporters of the Conservative Party are firmly against it.

But popularity is not my issue here, nor is the right of largely private organisations (in this case, religions) to set their own rules. That is already under assault in Britain, where Christian hoteliers are punished for refusing to rent rooms to cohabiting homosexual couples. Instead, my question is why. Not why this problem is championed by militant Progressives, but why Mr Cameron, heading a Conservative Party-led coalition government, is so relentlessly determined to open such a can of worms and force an open revolt among his party-faithful.

Even though Britain’s still-growing public and private debt remains out of control, trade unions and the usual mob agitate over mere cuts in the rate of spending growth, and government lacks the will to change (apart from good indications in education and less certain ones in welfare reform), and so maybe politicians need to distract the public from political failure, why pick so divisive an issue as this? Even if the usual trick of distracting the crowd by invading some unimportant foreign country is unaffordable, why has Cameron picked a fight that pleases only people who will never vote for him, while infuriating those who have supported him and who may not next time thanks to this?

Some critics say that he is stubborn, and continues to believe that his party’s future lies in “decontaminating the brand” by pandering to Progressives in the BBC and the rest of Britain’s Chattering Classes. It is also discussed nowadays among American Republicans after their November defeat. That would be, of course, a party-political road to serfdom, but it may be due to something else entirely. And that virus may have its American variant no less dangerous.

In 1957, the prominent British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow delivered an important lecture on “The Two Cultures,” arguing that the West suffers from a vast gulf between the sciences and the humanities. Primarily, he lamented scientific illiteracy in Britain, for which the literary critic F. R. Leavis called him a mere “public relations man” for the scientific establishment, but that need not concern us here.

Like Snow’s Two Cultures, in Britain and America there may be Three Kingdoms cohabiting the same land but largely unaware of one another.

84-marie_antoinette_Mr. Romney (and Alexander Hamilton and others) identified two of these kingdoms, thetax-payers and the tax-eaters. When the latter grow sufficiently numerous in a democracy or a democratic republic, they warned, the former become chattels. Until the out-numbered productive ones give up or go away, they would be bled daily like the cattle of the Maasai tribesmen of East Africa for whom the blood provides nourishment.

The two kingdoms are, in practical terms, largely unaware of one another in any great detail. Have private-sector church-goers many friends who are staunch atheists in the public sector? To a great extent do people habitually on welfare fraternise with the employed and self-employed? They seem to live in different communities and surely consume different media. To the degree that they perceive one another, it may be only as the most grotesque stereotypes: I know Americans on welfare who think that their hard-working employed countrymen are merely “lucky” to be relatively well-off, while many of the privately employed in both Britain and America seem unaware of the financial “trap” by which welfare makes work comparatively unaffordable. Before he retired and went bankrupt running a small hotel, the late and largely anti-private-sector Senator George McGovern said he had no idea how much work it takes to run a small business, while the late Senator Jesse Helms maintained unfairly that American diplomats were mollycoddled and lazy. Between the two kingdoms, misunderstanding and stereotyping abound.

This gulf of misunderstanding was explained to me, in a most frightening manner, by an IRA terrorist whom I met unexpectedly at a journalist friend’s birthday party a decade ago; the former killer had changed sides (and was being hunted by his erstwhile colleagues, so I sat away from the restaurant window). In ordinary towns and cities, he explained, we all live in tiny demimondes; some of us are football-mad or are very religious, or are bookish or are foodies and so we socialise with people like us. The same for terrorists, he said; they might live next door to us, but their friends and family members are either terrorists or support terrorism and it comprises their major interest in life and their core values. We now know this to be equally true among the most radical Islamists. In a similar sense but less lethal, the Two Kingdoms, in both Britain and America, hardly know anything about people unlike themselves.

Amid and above them lies the Third Kingdom, whose subjects understand little of the other two realms. They have their own internal differences which scarcely matter to us; their own occupations, social strata, pecking-orders and status symbols invisible to net-providers and net-consumers in the other two kingdoms. In America, they can be identified easily when they talk about the “fly-over” states, meaning the terra incognita between the two coasts; places that do not matter to them. In Britain, exacerbated by social class division, the Third Kingdom includes the Prime Minister.

His posh and private education at Eton matters less than him living in a socio-economic terrarium inhabited wholly by those whom Britons ironically call “the good and the great.” Everyone he knows, whether meritocrat or aristocrat, commands great power in the modern First Estate of government, the Second Estate of industry or the Third Estate of media. They all support the same Establishment ideologies that preserve their wealth and privilege, and share the same ideologically-driven Progressive values that make them feel noble in a world of sanctimonious make-believe.

While the Prime Minister occasionally hears an opposing view from, say, an elected member of his own parliamentary party, it is surely not as though a dog barks at him on the street, but it is no more important than if a Versailles gardener was overheard by Louis XIV to complain about the weather: it was background noise. Only the king and his courtiers knew what “really mattered.”

86-obama cameronMoreover, conquering the Third Kingdom is the hope of folly and the folly of hope. The answer comes in the old Southern joke about the parishioner who cheekily tells his preacher that he is fishing “for Baptist fish,” so named because “they spoil so fast once you get ‘em out of the water.” Or M. Stanton Evans’s famous barb that, after reformers get to Washington, “what looked like a septic tank seems more like a hot-tub.”Although ostensibly as different as chalk and cheese, Mssrs. Obama and Cameron come from different races, continents and backgrounds, and yet they reside in the same Third Kingdom as surely as if they grew up next door to one another. So do Tory and Labour elites, Republican and Democrat elites, European Union and United Nations elites, and media elites. They are elites, and only their fellow elites know what “really matters.”

We are deluded if we think that many commoners, from either kingdom, will reach the Court of the Sun King or join the Politburo and not change for the worse. Those who, after observing the political careers of rare individuals with lasting principles, think that they can elect a plurality of the similar souls resemble those second-marriages in which “hope triumphs over experience.” We remember the name and the principle of Cincinnatus, who abandoned power and returned to his farm, only because he was an anomaly even within his Ancient Rome.

Since Adam Smith described the division of labour, the Industrial Revolution expanded the process immeasurably amongst productive people to ever-increasing levels. The Welfare State subdivided it yet again. It is simply not conceivable that Humpty-Dumpty can be glued back together or that modern society can be reintegrated out of its massive socio-economic complexity and division. A porous but aloof and cosseted elite, comprising the Third Kingdom, is now an inevitability.

Equally certain is the protracted assault of policies anathema to one or both of the other two kingdoms, propelled by whatever suits the whims and fashions of the rulers and supports their grip on power. Today in Britain, single-sex marriage is a social glue among elites across all other internal divisions; on the continent the need to consolidate power among similar elites results in the slow crucifixion of the Greeks in order to spare rich bankers from the consequences of imprudent lending. Tomorrow, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, in America and abroad.

Those who are unhappy can only but obey, or attempt to build quiet alternative mechanisms within and around a hostile status quo. Our modern temporal world contains Three Kingdoms and within it we have but those two choices. All else is self-delusion now, onanism of a kind unique to modern democratic states.

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10 replies to this post
  1. I was going to insert a positive note on the reports of 300,000 Frenchmen marching in Paris against gay marriage allowances, but the pessimist in me considers the bleak possibility that 300,000 might just be the number of Frenchmen left in France nowadays.

    Mr. Cameron said, if I recall correctly, that he supports the measure because a lasting loving marriage is a conservative principle, and he wishes to encourage the formation of true, loving monogomous relationships that are legally sanctioned and protected.

    The problem with this line of thinking is that it presumes a child does not at least theoretically need both a good mother and a good father for proper upbringing, let alone as role models or cases of an ideal type. Case in point is the recent Italian court decision granting custody of a child to the child's lesbian mother and her new "partner".

    There's another word I loathe: "partner" – as if to suggest that marriage was like a business enterprise. It has been a long time coming, but what started as a greater tolerance for divorce has now come full circle as we bear witness to an entire generation of Westerners who do not know what a family is, do not understand what a marriage is, and pander for legal sanction for definitions which run contrary to logic. They do not even understand the elementary principles of liberalism in the mould of JS Mill, for they are blind to the intolerance towards private religious orders that they risk unleashing.

    One can only pray that Russia and China grow in prominence. The Chinese, it is true, are not democratic. However, they are also not hypocritical. Their political despotism is overt and clear as their economic freedom is apparent. No pretence is made of liberal facades. The Russians meanwhile have taken the imperfect ideas of sound economic thought (such as the flat tax) and applied them to great benefit. Neither country seems much engaged in the "cause" of gay marriage. They have more mature political goals such as empire and greatness.

    Meanwhile, the West continues to commit suicide. I can only hope Mr. Cameron is doing what he is doing in order to eliminate the idiotic issue of "gay marriage" from the public discourse. Can you imagine FDR in the midst of the great depression, announcing that the great cause of his presidency is something so moronic as the legal sanction of sodomy? Beyond all moral, sociological and philosophical arguments – it is above all a sign of a crisis of ambition! America once sent people to the moon, now the measure of its greatness is how quickly it can outpace Zimbabwe in printing money and how many men can marry eachother. The assent of Asia in our times is no surprise.

  2. Mr. Rieth, I don't always agree with what you write. But in this case I agree with you one hundred percent. As a country, a culture and a civilization, we are headed for suicidal extinction. But, no matter, we are obsessed instead with the weird, ludicrous and absurd. I feel we are now living in the counter universe, Bizarro Land, of the old Superman comics, where black is white, good is bad, and wrong is right. If this is the future, we are surely doomed. And, considering what we have become, good riddance.

  3. I don't think that there has been a progressive idea (cultural, that is) in the US since the 50s that has not originated in the universities and then filtered into religion through the Episcopal Church. It is the dirty little secret of academic progressives that they used the manufactured scare of McCarthyism to unite the academic left and to seal off the ivory tower from opposing ideas. As Toledano shows in Cry Havoc, the ground for this had been well prepared by the Frankfurt School. It wasn't hard for monolithic academia to influence the rest of the chattering classes, especially those who were launched into society by the elite schools. The Gay Idea turned out to be one of their most important triumphs.

  4. The reason why the Church of England will not be allowed to opt in to same-sex marriage is that laws relating to civil marriage do not apply to it. As the Established Church it can marry people on its own terms without reference to the state. Other denominations and faith groups must meet the requirements of a civil marriage, although a separate civil ceremony is not necessary. To bring the CofE into the ambit of civil marriage law would require further legislation which would certainly be controversial (and unprecedented) and would bring into question the whole notion of Establishment.

  5. Does anyone actually ever use the term "flyover states" in a pejorative sense? It seems that at least 99 out of every 100 uses of the phrase are by non-coastal residents lamenting the alleged prevalence of the term. This has become a pet peeve of mine.

  6. Where do I begin to reply to this evocative essay and all the comments it has elicited? First of all, hats off to Steve once again for putting your finger directly on the gaping wound in the culture. Ever since I left Capitol Hill and The White House in Washington and lived on another continent, met poor people face to face in multiple countries, and the next week dined with Royalty, talked to people with leftist political convictions, then conversed with conservative Members of Parliaments, tried to understand what Islam beliefs are about, visited prisons and refugee shelters, had men I respect admit to me that they were homosexual, and actively listened to people who are not followers of Christ, I have become aware of what a tiny terrarium I have otherwise lived in. The juxtaposition of these experiences was anything but comfortable. And they have not convinced me that we should just embrace all the diversity and let it go at that. Instead, I am even more convinced that the only hope of renewing a culture must be anchored in a foundation of shared beliefs, above all faith in the Permanent Things ordained by God. We must rediscover the Truth that is immutable and build our house upon it. And as much as I would like to embrace all wayward and confused souls, at some point we must have the courage to not only love the sinner, but acknowledge that anything less than calling sin what it is will not do. A very wise professor taught us about what he called "the asceticism of dialogue." While I rebelled inwardly at the term then, I see its wisdom now. As vehemently as we may disagree with people of different convictions, if we are to genuinely engage them, shouting matches are uncivilized. But having said that, everything that I believe theologically, and all the research I have done, confirm that a true sacramental marriage can only be between a man and a woman. Any culture that compromises this most basic building block of civilization cannot survive for long. I have had to cross a picket line of protesters to attend Mass at a church where the bishop would not give the Sacrament to people wearing a rainbow sash. He had bouncers stationed at the door and on either side of him. Later that day, at the conference where I was one of the speakers, the police were called to put down the fisticuffs that erupted after one of the sessions. Is this truly the face of contemporary America? Lord have mercy on us all, and give us courage and wisdom.

  7. The essay touches on themes I’ve been thinking about for a while–but they’re expressed here with an easy sweep I admire. Take this observation–

    “Those who are unhappy can only but obey, or attempt to build quiet alternative mechanisms within and around a hostile status quo. Our modern temporal world contains Three Kingdoms and within it we have but those two choices. All else is self-delusion now, onanism of a kind unique to modern democratic states.”

    …what does it take to come to this epiphany? I’ve had it and because I’ve had it, I’ve had it, if you get my drift. I was delivered from a foolish consistency, but only after many disappointments and a whole lot of reading. Strange and easy to ridicule signals seem to be coming from the great unwashed that can only be attributed to some mystical source: dystopia wherever you look in popular entertainment, “doomsday preppers” living next door stocking up on ammo, ex-executives planting organic tomatoes and studying up on rain harvesting techniques–it all speaks to a lowering of expectations, of a turning away from the third kingdom. So much for the politics of hope. Still, there are many who feed themselves on the folly of hope. They will make things even more difficult for the rest of us than than they already are.

  8. While I can appreciate the need to see oneself as a victim of the Third Class, nonetheless it does seem those members of this elite are themselves very much part of the Romney-esque 53 percent. Are the interests of the “producers” any different fundamentally than those of the cultural elite? Analytically, I doubt that.

    Second, from a conservative direction: to split society between producers and takers does seem to deny the more organic links, or perhaps the more desired organic links between people. It is a sort of simplistic falsehood that actually hides what is common and what then is to be conserved.

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