“One evening when a young gentleman teized him with an account of the infidelity of his servant, who, he said, would not believe the scriptures, because he could not read them in the original tongues, and be sure that they were not invented, ‘Why, foolish fellow, (said Johnson,) has he any better authority for almost every thing that he believes?’ BOSWELL. ‘Then the vulgar, Sir, never can know they are right, but must submit themselves to the learned.’ JOHNSON. ‘To be sure, Sir. The vulgar are the children of the State, and must be taught like children.’ BOSWELL. ‘Then, Sir, a poor Turk must be a Mahometan, just as a poor Englishman must be a Christian?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, yes, Sir; and what then? This now is such stuff as I used to talk to my mother, when I first began to think myself a clever fellow; and she ought to have whipt me for it.”
This is perhaps one area where Samuel Johnson and I fall out with one another? Perhaps? The idea that, as Johnson calls them, ‘the vulgar’ are ‘The Children of the State’; of whom he has said elsewhere in so many words that the analogy between natural parents and their young offspring holds good; is a politically and theologically disturbing one; for Johnson extrapolates on it to a logical conclusion that:
Consider, Sir; if you have children whom you wish to educate in the principles of the Church of England, and there comes a Quaker who tries to pervert them to his principles, you would drive away the Quaker. You would not trust to the predomination of right, which you believe is in your opinions; you would keep wrong out of their heads. Now the vulgar are the children of the State. If any one attempts to teach them doctrines contrary to what the State approves, the magistrate may and ought to restrain him.’
These statements of Johnson’s, if accepted by one as possibly valid, throw open to question the whole notion of political democracy; and worse; of Salvation for those he classifies as ‘Children of the State’ i.e. ‘the vulgar’. For Johnson says, when you read him above, that even a person whom one believes has the wrong faith for him to be Saved has to be let alone to stay with that faith when such a person is one of ‘the vulgar’; whether Quaker or Muslim in Johnson’s instances which he offers us.
This means in my own interpretation of it that a person of ‘the vulgar’ must be left alone to believe what The State directs him to believe; even though his immortal soul might depend for its Salvation on him not being left entirely to the custody of The State. This I find very hard to accept.
Politically, and less alarmingly, but yet still alarming, are the consequences for a liberal democracy were Johnson’s views shown to be valid. Such a referendum result as we in the UK have just suffered, were these circumstances of Johnson’s to be valid, have given an invalid result; because Johnson is saying, if I have him right, that ‘the vulgar’ are not fit to hold a vote.
Essentially we need to know who these ‘vulgar’ might be; what characterises them to the extent that they can be identified by us within society? Once we have these ‘vulgar’ identified, and come to understand them as being in effect wards of The State; we can discuss some of the merits and demerits of Johnson’s politics and theology.
Johnson tells us that the ‘vulgar’ are to be – as it were – spoon-fed their beliefs by The State; according to the general status quo of popular understanding and of contemporary views in the relevant eras. He may have agreed to the idea that to try to enlighten them any further was not only ‘casting pearls before swine’ but also inciting public disturbance and even insurrection from them. The fear of insurrection, of what contemporaries called ‘the mob’ uprising, was always a nagging worry even in Johnson’s day; but perhaps more especially so it is found in Dickens, and because of the horrors of ‘vulgar’ life under the terrible urban conditions imposed upon it by the early stages radical social dislocation in what we call now The Industrial Revolution.
In Dickens’s day as well as in Johnson’s this ‘mob’ was more or less wholly uneducated; none of them attended any kind of school; consequently their ideas of the world and of their society were vague and primitive for the most part. They had few if any ‘manners’ or ‘nurture of the heart’ except what nature endowed them with. This factor concerning lack of education comprises a large difference between whom we today might consider ‘the vulgar’ to be, and those who were termed ‘the vulgar’ by Johnson.
The Education Act of 1870 brought the first universal education to British children; by this time Dickens was an old man and Johnson had been dead a century.
I believe this fact and difference of universal education at the very least ‘waters-down’ somewhat Johnson’s strictures about ‘the vulgar’ and their proper place in life; and in regard to how things stand in our democracy of today. But yet no thinking Briton is able to deny that some, perhaps much, of the apparatus of The State even today is brought to bear upon our ‘neo-vulgar’ in such a way as to have effects very like as those which Johnson describes they ought to have; today then, so many of us yet remain effectually and de facto ‘Children of the State’.
The question remains whether this is as it should be; and to whatever decision we come, yea or nay, involves very serious practical considerations about the events of 2016 in Britain; The Year of Brexit.
This is because, as I have hinted already; were one a hard-liner Tory of today; the type who hankered for ‘a return of Sovereignty’ and for ‘freedom from Brussels’’ bureaucrats’; you are very likely to side with Johnson heavily in the matter of ‘the vulgar’ being properly the wards of The State. Thus one’s own political beliefs would have invalidated for oneself the result of the Referendum which turned the tide in your favour. For one does not believe that ‘the mob, the vulgar’ are in principle eligible to vote responsibly since they are not capable of being anything better than wards, than children, of The State. They carry for you only the status and the political rights and acumen of minors. Johnson is pretty clear on this point.
Yet had The State of Britain, in deed and in word, honoured the spirit of its much-hallowed, much-vaunted, liberal democracy and had attempted to educate ‘the mob’ and ‘the vulgar’ to a station whereupon they might have acquired enough acumen and experience and so political right and adulthood that they were capable of voting authentically; I would wager that in these circumstances almost certainly Brexit would never have occurred. Without any doubt in my mind I say that The Tories are the main culprits for this omission and dereliction of duty to their ‘charges’; although The Labour Party, when in power, has done less than it could have done also.
Of course my remarks betray that I believe that ‘the mob’ and ‘the vulgar’ should have had, should yet have, at least the same opportunities as the Establishment and its fellow-travellers to a liberal – emphasis on liberal – education; one which aims to free them of Blakean ‘mind-forged manacles’ whose keys rest tightly clasped in the hands of upper class and educated Britons.
There is empirical evidence that such an education to ‘the mob’ is able to be had and to be applied to the ordinary ‘vulgar’ – people such as you and I. See this story of a ‘failing’ school – by School Inspectorate standards – one year – and rated ‘excellent’ – by the same the body following year; a school in London’s inner city in the notorious East End (Tower Hamlets); see how it was turned around quickly and brilliantly by application of some radical schooling under the leadership of Headmistress Wendy Hick
(It is worth delving further to see the almost Socratic dialogue method and inspiration of her style)
Had The Tories and other governments over the years ‘tried harder’ (this being my summary entry on their school reports) at education, instead trying exclusively to ‘fit for employment’ – and I might add – for employers – and had offered better, more aspirational, treatment for all of us – then Brexit would never have occurred.
But the political lesson remains clear – an old chestnut but worth reiterating – whether one is of a ‘vulgar mob’ or an educated democrat – and it is that the Tories once again whichever way they jump remain hypocrites in this respect as in so, so, much else.
That dreadful and unworthy of the name; that travesty and parody, and mockery of a debate which characterised the Brexit referendum run-up and vote; on both sides, no excuses either way; would not have been palatable to an aware ‘vulgar mob’; but it was a success for the Leavers simply because it was so banal, so repetitive, like a steam-hammer, full of sprats catching mackerel; and bluntly it was fundamentally wrong because lies and it was persistently kept dumbed-down deliberately; so as for it to be sure of hooking by visceral means an uneducated and pandered to, manipulated, and largely visceral greater public.
As for theology – are we Calvinists? Are we of the persuasion of that Justified Sinner of Ettrick Shepherd fame? Are we Antinomians all? Are we the people and wisdom will die with us? And the rest the dross the lees among us is that seed which fell on stony ground? Have we the gall to claim for ourselves Salvation because we have understanding and discernment and are able to discriminate; whereas that ‘vulgar mob’ which has by necessity to slot into the groove or the rut of the status quo and though looking never see, though listening never hear, because incapable of seeing, and deaf to appeals, and impervious to any of that sweetness and light of a higher calling?
Is this your average staunch hard-line Tory’s outlook? It certainly follows that it ought to be from what I have laid out here so far. (I have little doubt that such Tory people in general despise in their hearts the common ‘vulgar’; and that they cannot do otherwise. I also believe that Cameron’s jolly cavalier dismissal of his gaffs about pasties and about Aston Villa – laughing them off and laughing thereby at that ‘vulgar mob’ he’d hoped to deceive and mislead to thinking that he was a ‘good guy and one of us’; I firmly believe that here is a Tory moderate who was content to show his contempt for the common people and to do so publicly before TV cameras and shown across the nation; and yet not a ripple of trenchant comeback from the great 4th estate
Had it been Corbyn – and I am indeed no friend of Corbyn – it could have forced him out of office were he to have show similar such disdainful behaviour to the greater electorate. Brown had received his death sentence over less – and at least Brown was being genuine, true to his heart, when he called that woman a bigot; and he probably had half a case to call her such if not more.
Indeed the Establishment is able to get away scot free with so much handy dandy and legerdemain, exactly because it finds it so easy to palm-off its contempt for its vassals and to wind these ‘vulgar’ around their fingers with promises never yet made in their hearts and so broken by them before ever being publicly pledged.
And this is where we have come to; at the close of 2016. The fruits of that policy which has maintained, whether rightly or wrongly; truly or falsely; that the ‘vulgar mob’ will always be The Children, and the wards, of The State; and as such unenligtenable – and to boot and worse – irredeemable before God – such a policy has over a generation or more brought forth bitter, bitter fruit, which we are all now beginning to taste as our daily diets and we shall be continuing to do so for a foreseeable future.
Both sides, the moderate Cameronians and the jackbooted Eton/Oxbridge Luddites, hardly masterminds any, of Brexit; each believed they were capable of ‘playing all the stops’ on the mental equipment of the ‘vulgar mob’ so as to win their case by referendum. On this basis Cameron called his referendum – a great mistake – ‘events, dear boy, events’. Yes ‘time and chance happeneth to all’ and the wildcard ‘immigration’ was played as a final trump card – as that ‘card that is so high and wild you’ll never need another’ – by the sordid clique seeking power over Britain and all to their egoistic, self-serving selves; and thus the game was up.
‘Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive’
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