Claire Fox talked to some of the authors who created a storm with their criticisms of Diana and 'fake' sentimentality
Snobs against sobbing
Tony Blair is right - the Social Affairs Unit collection of essays, Faking It, is full of old-fashioned snobbery. But so what? It has some insights, shatters a few taboos and asks embarrassing questions: a rare virtue in Blair's Britain. As contributor Dennis O'Keeffe told me, 'Some of the writers probably are snobs - I'm not - but I think snobbery is a relatively minor fault; much less serious than gross sentimentality'. And when O'Keeffe protests that Elton John's song at Diana's funeral 'was the most utter banal doggerel', who is to say whether he is guilty of snobbery or good taste?
O'Keeffe explains that the book, subtitled The Sentimentalisation of Modern Society, is not about Diana, despite the press controversy it caused. That short essay was added after the project was conceived because 'the Diana phenomenon perfectly embodied the kind of neurosis and self-indulgence that we were trying to get at in the other essays'. As its author, Bradford University professor Anthony O'Hear, put it, 'Sometimes in the history of a people there is a defining moment in which a nation discovers what it has become'. O'Keeffe admits that adding the essay was also a marketing device: 'I commented that the Diana essay would sell the book, which proved to be a great prediction. My wife said, being shrewd, that it would divert from the other essays and it has done that too.'
The other dozen essays, on the media, food, health, music, environmentalism, welfare, education and literature are a worthwhile attempt at describing the newly sentimental world wherein 'the elevation of feelings, image, spontaneity rules over reason, reality and restraint'.
Mark Steyn contends that the media's 'slapdash sentimentality' now means 'facts are ignored in favour of versions which arouse extreme emotions'. Jo Kwong identifies the anti-human character of an environmentalist agenda that is 'bolstered by sentimental visions of living in perfect harmony with nature... based not on analysis, but on emotional and moral appeal'. Bruce Cooper and O'Keeffe rail against an education system in which 'the sentimental model of a good school is...one which does not make children feel bad by pointing out where they have fallen short of some externally validated standard'.
O'Keeffe explains that to him, sentimental-isation is 'the process whereby what makes thinkers and administrators feel good, displaces reason and evidence as the basis of policy-making'. Another contributor sums it up as the way in which 'almost every subject has been taken out of the realm of politics and appropriated to the realm of feeling'. All seem to agree that 'Clinton and Blair absolutely embody it'.
The flaw in this collection is its insistence on the 'fake' character of nineties' emotionalism. At least when Anthony O'Hear claims that the emotion of the people grieving over Diana 'was genuine, misdirected maybe...irrational, but it was not insincere or superficial' he recognises that sentimentalism, trite as it is, tells us something important about society. The 'emotional' reaction to Diana's death was shallow and stage-managed, but it reflects the real morality of today.
The belief that the new emotionalism is fake comes from a desire of so many of the writers to hold on to old 'real' values and institutions. Such nostalgic restorationism is particularly strong in relation to religion and the monarchy. The book's editors bemoan the fact that 'there are new carpets and armchairs in the sanctuary': but replacing cosy chairs with 'judgement, purgatory and hell', as they suggest, is not an attractive option. Peter Mullen, writing about religion, gives a hilarious account of a visit to his local Anglican Charismatic church, describing the horrors of stylised hugs, pop lingo and 'the big, bearded man' with 'enough smiling unctuousness to fill the closet of Uriah Heap' who turns out to be the vicar. His alternative? The '400-year tradition' of 'the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer'. Now I can really see that taking off in Cool Britannia.
What these writers' rose-tinted glasses blind them to is that it is precisely the irrelevance of the values and institutions of the past that have created the space for today's new emotionalism to take off.
O'Keeffe's comments on the monarchy show just how unconvincing this nostalgic sentiment is. He rants against the Hollywood-isation of the monarchy ('did you see the princes surrounded in South Africa by those Spice Girls?'), but his reflections on Diana show how clueless he is when it comes to an alternative. 'If she had the sort of strong and gritty personality her sister-in-law has, she'd have been able to take it', he says. Her sister-in-law? He continued wistfully, 'Anne's not beautiful in the same way. She's a genuine English eccentric. She could've handled that kind of...'. But can anybody really see horsy Anne as a role model for a generation fed on counselling and the virtues of victimhood?
For all the futile nostalgia for the golden age of authority, original sin and stiff upper lips, the essays paint a convincing picture of human aspirations crushed by society's emphasis on the victim. O'Keeffe points out that 'the trouble with victimology is that it now wishes to freeze the people who are sentimentally recognised as victims in their status permanently'. Other essays attack the 'web of debilitating condescension woven pre-emptively through' our lives, object that 'the sense of...human agency is (being) profoundly weakened' by 'sentimentalisation' and argue that much of today's desire to make things 'relevant' is in fact 'patronising and babyish, Noddy language'.
Faking It: The Sentimentalisation of Modern Society (eds D Anderson and P Mullen) is available from the Social Affairs Unit, 314-322 Regent Street, London W1R 5AB, priced £15.95 plus £2 p&p
Reproduced from LM issue 111, June 1998