649. Contemplation (XIII)
How long has the world been politically correct—how long has the world been woke? A long time; and in a way left and right conspire to conceal how long we have been woke, for the left will say “racist 19th century” and the right will secretly think “it was, and it was better”. Yet if you look at the 19th century you find that, in fact, very little was different from today—except in degree. This is because, in a typical conservative point, not that much ever really changes—except that many people never study history, so everything appears new to them. So the issues in British politics are very consistent: Ireland, free trade or protectionism, “Europe”, marriage reform (sexual reform), socialism (property confiscation; progressive taxation), and immigration—and many of the same arguments crop up again and again.
For example, in the 1880s the last conservative Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, remarked on a “black man” who stood for a parliamentary seat in London—the English were “not ready” for it. The phrase misleads somewhat, since the “black man” in question was a Parsee mathematics professor from India—the Parsees being descended from the Persian Aryans; and, in jest, the man dubbed himself “Salisbury’s black man”. You might think Salisbury’s expression would have caused no outcry; certainly, the average leftist would take it as par for the course Victoriana—with “racism” being a Victorian specialty. Quite the contrary, Salisbury was harangued in the press and on the stage and people demanded to know, just like today, what exactly he meant (implied) when he said “a black man”.
Salisbury, rather as today, stated that he had no idea that a factual statement could carry negative connotations, anymore than to say “a white man” or “a Chinese”—the only difference today is that the embattled conservative might reply that the other side projects their own “racism” onto him, psychoanalysis being a genuinely new development since Salisbury’s time. Otherwise, the whole reaction was similar to the weekly scandals we have around sex, race, and sexuality today—except that, as with everything in the past, it all happened much more slowly.
So this idea that 19th-century London was overrun by racial invective and complacent supremacist attitudes is far from reality. Salisbury thought in a racial way: he thought that only the “Teutonic races” were fit for representative democracy, and he supported the Protestants in Ireland because his ancestors had arranged for them to settle there in the 1600s—it was a question of blood and honour to support their position hundreds of years later.
However, he thought about people primarily as individuals—as seems healthy to me—except that in the background he understood that breeding and pedigree play a decisive role. So even the most reactionary figure of the day barely thought in racial terms, at least as far as the left thinks was so in Victorian times—the impression I get is that we are meant assume the Victorians thought like Hitler.
You had more freedom to speak frankly then; yet the social pressure from liberals, in the broadest sense, and from “polite society” was still as strong—and Salisbury was viewed to have made a gaff, even in the 1880s. I maintain that the liberal left grows, at least in part, from decadent politeness—the idea that you must not mention “unmentionables” that “disturb the ladies”; hence Salisbury, in refined Victorian Britain, was also almost “cancelled” for a racial comment. The fact that this trend has existed for a long time does not mean it is harmless—malaria has also existed for a long time, and it is not harmless. As the old saying goes, “There is a lot of ruin in a nation,” and decadent politeness contributes to that ruin—and accelerates it as women become more prominent, as the need not to shock them increases, and as perverted politeness assumes ideological dimensions. Yet for all this, we are not so different from the Victorians.