We've never had it so good. It has become fashionable to do down the present - whether because of television, consumerism or political correctness. But did things really used to be so much better? A C Grayling stands up for modern life
Plato's Children: the state we are in
Anthony O'Hear Gibson Square Books, 239pp, £14.99
Browsers of the Christmas bookshelves must have noted how they groaned under volumes complaining about this and that, mainly contemporary Britain - The Gripes of Wrath, Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?, Grumpy Old Men, Grumpy Old Women. Whether this reflects a national mood or the mood of the publishing industry is open to question, but evidence that it might be the former is offered by the two works under review here.
Anthony O'Hear, a veteran nostalgist and reactionary, believes that the rise of technology in modern times has driven us deeper into Plato's cave, whose inhabitants - prisoners of illusion - think that the shadow play they see on the rock walls is reality. Television, consumerism, celebrity culture - the usual suspects - are to blame, and O'Hear gives us a chapter on each. His solution to the alleged problem of our benightedness is "to turn round and walk out of Plato's cave" so that we can see "basic truths" by daylight.
O'Hear does not examine quite how people are to turn and walk out of the cave just like that, and he does not specify the "basic truths", although he gives a big hint in an approving citation of Pascal's view that "true salvation" is to be found only "in and through the person of Christ, God's Incarnate Son".
Those who value the life of reason as against the life of television might think that Pascal's nostrum is the problem, not the solution, since religious faith and television have so much in common - firmly pressing the mind's "off" button and substituting numb acquiescence in the place of independent thought. But O'Hear does not see matters this way; he is too much against the internet, sport, shopping, entertainment, politics and education - at least in their current dumbed-down form - to consider how traditional ways of living might have been worse.
This is always the way with those who look yearningly to the past - who conjure up and sigh over those black-and-white images of teatime long ago, when the world seemed cosy; this being the biggest illusion of all. They fail to see that everything is better by a factor of about a billion than in the cold foggy bathroomless days of yore. Compare your average working Briton today with the average working Briton of 1306 with regard to the degree to which either suffers the illusions of Plato's cave. Is there a contest?
Where O'Hear fails to convince (though he will thoroughly massage the prejudices of the prejudiced), Anthony Browne mostly persuades. He provides a swingeing attack on the way "political correctness" has corrupted public debate in Britain, and does it with panache. The points he makes are not new - the same tale of woe can be told about the institutions of higher education in the UK and elsewhere in the western world, for this is where the rot started. However, although the case is familiar, constant iteration of it is necessary, and Browne's is a particularly good statement.
Browne was galvanised to write his polemic by the refusal of the Department of Health to accept that the sharp increase in HIV infection in Britain since 1997 was not the result of increased unsafe sex by Britons, but immigration from Africa. Immigration now contributes more to the growth in the figures than unsafe sex in the gay community. But because of sensitivities over singling out one community, and a recent immigrant one at that, the official impression was given that heterosexual sex had become the principal vector in the infection rate's increase.
Browne says an informant in the Department of Health admitted to him that the reason for the government's refusal to discuss where the increased infections were coming from was that it regarded the information as racist. Eventually the government was forced to acknowledge the fact publicly by the sheer weight of evidence. It is not just truth that suffers, Browne points out; for the same cost of combating HIV in Britain, many more lives could be saved in Africa.
After rehearsing a litany of dismaying defeats for reason and truth at the hands of political correctness, Browne is - a little unexpectedly, after so much bad news - upbeat about the prospects. He sees the days of PC as numbered (though as with all infections it could return). This is partly because PC is itself becoming un-PC - no one likes to admit to being PC - but also because there are places where its real dangers are becoming far too apparent. That most liberal and tolerant of all polities, the Netherlands, has had a brutal lesson in the price of tolerating the intolerant, Browne reminds us; but (and in some ways more interestingly) he also points out the straws in the wind represented by the satirical adult television cartoon South Park, which makes a variety of PC-nesses irresistibly funny, and The Incredibles, that brilliant animated cinema essay on what happens when PC trumps excellence.
The trouble with debates such as these, as O'Hear and Browne in their different ways show, is the temptation to be firmly on one side or the other of a putative fence. O'Hear is against modern times because, living in them and finding them uncongenial - and moreover, falsely imagining that other times and ways were better - he rails against them, Canute-like, charmingly but futilely at odds with everything. Browne's temptation, against which he fights in a single page headed "The Benefits of Political Correctness", is to see the corrupting influence of PC as universal. Browne is more right than O'Hear, though in fact, even in the PC-undermined public debate in Britain, there are eloquent voices - Browne's, for one - that simply will not brook it.
The point should not be lost that at least some of the wellsprings of PC attitudes are right. They are about having as your default position a preparedness to give others, all others, what (as Emerson put it) we give a painting: the advantage of a good light. They are about bottling our prejudices if we have them, and interacting with others according to a much better principle: a principle of humanity. The pity is that this aim should have become an unacceptable form of policing that has poisoned public debate and made us fools, lest the uncomfortable facts that muddy the clear waters of this principle make anyone think that we do not hold it dear.
A C Grayling's most recent book is Descartes (Free Press). Among the Dead Cities, about the Allied bombing of civilians during the Second World War, will be published by Bloomsbury next month