13 JUNE 1998, Page 41

Wanted: a reliable engineer

Alan Watkins

FAKING IT: THE SENTIMENTALISATION OF MODERN SOCIETY edited by Digby Anderson and Peter Mullen Social Affairs Unit, £15.99, pp. 211 This book has received much publicity but has not been widely reviewed. The publicity derived from an essay, one of 12 which make up the book, by Professor Anthony O'Hear. It is, as most people who read the papers know (though they may have forgotten by now), about the death and funeral of the Princess of Wales last year and the public response to those events. Most of what Professor O'Hear has to say is sensible and accurate. It amounts to asserting that as a nation we have changed, and for the worse. Perhaps he expresses the change most graphically when he points out that it would have been inconceivable to have Dame Vera Lynn singing at the funeral of George VI as Sir Elton John sang at the funeral of this grandson's former wife 45 years later.

Dr Anderson and Mr Mullen call this change `sentimentalisation', which is fair enough. Not only does it place emotion above reason, it also insists on a public dis- play of emotion where no such feeling is present. If people happen to be good actors, so much the better. If they are not, they are still required to go through the appropriate drills: like, indeed, the Queen herself was after the death of her daughter- in-law, whom she evidently did not greatly like, and no wonder. She was compelled to go through the motions by the popular press (`Show Us You Care, Ma'am') and also, whether directly or not, by her new prime minister, Tony Blair.

The contributors with a philosophical cast of mind have no doubt in laying the blame on J-J. Rousseau and his notion of perfect man made imperfect by society. None of them refers to J. L. Talmon's Ori- gins of Totalitarian Democracy, which shows how Marxist states derived their justifica- tion from the French Revolution and the works of Rousseau. All the authors are strong for capitalism but fail to make the connection between late capitalism and that sentimentalisation of which they dis- approve so vigorously. What we are seeing today is a reviving of the totalitarian ideas of Rousseau and his revolutionary follow- ers in the capitalist democracies of the United States, the United Kingdom and, to a certain extent (though the contributors do not venture beyond the white cliffs of Dover), the European Union.

This is not to say that the contributors are insular: far from it. Instead, disregard- . ing the strong advice of A. E. Housman, they look to the West. Thus the chapter on environmentalism gone mad is by Dr Jo Kwong of the Institute of Humane Studies, Fairfax, Virginia. Some of it is interesting. I was particularly interested in the doubtful fate of recycled materials. Are they like the iron gates and railings and the aluminium saucepans which Lord Beaverbrook, as Minister for Aircraft Production, requisi- tioned in the last war? Are they, in short, being dispatched to the nearest rubbish dump? I should like to know, but Dr Kwong does not tell us what is going on in Islington. Again, the chapter entitled `Sweetness and Light in Schools' is by Bruce S. Cooper and Dennis O'Keefe, respectively an American professor and a British lecturer. As the educational tradi- tions and present systems of both countries are so different, it is difficult to see what they can write together that is at all useful or interesting.

Dr Anderson is, however, thoroughly British in his typically readable chapter on food. Readable though he is, he still con- trives to make me feel slightly uncomfort- able. Being in favour of real food is one thing: taking the evident delight that Dr Anderson does in skinning live eels, evis- cerating rabbits and consuming large quan- tities of lambs' testicles is, I feel, something else entirely. It is what a woman friend of mine calls 'worrying'. On the whole, howev- er, he reserves such detailed descriptive passages for readers of The Spectator, His contribution here is more subfuse; it may be in deference to the delicate susceptibili- ties of the American market. • The several contributors who quote Karl Popper's phrase 'social engineering' all misuse it. This is one of those phrases which have come to mean the opposite of the original. It is now used pejoratively by conservatives and by libertarians to describe political changes which treat peo- ple unfeelingly, usually as subjects for socialistic experimentation. In its original use by Popper it signified modestly intro- duced changes, in contrast to the supposed infallibility of, in particular, Marxist revolu- tion: Just as the main task of the physical engineer is to design machines and to remodel and service them, the task of the piecemeal social engineer is to design social institutions, and to reconstruct and run those already in exis- tence . .. The piecemeal technologist or engineer recognises that only a minority of social institutions are consciously designed while the vast majority have just 'grown, as the undesigned results of human actions (italics supplied). The characteristic approach of the piecemeal engineer is this. Even though he may perhaps cherish some ideals which concern society 'as a whole' = its general welfare, perhaps — he does not believe in the method of redesigning it as a whole. Whatever his ends, he tries to achieve them by small adjustments and readjustments which can be continually improved upon.

What Dr Anderson's and Mr Mullen's contributors are really looking for is a reliable social engineer.