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Algora Publishing - When lords cease being gentlemen
                                               For a Kinder, Gentler Society
When lords cease being gentlemen
Ethic of service By William Pfaff (IHT)

LONDON: Peregrine Worsthorne is a man as delightful as his name, who for 30 years wrote a political column in The Sunday Telegraph devoted to infuriating as many of the British newspaper's righteous readers as possible.

He was a master of posing questions that no one else dared ask and making arguments as outrageous as they were right. He was once told by a reader that the reader "agreed with everything you've ever written." He replied, "That's preposterous. Even I don't agree with everything I've ever written."

His latest outrage is a book called "In Defense of Aristocracy," recently published in London, no doubt inspired by Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Labor Party's determination to drive all surviving genuine aristocracy - which is hereditary - from the House of Lords.

Labor's plan, currently stalled, is to substitute for the remaining hereditary peers eminent personages appointed by the prime minister, already known to the press as Tony's Cronies. These will have life peerages bestowed on them.

I write about Worsthorne's book because it is not really about aristocracy but independence of mind and the defense of values that are not those of the marketplace. He identifies these qualities with Britain's hereditary aristocracy, and who is an American to argue - whatever doubts he might harbor?

Both these qualities seem in precipitous decline in most of our societies because of the collapse of general or liberal education, which is nonutilitarian in character, just like aristocrats.

Worsthorne's historical argument about the English aristocracy amounts to an identification of its emergence with that of modern autonomous man.

He says that a new figure emerged from medieval society, "the autonomous individual who wanted to be a figure in his own right" and to escape the anonymity of the medieval order, at a time when people were defined by the function of the group to which they belonged: the clergy, or the corporate or professional (in the guild); or by their social rank (courtiers, knights) or economic function. The new autonomous man was independent in thought and individual in conduct.

Worsthorne argues that such men created England's Parliament ("mother" of all the others): a form of government by free individuals who considered themselves society's moral leaders and not, as in modern Parliaments, representatives of the rest of society.

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, which produced England's Bill of Rights and limited monarchical power, the aristocrat, who no longer had to bear arms, evolved into the gentleman (gentle-man), whose autonomy and professed personal standards affected the rest of Europe, as well as the United States, from the 17th century until fairly recently.

The gentleman governed himself and felt no need to govern others who properly governed themselves. He had been responsible for ending monarchical absolutism, and for the political settlement governing the role of the English monarch that has lasted to the present day. He was responsible for a political order of civility and compromise in Britain that lasted until World War I.

This undoubtedly is a highly romantic view of the matter. Worsthorne buttresses it with arguments concerning British-influenced patrician classes elsewhere - in the United States, and in France's post-World War II establishment of a special corps of public servants by means of a post-graduate National Administrative School. The point of it all is an ethical one: that privilege carries an obligation to service.

The other point is moral autonomy. He quotes the American historian Richard Hofstader's account of those Americans who in the days of McCarthyism defied the populist demagogy of the period and displayed their individual "political and moral authority" in defending the civil liberties of Americans.

In the United States the moral order was never really linked to a hereditary class but to an ethical tradition with religious origins. That declined with the fall in the 20th century of mainstream Protestant Christianity as a force in American society.

For a time it remained a secular ethic, maintained in public as well as private education in the United States, and in the traditions of families and certain social groups (including the U.S. Army, whose commanding general in World War II, George Marshall, refused an offer of one million 1948 dollars for his memoirs, saying that one does not profit from public service - an act of moral aristocracy incomprehensible to most Americans today).

Monetary values triumphed over the "noblesse oblige" paternalism of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher. Labor has since lifted the old socialist threat to expropriate private property. The result, Worsthorne says, is that both British parties are committed to a social order of greed and the leveling of social status, but not to the redistribution of wealth - the old socialist goal.

He says that the ethic of service was in the past a justification for the unfairness of British class relations. Today the ethic is gone and the unfairness remains. America, meanwhile, has invented a capitalism that combines Enron swindle with obscene executive remuneration. No aristocratic obligation there.

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