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Steyn On Wilberforce

Sunday, March 18, 2007  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt
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From Mark Steyn’s column today on the achievments of William Wilberforce:

Many of these features — weedy fainthearted mainstream churches, skanky celebs, weary provocations for jaded debauchees — will strike a chord in our own time. “There is a deal of ruin in a nation,” remarked Adam Smith. England survived the 18th century, and maybe we will survive the 21st. But the life of William Wilberforce and the bicentennial of his extraordinary achievement remind us that great men don’t shirk things because the focus-group numbers look unpromising. What we think of as “the Victorian era” was, in large part, an invention of Wilberforce that he succeeded in selling to his compatriots. We children of the 20th century mock our 19th century forebears as uptight prudes, moralists and do-gooders. If they were, it’s because of Wilberforce. His legacy includes the very notion of a “social conscience”: In the 1790s a good man could stroll past an 11-year-old prostitute on a London street without feeling a twinge of disgust or outrage; he accepted her as merely a feature of the landscape, like an ugly hill. By the 1890s, there were still child prostitutes, but there were also charities and improvement societies and orphanages. It is amazing to read a letter from Wilberforce and realize that he is, in fact, articulating precisely 220 years ago what New Yorkers came to know in the ’90s as the “broken windows” theory: ”The most effectual way to prevent greater crimes is by punishing the smaller.”

The Victorians, if plunked down before the Anna Nicole updates for an hour or two, would probably conclude we’re nearer the 18th century than their own. A “social conscience” obliges the individual to act. Today we call for action all the time, but mostly from government, which is another way of excusing us and allowing us to get on with the distractions of the day. Our schoolhouses revile the Victorian do-gooders as condescending racists and oppressors — though the single greatest force for ending slavery around the world was the Royal Navy. Isn’t societal self-loathing just another justification for lethargy? After all, if the white man is inherently wicked, that pretty much absolves one from having to do anything. And so the same kind of lies we told ourselves about slaves we now tell ourselves about other faraway people, and for the same reason: because big changes are tough and who needs the hassle? The hardest thing in any society is “the reformation of manners.”

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