When Police Wore Tall Hats

English Bobby
English Bobby

After my series on Western philosophy, I received a very compelling comment from commenter Mitch K., on the idea of the time when police wore tall hats.

What was done in the past seems singularly incapable to working now. In the UK, there’s a phrase “When policemen wore high hats” to suggest a time long ago when things were done differently – in a way that is neither applicable nor relevant now.
People think of students of philosophy, and for that matter, people of strong moral and ethical codes to be something of the past; to be blinkered to the realities of the day. Some even believe that those who want to have a strong moral frame in their lives are retrogressive. I understand that, because I used to be one of them.

Many of my experiences of power when I was young where from old man who abused it greatly. I was badly mistreated by a vice principal at my junior high school, who used his old fashioned ideas of masculinity as an excuse not to punish bullies were giving me a hard time. I also love heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons, and so growing up in the eighties and nineties got to watch my hobbies literally put on trial by people who held those hobbies to be questionable, evil, or satanic, without knowing the slightest thing about them.

It’s very easy, when you see a whole lot of ignorant, ill informed, and bullying attitudes come out of people claiming to be acting based on old-fashioned morals to decide that old-fashioned morals are a code for arrogance and stupidity.

But in reality, a bully is a bully. He is not moral, nor has he any special knowledge of Western culture that we do not. If you are using your so called morals and ethics to mistreat other human beings you don’t have any. No matter what a bully looks like, or what pulpit, book, or title he hides behind – no matter what justifications he offers for his bullying, he is only a bully.  A preacher spouting hatred for gays isn’t speaking for the high ideals of the Christian tradition. A politician who uses his power to force his morals on the people does not represent the democratic ideals of Locke or Mill. The jackass who treats young men as potential criminals are not representing the moral reasoning of Kant. They are only and can only represent their own selfish attitudes covered in a stinking shroud of false moralism.

And yet, because they are old white men, because they look like our leaders and our founders, it is easy to make that mistake. Especially when it seems to so readily confirm the omnipresent progressive narratives of the day. In that way we do indeed “privilege” white men. We treat them all as if they were representative of the people in power, rather than as individuals.

I, in effect, threw the baby out with the bathwater. I saw a few rotten old white men, and assumed that the establishment built by men like them would obviously have to be as intellectually bankrupt as they are. It was a categorical error. In some senses, it was bigotry and racism at its simplest: the people who hurt me look like this, therefore nothing made by people who look like that can be trusted. Never mind that I would look just like them in 30 years.

To people who shared my error, the death of Western Philosophy seems like a triumph. It is a bunch of arrogant old fools losing their power over the narrative. For them, the days when our Western ideals ruled the way we acted to a greater degree, the day when police men wore tall hats, seems like a good riddance to bad rubbish.

And then there are other people who like the idea of living a life with a moral code. They see the high ideals of Western civilization that we seem to be leaving behind as preferable. But they also see it as too far gone. We have become too much of a police state, too wrapped up in contrary ideals, too mingled with cultures that don’t share our values, to salvage the West.

Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke

To them the days when police wore tall hats is long gone. There’s no going back to it, however much we might like to. You might as well live in a state of social decay. To enjoy the decline while we can, because we’ve lost our way and will never get it back.

 These are precisely the people that Edmund Burke addressed when he said “All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” To say that it would be nice if we could live by the ideals that made our civilization great, but we can’t so we might as well give up and treated all is wishful thinking is the very reason why we have fallen so far from those ideals. It’s that defeatist attitude that keeps us from turning our civilization around. It’s the attitude that will allow you to shrug your shoulders and say “We aren’t to blame for the fact that we are deep in debt, our politicians are corrupt, and we can’t trust our own police force. There’s nothing we can do we keep our heads down and dream of better days.”

And the biggest problem our society has is that we are filled with people with this attitude and the shoulder shrug. Most people don’t want to live in a police state, you don’t want to live in a culture of poverty, they are sick of seeing politicians strip themselves of any accountability, they are weary of seeing your people sent of to wars that make no sense. Yet, they don’t think they can do anything.

I have always believed that if we could get everyone who said that they didn’t think their opinion matters to act all at the same time there’s nothing we couldn’t accomplish. It’s a defeatist attitude that creates defeat.

That’s why I consider it so important to help men find with their passionate about and do something about it. Whether that is run for office, start a business, hold a class, or just plain volunteer. If everyone of us could act according to our conscience in faith that it will make a difference it will.

The days when policeman wore tall hats aren’t gone.  Of course we can never turn back the clock to the roaring twenties, but we can certainly fight for a better future: where the people in power are accountable again, where people work to better their communities and leave a legacy; where the ideas of civil rights and personal liberty have been put back into the fore of our culture, and prohibition, surveillance statism, and abusive bureaucratic systems can be pared back.  If we were all willing to make a stand and believe in something this culture could serve its people again.

One thought on “When Police Wore Tall Hats

  1. What a response to my last comment!

    One thing I take some issue with: ” If everyone of us could act according to our conscience in faith that it will make a difference it will.”

    Sorry, I don’t believe you. Acting in faith that it will make a difference doesn’t make it true. Or at best, it makes it true on an infinitessimally small scale. No matter if I believe wholeheartedly that I can walk across a lake carrying an anvil, I can’t.

    To what extent has this “fall” of Western philosophical ideas come about because before the World Wars, most people blindly followed the example/instructions/orders of their betters, and since that time they ceased to obey without question? At the same time, was there any actual debate to fill the vacuum?

    The marketplace of ideas seems to operate either on ideas of very limited impact (vast numbers of very superficial discussions), or else more the way Imhoff described a septic tank: the really big lumps float to the top…

    Another point that keeps nagging at me: when was this time when Western philosophy had a governing effect for the general good? There seem to be odd points of light, but it is generally set against a background of a system where might made right. If laws got passed restricting your ability to exploit your own population, you simply went to Africa/Asia/the Pacific basin and did it to the indigenous people there. Civil rights and personal liberty might have been enshrined in English Common Law since the Middle Ages, but they largely seem to have been “more honour’d in the breach than the observance”.

    Eighteenth century Britain, for example, at the high tide of the Enlightenment, was the time of Rotten Boroughs, nepotism, purchased commissions and the like.

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