Trying to define the great absence that supposedly lies at the heart of modern life, commentators quite often diagnose a lack of "civilised values". A refinement of this technique is to lament a dearth of solidarity or communal interest. What is really missing from the thronged early 21st century landscape is a lack of nuance: a series of situations crying out for balance, inches given and received and moral chiaroscuro but instead attracting only a kind of crazed polarity.
One can see this entrenchment at work in the current debates about the Royal Family's usefulness. Here, for example, is part of a recent letter in The Lady: "What little we know of Kate Middleton's lifestyle has been gathered from bits and pieces in the media, but she has our greatest admiration for taking on a role that has so much responsibility and sacrifices much in the way of individual freedom. It goes without saying – this young couple merit our respect."
I initially assumed that this was a rather subtle spoof of the kind of thing that appears in The Daily Telegraph. But no, The Lady is vigorously pro-Royal and presumably the sentiments expressed are genuine. Indeed, there were several similar letters in the newspapers proclaiming what a stout and grievously misrepresented chap Prince Andrew was.
It ought to be possible to hold simultaneously in your head the idea that the monarchy is an august and beneficial institution worthy of its subjects' respect, while thinking that Prince William's nuptials and his uncle's embarrassments are perfect vehicles for satire.
This unwillingness to find shades of grey extends to practically every area of public discourse. I was particularly struck by some of the online responses to a Guardian piece written by Katharine Birbalsingh, the whistle-blowing state school teacher whose account of her experiences, To Miss With Love, has whipped up such hostility among the egalitarian left. One contributor went so far as to say that anyone who spoke at a Conservative Party conference had simply gone over to the other side, irrespective of what he or she might have had to say.
As with the Royal Family, it ought to be possible to admit that while a high proportion of state education is excellent, a fair amount looks to have had a terrible effect on the children involved in it without being labelled a Gove-ite stooge. But the egalitarian left has never been very keen on individual human experience.
The commentariat seemed rather puzzled by Lord Patten's elevation to the post of chair of the BBC. The adjective "Reithian" was several times used. A certain amount of pious horror was expressed at the revelation that Lord Patten is supposed rarely to watch television – something that you might feel was actually a point in his favour.
One issue that Lord Patten might like to turn his attention to as a matter of urgency is the BBC's plans for local radio. According to recent reports, the corporation is bent on taking an axe to the day-time and evening schedules, preferring to concentrate on shows in the early morning and late afternoon. There are several reasons why this is a very bad idea. One is narrowly practical in that local stations transmit vital information about road closures and weather conditions to the constituencies they serve. Another is their ability to foster the communal solidarity whose absence we all deplore. A third is local radio's status as one of the last bastions of an authentic local culture bravely resisting the surge of mass culture.
Naturally, all this costs money. On the other hand, a fraction of the enormous sums lavished on BBC2's consistently dreary output would bankroll most of the local radio network for the rest of the decade. Looking at Thursday's BBC2 schedules, for example, I discovered a panorama of high-grade entertainment beginning with Helicopter Heroes and Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is and proceeding to Royal Upstairs Downstairs and A Farmer's Life For Me. None of this is a patch on, say, an interview with an Acle churchwarden or an informed discussion on how residents of Costessey pronounce the word "really".
How one feels for the Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle, star of the late-night Channel 4 show Tramadol Nights who had been under investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority for a trailer which featured fuzzy felt images of a badger firing a machine gun and two rabbits duelling with hypodermic syringes. This sympathy derives from the fact that Mr Boyle – still facing an Ofcom inquiry over some bright remarks about Katie Price's disabled son – seems to have lost the ability to shock and has become simply tedious, revealing "a lack of variety", as one newspaper ominously put it.
One sees this fatal transformation, born of an audience that has stopped being outraged and is now merely bored, in every part of British cultural life. I was in the audience at the King's Lynn Literary Festival recently to hear the distinguished novelist Paul Bailey read from his excellent new work, Chapman's Odyssey. Doubtless with the best intentions, Mr Bailey had chosen to read a somewhat challenging description of gay sex, full of straining members and salacious repartee.
Twenty years ago, some of those present would have walked out in protest. Here, in 2011, the response was one of faint exasperation: "Does he have to go on about willies?" someone remarked. Two elderly ladies had fallen asleep. This new-found maturity on the part of audiences has grave implications for every branch of the arts. If the only response that Frankie Boyle gets for his "cutting-edge" provocations is a yawn, then he might have to resort to genuine humour.
As the Libyan uprising grinds to a halt, as Colonel Gaddafi's tanks hurtle eastward towards Benghazi and the governments of the West belatedly sign up to the principle of military intervention, one vital question has yet to receive an airing.
You are the chief executive of a major international oil company with interests in the Libyan fields. You have watched the stirrings of a popular revolt against a ruthlessly autocratic regime. You have heard the condemnation of the international community and monitored the agitation for a no-fly zone. Let us say that in a week's time Gaddafi is in full control of the country and busy slaughtering thousands of the people who opposed him. What do you do? Go on extracting your oil and paying for it, while quietly ignoring the inconveniences of the past few weeks? Or decline to treat with tyrants? Somehow I think I know the answer.Reuse content