Sunday, 1 November 2015

Preaching of the converted

There is something quite particular about spending the second half of your life taking revenge on the first.1
At one point earlier this year I thought all my epiphanies had come at once.

There was a moment when several people I knew, on various different levels of know, seemed simultaneously to be passing through the phase, particular to middle-aged people with a background on the left, of deciding that the people with whom they'd previously marched were wrong, and wicked, and that the time has come to denounce them.

I'm not so fond of this, although I can imagine doing it too, given the right circumstances. The reasons are always good. As these typically involve examining some act of horror and the refusal of one's comrades to act on it, to see it the same way, to give it the seriousness it merits, they're more than good enough.

There's never any shortage of material for this particular script - so long as one looks at the material in a certain way - and never any shortage of volunteers to play the role, to agonise over their choices, to conclude, regretfully, that the time has come to make their confession.

So yes, I might get round to it myself one day. Until then, what bothers me is not that I think this crowd are wrong. It's not the wrongness or the rightness that's the problem. It's that they're fools.

Who says they're fools? They do. They do by their own account.

By their own account, they're fools. There's nothing wrong with that, since there's no road towards wisdom which doesn't start with understanding that you've been a fool. But you don't stop being a fool like that.

When I say that by their own account, they're fools, of course I'm in the realm of the implied. I'm reading between other people's lines and interpreting them in a way they would not recognise. I'm saying you are not the thing you say you are, which is of course what they do - and I said I didn't like what they do. But let me have this one hypocrisy, to make this single point.

If, by your own account, the people you have been working with are anti-Semites, totalitarians, apologists for racism and modern forms of fascism, antidemocratic, hateful and the rest....

...and for years and years you never noticed this, even though by your own account it had been staring you in the face at every moment...

then I'm afraid you are a fool. An idiot. A person who could not see what was in front of them. A halfwit.

Very much a fool.

Not a particular fool. We're all of us fools, in our own stupid ways. It's just that if I said to a newspaper, that up to now, everything I had done in my specialised field had been wrong, that I had completely misunderstood the nature and reality of everything that I'd been working on, they probably wouldn't offer me a weekly column on the subject.

This is an unfair point, for sure, because it neglects the struggles with conscience, the inner turmoil, the weighing-up of loyalties, the humming and the hawing and all the agonising which may have taken years to resolve - as the accounts, since there are nearly always long and personal accounts, nearly always take trouble to make clear.

The reason I neglect them is that I couldn't care less about them. They're important to the people concerned, but not to me, because they mistake the start of a process for its end. You don't cease to be a fool by saying "I've been such a fool".

Nor do you cease to be a fool by shouting about your conversion from foolishness, less still by shouting the opposite of what you used to shout, in the direction of the people with whom you used to shout it.

Better to learn that it's shouting that's the problem. Better to contemplate, appropriately quietly, that a period of silence on your part would be welcome.

Lord, they have so little self-awareness, for people who are keen on talking about themselves. When every event in politics, domestic or international, becomes a platform on which you place your cannon, to fire off another salvo, you may or may not inflict damage on your enemies. But what you're certainly doing is making too much noise.

There isn't too much to be learned from anyone who sits in a bar every night, pulling every stranger over to their table and telling them for hours all about the wickedness of their ex-wife. There might be much more to be learned from somebody who after their initial turmoil and distress, goes away, thinks over their experience, takes years over the process and then, tentatively and provisionally, thinks they might know more than they once did, both about themselves and about the institution of marriage.

They wouldn't shout about it, that's for sure. But you'd be much more likely to listen to them speak. It wouldn't be particularly what they had to say that made the difference. The key would be their way of speaking.

That's the sign of somebody who's actually learned from their experience: that they change themselves, or just as likely, find that they have changed. They reflect more than they did. They are more generous in their judgements. They come to conclusions with much more reluctance, if they come to them at all. They do things differently now. And they are disinclined to condemn other, younger people, for making the mistakes that they once made, for not learning instantly the lessons that they themselves took half a life to learn.

That's the real point, that there's no wisdom in shouting "what a fool I've been", only in understanding that you'll always be a fool. Nor is there any peace to be found in shouting about the people who have wronged you in the past: no itch like that is ever scratched to satisfaction. No grudge is ever settled, unless it goes away of its own accord. You never are at peace, until you understand the only fault that matters, in the end, lies always with yourself.
Let him be at peace with his own self at least, if the price he has to pay for a phony peace with the world is self-renunciation and self-denunciation.2
Here endeth the lesson. This lesson, but not the lesson you hear from the same pulpits, every week, on each succeeding Sunday. The preaching of the converted, all trying to save us from their former selves.

[1 Edgar]
[2 Deutscher]

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