Friday, October 27, 2006

Miscellaneous literary things

Mick Imlah writing at the TLS persuades me that I must read Geraldine McCaughrean's Peter Pan sequel (oh, and Carol Tavris has an extremely bitter and damning indictment of Alice Miller's writings on child psychology and the specter of parental abuse); also, Neal Ascherson at the LRB on Gunter Grass (when is that book going to appear in English?!? I remember being mesmerized by The Tin Drum when I was sixteen & read it for the first time--I still horribly always think of it when I eat the delicious thing that is eel...) and David Runciman, also at the LRB, with a quite wonderful piece on political hypocrisy.

I'm going to paste in a big chunk, because hypocrisy is one of my longtime obsessions (I even wrote a book about it)--the contributor bio says that Runciman is writing a book about hypocrisy in political thought from Machiavelli to Orwell (two touchstones of mine as well), how excellent. Anyway, here's Runciman:

During Liars’ Week at the Labour Party Conference last month – when Gordon pretended that he still had a lot of time for Tony, on hearing which Cherie said that’s a lie, but being overheard herself had to deny she’d said any such thing, though the next day Tony more or less admitted that her denial wasn’t to be trusted either, before going on to pretend that he still admired Gordon too, and then pledging himself to the cause of peace in the Middle East – it was no surprise that the boldest liar of all came out on top. Fortune favours the brave. In politics, it is tempting to think that a lie is a lie is a lie, and since everyone is at it, all that matters is what you can get away with. But that is to do Tony Blair a disservice. He is not simply the boldest liar, he is also the best, in that he understands better than anyone the new rules of political fabrication. He comprehensively outmanoeuvred Gordon Brown in Manchester by being truer both to himself and to the spirit of contemporary politics in the way he stretched the truth. Blair was sincere in the lies he told. Brown, by contrast, came across as a straightforward hypocrite.

Take the statement that is said to have provoked the outburst from Cherie. What Brown claimed in his speech was that it had been a privilege to serve under Tony Blair as prime minister. This was too much for Cherie to stomach, but strictly speaking it wasn’t a lie, since every chancellor holds office on the sufferance of the prime minister, and for Blair to have put up with Brown for so long was indeed quite an honour. What’s more, I have a horrible feeling that Brown said it because he knew it wasn’t technically untrue, and his own sense of probity required that whatever he said to smooth over his differences with Blair shouldn’t be a brazen falsehood. Brown is not a born liar: he is, as we keep being reminded, a son of the manse, which, if it means anything, means that. But by not actually lying, Brown came across as something worse, a man who was happy to conceal the true state of his feelings. Because what was transparent, and what Cherie instantly picked up on, is that Brown would never have said what he said in the conference hall if he had been free to speak his mind. It is impossible to imagine Gordon Brown in a private setting, surrounded by his intimates and his acolytes, using the word ‘privilege’ to describe his relationship with the prime minister. Compare this with what Blair said about Brown: he called him a ‘remarkable man, a remarkable servant to this country’. It is easy to imagine Blair holding to this line, through thick and thin, in public and in private, even in the heat of battle with Cherie, because he is happy to allow it to be true. Yet at the same time, when he did say it, he wanted his audience to believe it was false, because the purpose of Blair’s speech, indeed of the entire conference, was to question Brown’s suitability as his possible successor. Blair displayed the liar’s disregard for the truth, but not the hypocrite’s detachment from his own true feelings.

Hypocrisy comes in many different forms, and Gordon Brown by no means ticks the boxes for all of them. The common or garden type is not practising what you preach, which is not Brown’s problem at all. His innate cautiousness, and his apparently settled and blameless personal life, make him almost painfully eager not to fall into this trap. Not for Brown the ghastly contortions of John Prescott, happy to scourge the Tories for their failings as husbands and fathers in the dog days of the Major administration, but equally happy to try it on himself when a comely employee fell his way. Yet this sort of hypocrisy doesn’t seem to bother people much these days, though it gives everyone great pleasure when it comes to light. Prescott is now something of a joke, but he is still deputy prime minister, and he was able to pre-announce his retirement on his own terms, having stage-managed his little moment of contrition at the Labour Conference. Certainly, he had a better time in Manchester than Brown did.

Brown’s hypocrisy is much closer to the classical sense of the term, which involves not believing what you say. The original hypocrites were persons of apparent faith who were simply mouthing the pieties: it meant going through the motions (only later did it come to be attached to the sort of puritans who laid down rules they couldn’t possibly abide by themselves). Even here, there have always been different ways of dissembling what is going on behind the public mask. The pious hypocrites who pretend to be true believers are liars, because what they claim of themselves is not true. But it is also possible to conceal the truth about oneself by sticking to the truth in public: that is, by sticking to a kind of public truth, so that what comes out of your mouth is the bare minimum that allows you to get by. This is Brown’s particular vice, and it makes him appear to be someone who is always holding something back, something he would only ever be willing to share among people he really trusts, which emphatically does not include the public at large. It is Brown’s great misfortune that this now appears to be the kind of hypocrite that the public really detests, much more than they hate the liars and adulterers and fools that populate the political scene. What no politician can safely afford is to look as though he is keeping some private truth to himself.

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