Sunday, June 08, 2008

Faith in politics

I'm coming to it late but Chris Dillow has a nice post about sincerity in politics where he touches on a theme he has explored before: the very notion that public life, or even the execution of one's duties in your more mundane profession, should be about the revelation of one's personality is both narcissistic and pernicious.

As a general idea, I find this impossible to disagree with - and I don't know anyone in my profession who would argue otherwise. I once heard Hanif Kureishi argue that the duty of the writer is to say what he (or she) thinks is true. If this could be considered a virtue, it's one I could excel in (saying what one thinks is true - not the writing bit) but while this might be the luxury of the writer - and if so, I envy this - it would be singularly inappropriate for someone in my line of work.

Those who think it's appropriate to tell the truth in every circumstances are those who fail to understand that values collide and that sometimes you have to decide which ones take priority. But beyond this, it is an idea espoused by those who imagine they have duties only to themselves. As someone said, while in the past people saw virtue in what was 'the done thing', today there is only 'one's own thing'. Positively Burkean in its vibe, you might think - but it actually comes from here.

But it is here, I think, that Chris conflates two related but different things. He's right to say that in politics neither faith nor sincerity are per se virtues - but they are different things, especially in the sense in which he uses the latter.

The sincerity he seems to be talking about is a fundamentally ego-centric disposition to believe there's something meritorious about confessing. This is Oprah Winfrey meets democratic politics and it is, I'd agree, fairly nauseating. But belief, while related, is distinct. It's highly problematic and the Oakeshottian part of me tends to recoil at the merest hint of the thing. But I'm left with a problem: those who - not just in politics - achieve worthwhile deeds, worthwhile innovation, in the face of great opposition and obstacles tend not to be those of a sceptical, pessimistic disposition. They tend not, in other words, to be people like me. And I say this with the sure and certain knowledge that great harm has been inflicted on mankind throughout human history by those who 'sincerely' believed they were right.

There's something else. While I very much agree with the spirit of what Chris is saying, he overstates his case - and one of the ways he does so is by neglecting to mention the harm that can be done where instead of faith and sincerity, cynicism, calculation and false faces are evident throughout the whole proceeding. I take as an example one he uses to make his argument - the issue of the proposal to deprive British subjects of their liberty for 42 days. That we can even consider such a move in a so-called free society is a shameful thing, in my view. But we are doing so and the point is, I can't think of any issue recently that has been distinguished - both amongst its supporters and (to a lesser extent, in my view anyway) its opponents - by such a complete lack of anything one could describe as faith or sincerity.

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