“Every man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is so far doing a public service. We should be grateful to him for attacking most unsparingly our most cherished opinions.” – John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
Does anybody stand for anything anymore? Or more accurately, does anybody stand for something that might be recognised as a moral vision for something bigger than themselves? When was the last time you sat up and took notice of someone who was unequivocally nailing their colours to the mast, leaving no doubt about their dedication to the betterment of society, of humanity, of the world?
If that is a difficult question to answer, doesn’t it make you wonder about the pitch of public discourse? Where are the voices worth listening to? Why does so much public debate sound like white noise? Why can we feel so detached and indifferent to those who are striving to bend our ear? Is it possible that it is because they don’t fully believe what they are saying themselves?
The most obvious example of what I am referring to is readily found in that ubiquitous public servant – the politician. We may be living in an age when politicians have lost all credibility. Are they nothing more than stock characters in a play we’ve seen a million times before? We watch with increasing indifference, mindlessly mouthing the soundbites and platitudes and rhetoric seconds before those well-rehearsed lines emerge from the speakers’ mouths. We know what they’re going to say because they never say anything different, like sitcom characters with a catch phrase.
The same old verbiage keeps oozing across our news feeds and TV screens, being delivered in the same poorly acted show of concern with the same mechanical cadence being dictated by some micro-operator sitting in a console behind the dead eyes of a strangely reanimated pseudo-human in a bad suit.
They are shrill. Or they are smug. Or they are ignorant. Or they are arrogant. Or they are obtuse. Or they are embarrassing. Or they are triumphalist. Or they are hectoring. Or they are silent. Or they are smarmy. Or they are awkward.
What they are not is convincing.
Only last week, a group of US teenagers was surveyed after watching the latest televised primary debates between Democrat candidates. Two responses stood out – “Why are they all shouting?” and “Why did nobody talk about climate change?” The shouting clearly suggested to the teens behaviour that was both unseemly and ineffective, but the more egregious omission was the failure to even mention what is now universally regarded as a clear and ever-growing danger to the future of humanity. The worthiness of a cause that struck the teenagers not only as self-evident but also of imperative importance, was completely ignored by the seasoned campaigners.
So they don’t convince, nor do they inspire. They seem most passionate when fighting with their colleagues or battling foes across the aisle, point-scoring for kudos within the party, nervelessly upholding the quid pro quo cynicism that is the default setting of the modern public representative. It would appear the goal for many politicians in the early 21st century is not to represent at all, but simply to get their legs under the table of government or opposition and to try and keep them there for as long as possible while doing the least harm.
Altruism? Service? Humility? Selflessness? These are conspicuous by their absence. The political animal is a gamer, working the odds, playing the system, finding the hacks and doing whatever they must to stay alive. Survival is the first goal. Progress to the next level the perpetual second. If any public good occurs while they are ducking and diving, it is coincidence, a by-product, a quirk of fortune.
But surely they can’t be as bad as all that. Surely this sketch of mine is just liberal-minded laziness, indulging the caricature of politicians’ venality and fallibility so popular with political cartoonists the world over. It defies logic that these public representatives scurrying through the corridors of power should all be self-serving hucksters and moral equivocators. Reason would reassure us that many good and dedicated people go into the cauldron of politics with vocational zeal and blazing ideals, determined to make their mark, convinced their contribution will make a difference, certain their legacy will attest to their service of the greater good.
So, what happens?
A friend of mine, a diligent and invested student of politics and history, asserts that humans cannot solve problems once society outgrows their capacity to know everyone in it. The implication is that the entirety of the history of larger human society has simply been an endless succession of failing to solve problems. So what happens is that the modern politician’s idealism gets ground down by the impossibility of it all until they are subsumed into the machine of expediency, line-towing and opaqueness.
Which must make us ask whether politics is fit for purpose. But how that is answered will depend on each individual’s own political leaning. Personally, I think the larger purpose of politics should be the pursuit of social and economic equity and at least the notional commitment to not leave anyone behind while securing stable and peaceful relations with as many allies as possible. The reality is probably closer to doing as little as you can get away with for those who need it most while tugging the government forelock to those interests that wield the most financial clout. This inevitably means the intrusion of private into public life, which is a problem because the private concern is always going to insists on its needs being met long before those of the public.
And this returns us to our neutered public players, who more resemble public relations spokespeople than agents of social change. Subject to the diktats of the party line, they self-program to operate in a permanent setting of risk-aversion. The unedifying result is a certain gormlessness when faced with real issues about which they feel they cannot express their true opinion. Their paralysis stops their mouths as they bear in mind the desires of those pulling their strings. An apathetic electorate, who become the collateral damage of this moral ambivalence, are testament to this error in thinking; you don’t galvanise the many by only looking after the few.
There is also the issue of more and more members of what is referred to as the political class being utterly removed from any understanding of what it is to live on little or barely enough money to stay above the poverty line or meet the costs of the most basic necessities of modern life. Time and again this knowledge gap lies exposed when politicians expound on what is sufficient for the survival of those whom they do not know, nor care to know – the disadvantaged, the disenfranchised, and now more commonly, members of the former middle class whose reasonable third level qualifications no longer secure their stake in society.
Perhaps their noses wrinkle in disdain in much the same way as the wealthy characters in Bong Joo-Ho’s lauded Parasite, his film about the class divide’s corrosive effect on our humanity. They should be issued government handkerchiefs to preserve their dignity, much like the royals of old when forced to trudge through the filth and stench of their poorest subjects.
I wonder about the moral guidance provided to these predominantly privately-educated people. Could they be as abhorrent as certain members of Westminster’s Tory Party, convinced of their entitlement to rule as a birthright? Or might some of them have been educated with the truly democratic notion of being born to serve? Or has the erosion of the sacred resulted in no contemplation of higher purpose? Or is it merely a perversion of the sacred, a misunderstanding of it, that allows the flourishing of such moral indifference? Has philosophy also been discarded? Has everything classical and edifying been shoved off the side of a cliff to better embrace the material gains of the secular?
Returning to my starting point: where is the conviction? Where is the primacy of values? Where is the determination to elevate the spirit of a people, the conscience of a nation, the nobility of the world? I am not going to be moved by people who have abandoned their better selves. And whether I agree or disagree with them, I would much rather listen to people who demonstrably represent themselves. I don’t have to like what they are saying to respect their conviction and their willingness to share that conviction with others.
People like Greta Thunberg or Jordan Peterson or Germaine Greer may divide opinion but as long as they are coming from a place of truth, they are making a more valuable contribution to the public conversation than those who squeeze out syllables like they are giving away parts of their soul. No gains can be made without risk.
My friend has informed me that there are two ways of looking at the world and trying to meet its myriad complexities and contradictions. One is indicative and one is normative. The former is seeing the world as it is and rolling with it as best you can. The latter is trying to make the world what you want it to be.
It may not be cool, and I know it ain’t politic, but I know which one most appeals to me. Let’s all speak to the better part of ourselves. Let’s demand more of each other in the hope it will elevate the communities and societies of which we are a part. Let’s make it harder for those who allegedly represent us to hide in plain sight. Let them be reminded that they are meant to be serving a higher calling that will not permit the presence of their prevaricating and their complacency, their indifference and their cowardice.
We need to see better. We need to see higher. We need them to stand.
Have you been moved? Inspired? Galvanised? When? And by whom? Or does it not matter?