When the Bookish Finish Last

There is a famous anecdote concerning two nineteenth-century British Prime Ministers and bitter rivals, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. The former may be credited with first articulating “Progressive Conservatism” — by way of his 1844 novel Coningsby, or The New Generation — and the latter with both establishing and dominating the British Liberal Party, having ended his affiliation to the High Tories. According to the standard account, Gladstone asserted (doubtless with approval) “I predict, Sir, that you will die either by hanging or of some vile disease.” Disraeli’s response was characteristically immediate, biting, and witty: “That all depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”

The odds of Disraeli’s rise were somewhat against him, his being a Marrano, or person of Sephardic Jewish derivation baptised as a Christian to escape persecution  (he was born Benjamin D’Israeli, but changed the spelling early in his life) and of origins outside the social spheres which in general produced England’s political leaders. It may not have helped also that he was a bookish person, although his literary career came later in life, the result of his financial ruin following a series of failed gambits in business and the stock market. Disraeli is an example of a rarity in politics, the literary and polished scholar-statesman. For many reasons, such folks, and in our time more than ever, tend to be rejected by the masses. Those of us who have a bias in favour of books and their authors tend to resent the fact, but it must be admitted there is no necessary connection between literary ability and competence in politics. People like me only wish that there were.

Take the case of the current Canadian federal government. It was today reported by Bruce Cheadle of Canadian Press that Canada’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs is “hazy on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”  One should hardly be surprised by the lack of intellectual curiosity among the current pack of Ottawa Conservatives, many of them openly disclosing their mistrust of academics and scientists and researchers. Listen to their speeches, and you will hear only the mind-numbing chimes of cliché and poli-speak. But when it was quite by accident revealed that John Baird was unfamiliar with UN Resolution 242, in stepped the very bookish and nerdy interim Liberal leader to gloss. Cheadle reports the exchange as follows:

John Baird is acknowledging he’s got some homework to do on the Conservative government’s signature foreign policy in the Middle East. […] Asked about UN Resolution 242, the usually glib Conservative minister was tongue-tied. “I don’t … I’ve been in office for two weeks,” he stammered, before snapping that he’d taken note of news media suggestions to bone up on the background. Resolution 242 has been called the “cornerstone” of Israel-Palestine peace negotiations since it was adopted in 1967. […] Moments after Baird spoke with reporters in the halls of Parliament, interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae casually dropped Resolution 242 into his own response to questions about Harper’s G8 stance on the Middle East. […] “It is not only a number,” Rae said, before rattling off the history of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Bob Rae, who himself is a published author, replaced another uber-nerd and a highly literary political loser. Michael Ignatieff appears to have given considerable effort to the business of keeping his bookish past hidden, and one must wonder if he would have fared worse or better had he been more candid. My guess is that, as do all aspirants in politics, he studied the question and was brought around to the view that the People don’t much care for pinheads, geeks, and brainiacs. Indeed, I recall seeing Election 41 public opinion polls which suggested as much. Another point, then, for Team Common Sense.

There are entries however on the opposite column of this ledger.* The current American President is a good writer. Winston Churchill could turn an extraordinarily good phrase even in a time when the British public education system turned out highly literate citizens by the truckloads. His 1930 autobiography, My Early Life: A Roving Commission, has long been for me a reliably pleasurable read. This could not prevent the public from tiring of him and sending him, after the war, to pasture. Nor is polished rhetoric a reliable indication of competence and honesty: often, the facts lie in the opposite direction. We have all learned to mistrust the fellow who is too clever and too slick for his own good, and (more to the point) our own good also.

Hence, the common occurence of electoral victory for the folks who are “just like us,” meaning plain-spoken, direct, and simple. At the top of that pile one finds Ronald Reagan, of whom I recall Christopher Hitchens saying some years ago that not only did he think Reagan did not write An American Life, but that Reagan could not read it either. Into the company of the non-bookish and even anti-bookish we may stuff many a politician, and who can doubt at which end of the scale the preponderance will be found. Perhaps the moral of this story is that writers are well advised to avoid politics. It is the case that anyone who has had definite and publicized opinions will be compelled to answer for them, and in the necessarily obsequious manner of the vote-seeker. Well, if there’s one thing that is universal among writers it is their insistence upon tossing their opinions into the wind. We all make fools of ourselves, but it is doubly foolish to then go into precisely the occupation where definite ideas invariably get one into trouble.

The bookish finish last because the written word is a thing of fixed and solid character. What a politician must do however is mold his very appearance to the needs of the moment. Today he is for the very thing that yesterday he was unequivocally and with his entire being against. Yesterday, there would be no talk of the ’67 borders; today, they are the very essence of the conversation. Political talk is a kind of authorship, its works written not upon the page but in water. Usually the bookish person knows this, but only when it is far too late.


*Such a list could include Václav Havel, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julius Nyerere, Sherry Rehman, Djibo Bakary, Boubou Hama, Ferhat Abbas, Hocine Bouzaher, Kobina Sekyi, Eduardo Acevedo Diaz, Consuelo Araújo, Joseph Brahim Seid, Juan Balboa Boneke, Rup Chand Bista, Michael Foot, Orhan Miroğlu, Nicholas Flood Davin, Mokwugo Okoye, Jacques Rabémanajara, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

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