Friday, November 24, 2006

Just What Did Tony Blair Say to David Frost?

Has Tony Blair gone mad? Alistair Mant speculates in the Sidney Morning Herald in an article entitled "The Madness of King Tony":

Tony Blair's recent interview with Sir David Frost got a few observers quite worried about the Prime Minister's state of mind. His response to Frost's observation that Iraq has been "so far pretty much of a disaster" was so far removed from reality as to be alarming. It is worth noting the Prime Minister's reaction in full:

"It has [been a disaster] but, you see, what I say to people is: 'Why is it difficult in Iraq?' It's not difficult because of some accident in planning, it's difficult because there's a deliberate strategy - al-Qaeda with Sunni insurgents on one hand, Iranian-backed elements with Shia militias on the other - to create a situation in which the will of the majority for peace is displaced by the will of the minority for war."

It's not easy to deconstruct this statement. It seems to say: "It's not our fault. Our plan was excellent. It's just that the bad guys didn't do the right thing - it's so unfair."

Note also his difficulty with the word "disaster" - in his mind, Iraq is "difficult". And note too that Blair doesn't tell Frost what he actually believes, only what he says to people.

Blair has worried some observers before. As long ago as March 2003, the distinguished former politician Matthew Parris wrote an astonishing piece for The Times entitled: "Are we witnessing the madness of Tony Blair?"

In it, he drew attention to the "fierce intensity" of Blair's self-belief and to his wild optimism and grandiosity, quite out of step with messy reality. He also, in passing, linked this messianic quality with the Prime Minister's well-known religiosity. Alistair Campbell, then Blair's press secretary, always insisted "We don't do religion!" But the press corps knew better.

Those who work with Blair refer to his frequent rumination "it's all very difficult!" - which they take to mean "we don't do difficult". So Parris's observation that Blair prefers a kind of vague but well-meaning optimism to admitting to and grappling with failure, is supported by Abse's experience nearly 20 years earlier. He observes that Blair's rhetoric is of "trust and honour; of compassion, conviction, vocation; of humanity, integrity, community, morality, honesty and probity; of values, standards, faiths and beliefs". He is a politician but he aspires to be more than that.

Sir Christopher Meyer, the British ambassador in Washington during the Iraq build-up, reminds us in his book DC Confidential that Blair doesn't "do" detail either.

If it is true that prominent politicians are often impelled to act out private grief in their public lives, this may explain their frequent recourse to bizarre or self-destructive behaviour. In retrospect, Blair's personal decision to take Britain into Iraq seems to verge on the suicidal, politically speaking. But perhaps the need for approval and acceptance by a powerful father figure swamped all other considerations.

Once that decision was taken, in opposition to all the most expert advice, the Prime Minister was launched on a sea of "bullshit". But not lying - his moral code will not condone a deliberate lie. What's the difference?

Professor Harry Frankfurt, the eminent Princeton philosopher, explains the distinction between lying (the deliberate attempt to deceive) and bullshitting (which the bullshitter is likely to believe - and which may well be true). The point of bullshit (as Frankfurt explains in his important monograph On Bullshit) is not concerned with truth or falsehood but with the carrying forward of an impression which supports a general thesis about the world at large and especially about the "bullshit artist" himself. The admirable thing about the liar is that he has a kind of respect for the truth, because he must apprehend it in order to contradict it. For the bullshit artist, truth is an irrelevance.

So when politicians tell untruths they are frequently expressing a deeper truth which is embedded in their wounded self-view. And of course the fact that both Blair and Bush are religious means that they are both capable of faith in the undemonstrable. Bush is also probably quite sincere in what he says - Frankfurt might argue that his particular line of bullshit serves the underlying purpose of demonstrating to an extended, and sceptical, Bush family, that he is not a stupid failure burdened by an addictive personality after all. So, terrifying as it may seem, he probably believes every word he says. The US Vice-President is another matter.

So, are we just unlucky to have two important political systems led by people damaged in this way? Not really. The point is that people like Blair and Bush are impelled to strive for the top and, given a surface plausibility and unlimited self-belief, often achieve it. Never forget the wise words of the great 17th-century French essayist Jean de la Bruyere: "Men fall from great fortune because of the same shortcomings that led to their rise."

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