Let me ask my reader some personal questions. Do you hear voices? Have you ever experienced hallucinations? A mutter that becomes audible with no cause? Lights with no source forming patterns in the darkness? Perhaps strange objects floating in the sky? Out-of-body flights? Vague recollections of being captured by aliens?
Apparently, many people have quietly struggled with the sort of passage described by Evelyn Waugh in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold; the voices, especially. The spell comes, then it goes. And among my generation, there are the acid flashbacks. I sometimes think a reason people put these plugs in their ears, and listen to loud disharmonious music, is to drown out the whispering in their heads. Ditto for the shades: to blot out things it might be better not to see. In point of behaviour, we are all familiar with friends who have had “crazy moments” for which they cannot lucidly account; and perhaps we have suffered through a few ourselves.
So perhaps a better question would be: When you hear voices, do you obey them?
An old Czech friend once said of a politician on campaign (I’ve forgotten which), “He admits to having visions. Maybe we should send him to madhouse, not Parliament.”
The plea of temporary insanity is a dangerous one to admit to our courts, but perhaps more dangerous when the condition is not admitted in our public life. Worse, politics, in the present circumstances of the Nanny State, brings out the madness in people, whose fantasies of extraordinary power may—through the miracle of democracy—suddenly engage with the immense bureaucratic machinery.
Stateside, Americans go to vote this week through the fallout from electing a “visionary” politician to the White House two years ago. The man in question was not technically insane, in a strict sense certifiable by professional psychiatrists, and yet in the course of getting himself elected he said many things that were over the edge, including meaningless abstractions about hope and change, and actual suggestions that he could do things like stop the seas from rising. He is not “alone”—nearly 70 million people voted for him, and a few million of those are still “hoping for change.” And like any politician in high office, he is surrounded by functionaries whose affirmation provides a choral note of sycophancy. But the collision between reality and fantasy is, in this case, visible and consequential.
Consider, however: Barack Obama, though a little larger than life, is the caricature of a typical, career politician. The sanest of them can be disconcerting to converse with, at close quarters. The need to maintain various pretences, from sanctity to infallibility, contributes powerfully to habits of mental aloofness—to the point where no question can be answered candidly.
Most journalists make reasonable allowances for the fact a man is a politician, but there are some like me who don’t. While the condition may be mysterious, and the cause not singular, to me mad is mad. It has several times struck me, in meeting directly with “power,” that if I heard a man speaking like this, while riding on a trolley, I would assume he was an outpatient.
On this Halloween Sunday, I think it worth considering what we can do immediately, as voters, as journalists, even as political supplicants sometimes, to improve the character of our public life.
Humour is crucial, because it is the great saboteur of human pretensions. But when for various reasons it seems unavailable, a certain refusal to be mesmerized can still take its place. It doesn’t matter what the policy issue is, in the moment; only that we persist in asking politicians to explain their thinking. What, precisely, do they suggest, and how would that engage with the reality?
How did they convince themselves that a problem exists at all, in the form they depict; and supposing it does, why do they think their remedy would be likely to work—given dimensions of the problem they may be ignoring? Beyond the happy results which they foresee, what might be the unhappy consequences?
Or put this another way. We know roughly who will be collecting, from almost any proposed government program. What we need to know, too, is: Who pays? In what currency do they pay (for it is not always a simple question of money)? And why should they be forced to pay? We are invariably told about the benefits, but what are the real costs?
In recent columns about “What is to be done?” I have stressed education, and the importance of taking it out of bureaucratic hands, and therefore dragging it clear of any centralized agenda. This is because the mental habits associated with asking sane questions, and getting sane answers, require education. The very ability to ask skeptical questions (which are different in kind from supercilious questions) requires minds trained in the arts of free inquiry.
These apply, in turn, to every political question. For sanity in politics should not be an ambition; it should be a way of life.