In the Times this weekend there was a column by Matthew Parris with an uncomfortable concluding section. Uncomfortable it was meant to be, so Parris won't be put out by my saying so, but I want to set it down anyway because I found this concluding section problematic. As the column (£) is behind the Times paywall, I will summarize what leads up to the paragraphs that interest me and then go on to quote those in full.
Parris's focus is on the 'comforting untruths' of politics, to which, he says, he loves a stern response, for that is 'evidence of the persistence of reason'.
And the convenient untruth, hardly believed by its author or its audience, is not a harmless thing. Denial may stifle grief where grief is natural. False affirmation may encourage hope where hope is misplaced. Both propagate unreason. Unreason leads us into folly and danger.
Parris then proceeds to itemize three areas in which such comforting untruths are currently allowed too much public space: these are 'the war in Afghanistan, the war on drugs and the battle for human rights worldwide'. Just about everyone who matters, he says, now believes, though they will not say, that the war in Afghanistan was a ghastly mistake. Likewise, the war on drugs is widely acknowledged by politicians - but only in private - to be 'pointless and destructive'. Lastly (the issue I want to concentrate on) he comes to...
... the battle for human rights worldwide. I'm afraid a beautiful and stirring final sentence to our leading article on Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani last week qualifies for the sort of lapidary inscription on memorial tombstones that I mentioned at the outset.
The Times leader was talking about individual liberties. "It is a light", we said, "that burns so fiercely that even the most despotic regime can never douse it."
How I wish I believed that, or that today's generation of Western statesmen believed it. In the universal sweep of human history, such a statement may one day be judged to have come true. But not within a generation, or a lifetime, or a century, or perhaps even a millennium. It may be that our era of Western liberalism is drawing to a close.
Listening - it was the most chilling interview I heard this year - to a group of clever and nice-sounding young Chinese women students making it plain to John Humphrys in Beijing that they simply didn't understand what he was going on about, with all his talk of democracy, I began to wonder whether, after more than 70 years, the lights may be going out again.
What a gloomy note - and I hope he's wrong. But right or wrong as he may be, what strikes me about this is that Parris treats as purely a matter of prediction what is, as well, a field of human conflict about alternative political ends, a conflict (one must surely allow, whatever one's most sober expectations) in which the outcome is yet to be determined. 'A light that burns so fiercely that even the most despotic regime can never douse it' has the form of a factual claim, but it is also, evidently, a taking of sides in a battle that is being fought across the world.
There may well be people, young and old, who don't understand all the 'talk of democracy'; but there are too, everywhere, people who do understand it, and in some places who yearn for it, and who are willing, some of them, to fight for it, incur risks in that fight, and so on. Given the time scale that Parris himself alludes to - generations, centuries, a millennium - how he can be so sure that talk of democracy, and freedom, and human rights, comes into the category of 'comforting untruth' I do not know. But adopting the perspective of alignment, so to put this, rather than merely long-range speculative hypothesis about the future, one should be with the Times's editorial and not with Parris's gloom in advance of reliable knowldege.