It’s one of life’s great pleasures, listening to ideas with which you profoundly disagree, writes Terry Prone
PEGGY NOONAN was Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, producing some breathtaking speeches for the US president, including the one crafted within minutes of the Challenger disaster. One of the best of my purchases and gifts over Christmas was a fat Hachette paperback of her columns from The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.
Because they go back over a couple of decades, the collection of columns illustrates a point about non-fiction which contradicts the demands we make of fiction writers. We require playwrights and novelists to develop their characters over time. To present them as deepened and altered by the realities of life. This plays to our ineradicable (but groundless) belief in the improvability of the human race.
What Noonan’s collection of columns proves is that she has developed or changed hardly at all in the years following her time in the White House. She still believes Reagan to have been one of the best US presidents ever, she still loathes Hillary and Bill Clinton, she is still a practicing Catholic, and she is still a right-winger.
Reading the book, I realised I have nothing in common with Peggy Noonan other than being addicted to the National Enquirer, which, let’s face it, is nothing for either of us to be proud of, but at least we’re honest about our tacky habits.
“Nothing in common” is putting it mildly. I disagree with almost everything she writes. But, God, I love the way she writes it. I love the rationale she advances and the warm, sometimes sentimental, accessibility of her approach. Reading Peggy Noonan is the same as reading Christopher Buckley Jr, another conservative, now dead. It’s like sneaking around the back of the bicycle shed to have a smoke with the lads your mother warned you against. It’s one of life’s great pleasures, listening to ideas with which you profoundly disagree.
As a result, I don’t understand the social media reflex that leads to personal attack on anybody with the temerity to articulate a point contrary to one’s own beliefs — or, more significantly — contrary to the prevailing received wisdom.
The old dance went: “Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis.” Or was supposed to; one side spoke, the other side replied, and some kind of halfway house is agreed. In theory. In fact, the tendency was that one side spoke, the other side spoke and at the end, for the most part, both sides stayed where they’d been at the beginning.
Now, though, the dance is: “Thesis. Attack on person advancing thesis. Demands for silencing of that person.” We’re lucky we still have presenters such as Sean O’Rourke and Pat Kenny, who are scrupulous in their defence of the speaking rights of the unpopular. The question is why we’ve become so unwilling to hear anything contrary to our own mindset. Although — and I may be naive about this — it would seem as if this is shifting, just a little. Evidence? The lack of outrage against Bishop Eamon Walsh when he called for Al Porter to be given a break.
I disagree with him, but I agree with his right to say what he said. I disagree with him, but I applaud his courage for coming out, against a background of sometimes bitter experience over decades as a bishop coping with the horrors of clerical child sex abuse and hurt, therefore fully familiar with public punitive outrage, to take a quiet counter intuitive stand. The fact that what he said didn’t provoke a Red Queen “off with his head” frenzy is interesting. It may be because he spoke at a church service attended by Al Porter’s mother, who works for the church.
But it may be — here’s where we pause for prayer — that the social media-driven urge to exterminate has reached its peak. That does not ease the suffering of earlier men who took what were regarded as unacceptable stands, such as Donal Óg Cusack in his support of an old and admired friend of his when the friend was accused (and later convicted) of paedophilia.
I should stress that I do not equate the crime of paedophilia with the assaults of which Al Porter is accused. Nor did the bishop. He raised two issues worth raising about the ongoing frenzy about sexual misconduct. The first is that an accusation is not a conviction. This is one we have almost forgotten, and which needs constant re-assertion. The second is that a person (such as Porter) is not a commodity. That last is just as important.
The communications trend, over the past year since the first accusations against Harvey Weinstein, has been to instantly commoditise the accused. It’s not even Us and Them. It’s Us and The Disgraced.
This is a satisfactory but immoral way of getting around the problem that many accusers didn’t take action at the time of the assault or are unlikely to achieve a satisfactory outcome in a court case: Accusation nails the accused and draws to them words such as “vile”. In seeking to lessen sexual predation, we need to educate ourselves on the factors behind the silence of victims, rather than blame them for late-onset courage.
What we do know is that sudden physical or verbal assault provokes responses as individual as the person assaulted, and that precious few of those responses make sense to anybody who has not been assaulted. Some people freeze. Some laugh. Many go silent and hide the memory of the assault. Some sue and — up to recently — when they succeeded, were further victimised by gagging clauses.
The sorry judicial history of rape should be enough to make anybody doubt the value of relying on due process when it comes to sexual assault. So, while we should be able to demand that victims use the law and that the accused be protected by innocence until proven guilty, the last year has established a gaping lacuna between those objectives and the realities.
BISHOP EAMON hopes Al Porter will be able to get back to making us laugh in the future. I’ve no axe to grind on this one, because I never found him funny in the first place. But does that not mean, by inference, that Kevin Spacey, whose contribution to culture on both sides of the Atlantic is inarguably more substantial than that of Porter, should be allowed to make us believe in fascinating characters again? Here, oddly, Porter has commercialism on his side. The big financiers will never take the risk of seeming immoral by employing Spacey again, whereas comedy provides an under-the-wire cheap chance to cock a snook at the establishment in the form of standup.
The bishop is a good man with the courage to say the unpopular and the wisdom to then leave it the hell alone. If public discourse is moving to a point where such a man can be disagreed with but valued, this would be a positive.
Otherwise, the promised global village is as restrictive as a 19th century puritan settlement, always ready to burn a condemning capital letter onto the forehead of another human.
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