IS THEIR PAST ALL WE HAVE LEFT?
I have a confession to make. I’m not quite sure of the actual indiscretion, but in the supremely unlikely event I ever find myself in contention for high office, I am bound to be reminded of it.
Modern political discourse rejoices ever more of such ‘character tests’, perhaps because it has grown so bereft of content in the present that all we’re left to rake over are the participants’ pasts.
Julia Gillard & Tony Abbott in younger days.
It plays to the strength of journalists, too, who revel in the gaffes, embarrassments and petty hypocrisies of others, but who approach actual policies as though they are interchangeable blocks of wood.
It’s nothing on American Swiftboating and Birtherism yet, but the assumptions are broadly similar: that character is immutable, and that former behaviour offers an infallible indicator to future actions, that the stains of formerly bad company are indelible, that the aberrations of an instant can reverberate through an entire life.
But character and actions are not indistinguishable – that’s why we have the expression ‘out-of-character’.
Indeed, it is very often the ‘out-of-character’ actions that help us in retrospect establish what our character actually is. There can also be an incredibly fine line between what we very seriously contemplate then reluctantly decide against, and what we do and immediately regret.
Sometimes our behaviour results from a leaning against our personality traits – we express anger because we think we’re sometimes too passive; we enter relationships impetuously because we feel we’re too shy; we shrink from risk because we’re sometimes impulsive; we exaggerate our youthful excesses because we fear seeming dull; we say things we don’t really believe, and resist saying things we think, for the sake of harmony.
Put like this, it seems the plainest common sense. So how have we somehow come to believe in a set of behavioural norms against which no flesh and blood could measure up?
Trouble is that politicians collude in a kind of parallel fantasy, using their autobiographical tales as exhibits of prolier-than-thou authenticity.
They’ve always done this to a degree: thus Robert Menzies gloriously unselfconscious comment on succeeding Joe Lyons that he was ‘not of the purple’.
But politics has now become a bastion of the nouveau pauvre, with the Romneys and the Obamas (right) going head-to-head at their recent conventions, the $250-million Romneys waxing nostalgic about their days when all they could afford was healthy food (tuna and pasta, poor dears), and the Obamas recalling their courtship in a car with holes in the floor (borrowed from the Flintstones presumably).
It’s arguable that in touting their lives as exhibits of their purported values, they have made them fair game, and encouraged their scrutiny.
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