My favorite title of all the books that I possess is A Brief Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity. It’s by Walter B. Pitkin, and was published in 1932 in nearly 600 closely printed pages. The author promised a 40-volume encyclopedia of the subject. While he never got around to starting, let alone completing, that project, the title of the book he did finish is sufficient in my opinion to confer immortality upon Walter B. Pitkin.
My wife tells me that I have bees in my bonnet, generally in serial fashion rather than all at once, and the one at the moment is the attack on the rule of law known as parole.
The philosopher Mary Midgley tells us that myth is not just an obstacle to thought, or even merely an adjunct to thought, but an essential part of human ratiocination itself. Whether this is actually so or not in the philosophical sense, namely that human thought is completely impossible without the making and use of myth, I do not know; but what is certainly the case is that mythology is a powerful force in human affairs, not least in politics. And myth can do harm as well as good.
In Britain, the most powerful political mythology (perhaps for lack of any other) attaches to the National Health Service (NHS). This way of organising our health care was born with original virtue in 1948, since its conception, in more senses than one, it has become more and more immaculate. If the service had a slogan, it would be Noli me tangere. No British politician would dare admit that its institution was anything other than an unmixed blessing; no British politician, at any rate none who aspired to office, would dare do anything other than tinker with it at most. Against the mythology, Mrs Thatcher herself was as helpless as a day-old kitten.
When I was young, discrimination had a good name. It was the ability to distinguish between the good from the bad and to prefer the former to the latter. My teachers tried to form my taste so that I could discriminate, and I am grateful to them – more grateful than I seemed at the time – for that.
Since then, of course, the emotional charge of the word discrimination has changed. It is now entirely negative. It means to treat people not according to their individual merits, but badly because of the supposed characteristics of their group as assumed by brute prejudice. To discriminate is to be unfair, unjust and cold-hearted. Discrimination is at the root of many ills, not least of them poverty and inequality.
But is it ever rational to discriminate on the basis of group characteristics?
The words that Lord Falkland is supposed to have said—that when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change—are a lesson that humanity and above all politicians are reluctant to learn.
There’s no profit in it for “projectors,” Edmund Burke’s term for those who place at the center of their own sense of importance change brought about by them.
And there’s no greater projector than the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond. Mr. Salmond does not so much promise to solve specific problems as arouse hope, a hope that is vague, general, and unfocused. He has been very successful at this, assisted as he is by the fact that there is good cause for discontent in Scotland. Deindustrialization has not been kind to the country, and there are parts of Glasgow, its largest city, where living standards and life expectancy are at levels found in the old Soviet Union.
The best hope for the European Union would be for it to eventually evolve into an enormous Belgium. More likely, it will evolve into an enormous Yugoslavia circa 1990, which will not be quite so good.
There are a couple of questions that I have often been asked but to which I still have found no satisfactory answer. The first relates to history: What use is it?
Murder is a subject of perpetual interest, as the history of bestselling fiction amply demonstrates. Having met more than my fair share of murderers in the course of my professional life, I find it fascinating. There are genres of murder as there are of painting. Because I am a doctor, the murders committed by doctors and nurses get my attention, all the more so since one of my close friends is a great expert on the pharmacological aspects of such crimes.
Murder by healthcare staff is one of the few genres of murder in which poison remains the weapon of choice. When, therefore, I happened by chance on a book that promised to explain to me why the doctors and nurses in question killed, I bought it. Disappointingly, by the end of the book I was none the wiser. However, I was not too disappointed; in my heart of hearts I had never really expected enlightenment. Understanding murderers is a tall order, as opposed to describing, as this book did, some murderers’ acts and personal backgrounds.
But the book did fill me in on—and alarm me about—the state of plea-bargaining in the criminal justice system in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Britain.
Good sense, said Descartes at the beginning of the Discourse on Method, is the most evenly-distributed thing in the world. However displeased we may be with the distribution of anything else, each of us believes that we have a sufficiency of it (unlike, he might have added, everyone else).
I suppose the question of who are the wise men and who the fools will never be settled once and for all—certainly not in matters that touch on politics. For my own part, though not over-endowed with political perspicacity, I am often surprised by the utter foolishness of the great ones of the world. They seem to me to take the Bourbons, who learnt nothing and forgot nothing, not as a warning but as a model. Over and over they make the same mistakes and fall prey to the same illusions. It is almost as if ineducability were the key to success in a political career. That, or naivety.