Obituaries rarely tell the whole truth. A sense of decorum regarding the recently departed is one reason. Another reason concerns our notion of truth within society. News-gathering to possess validity is dependant both on accuracy of fact and on sincerity of purpose. There has to be an aim that is more than simply recording the facts. Information becomes a random collection of data if there is no organizing principle to cohere facts into meaning. There is truth as fact, and there is truth as value. Knowing the difference is the foundation of that necessary sense of purpose in reporting information.
There was little mention in the recent obituaries of Pete Seeger’s year in prison. He had been a prisoner of conscience, not in the McCarthy period but later, into the Sixties. The era of experiment and expanding consciousness did not begin generously. Certain radical beliefs, and even vaguely radical beliefs, were forbidden in practice if not in the official rhetoric of liberty.
Seeger was not alone. Other Americans who served jail sentences for their beliefs included Joan Baez, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Martin Luther King. (And countless lesser known dissentients, of course.) This was a time when the BBC could give generous space to Benjamin Spock to detail his reasons for regarding his country more bitterly than many would have believed possible of this eminent, liberal American. Freedom of expression did not apply to critics of the way society was going. The benign view the USA had of itself was subject to doubt that was perhaps its greatest challenge at that time.
But that was in a different time. That was before world events saw the USA achieve by default a position of mastery comparable with the imperia of past eras. There is even less room for dissent now within the republic or its allies and dependencies.
The traditional role of the writer and the public intellectual is to provide a sense of awareness, of conscience that otherwise may not be readily available in the conventional agreements of society. Without a wider awareness, a stepping back, public perception narrows its range of options. The writer is of necessity subject to the suspicions of the powerful. Everyone in a position of power and/or privilege has much to lose. The scrutiny of the democratic voice is potentially subversive.
Society functions by convention, by unspoken agreements. Stasis and decline are avoided by critical interventions. A society without dissent is not a functioning society in the long run. (The most telling point about the Soviet Union is that it began to collapse when a generation with no memory of the Revolution came to power.) People speak casually of having an open mind. Tolerance is a highly regarded virtue of the liberal imagination. But these things are not easily achieved. They are not easily recognized. In the West liberality of spirit is so often confused with material abundance, with the facility to travel, and with accessible technologies. A techno-materialist society exerts powerful pressures to conform even as it promotes cosmetic freedoms.
The Closing of the American Mind is a book I read in a youthful confusion between the liberal Harold Bloom and the book’s actual author, the more conservative Allan Bloom. It was a mistake worth making, for there is substance in Allan Bloom’s contention that a shallow scepticism coupled with a morality of self-interest promotes a directionless, essentially valueless anti-culture. Bloom’s recourse to a traditional canon of culture is nostalgic and potentially authoritarian. But he is surely right to identify the degrading of intellect that results from an absolute relativism that denies the progressive vitality of informed opinion. If all things are equally valid there is no further consideration. There is no exchange of views, no critical awareness, and no creative tension.
The exchange is dependent on mutual respect. The agreement has to be: ‘If you disagree with me tell me I’m wrong, say why, and say it out loud. Respond to what is actually said, not to what you may imagine is said. In honest conversation there is no hidden agenda. If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to lose, and much to gain.’
Bloom spoke of a ‘yearning for completion’ as the desired goal of an enquiring mind. If we feel we understand the world we feel comfortable with our position in the world. We acknowledge that we have a point of view, and that our intellectual identity is generated within its terms.
Another recent death, that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was of a great writer whose books were available in the USA although the author was denied entry for many years. Marquez was not alone. Neruda, of course, was another. Many eminent British writers were required to seek special permission before entry. Long ago they had shared the idealism of their generation. They had yearned for completion. Of course their natural recourse was to seek the most available example.
‘It was a generous thing.’ William Golding remarked of those who sought such commitment in the crucible of the inter-war years when the choices were stark and the prospects were dark without the revolutionary hope that was yet to be betrayed. Such generosity always seeks ways of expressing the continuing need for new styles of moral architecture.
We live in an age suspicious of generosity and optimism. The attitude is for realism, for the unadorned fact of a living without illusions. It would be a sparse, plain world were it not for the glitz of abundance. It is a world of simplicities that see no need for the subtleties and ironies of wit and the nuances of judgement that balance opinion and make of it an allusive, metaphoric articulation of complex human actions. The completion sought is a lesser thing, a blank screen on which anything can be written, but only in brief sentences, bold capitals and bright colours.
The narrowing of mind is not an exclusively American process. You have only to consider how the BBC’s Today programme seized on the sympathy of Marquez for the Cuban Revolution. ‘He opposed Pinochet,’ the commentator said, ‘but befriended Fidel Castro.’ The ‘but’ is telling, as if there could be a moral equation between the two. One was a military dictator notorious for his brutal disciplining of society into absolute obedience. The other has been the presiding spirit of a society undergoing a series of experiments in equity and commonwealth. Doctrinaire conformity and too close an adherence to the Soviet model are among Cuba’s mistakes, although these are in the process of development. Marquez, in his friendship with Fidel, continues a pattern begun with Hemingway, of a critical sympathy that ennobles admirer and the admired.
A few days later, however, the same BBC programme reported on traditional African music in Cuba. The assertion was that this music was a popular expression of ‘resistance to Communism’ as if the Cuban people were ground down by intolerable oppression. Listen to their music, hear their voices, share their hopes and fears, and then decide if they are oppressed.
Presenting matters of substance in the style of entertainment inevitably leads to distortion. It is a very different BBC from Hugh Greene’s patrician liberalism that could enable public intellectuals to speak their minds freely. Simplistic populism sees the world in black and white. In this mindset the choice is always between polarities with no middle ground of experience that most of us actually occupy.
The problem lies with the notion of balance. Every argument must be ‘balanced’ by a counter-argument. This reduces intellectual enquiry to a contest in which truth is to be found in a willed and artificial compromise unrelated to experience. ‘According to publicity,’ John Berger observed, ‘to be sophisticated is to live without conflict.’ In this world-view truth is itself compromised by confusing opinion with prejudice.
Opinion is a judgement, implicitly rational, based on fact. Opinion is not simply a point of view which can be countermanded by an iron law that insists there is always a contrary view of equal validity. Opinion may be valid on its own terms.
Karl Miller, once employed b the Corporation, has written of the BBC’s notion of impartiality as a ‘necessary fiction’. His style is characteristically incisive: ‘All utterance, to my mind, is biased. All mind is biased, and this part of what meaning means.’ The impartial observer of human affairs is not part of those affairs. It is a necessary fiction of fiction that such an observer exists. It is doubtful if factual reportage has such a requirement, unless the reporter wishes to play God.
The bias of the BBC is toward its own survival. It swims with the tide. As the course changes the Corporation steers accordingly, always presenting itself as in command of the events that shape its responses. The notion of impartiality is crucial to its self-image as being in the vanguard of society. It sees itself there at the centre, an impersonal force that is the essence, if not the totality, of our experience.
That is itself a point of view. It is open to question. In the necessary conversation that must ensue may be found the dynamic of future events. Without that conversation all we can have is passive acceptance that denies the need for participation and the sense of completion which is the democratic polity renegotiated. There is truth as fact, and there is truth as value.