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  • Alastair Cavendish

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

How do you know you’re not mad? If not mad, exactly, how do you know that you are not being deeply unreasonable, stupid, or resistant to data and logic? This question becomes particularly pressing when you are in the minority, facing a mainstream culture which continually assures you that you are mad, and despicably selfish as well. For most people, sanity really is statistical. They inhabit a comfortable agreed reality in which those around them are always ready and eager to reinforce their prejudices without being asked.

One way of diagnosing insanity in yourself is to question your own level of certainty. Is it possible that you might be wrong? If your answer is no, it is quite impossible, and you are in a state of stone-cold certitude that you are, in all ways and all matters, completely rational, then you have your answer: you are certainly mad.

This is a worthwhile reflection at the best of times, but today it is also a preamble to admitting a mistake of my own. Last week, I was horrified to see the altercation between Keir Starmer and Rod Humphris in Bath, and concluded that British politics had reached a new low. Fortunately, it was not quite as low as I thought. What I saw (and presumably what Mr. Humphris saw and experienced) was Starmer muscling in to a public house where he was not welcome, and then allowing his hired thugs to manhandle the proprietor who was trying to throw him out.

However, an explanation has since emerged that Starmer did receive permission to enter the pub from the business partner of Mr. Humphris, and did not know that the man who followed him inside was the landlord (or, presumably, joint landlord). If this is true (and while it may not be, it is at least credible), two conclusions follow. First, Starmer did not believe he was doing anything wrong in entering the pub. Second, if his henchmen reasonably believed that the man who followed Starmer inside, loudly proclaiming that he was the landlord, was not telling the truth, and intended to lay violent hands upon Starmer, then they were correct to restrain him. It is never edifying or enjoyable to watch such force being applied, but it probably was not excessive in what they believed to be the circumstances.

Everything else I said about Starmer remains true. He is a dishonourable politician who thoroughly deserved Mr. Humphris’s censure, and he lied to the BBC and the nation after the incident. However, he is not as bad as I thought he was, and the public life of the country, while calamitous, is still better than I believed it was on Monday.

It sounds like self-praise to say that, far from being embarrassed at having made a mistake, I am concerned that, over the course of the last year, I have made so few of them. However, I do not think this is anything of which to be proud. I have simply detested and despised everyone in politics and the media with such ferocity that I always assumed they were acting in the most despicable way possible. My assumption that the government, the opposition, and the press are evil people who always act in bad faith and with bad manners has resulted in thousands of correct judgements and one error.

A foolish consistency, as Emerson splendidly remarked, is the hobgoblin of little minds. I have made it a rule over the last year to listen to a broadcast or read an article by someone who disagrees with my perspective at least twice a week. I even listen to Novara Media and Double Down News, as a public service, so you don’t have to. Unfortunately, the latter of these two organisations is only too aptly named. The religious certitude of the covid zealots is staggering. They belong in a Victor Hugo novel, or at least a popular adaptation of one: Frollo according to Walt Disney, Russell Crowe’s lugubrious, honking Inspector Javert.

The impenetrable bigotry of such people makes them formidable opponents in their own way. To win a game of chess against a grandmaster may be difficult, but to win against a pigeon is impossible. One must strike the finest of balances between replicating their insane certainty and being too tolerant of it. In such a context, it is a relief to notice one’s own errors from time to time, and only human to wish there were a few more of them.

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