Monday, September 3, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            Somebody completely believes in a certain set of values, acts upon them and publicly proselytises for them. But after some radical re-thinking that same person has a change of heart, rejects those values, adopts new ones and begins to preach them. In a book or series of articles, he/she now publicly rejects and regrets his/her former values.

            Consider Maajid Nawaz writing Radical. Consider Ingo Hasselbach writing Fuhrer-Ex.

            This is called recanting, and it always creates major problems for the person who recants.

            After all, says a large part of the reading public, if this person once preached one thing, how can we trust him/her when he/she begins to preach another? Doesn’t this just show fickleness and a shallow mind? How sincere is this person now as opposed to then?

            Here is a problem that often confronts us when we read recanting literature. There is something very disconcerting in a person publicly changing his/her mind. This awkwardness can be exploited by those who still wish to uphold the values that the recanter is now rejecting. The recanter can be presented as a slippery and untrustworthy person.

            To give some old Cold War examples. In the late 1940s Douglas Hyde, a leading member of Britain’s Communist Party, suddenly left the party, became a Catholic, and wrote a best-selling book called I Believed in which he publicly recounted everything he knew to be wrong with the CP. This angered former comrades. In his memoirs, the doctrinaire Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm claims that Hyde “always” seemed an untrustworthy person to him even when they were both in the CP, so naturally he wasn’t surprised when Hyde traipsed off  to become a papist. (Hobsbawm then proceeds to give a completely disingenuous account of his own CP membership in which he conveniently “forgets” certain key things he did.)

            Something similar happened in New Zealand around about 1960 when the former General Secretary of the New Zealand Communist Party, Sid Scott, wrote a book called Rebel in a Wrong Cause, publicly rejecting Communism. Of course he was excoriated by his former comrades. In his memoirs another former Communist Dick Scott (no relation) presents Sid Scott as a pompous and egotistical person, and therefore presumably not worthy of credence. Even now, there are a handful of old academic Marxists who find it preferable to try character assassination on Sid Scott rather than engaging with what he was saying.

            As with a quasi-religious belief-system like Communism, so can recanting be awkward in more  purely religious cases. Adopting a philosophy of life can be a lifelong process. An articulate person might move from position to position – and leave behind a trail of books and articles signposting the changes. This will allow opponents to decry his/her changeability. I could give examples from Augustine to Calvin to Cardinal Newman.

            There is another technique sometimes used by those who dislike what is written by somebody who has changed his/her mind. This is to claim that the person in question has not changed at all, but is merely expressing the same personality and the same values in a new guise. The problem of personality is a real one – a zealous believer in one cause may become an equally zealous supporter of another, and all his/her opponents will claim to see is the zeal.

            I’ve lost count of the number of sceptical articles which tell me that Paul the zealous Christian was just a new edition of Saul the zealous persecutor of Christians; or that Augustine the theorist on Original Sin was just a new edition of Augustine the Manichee dualist.

            Shifting attention over to the matter of personality is often an excellent way of burying whatever it is that a writer with a new-found faith or belief system is writing.

            Thinking people do change their minds, even about important and essential issues. Thinking people often write out and publicise their opinions. Of course it’s a case-by-case matter, but if we ridicule or belittle the world’s recanters, we are really saying that everybody has to stay rigidly and unthinkingly to one philosophical system or set of beliefs.

            And we are praising those who change their minds but cannot write.

1 comment:

  1. I suppose that there are many people who change their beliefs and opinions but in not quite a dramatic way as consciously 'recanting'. Sometimes, I surmise after a lapse of many years a person may realise his or her beliefs and opinions have changed imperceptively, not for any dramatic reasons