Rabbinic cynicism is as old as the hills. There’s a maxim from the second century text Pirke Avot – the ‘Sayings of the Fathers’ – that runs: ‘Be careful of those in power! For they do not draw anybody near to them except in their own interest: they seem like friends when it is to their own advantage, but they do not stand by a person in their hour of need’ (P.Avot 2:3).
So is this rabbinic warning cynicism – or realism? I’ve found myself – somewhat to my own surprise – rather gripped by the lead-up to this week’s General Election here in the UK. I haven’t followed in detail all the acres of newspaper coverage, nor have I watched much of the commentary on TV. But I tuned into the three live TV debates, and while lamenting the Americanisation of our culture (and the triumph of style over substance) that they represented, found them fascinating events as political spectacle – mini dramas of personal ambition and competitiveness masquerading as caring, compassionate expressions of concern for the collective well-being of the nation.
What confidence these men needed to display! Confidence that they alone can lead the country into a brighter, fairer, more prosperous future. Confidence that they alone have the answers to the complex problems besetting the country. Confidence that we will not think about the inevitable gap between rhetoric and the harsh realities of the policy choices that any party will need to make in these next few years.
These men depend upon what the social psychologist Leon Festinger (1919-1989) termed ‘cognitive dissonance’: our inability to tolerate inside us conflicting beliefs, thoughts or feelings so that we end up rejecting or devaluing one or more of these perceptions. So we may know in our heads that crime rates have fallen dramatically over the last decade – but if someone we know has been burgled, or we feel unsafe for any other reason, we will insist that the Government hasn’t done enough to cut crime. Or we may know that immigration has huge economic benefits to the county, and fills a variety of essential skilled and unskilled jobs in the UK, but if we resent the way the Polish shop on the high street has displaced our favourite cafe, then we will insist the Government must do something to stop immigrants ‘flocking’ here in unlimited numbers.
Yet a moment or two of sustained thinking will help us acknowledge that whoever is in power will face problems the magnitude of which daunts the imagination. The two most serious are environmental (about which we have heard almost nothing in the run-up to this election) and economic. Although we are not in the euro zone we see in Greece a society whose social cohesion is unravelling because the ‘financial markets’ – like the unseen amoral gods of old, indifferent to the suffering of real human beings – continue to determine our destinies wherever we live. And no major party has the courage to tell us that the only way we are going to reduce carbon emissions as a nation is through the draconian introduction of individual carbon rationing.
As the results still come in this morning it is possible that the tectonic plates beneath British politics are shifting – and a new era where co-operation and compromise prevail will have to emerge. Meanwhile it is going to be messy and fractious and somewhat inconclusive. Both major parties will claim the moral high ground and that they have a mandate to rule - and no doubt we will now be told by those parts of the media that like the pseudo-clarity of clear storylines (and obvious winners and losers) that Britain cannot tolerate such uncertainty.
But what I fear more than uncertainty is the self-righteousness of certainty. The rabbis of the Talmud knew that what really counts is who will ‘stand by a person in their hour of need’. What I fear is that as we teeter on the brink of further financial meltdown, we might be entering into another period of Government when entrenched ideology damns a further generation to economic and social despair, and that those in need – and it could be any one of us – are again neglected or abandoned.