[In the following excerpt from his 1942 book, And the Floods Came, Arnold Lunn enlarges on Ambrose Bierce’s cynical definition, ‘POLITICS: a struggle of interests masquerading as a contest of principles; the conduct of public affairs for private advantage,’ to which the passage is linked. Lunn’s remarks on the subject of self-interest in the guise of altruism and bias in the guise of objectivity have, perhaps, an application to philosophical as well as to political controversy.]
In America, as in England, political controversy generates more heat than light, mainly because the personal and emotional approach to the problems of politics is as common as the impersonal and scientific is rare. The politically minded, however much they may disagree on minor points, agree on the major point, that those who take an active interest in politics may be divided into two great classes—disinterested idealists who share their views and selfish careerists who do not. This simple dichotomy appealed to me in my youth, but after years of industrious research I discovered, not only that those whose political views commanded the loyalty of my youth were not wholly disinterested, but also that I was not wholly disinterested myself. Science, the great healer, consoled me for my lost illusions, for science teaches (a phrase which is useful when one is uncertain of one’s facts) that the survival chances of a species depend very largely on the tenacity with which that species defends its interests in the cut-throat competition of nature. Nature, moreover, recognising that Tom is not only the greatest living authority on Tom, and the most concerned to secure Tom’s survival, entrusts the task of looking after Tom—to Tom. But as man is a social animal, and as looking after Tom is not a full-time job, Nature decrees that a proportion of Tom’s activities may be devoted to looking after Dick and Harry. Self-interest, though by far the most important, is by no means the only motive in the shaping of individual lives. In time of war, for instance, the loyalty to the tribe often transcends the devotion to self, but as it is easier to die for than to live for Dick and Harry, V.C.s [the Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded for valour by Great Britain] are more common than Saints.
Our political views are rooted in self-interest, and therefore we defend them with passionate sincerity. Those who are actively interested in politics often develop an impersonal and partially disinterested loyalty to a particular political remedy, and are as sincere as a physician whose fame is bound up with a particular treatment, of which he is the inventor, and who therefore necessarily tends to be biased in favour of any evidence which supports the soundness of the treatment in question. If the analogy between political and medical remedies were more generally accepted, political controversy would lose much of its bitterness. Sir Tory Blimp, let us suppose, has been summoned along with Dr. Marxist Blurb to the bedside of the patient—Society. They agree neither in their diagnosis nor in the remedies which they propose, but though Sir Tory regards Dr. Marxist as a pushing young careerist, and though Dr. Marxist despises Sir Tory as an old reactionary, only interested in transforming his baronetcy into a peerage by cultivating royalty, the argument round the bedside of the patient does not begin with a discussion of personalities and personal motives but with an impersonal argument about the relative merits of the treatments proposed by Sir Tory Blimp and Dr. Marxist Blurb.
In pre-war England the old convention that political differences need not impair personal friendships was tending to disappear, perhaps because this convention had been attacked as evidence of a conspiracy to maintain a mock fight on the floor of the House, while secretly agreeing to divide the spoils of office. The evidence for this hypothesis is not impressive, and I, for one, would be glad to see a return to the amenities of a politer age. I seize every opportunity of meeting those with whom I disagree politically, and find it as difficult to dislike people who differ from me as I find it easy to dislike their views. To adapt a definition, which I owe to my brother Brian, a partisan might be defined as a man who is pleased to find that a political opponent is as nasty as he had painted him. But few people are partisans, in this somewhat exotic sense, for most of us are pleased to discover that those from whom we differ politically turn out, when we meet them, to be no more selfish than we are ourselves, which is reassuring, and not noticeably less selfish, which is still more reassuring.
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