Feb 24, 2012


In trials of criminal cases in England, a small country on the nearer edge of Europe, over the Atlantic Ocean, the previous record of the accused, the defendant, can not be mentioned during the trial. It would be impossible, or at least very difficult, not to be influenced by the knowledge that the defendant has many previous convictions for check forgery and mugging old ladies for their pensions. It would be difficult, that is to say, to arrive at a fair and objective conclusion as to whether they’re guilty of the particular crime they’re on trial for. When the hearing of all the evidence is finished, however, and the time has come for sentencing, the judge will turn to the police representative at the trial and ask “Any previous convictions?” That seems fair. It may be prejudicial to the accused to know of their record during the proceedings, but when the judge has to decide on a penalty, then whether this is an old lag who does this all the time, or a decent upstanding citizen guilty of an unfortunate lapse, then it’s worth asking about previous convictions. The police response will be either to read a list of previous convictions, or to say “Nothing known.” This may be interpreted as meaning “God only knows what else they may have done and been convicted of, but we’ve done a search, and we didn’t find anything,” a cautious and noncommittal answer. The standard form of political discussion in America, (and not only America, of course) is when Mr. A makes a statement, that, let us say, water is wet, or that when things fall they fall downwards, is for Mr. B to attack Mr. A personally. Mr. B may be employed by some powerful entity but is not obliged to reveal that. Mr. A’s intelligence and academic record, his morals and sexual escapades, his acquaintance with criminal elements will all be catalogued. They may of course be entirely invented. Whether his statement is correct or not, whether water is really wet or not will be entirely ignored, though Mr. B may perhaps refer tangentially to the “dry water” recently produced by a certain company, or the secret weapon produced by a famous terrorist group that makes things fall upwards. These are smaller supports, however. The main effort goes into the total destruction of Mr. A. Politics in practice is entirely adversarial. It makes a better show. To be anonymous, to operate covered by a nickname, strikes some people as suspicious. “Why can’t you come out openly and say ‘I’m Joe Bloggs, of Seaview, Nebraska, a plumber by trade’ and have done with it” they ask. Because you will be tempted to slip into the standard “Ah yes, we know about those people in Nebraska” and slip back into the old routine is the answer. It comes down to what happened to Daniel Cohn-Bendit, “Danny the Red,” back in the scorching sixties. Coming down the steps of an arriving airliner, he found a journalist’s microphone thrust in his face with the question “What did he think of yadder yadder yadder?” “You might just as well ask the next guy behind me in the line,” Danny replied. “We don’t have leaders like that any more.” So there ye go. We don’t have leaders like that any more. Whether I am old or young, black or white, male or female, incarcerated for life or in the middle of a round the world yacht race is none of your business.