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Scabs and Abscesses

posted 12 Dec 2009 11:03 by Dick Pountain

Bill Clinton is the last source I'd expect for the most useful political distinction I've heard in years, but he supplies exactly that in "The Clinton Tapes" by Taylor Branch (excellent review by David Runciman in 17 Dec issue of London Review of Books here). Clinton told Branch that his most successful and satisfying foreign policy initiative was the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, while his greatest disappointment was lack of progress over Israel/Palestine. He explained the difference thus:

"
Peacemaking quests came in two kinds: scabs and abscesses. A scab is a sore with a protective crust, which may heal with time and simple care. In fact, if you bother it too much, you can reopen the wound and cause infection. An abscess, on the other hand, inevitably gets worse without painful but cleansing intervention. ‘The Middle East is an abscess,’ he concluded. ‘Northern Ireland is a scab.’ "

Appropriately grisly and medical as it is, I find this metaphor very powerful. It derives from the operation of self-healing systems in the human body, and I'm always attracted to comparisons between the individual body and the "body politic".  Such parallels are always more than coincidence: both systems are complex and self-organising, and since the one (the human individual) is the "atom" from which the other is constructed, resemblances are not too surprising. The interesting question is, how does a practising politician tell a scab from an abscess? A modern doctor would send off samples for bacteriological tests, but a politician or a Victorian doctor would almost certainly have to rely on intuition. Clinton had good intuition about this, though very bad about certain other things. 

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