Skip to main content

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. 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Touchy-Feely Inferno

This essay was originally the final, epilogue, chapter of an unpublished book I wrote in 2009. On re-reading it today I was struck that 9 years haven't changed much….

                      _________________ * ________________

“My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom – freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves.” [Anton Chekhov]


The incontinent expression of emotion has become a new orthodoxy, not only in popular culture but even in politics. We’re regularly treated nowadays to advertisements that exploit neuroscientific jargon where once they stuck to plain chemistry – they now seek to boost our serotonin levels rather than merely applying lipid microcapsules to our hair. The staple diet of celebrity magazines and soap operas is the ostentatious display of “emotional honesty” and “vulnerability”, people are always now “there for each other”. Hugging is as revealing of the t…

Social Democracy Uber Alles

The outcry over the revoking of Uber's London licence shows that the service it provides is popular, and it's unquestionably a significant, innovative use of new technology to improve transport. On the other hand the outcry from drivers about lack of benefits and job security show that the application of technology is being used (not uncommonly) both to increase exploitation of the labour force and to flout legal regulation designed to protect labour and customers. The outcry of Black Cab drivers against Uber ignores the fact that people flocked to Uber not merely for convenience (though that is considerable) but because Black Cabs had priced themselves out of the market with the last big price hike.

Put all this together and it's clear that all the parties need to get together and find a workable solution, which is highly unlikely to happen because of the vastly different political atmospheres between UK and USA, and a general lack of adult leadership on both sides. I ca…

A Very British Coup?

David Cameron is likely to be questioned about his friendship with Mrs Brooks by Lord Justice Leveson as part of his inquiry into press ethics Photo: REUTERS/GETTY







In 100 years time the last week of February 2012 will be remembered as a turning point in UK history, for three events that don't seem all that remarkable at first sight.

The first event was the appearance of Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan police Sue Akers at the Leveson inquiry, where she claimed that there was a "culture of illegal payments" at the Sun newspaper, in which police officers and other civil servants were not merely paid for specific information but were in effect kept on retainer to leak regularly. Akers testimony coincided with James Murdoch finally resigning the chairmanship of News International, the Sun's holding company. 

The second event was the announcement that the West Midlands and Surrey police authorities have invited bids from G4S and other major security com…