Howard Jacobson: Seeming is not always believing

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Reaching for a half-remembered line from Shakespeare the other day, about seemers not being what they seem, I took the lazy man's way out and Googled it. All it could offer me was fast bowling. "Important for seamers to retain focus," says Indian fast bowler Sreesnath. "Sussex seamers set up likely Durham draw." Type in "seemer" and you get cricket balls.

I draw no conclusion from that, though I do think "seeming" is an indispensable word, given that the difference between what people seem to be and what they are lies at the heart of so many of our difficulties. We don't fare well as a society unless we are practised at reading the true character of a person, but what is the true character of a person?

I tracked down my quotation in the end. It was the Duke in Measure for Measure, testing out Angelo, his deputy. "Lord Angelo is precise, / Stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses / That his blood flows, or that his appetite / Is more to bread than stone. Hence shall we see, / If power change purpose, what our seemers be."

The Duke has never been a popular character, not someone we can "identify with" or "relate to" in the baby language of the book group. What people don't like about him is that he subjects another man to intense moral scrutiny. Today he'd have bugged Angelo's bedroom and installed CCTV cameras across the street. Surveillance we call this and we are against it. I recall students complaining that the Duke acts as though he's God, and we are against that, too.

I don't get the surveillance anxiety myself. I think of CCTV cameras as I thought of night lights as a child – I sleep easier knowing they are there. If the mind were not so full of imaginary dreads we wouldn't need a night light, and if our streets weren't so full of entirely unimaginary monsters we wouldn't need a CCTV camera. Had we only stayed in Eden, where to seem was to be, all would have been well. But we are out of the Garden of our infancy now and it behoves us to exercise shrewd judgement. Not to be suspicious in the world of men is not only naive, it is irresponsible.

Whether a little more neighbourly snooping or astute character reading would have forewarned society of Derrick Bird is hard to say. But it might have. It might at least have stopped him getting a licence for his guns. If we are all dangerous – and the evidence shows we are, let the stars only misalign themselves slightly – then we are all more dangerous still with a gun. There is no more to be said. Ban them.

And if society won't go that far – though it seems no distance to me – than let it at least become more skilled in reading "seeming" when licences are handed out. And not just for guns; for cars, for motorbikes, maybe even for telly.

This is somewhat tangential to my argument, but when ITV rested Coronation Street last week because a gunman was running wild on the Street too, it could, by a still more compelling logic, have rested Britain's Got Talent. Derrick Bird turns out to have been a depressed, bitter and envious man. You don't need telly to make you that – but it certainly doesn't ease the temper of such a person to have money and fame thrust perpetually in his face. Wherever the Simon Cowell team goes, the culture of money goes with them. Not only their own fame and fortune but the valuation of those terrible twins as the only measure of a successful life. Din this, day after day, into the aching head of a Derrick Bird and while one can't say that it alone will make him mad, one definitely can say it won't help to keep him sane.

He "seemed", anyway, by all accounts, an ordinary kind of bloke. Don't they always? Ordinary, quiet, keeps himself to himself. Run a mile, I say, if you encounter such a person.

But I fear my advice is wasted. There's no shaking us awake when it comes to the "seeming" of our fellow men.

Take the flotilla of the seeming virtuous that sailed to Gaza with only Elastoplast in its hold and love in the hearts of those aboard. This is not going to be about the Gaza blockade, a subject the usual parties have addressed in the usual way – the blind apologists for Israel and its hellish traducers alike seeing only one side of a complex story. You can occupy whatever position you choose on all that and still agree with what I'm going to say. Which is that professing you love peace doesn't mean you do.

Myself, I run faster when I meet a "peace" or any other sort of good cause activist than I do when I meet a quiet ordinary bloke who keeps himself to himself. The most heinous actions are carried out in the name of liberating animals, foetuses, and other "victims" of our oppressive society. Consciousness of acting in a good cause is a sure path to what Montaigne calls "presumption" – having too high an opinion of our own worth, representing us to ourselves "other than we truly are". I don't say everyone aboard the flotilla sailed in order to do or to provoke violence, but I won't accept, on their own say-so alone, that none of them did.

Peace activists who put themselves in harm's way in war zones hope to occupy the moral high ground twice – once for the risk, once for the consequence. Where they strike us as so many Don Quixotes foolishly righting wrongs they don't begin to understand, we squeeze out some small commiseration for them if harm happens. But career "seemers" don't deserve even that. Kirsty Wark, who would interrupt God if they could get him on Newsnight, hymned the information that there were Nobel Peace Prize winners, German politicians and a novelist aboard the flotilla – as though the presence of a novelist, whose only business as a novelist is writing novels, automatically confers rectitude. Only imagine had the Peace Prize winners in question been Menachem Begin and Henry Kissinger, the novelist the Marquis de Sade, the German politician – but let's not go there.

We see angels where we happen to agree, as we see devils where we don't. But angels – like Angelo, who scarce confesses that his blood flows – are merely mythical figures of "seeming", and it matters, if we are not to be duped by presumption, that we distinguish what seems from what is.

That's true of cricket balls as well.

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