Howard Jacobson: In these days of taking tea with terrorists, it isn't always good to talk

A wise government has two faces. It’s the new chitti-chattiness I’m worried about

Saturday 08 August 2009 00:00 BST

'It's good to talk," Bob Hoskins, selling BT phone lines, used to tell us. You get Bob Hoskins or you don't. Myself, I only had to hear Bob Hoskins' phoney beer-drenched encomium to talk to appreciate the value of silence.

It must be 10 years or more since that ad campaign went off the air, but suddenly it's good again to talk. There is is absolutely no one we aren't up for having a conversation with. The Taliban, Hamas, Hizbollah, Kim Jong-il of North Korea. Why, we have even just sent our second most senior diplomat in Tehran to the ceremonial endorsement of a president we don't actually believe should be endorsed, in the hope that even if Ahmadinejad didn't have the opportunity to converse with us he might at least notice we were there and wave.

This is the Obama effect, partly. After Bush and his Axis of Evil, we can't wait to be talking to everyone and everybody. Evil? What evil? That's metaphysics; whereas what we need right now is diplomacy. Any bright young man or woman wondering how to earn a crust could do worse than consider a career in diplomacy. We are going to see a lot of it. Forget banking, unless you want to burn in hell. Diplomacy's the coming thing. Making chums with the enemy because there is no enemy.

We are told diplomacy is forever at work behind the scenes, even in places where we pretend we don't have a syllable to exchange. I think this is a good thing. Not letting the right hand know what the left hand's doing. A wise government has two faces. It's the new overt chitti-chattiness I'm uneasy about. It assumes the relative reasonableness, not to say inherent decency, of every bent regime and murderous grievance movement on the planet. Only talk and we'll discover how nice they really are. Whether they are interested in discovering how nice we really are is another matter. It would seem to be the legitimatising effect of talk that they most care about; which is fine by us because we are of a mind, post-Bush, to throw legitimacy around like confetti.

Certainly Kim Jong-il looked more than a little pleased with himself, having Clinton by his side. There were no doubt questions he wanted to ask the ex-president. Such as ... but let's not go there. Allowing that Clinton succeeded in his mission, we must assume that Kim Jong-il got something of what he wanted too. A snap for the family album, for one thing; evidence that taking hostages works, for another. When we consider someone beneath our notice, we turn our back on him. Change our mind and talk to him and we acknowledge not just our weakness, but his strength.

But then if the alternative is war without end, why not talk? Where tanks fail, diplomacy might just succeed. There's a cringing part of me that agrees with this. Just chat on equal terms with the Brigade for the Destruction of Western Civilisation and Everything Else We Have Ever Held Dear and the world will be a safer place. But there's another, less accommodating part of me that finds this sickening. What's the point of holding what we hold dear if we don't hold it dear?

I have a soft spot for people who can't sweet-talk to save their lives. "His heart's his mouth," Menenius Agrippa, the patrician Roman, says about his friend Coriolanus. "What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent." Shakespeare must have had a soft spot for such people as well, else he would not have written a play so sympathetic to one.

"Arm yourself to answer mildly," Cominius warns Coriolanus, just prior to his facing a public interrogation from the tribunes of the people. "I will answer in mine honour," Coriolanus says. "Ay, but mildly," says Menenius. "Well, mildly be it, then," Coriolanus concedes. "Mildly."

That'll be the day.

The scene in which Coriolanus endeavours to answer mildly is high comedy. The tribune Sicinius has only to accuse him of being a traitor to the people, and Coriolanus is off. "How! Traitor!" "Nay, temperately!" Menenius reminds him. "Your promise." But it's an ineluctable progression to another of Coriolanus's great rants against democracy. "You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate... whose loves I prize / As the dead carcasses of unburied men / That do corrupt my air," and 10 lines later, to the delight of the citizenry, he has turned his back on Rome, boasting, "There is a world elsewhere."


Except that it's no. For there isn't, of course, a world elsewhere. It's the sure fact of there being nowhere else to go, the discovery that an over-venting tongue deprives you of friends and sanctuary, that turns comedy to tragedy.

But that's wisdom after the event. My soft spot for undiplomatic people no doubt originates in my never having learnt to be a diplomatic person myself. I blame my father for this. An utterly lenitive man on his own account, committed to spreading cordiality and highly skilled in calming situations down, he flattered me into believing my own self-image as a person of unflinching candour. "Our Howard says what he thinks," he used to tell people, and my chest would swell with pride. In truth I didn't know what I thought about anything but simply fancied myself as a hero of veracity, a sort of Coriolanus of Cheetham Hill.

Why my father let me get away with this nonsense, I am not sure. Perhaps I was a proxy for the different sort of man he'd have liked to be. Watching me box myself undiplomatically into corners, he experienced the thrill of an inflexible personality without having to suffer its consequences himself.

You see the double-bind I'm in. I remember what I was like with shame, but I won't pretend there isn't vanity in the remembrance as well. It's a pleasingly self-aggrandising delusion to think of oneself as a man incapable of telling it otherwise than as it is.

So don't trust me when I say we shouldn't be seen speaking to people whose existence we would not grace with notice if we were men of honour. We shouldn't, but honour, as Coriolanus learns the hard way, is a moral cul-de-sac. The world is now so dangerous there is no principled way left to behave in it. We kowtow to tyrants and take tea with terrorists. Bob Hoskins was wrong: it isn't always good to talk. Talk can just as often demean us and destroy us. It just happens to be our last resort.

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