I say this because it shouldn’t matter what I believe. Ideas are good or bad or - more importantly, interesting or not - whether I believe them or not. What matters is reasoning and evidence, not what I believe.
This issue is not, of course, about me. Those protestors outside the Chilcot enquiry on Friday make a similar mistake. They accuse Blair of lying, as if this is a bad thing. Surely, what matters is the allegation that the war was a bad idea badly executed. This stands or falls independently of the question of Blair’s honesty.
Instead, there seems to be a huge premium upon sincerity; Blair himself exploited this when he famously claimed that he was “a pretty straight kind of guy.”
What we’re seeing here is more than a mere vindication of Richard Sennett’s claim that public life has become a mutual revelation of “personality.” It’s that people seem unable to conceive of any alternative to this.
This is what lies behind the “culture wars.” Intellectually, the debate between religion and secularism is an arid one; there’s barely a single point made by Ditchkins or their interlocuters that wasn’t made 80 years ago by Bertrand Russell and his opponents. So why is the mass debate - the mots juste - so lively? It’s because what’s at stake isn’t an empirical proposition, but egos. When someone says “I am a Christian” or “I am an atheist”, the emphasis is entirely upon the “I”.
In this sense, we are living in an era of narcissism - albeit in perhaps a different sense from Christopher Lasch’s - in which the self is all-important.
Which raises a paradox. We think of the modern, post-Enlightenment era as being defined by liberalism and the scientific method. But these have in common the belief that propositions are separate from the individual - that the individual is a disembodied subject distinct from his beliefs. However, our public life effaces this distinction, whereas - as Sennett pointed out - people in the 17th and 18th century had a strong sense of a distinction between the public and private person.
I’m not sure why this is - though I suspect we can regard it as an outgrowth of modern capitalism. Still less am I sure it’s a healthy development.