“The more you stay in this kind of job,” said President Richard Nixon, “the more you realize that a public figure, a major public figure, is a lonely man.”
These past couple of days, two stories in the British press have amply illustrated Mr. Nixon’s point.
One story in particular has torn at the public’s emotions. The horrendous slaying of Jo Cox MP represents a tragedy for her family and a deeply troubling development for the nation.
The other story, while understandably given fewer column inches, has nonetheless raised troubling questions about police conduct.
The end of investigations into Sir Cliff Richard on sex abuse charges foreshadows – or should do – the likelihood of new questions being asked of an already struggling regional police force.
Taken together, these stories reflect the high price paid by some people for life in the public eye.
They are not, of course, completely analogous. The pain to be endured by the family of Jo Cox is of a very different order to the grief Sir Cliff has faced throughout his trial by inference.
Moreover, the actions of a lone killer are not to be compared with those of a lawful (if bungled and, in the end, unethical) police enquiry.
However, these very different tales contain important lessons for our society. They should cause us to reflect on how we project our deepest aspirations – and particularly our fears – onto public figures, often dehumanising them and ourselves in the process.
In stressful times, when our aspirations are not realised and our fears are, those same public figures become the focus of a sometimes fierce disapproval or anger.
On the political front, the 2009 MPs expenses scandal reminded us – as if we needed to be reminded – that there is plenty of human frailty within British politics.
More recently, the infighting and fearmongering by people on both sides of the EU referendum debate have reinforced that sense of a system at best damaged, at worst perhaps broken.
However, if we care to look for it, there is also ample evidence of the nobler side of politics and politicians. Mrs. Jo Cox was by all accounts a fine examplar of the better angels of political humanity.
Speaking this morning to a member of my immediate family who had met Ms Cox on several occasions, but did not know her well, I was struck by the depth of his sadness. He spoke of the killing not simply as an emotionally remote national tragedy, but as the source of a very raw, personal sorrow and bewilderment.
While a restless undercurrent of wariness and weariness undergirds our attitudes to political elites, Jo Cox was one MP who clearly knew how to connect with and impact even casual acquaintances.
There is, of course, an added sadness within this story – that the alleged killer appears to have a history of mental health issues. Whether or not he shouted “Britain first” before slaying Ms Cox, as some witness reported, it appears at the time of this writing that Tommy Mair’s alleged actions cannot be associated with any recognised political position. Neither the EU referendum nor political debates in general are, as far as we are aware, the central narratives here. This is about a human and national tragedy, not a political statement.
Yet Mr. Mair’s alleged actions, driven though they apparently were by illness, might serve as an extreme example of what can happen if we build too close a link between personal grievances, real or imagined, and public figures whom we’ve never met.
In the UK, complaining about politicos and their dearth of problem-solving skills is a national pastime. Doubtless the criticism is often deserved.
Yet ours is no longer a world in which national effects are almost always directly related to decisions made by people in easily identifiable positions of power.
The forces of globalisation are at work in politics, economics, business, trade and much more. They bring undoubted benefits, but they also muddy the waters when it comes to who is politically responsible for what.
This is, of course, largely what the EU referendum debate is about – political, legal and economic sovereignty. The EU is one manifestation of globalisation and trans-nationalism.
On one side, globalisation is a boon to national and personal progress and aspiration. It creates global markets and opportunities for mass innovation, travel and dialogue. Its flip side, however, can create in an electorate feelings of powerlessness beyond which be the dragons of frustration and fury.
We elect officials to carry out our wishes. They set out to achieve those wishes – or whatever version of their party’s manifesto most closely resembles them.
Over time, though, individual politicians and party collectives find that regional and global forces often push things in a different direction. To us their electors, this looks at the very least like abject failure on their part. At worst, it smacks of an arrogant disregard for our intentions. In fact, the reasons are usually more complicated.
In the sound-of-mind, anger with political outcomes can be a helpful emotion, helping us to push back against injustice. But if we’re unwilling to manage our emotions and to act with self-awareness and control, fury can lead to a careless lashing out at the softest or most convenient targets.
In a nation where, thankfully, political and other leaders can still move freely among us, public figures are among the softest of soft targets. What could be easier than venting a sometimes ill-defined rage against members of a class many see as cynical manipulators, self-promoters and moral vacuums?
What’s more, in a globalised village of social media, where the mob assumes guilt before innocence, public figures can be vilified without cause, without end and without an opportunity for recourse.
The online bile thrown at parliamentarians – particularly women – is indicative perhaps of a sizeable micro-culture that’s now emerging. It is a milieu within popular culture in which anyone in public life is assumed to have willingly foregone his or her rights to respect or common decency.
Attacks on social media are obviously not of the same order as physical attacks. Words do, however, wound and the abundance of simmering verbal acid in the cybersphere increases the likelihood of a boil-over into violent expression.
Knee-jerk attacks, verbal or otherwise, on the political classes or individual MPs also create in us a victim mentality.
Yes, there are very real victims in our society – I’ve met more than a few in my time and have often come away both grieved by their experiences and moved by their courage in speaking out.
These are the people who deserve our greatest attention and care. However, that attention is sometimes lavished on relatively undamaged individuals who want to see anything short of a total public affirmation of their beliefs or ideals as downright persecution.
Bias and persecution are not always the same thing. To mistake one for the other is to rob genuine victims of the care they deserve and to make all the world one’s enemy. We should not allow a victim mindset to become some kind of default in our culture; it might prevent us from seeing when we ourselves are victimising others.
The same media sources that announced Ms Cox’s death yesterday also carried the news that a police investigation into sex abuse by Sir Cliff Richard had been closed down.
To Sir Cliff’s understandable chagrin, the police did not declare him innocent. They merely stated that there was insufficient evidence of wrongdoing for them to proceed. This after they had gone out of their way to make a case against him in the court of public opinion. It began with a raid on his home, which he learned about only by watching it live on BBC TV.
During happier times for Mr Richard, he was the focus of aspiration for millions of Brits. Among those who might not like his music were many who appreciated his charity work – for which he was awarded his knighthood.
In more recent times, though, the pop singer was seen by many only through the prism of potential sex abuser. He was not considered innocent until proven guilty. Far from it.
In the end, it might be argued that it was public adulation for Sir Cliff Richard that helped to foster his public excoriation.
A regional police force, which was already leaking public confidence as a result of its mishandling of other matters, decided to steal back a little public respect. It should have been investigating, methodically and quietly, serious criminal allegations. Instead, it took a high profile individual, previously above reproach, and started a PR campaign against him.
No suspect should be publicly named before concrete, actionable charges have been laid against him or her. An accused person has the right to confront his or her accusers, with the opportunity to offer a defence. Innuendo is not evidence and trial by media does not allow for a properly constructed legal defence.
Though Cliff Richard’s story has ended more happily than that of Jo Cox, he has also paid a high price simply for living in the public eye. In many minds, his name will forever be linked to unproven claims about abuse.
When we revere people in public life too highly, we set them and ourselves up for a fall. When we constantly excoriate people in public life, taking cheap shots on social or other media, we unwittingly transform ourselves into victims.
When we take this a step further and physically attack high profile individuals, we dehumanise ourselves and defile a culture of fairness.
If we project our fears too readily onto public figures, we reduce the number of good people wanting to serve. It's a price too high.