28 December 2007

I'm sorry, I haven't a clue

My title is that of a popular UK radio comedy show. It also echoes the wisdom of Thinking Through My Fingers which, marking the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, does that rare and precious thing: admits lack of knowledge.

We should all do more of that. We rarely know very much, but feel the need to act and speak above our knowledge level.

Pam Ayres, comic poet, pierces this bubble with painfully accuracy in They should have asked my husband. For every ill that has ever afflicted the human race, confounded the greatest minds, the ironic response is: "They should have asked my 'usband".

Ms Bhutto's first term as Prime Minister of Pakistan fell just at the end of a long period in my employment where I was required, amongst other things covered by my generous salary, to appear informed and knowledgeable about her and her country. I still feel, all these years later, the knee jerk reflex call to open my mouth and deliver authoritative sounding words in response to TTMF's refreshing candour. But, those words would be empty noise. All they amount to, really, is what they always were: a distilled and repackaged summary of other words, in other authoritative voices, spoken or typed, from others who had, in most cases, distilled the words of yet others - an endless game of Chinese Whispers in which all players have a vested interest in selling the importance of their delivered message rather than the search for what is true.

And, besides, what is truth in such a case? An iconic figure like Bhutto, or JFK with whom she shares a number of similarities, is never a real person for most of us - and with death becomes less so. Listening to the radio, skimming the press and the web, listening to former colleagues, what I hear is not a contention between factual viewpoints but the clash of rival mythologies. This is evolution in action: from the mêlée of dispute, accommodation, blending and mutation will emerge the mythology best fitted not to carry the truth but to survive.

Because mythology is what will decide what happens next. It matters not whether Ms Bhutto was saint or sinner, hero or villain, or (like most of us) somewhere between those things - or even all of them, and more, at once. What matters is what people believe. Battles will be fought, lives lost and broken, on the strength of which mythology is believed by combatants.

Curiously, despite my years out of the loop, I'm asked for assessments as if they somehow mattered. More curiously (and alarmingly) still, I am asked by people and organisations who are still in the loop.

So: no assessments, opinions, comments, guesses or speculations about her. I shall take lesson from TTMF's example: I don't know; I just hope.

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