The judgement of history… perhaps it is the last retreat of scoundrels, to imagine that the balance will eventually weigh out in their favour. Those who wrap themselves in such a defence have forgotten the famous Shakespeare line from Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
I am thinking about it in particular as the stance offered by one of my least favourite Prime Ministers, Brian Mulroney. Brian Mulroney seems to have been high on style, while filling his pockets at the trough of influence. Though glad to see him gone, the vision of brown bags stuffed with cash, exchanged in dark hotel rooms, fills my mind.
He is also not far off the current Prime Minister who loves to apologize, except when it is most warranted by his own illicit and likely illegal behaviour. He wants to sell the idea that government can interfere with the independence of the judiciary. Like a benevolent dictator, he wants to tell us that he is serving the higher good rather than himself and his friends.
What it is to be a witness. It does not require anything except that you bring your very average powers of deduction and humanity to assess the right and wrong of a situation. When a trial assembles a jury, they look for such average people, as the best likely determinant that things will be weighed fairly, in the court of public opinion, so that we can all go sleep soundly at night knowing justice has been served. I have great faith in such a gathering. When you look at a jury assessing a trial, you understand that these people are all very serious about coming to the right conclusion. They will weigh and judge according to the facts, and render a verdict that will be true as can be had.
We all judge. When I was court sketching one of the things I most liked to capture was the expression on the faces of witnesses and those in the audience. It tells the true story of whether the masses are buying what you are selling. I am inclined to give a lot of credit to common folk such as make up a jury. I believe 12 men (or women) tried and true are able to assess basic right and wrong. That is why the idea of common law has for so long codified what has made english speaking justice special. It resonates with the average sense of fairness.
The Bible also calls us to witness. It is a responsibility and a privilege. Consider a wedding with no witness. It seems empty, almost without a point. The presence of witnesses makes us accountable, it imbues the event with responsibilities to live up to, standards commonly accepted within a community. If we are to know each other, it means allowing ourselves to be known, to be seen in the plain light of witnesses. Go to a place like an urban centre where no one knows anyone and see if you feel safe walking at night. Contrast that with a place (if you have been fortunate in your life) where a community is so self aware and cohesive that people do not feel the need to lock their doors when they go to bed. Witnesses, they make the day.
When I was just out of my teens, I was befriended by an older couple who seemed to find me ‘interesting’. They inveighed against my naive, raw outlook on life. They insisted that I was brought up entirely the wrong way, that my parents were rubes and bumpkins. I on the other hand, saw them as worldly wise and sophisticated. I hung on their every word because I was convinced they were smarter than I was.
That is, until the verdict of time took its toll. As they got older, I realized that there was not much to be had beyond the cocktail parties and the urbane worldview. They were casually sceptical of such things as religion for example, tut-tutting that silly people made up the idea of God in their own mind, like Lennon said, an opiate for the masses. They scoffed at much, but did not really seem to believe in anything in the end. By the time they both died I had come to understand that their worldview was impoverished, and that theirs was a life badly lived, time spent merely serving their appetites and whims and not much else.
My parents on the other hand, got a much better assessment after enough time had passed. There were values they hung on to that cost them, that turned out to be of eternal value. I am happy if those values live on through me because I eventually came to see their worth.
Of course the hardest thing of all is to judge yourself. Looking backward we must assess how we have done, and if we want to enjoy our life and find it worthwhile, try to improve and make better what time is left, both for us and for those who matter to us. Thou shalt not judge is a misunderstood concept. Sound judgement is a great thing because we get the kind of world we allow for.
We live under the weight of history of which we are a part. We cannot escape the verdict of history. Like Brian Mulroney, I am personally hoping that history will be kind to me. More importantly perhaps, I hope that I merit its kindness by the manner in which I live.