Corbyn’s refusal to dine with Trump is not hypocritical – it’s worse than that, says Sean Walsh.
Jeremy Corbyn is right in a way to decline an invitation to attend a dinner in honour of Donald Trump. What would the two of them find to talk about? Mr Corbyn has never disclosed an interest in golf; and there is no evidence that the President is keen to discuss cold war tractor production figures within the former Eastern Bloc. Unhelpfully, both men are teetotal which -though not automatically a character defect- does rob any potential encounter of the social lubricant that might have made it bearable for either or both.
But in a more important way, Corbyn is very wrong indeed. His “snub” (which is, when you think about it, directed not at Trump but at the Queen) is a significant ethical solecism.
There is more to dining than eating. The early Christian church recognised this. One of Jesus of Nazareth’s early controversial moves was to operate a policy of “commensality” or “open table fellowship”. He who was without sin was happy to break bread with those who were never far from it (which is to say: all of us). St Paul later wrestled with the issue of whether Jew should dine with gentile, the question for him being one of theological rather than merely anthropological significance. And we should not forget that at his final supper the logos made flesh used an ultimate speech act to initiate the institution of eucharistic celebration, which lifts the act of dining into a potential form of communion with Himself. The most everyday act thereby becomes an example of what T.S. Eliot called the “intersection of the timeless with time”.
Corbyn himself would not be persuaded by this exegesis of Christian metaphysics. Doubtless he has twigged that Jesus was -whisper it- Jewish and was working with a select group of his fellow Jews in order to conquer the world (and in a way, I guess, that’s true). Corbyn is very much on the record with his disapproval of any such aspiration. But it might have been hoped that he could grasp the more quotidian point: that, pace the assumptions of Islington-Highgate, we need not dine only with those with whom we agree. Or even like. And to be fair, Corbyn is one of those types who thinks that Jesus is fine when you take away the God bit. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth since if Jesus was not who he claimed to be then he was (as C.S. Lewis pointed out) either mad or bad. But if Corbyn finds much to admire in “Jesus as ethical teacher” then why does he not follow his lead on this?
I don’t as it happens agree with those who suggest that Corbyn, happy to dine as he is with current and former terrorists, is a hypocrite. We tend to get hypocrisy wrong by confusing it with inconsistency or with general moral failure. But it’s a more subtle sin than this. The hypocrite is the person who can consciously develop a public persona that is inconsistent with the workings of his own inner soul. It’s a hard one to pull off, and Corbyn doesn’t really have it in him. His own moral failure here is a specific instance of his wider pathology. Corbyn is in the grip of sentimentality.
Sentimentality, which is a widespread modern contagion, involves a cheapening of feeling. The person who is sentimental will prefer to display their emotions rather than to interrogate them. In doing so the sentimentalist fails to discharge the obligations that come with those emotions. She prefers to enjoy them for their own sake. This is why sentimental love is destructive: its emphasis is on the self over the other. Real love involves willing the good of the other for the sake of the other. Its connection to the feelings of the person doing the loving is at best not essential. Relatedly, the sentimental person will be better at loving things in the abstract rather than the concrete. He will love humanity, but struggle with people.
And because sentimentality reduces all emotion to mere feeling it is destructive of the capacity for moral imagination.
It is, in short, worse than hypocrisy, which at least has some regard for the complexities of our moral psychology.
It is sentimentality, not ideology, that drives the sordid cultural Marxism of the age. Afraid that an academic might hurt your feelings? Get them sacked. Outraged that a commentator affirms biology? Put the outrage on display and wait for the police in its self-bestowed role as enforcement arm of the culture of grievance to take things from there. It is sentimentality that motivates the emotionally incontinent to create fake versions of themselves on social media.
Corbyn ‘s refusal to dine with Trump is grandstanding pure and simple. It is delightful in a way that Her Majesty has not issued an invitation to his fellow sentimentalist Sadiq Khan, thus depriving him of the facile enjoyment of declining to accept it. She is, as it were, willing his own good for his own sake: a proper form of tough love.
I understand that Jeremy Corbyn is a busy man. E.J. Thribb’s latest collection of verse Where Was Shylock When the Towers Came Down? and Other Poems is due out soon and the foreword will not write itself. But if he can find time to break bread with me at a time and location of his choosing, I am happy -in a spirit of unsentimental affection- to try to explain to him the error of his ways. That said, if he brings Thornberry along, I’m out of there.