“Mrs Jellyby had very good hair, but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it.”
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
Far be it from me to disparage the sterling work done over the past few centuries by the activists of the world. Whenever there has change for the better, you’ll tend to find the tireless work of that obsessively-dedicated minority somewhere behind it.
The repeal of the corn laws, the abolition of slavery. All that.
All that business about pressuring the coffee-shops into paying however many millions of pounds it is to the taxman, in penance for making people talk funny (Can I ‘get’ a tall skinny Latte to go? No you can’t - and learn to speak English, alright?)
But activists were behind that extra-tax-paying thing: it was them that started it.
But, my word, they can be a right pain in the backside, these people.
It’s part of the job description, you see.
Without exception, activists are noisy misfits with an almost-autistic tendency to latch onto one or two specific issues to the exclusion of all else. Whether it’s some aspect or other of third world poverty, loving the EU or loathing it, whether it’s too much political correctness or not enough of it, once they get onto their various hobby-horses you can’t bloody shut them up.
They are noisy misfits by definition, and that’s a fact.
If they aren’t noisy misfits, well then, they aren’t activists. It’s as simple as that. It takes a very special kind of personality deficiency to constantly bang on (and on and bloody on) over and over again about your pet injustice, to a world that by and large doesn’t give a monkey’s about it.
Should civil partnerships be renamed as ‘civil marriages’? Some people care about that a lot. Though not the same people, obviously, who care a lot about legalising polygamous marriages in accordance with the wishes of the Prophet.
But then there are many different sorts of activists and they all of them have their own particular ‘thing’.
With Dickens’s Mrs Jellyby, in Bleak House, it was the plight of the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, “on the left bank of the Niger”, that exercised her passions to the exclusion of all else; and for which her family and her life in the here and now were wholly neglected. With… Oh, I don’t know, with Gandhi, say: with him it was the idea of a free and united India in place of the Raj and the maharajas in their palaces that had him walking about in a nappy and doing stuff with a hand-loom like he was some sort of weird peasant out of a back-of-nowhere village, when in fact he was actually a Middle Temple lawyer. And then there’s bloody Bono. Who’s about as perfect an example of everything that’s wrong with activism as it’s possible to imagine.
You’ll have sensed a degree of ambivalence in my attitude towards the breed, I’m thinking. Which is interesting because one of the central characters in The Fall, the book I’ve just delivered to my agent this past week, is an activist. But he’s a 17th-century activist, rather than a modern one, and so his activism has a distinctly period flavour. He’s a nice enough chap, most of the time, but something of a Puritan, you see - as a lot of people were in those days. As are a lot of people are today, come to think of it - though in a different way.
But what really gets his goat, this man, is fancy interior decor in churches. He just can’t abide it. Hates it. Stained-glass windows, wall-paintings, ornate crucifixes, carved altar-rails: when he sees them he can’t help but go a bit mental. Gets a hammer out of his bag, starts smashing everything up.
This actually happened rather a lot back in those days. It’s one of the reasons why so many old churches in the City of London have clear glass windows even today: the old ones were destroyed by Cromwell and his zealots.
If this seems odd to us today, it didn’t then. Many of our modern-day activists’ obsessions would have seemed just as strange and eccentric to most people 400 years ago. And I’ll wager that today’s obsessions will seem just as strange and eccentric in 400 years’ time.
But one of the most important lessons of our brief Puritan interlude is that this is what happens when activists get out of hand. This is what you get. It was perhaps the only time we’ve ever had an entire government and establishment controlled entirely by obsessives.
So where I’m coming out is here, I think: they’re like bacteria, activists. They’re quite a useful thing, in many ways. Every society needs them, if it is to stay and healthy. In the right dosage they help build up our immunity against all sorts of unpleasant ailments, and stop us getting flabby and complacent.
But if we let them get out of hand, well, it is at our peril.