There is a pessimistic perspective which is present in both Muslim and Jewish literature that holds that, as we become more distant from the moment of the initial divine revelation, the wisdom and spirituality of scholars declines: generation by generation. In Judaism, it is called “yeridat ha-dorot”. In Islam, there is a hadith, attributed to Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, which records that Muhammad prophesied that:
“The best people are those of my generation, then those who come after them, then those who come after them.”
Comparing our contemporary political leaders with those of the not-so-distant past, do not these words have a bitter resonance? How many times, in recent years, have you heard a former minister, who you once dismissed as a second-rater, and thought to yourself: there speaks a true statesman?
Senator John McCain died yesterday. For many on the centre Right of US politics, McCain represented a lost era of decent, consistent and gentlemanly politics. As President George Bush noted:
“John McCain was a man of deep conviction and a patriot of the highest order. He was a public servant in the finest traditions of our country.”
Of all the tributes paid to the man, that of his dear friend, Senator Joe Biden is the most powerful and moving:
“John McCain’s life is proof that some truths are timeless. Character. Courage. Integrity. Honor. A life lived embodying those truths casts a long, long shadow. John McCain will cast a long shadow. His impact on America hasn’t ended. Not even close. It will go on for many years to come.”
We live in an era in which, on both sides of the Atlantic, politics is presently characterised by bitter, vicious polarisation. We treat our political opponents as not simply mistaken, but evil. We conclude, glibly, that those who have devoted their lives to public service are self-serving hypocrites, deserving only of our disgust and disdain. We readily assume that their arguments are advanced cynically, in bad faith.
But John McCain did not believe that. Let his legacy be that we pause before ascribing the worst of motives to those with whom we disagree.