By John Rentoul
I wrote about how people change their minds in my Sunday article for The Independent, and quoted the late Norman Geras, one of my heroes. He once asked me, “Can you name a major moral, political or intellectual issue on which you’ve ever changed your mind?” I said, markets, the kibbutz movement, nuclear disarmament, vegetarianism and television.
My friend Michael Walsh wanted to know more, so I have an excuse to elaborate. To start with markets, I decided I was a socialist at school, and that “from each according to ability, to each according to need” (Karl Marx, but of disputed origin) was the principle on which society should be organised. I said that everyone ought to be paid the same, which isn’t quite the same thing but you get the gist. My sister said, “But what if not enough people want to be doctors?” As Marvin the Martian said, back to the old drawing board.
I was primed, therefore, when in my gap year I went to work as a volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel. The kibbutz movement was communist in its inspiration: the idea was to set up utopias governed by Marx’s doctrine, in which all material possessions would be held in common.
I enjoyed my stay, but the reality did not live up to the ideal. The internal politics of the kibbutz were obscure to us outsiders but were plainly fraught. Work in the kitchens seemed to be the price of losing out in a faction fight. As for equality of labour, the kibbutz employed casual Arab workers for the orange harvest.
The most striking retreat from the idealism of the founders was the abandonment of collective child-rearing. Until a few years before my arrival in 1977, the kibbutz children would spend some time with their parents during the day but would mostly be learning and looked after collectively and would sleep in the communal children’s quarters. Even to me, who could see that the family could be the original institution of oppression, this seemed terrible, and it seemed only sensible that kibbutz families now lived in family homes.
Anyway, one of the jobs I did on the kibbutz was working in the chicken house, a long shed with thousands of chickens filling the floor space, who had to be de-beaked – having the tips of their beaks sliced off by a hot wire – to stop them pecking each other to death. I didn’t become a vegetarian straight away, but by the time I left university the only meat I ate was fish. That was on the grounds that fish don’t feel pain, which a friend told me, but I wasn’t sure it was true. After a few years I changed to free-range meat only, which has been my rule since.
Meanwhile, I had joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, part of the movement’s upsurge in 1981 in response to the replacement of Polaris by Trident missiles. My early enthusiasm for the cause was checked abruptly when a friend asked, “Why should we give up our nuclear weapons if other countries don’t give up theirs?” For years afterwards I was an unenthusiastic unilateralist. As deputy editor to John Lloyd at the New Statesman, I was embarrassed when he wrote a leading article on the eve of the 1987 election condemning Labour’s policy of one-sided nuclear disarmament. But only because he did it without consulting anyone, and because it undermined Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, not because I disagreed with it.
Finally, television. This one really is embarrassing. I once thought it was a bad thing, an opium of the people, which kept them from morally superior and more active pursuits. That was before I discovered American football, a sport designed, literally, to be watched on television. Talking of American football, I have changed my mind about that now, too. It is a wonderful spectacle and an intricate tactical struggle, but the evidence of brain damage from the helmet collisions is unavoidable, so I cannot watch it any more.
It would seem that I changed my mind in two ways. One was simple, which was by someone I knew asking me a question. The other was by experience. Only the last case, the American football, came about through the classic means of seeking out and studying the evidence.