CHRISTOPHER SEXTON: Farewell, Norm


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Chris Sexton

[first published on Chris’s blog Chriscellany]

I was very sad yesterday to learn that Norman Geras had died. As a lot of people have already said, I felt it as a personal loss despite having no personal relationship to the man. Although he was never part of my exterior life, Norm’s voice has been a regular feature of my interior world for the best part of ten years. When he started blogging in 2003 I was yet to turn twenty, and his death yesterday came just a day after my thirtieth birthday. That’s an important decade for a young person. At the start of it you’re still clambering free from the confining solipsism of adolescence, just starting to avert your gaze from your own navel toward the world around you. By the end of it, you should be properly sobered up from youthful affectations and illusions of invulnerability and ready to approach life’s lessons with the appropriate humility.

To the extent that I’ve managed such a process of maturing over the last decade, a large part of the credit must go to Norm. I saw him not so much as a teacher to heed but as a wonderful example to emulate. The word that probably springs most easily to the mind of anyone who read him is “decent”, since it captures the essential goodness and kindness that seemed to radiate through his writing. It would be wrong and insulting to the memory of such a great arguer to characterise him as being benevolent in some docile, acquiescent way. He clearly spent a personal and professional lifetime rigorously scrutinising other people’s arguments and exposing intellectual and moral deficiencies wherever he found them. Such a man could not be a kitten.

But he had a way of engaging with other people’s point of view that was faultlessly civil and unpretentious. He wrote a prose so clear and fluent and unaffected that the readers of his blog felt like they were having a chat with their kind neighbour Norm, rather than receiving a lecture from Professor Emeritus Geras. He seemed like a man constitutionally incapable of putting on airs. His simple style, apart from being as inclusive as possible, was disarming. It threw into sharper relief the sophistry of less genuine writers who tried to hide their working, as it were, in their language. Norm never did that. He showed his working. He shared his thinking process in the most transparent way, so that others could follow and engage on honest terms.

As someone who chose not to attend university and to try educating myself, I learnt priceless philosophical principles from watching Norm take an argument apart piece-by-piece. I learnt how words can be subtly—and not so subtly—misused to try and smuggle a set of assumptions past our intellectual defences without setting off any alarms. I learnt how, if a question seems difficult to answer, it may be because it’s been phrased in such a way as to make only wrong answers possible. I learnt how to go back, further back, in the line of someone’s reasoning than they might necessarily want you to go, and challenge what you might find being taken unreasonably for granted.

I learnt that not all disagreement had to be total, that there was such a thing as qualified agreement, that it was okay to say “I’m with you up to here, but then I’m not so sure” or “Your line of thinking sounds good on the surface, but have you considered this?” Which was wonderfully liberating for a young man full of Yeats’s “passionate intensity”, with a terrible inclination for iconoclastic hyperbole. Norm released a pressure valve in my head. He helped drain the hot air out of me by demonstrating how the hot air could be let out of so many arguments with a little careful, clever work. In the heat of my youthful fervour I remember finding his dispassionate analysis maddeningly pedantic. I wanted fire and brimstone. But eventually his graceful serenity won me over, and thank god it did.

Most of all I learnt from Norm that there is nuance in language and in arguments, but to be wary of those who in the name of nuance seek to obfuscate clear moral distinctions. The consistent theme of his blog was a determination not to let people get away with drawing bogus equivalences or attempts to divert our attention from human tragedies caused by acts of evil. As comfortable as he was, as an intellectual, in dealing with the manifold complexities and ambiguities of a subject, he was a consistent opponent of the sort of intellectual slipperiness that can find excuses for mass murder. He believed in holding all human beings, across national and cultural boundaries, to the same standards of—and here’s the word again—decency. His support for the war in Iraq came from his conviction that people elsewhere in the world deserved to enjoy the same freedom and security that he did.

But let’s not go any further into the politics. Because I, like many of his readers, lack the credentials to meet Norm and his sharpest political allies and opponents on their own territory. Truth be told, although I came to his blog initially for the politics, and though I learned a lot from his conduct on that brutal battlefield, I kept coming back because of everything else. The literature, the philosophy, the music, the sport, the musings on the everyday, all delivered in that warm and congenial voice. As a Manchester United fan, I cheered his posts on football. As an England fan, I booed his posts on cricket. As a man who loves Jane Austen, I delighted in Norm’s spirited advocacy of our greatest English novelist.

I will forever associate Norm with Jane Austen, not just because of his appreciation for her novels, but because their voices on the page (or the screen) share certain elements that I find especially charming. There’s a wry but warm humour, a modest self-awareness, a great capacity for concern and empathy, and a gentle self-mocking irony. In a way I’m not eloquent enough to describe, both seem to me to be such quintessentially humane and good-natured voices. I imagine both of them writing with a smile, and a twinkle in their bright, intelligent eyes. I think both of them had this world, and us sinners, pretty well figured out and I’ve no doubt his appreciation of her was his instinctive recognition of a kindred spirit.

What a splendid man he was. I would like his loved ones to know that the example he provided at close range in their lives was powerful enough to change my life, significantly for the better, even from this distance. I hope that in dark times there will be comfort in that. I wrote to him on a couple of occasions, to ask his view on questions that particularly animated my young mind. He always replied graciously. Once, when fancying myself a potential future Prime Minister, I wrote (with embarrassing naivety) to ask him why he hadn’t ever got involved in politics. With typical self-effacing understatement he wrote back that he didn’t think he really “had the personality for it”. Never has such a simple statement said so much to me. Of course he was right. You do need a personality for it.

It’s a great shame that the personality you need for it isn’t Norman Geras’s. I think a lot of his readers, like me, didn’t know much about country music before Norm began to enlighten us with his infectious enthusiasm. But I think they would all share a sentiment I might adapt from one of the songs in his Momma ‘n’ Daddy Collection: Mamas, Do Let Your Babies Grow Up Like Norm Geras. If enough of you succeed, we won’t have to worry so much about the future