“‘bad’ people can sometimes do good things, perhaps even for bad motives…”

Sorry to keep on, but I think this from Chris Dillow not only gets the balance right on McGuinness’s legacy, he also gets something right about the inscrutable nature of democratic politics that we would do well to take more account of:

…a closer analogy with McGuinness’s change, is the role Lyndon Johnson played in the passage of the Civil Rights Act. LBJ was a racist – certainly by today’s standards and perhaps even by those of his time.

Such attitudes, however, gave him influence with southern segregationists that Kennedy – who had proposed the Act – never had. LBJ thus managed to force the Act through Congress whereas Kennedy failed. JFK might have been more acceptable to decent people, but LBJ did the job.

LBJ was both a racist and an advancer of blacks’ rights, just as McGuinness was both a murderer and a force for peace. And both men were one because they were the other.

George Bernard Shaw famously said that “all progress depends upon the unreasonable man*.” This might be an exaggeration, but one way in which it is true is that the unreasonable man can persuade other unreasonable men in a way that moderates cannot.

And he adds this:

Many people think of politics as a low-grade morality play in which good people – people like us, naturally, because we lack the faculties of self-criticism – oppose bad people.

But it isn’t always so. McGuinness and Johnson show that “bad” people can sometimes do good things, perhaps even for bad motives. And the converse can also be true: good people can do bad things. The social sciences are  often complex emergent processes: outcomes aren’t always reducible to individuals’ intentions.

Personally, I’d like to see less moral posturing and tribalism in politics and more inquiry into how to build structures that increase the chances of bad people doing good things and lessen the chances of good ones doing bad things. But this is a forlorn hope. [Emphasis added]


Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty