I am not normally tempted to write about current politics; they are too immediate, too transient and I am too passionate about them. But the two life threatening crises facing us at the moment, Covid 19 and climate change, qualify, especially when combined as civilisational events and should not be neglected. There is a third crisis - the widespread abandonment of truth and expertise - which exacerbates the difficulties in the search for solutions to the first two. This blog is in reality an aide memoire for grandchildren to see how some of us were thinking whilst living through them.
The world is changing before our very eyes and no matter how much we hope and pretend otherwise it will never again be the one that we imagined as normal, just a few short months ago. This change does not mean that we will lose the joys that are the essence of our humanity: our kissing and hugging of loved ones, our love of company, our celebrations, and young people gathering in large numbers for whatever reason to express their very joie de vivre. We are clever enough and passionate enough to find a response that will allow all of that to return. Because of the growing acceptance that climate change and pollution are existential threats we are, with the necessary will, capable of reversing even those threats. What will collapse however is the overconfident path that our elites have laid out for the twenty first century, namely eternal economic growth, reduced taxes, obscene consumption and wealth disparity. In our present dire circumstances the fault lines in such self serving plans are wholly destructive. With the pandemic itself, those who want to return to the status quo ante come replete with incredibly comprehensive plans to achieve their ambitions but forget, as always, that the devil is in the detail. How do we deal with those politicians and their enablers who failed us when they were most needed? How do we put the ever more obvious and odious genie of inequality back in its bottle and what will we dream up to assuage the millions who have had the time to realise that their lives before lockdown were a puny substitute for their real hopes? How many will be shocked when it becomes obvious that they are being exploited as pack animals and that those who exploit them have no intention of voluntarily sharing even a scrap of the world’s wealth with them?
Epoch changes are, luckily, not that common, but they all have things in common. The French Revolution happened because of the relentless and blind arrogance of the nobility based on the risible idea of genetic superiority. Our own epochal change will be driven by a natural catastrophe highlighting the incredible arrogance of many of those with more money than most. A quarter of a century after the Revolution, with Napoleon defeated, the Ancient Regime imagined that things could revert immediately to the order in place before the Revolution. They did not realise, even then, that the system that had been replaced was one bereft of decency and, most definitely, not one that ordinary people would allow to be resuscitated. Despite the enormous trauma inflicted on humans by the current pandemic, our elites, including most of our politicians, expect a speedy return to the supposedly normal - a normal that was also bereft of decency.
The two changes of epoch that we are most familiar with are both World Wars. The first driven by rampant nationalism and feelings of superiority on all sides. Does that sound familiar? The principal effects, besides the appalling carnage, were a reduction in the belief of the wisdom of ruling classes and the refusal of women to placidly return to their male ordained ‘proper’ roles.
The second War has even more lessons for our present dilemma. It was again driven by nationalism, though this time with the added evil of rabid antisemitism. Most pertinent to our current situation is that the prime instigator was, in many ways, quite insane and to facilitate his complete grasp of power required a new outrageous level of propaganda: lies and falsehoods in simple language.
Roosevelt and Churchill led the Democratic World during the War and both were intelligent and relatively sane and effective. So, what sort of team do we have to lead us out of our own interesting times?. An extraordinary one by any standards. Even limiting it to the players who think of themselves as democrats we have: Putin, Bolsonaro, Modi, Obrador, Erdogan, Orban, Johnson and others, all led by their inimitable captain, Donald Trump (he is not chosen for his skill but because he has more money and power). Look closely at them and you will undoubtedly decide that the world is in good hands! Is it any wonder that in fiction clowns are often portrayed as fundamentally evil.
For Trump to create his own bananarama world he must have a united band of loyal supporters, usually referred to as his base. His particular base is a quite outlandish coalition of disparate and contradictory elements. The majority consists of ordinary decent people who know that they are left out of all the loops of a fast changing world and who, in general, think that Civilisation is moving backwards; that all decency is failing. They support Trump in the hope that he is so different that he may return the country to what they think it used to be, never comprehending that, except for their vote, he has no interest whatsoever in them or their problems. His promise to them of clearing the swamp is not helping when his method is to transform it into a fetid cesspit. The rest of his band are a peculiarly zany coalition consisting of racists, chauvinists, jingoistic nationalists, gun cowards, anti-vaxers, extreme libertarians, the greedy and, perhaps most surprisingly, fundamentalist Christians who have distilled the entire message of Christ into the stopping of all abortion.
Holding such a coalition together is a Herculean task and brings us the third, mostly unrecognised pandemic: the scourge of lies and untruth. A democratic society cannot function if the level of this mind bending disease is permitted at its current levels. It grants equality between untruth, gossip, rumor, superstition and slander to truth, facts, evidence, informed opinion and even Science. That grant of equality renders every opinion more or less meaningless. There is an unscrupulous malign influence deeply involved in this purposeful evil. In America it is Fox News. The rest of the right wing echo chamber are not nearly so damaging. They do what they do, quite properly, because of their openly stated beliefs, but Fox disseminates untruth and falsehoods while claiming to be an unbiased news station. It labels itself with logos such as ‘We Report You Decide’, - ‘Most Watched Most Trusted’,. ‘- Fair And Balanced’, - and their most recent ‘Real News Real Honest Opinion’. With that one they encapsulate their method of taking their own most egregious fault, false witness, and, with bladder bursting gall, foist it on all of the normal media: Fake News. Goebbels would have been proud of them. The effect is to ensure that nothing can get through to Trump loyalists — however despicable or incompetent his acts or however much evidence there is of his dishonor, — it can be dismissed as Fake News. It is extraordinary that the public face of the corporation - the television anchors — can, night after night, preen themselves with deep sincerity but never realise that pimping for untruth is even more unsavory than regular pimping.
If you think that exaggerates the power of the Murdock empire then take a look at English politics where, because he dislikes the E-U’s interference in his corporate ambitions, he has set out to destroy the entire European concept. To achieve this he employs his overarching control of the print media in England and has, for decades, used that power to drip feed poisonous nationalism, racism, xenophobia and lies about immigrants, refugees and Europe itself into the English political consciousness. The end result has been to get a perfectly sane race (albeit somewhat arrogant because of a supposedly glorious history) to vote to secede from the European Union. He has bravely led this bold, flag waving charge, forward to the past. Brexit, as it is called, has no known advantage for Britain, neither social, cultural, economic nor scientific. It is telling that the two parts of the British Union, where Murdock’s writ does not run so overwhelmingly, voted decisively against Brexit. Ironically, this was not the outcome he or those who currently pass as conservatives in England wanted. Both assumed that when an entity as large and influential as Britain left others would follow suit. The opposite has happened; Europe’s union has actually become stronger whilst the British one has weakened.
Covid 19 and climate change are world changing events which we need to solve very quickly, but which also present an opportunity for positive and transformative changes to society. However, this is only possible if we address the third crisis: the abandonment of truth and expertise in the protection of powerful interests.
Democracy cannot function properly if reality is constantly ripped asunder by falsehoods, superstition and propaganda. Untruth is anathema to any successful Democracy. In three of our major democracies, America, England and Australia, the Murdoch empire, News Corp - including Fox - is the leading protagonist of making truth malleable. We must weaken its power to mislead and perhaps the only way to do this is to publicise relentlessly the names of their advertisers. This would allow the general public to decide what they, as individuals, can do to help.
Even though there is general consensus about what we are trying to do to overcome Covid 19, the barriers raised to our success come from the usual sources; those who ignore all expertise and insist that it is nothing more than a minor issue or, alternatively, that it is already over. Nor should we forget those who are more brutal, but perhaps more honest, who would persuade us that lives sacrificed are unimportant compared to reopening the economy! When the pandemic is controlled we will have moved to a very different societal normal. Because of the exigencies of the current crisis too much of the nature of our existing order is being highlighted to those who are neglected by that order. They will not accept the old norms whoever tells them that they must. If you cannot yet sense the coming storm, adjust your antenna. We know what despots do in such circumstances, but in a democracy, to avoid chaos or even violence, we need truth more than anything else. It is time to stop accepting anything less.
No fine words will reduce the status of the climate change crisis as an existential threat for life on earth. Yet those who continue to dismiss that threat as minor are truly a malignant influence, driven by blind greed to ignore and lie about the horrible danger to the world, even to the lives of their own children and grandchildren.
The challenges facing us are enormous and immediate. How we respond will be admired, or roundly damned, by our immediate successors.