BBC Radio 4 is running a series of radio programmes, podcasts and snippet articles linking them, under the umbrella label of ‘Rethink’ about what the ‘new normal’ could, and perhaps should, look like as we come out of our immediate reaction to Covid-19.
It is a very worthy enterprise in many ways but I wonder if anything good is likely to come of it.
The whole idea seems to rely on a feeling that such momentous events have to be meaningful. In our past, and no doubt in some societies now, we would have said that they meant something in themselves. Meant perhaps that God was punishing us for some error in living our lives, individually or collectively, and we needed to change to avoid repetition of the harsh lesson being given us.
Not many in Europe would buy that interpretation now. The concept of a beneficent, all loving God wiping out between a third and two thirds of the world’s population (Black Death 14th Century) as a random hint to do better would seem odd today to most rational people.
However, we seem to need these large events to signify something. My suspicion, from experience however, is that we should be very careful of the idea that things ‘have to change’ and how that emotion is used in fact and by whom it is used to change things. After the attack on the Twin Towers in the USA, within minutes of the attack in fact, people who were close to those who had been frustrated by the ‘gloves on’, ‘softly softly’, ‘apologetic’ approach to dealing with terrorism were using the mantra ‘this changes everything’.
Well of course it did, as it hadn’t after the other attack on the Trade Centre (failed), and the years of Irish terrorism and relatively minor attacks on western assets by various Islamist groups. It did so because it killed a lot of people and shocked all who watched it on television. It worked because the will and the ability of those in power or near enough to power to know how to push the right buttons, was there in abundance to seize the opportunity.
So we clung to the illusory promise of safety through the erosion of our civil liberties. We embraced the surveillance state, and the biggest crime of all, yet the one that receives least attention in the west, used the pretext to bring war and death to populations unconnected to the attack on New York and Washington, kidnapped people without trial and assassinated others on our belief they deserved it without recourse to any form of justice. We pushed back understanding between civilisations and created a climate of justifiable grievance and terror on both sides of the divide. A climate which of course justified more coercive control of society in the name of ‘protection’.
So forgive me if, when I hear the phrase, ‘things have to change’ I reserve my approval of that statement until I know how that change will be planned and what it will entail. Most (I haven’t listened to all the episodes of Rethink) of the thoughts I have heard about what the world should look like, are well meaning plugs about the concerns liberal thinking people in a western democracy have had for some years and didn’t know how to achieve: response to climate change, fairer distribution of wealth and income, racial equality and justice etc. all good aims as far as they go.
But for every 6 minute podcast on BBC Sounds as part of Rethink, you can bet there are a hundred meetings in board rooms, cabinet committees, senior police and security agency meetings wondering how to get round those residual problems of civil liberties that get in the ways of controlling populations, avoiding bars to ‘agile entrepreneurial response’ to crises and making sure the complete failure of the way business is structured does not crash the money train.
Yes, and again yes, we do need to change the way the world works, but just because ‘things have to change’, doesn’t mean they will necessarily do so for the better. I’m not against using this as an opportunity to build a better world, I just want to read the small print about what ‘better’ actually means. If it seems too good to be true: it isn’t true.
Let’s make changes by all means, but remember, the people currently with the power to make them made the old system that wasn’t working. And nobody sent Covid-19 as an opportunity for us to respond to; it’s just a virus out to replicate itself. It doesn’t signify anything.
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