AT HER last Cabinet meeting, on November 27, 1990, Margaret Thatcher famously said: ‘It’s a funny old world.’ Heaven knows what she would think of a world in which a few frustrated words, typed whilst eating one’s Weetabix, can within minutes be seen, shared and commented on by thousands of strangers. I was so half-asleep that I mistyped my tweet, meaning that ‘Am I’ became ‘I am’ although it still reads as a question.
‘I am selfish for being angry and hurt that my Government is giving 25 million for the wages of the Ukraine army, and heaven knows how much on weapons, whilst people like me struggle to pay bills and must spend our savings on private healthcare due to NHS failure/waiting lists?’
I’m a ‘nobody’ on social media. Yet I could watch the likes and retweets click up with increasing speed. The final total was 4,987 likes, 1,149 retweets and 405 comments. Not a viral tweet by any means but my most popular ever.
It is obviously inconsequential compared with a war but that was the morning our washing machine broke, heaping another expense on to an already smothering pile. In June I must have an operation in a private hospital, self-funded, because of NHS failings. My situation is echoed in households across the UK. The fallout from two years of on/off lockdowns, an obsession with Net Zero targets and the emergence of a National Covid Health Service has descended. It is understandable therefore that people would be sensitive about any large Government spending. Yet there is far more to the current unease.
For many people in our country the crisis they fear is not geo-political but within their own everyday lives, rising expenses and untreated health problems being the obvious ones. Of course the impact of this hardship is unevenly distributed. Ukraine flags line the high street of my nearby Buckinghamshire market town and windows are plastered with handmade yellow and blue offerings. Yet my sister in Leeds reports hardly seeing a Ukraine flag anywhere. This is surely more a reflection of priority than a lack of compassion.
The role of compassion fatigue must not be overlooked. The Merriam Webster Dictionary cites ‘overexposure to tragic news stories’ as the cause of this clinical level of indifference. If the past two years have been anything they have surely been an ‘overexposure’ to suffering, anxiety and indeed fear in all its forms. Hardly surprising then that a certain level of numbness might creep upon many, especially those most battered by the lockdowns. It doesn’t mean they don’t care but the mind as well as the body has an instinct for self-preservation.
There is also growing alienation from those who are tasked with fixing the world’s problems, the politicians and leaders, ditto those tasked with reporting on the world’s problems, the media class. There were the daily press Covid conferences at which not one of our ‘top journalists’ saw fit to challenge the narrative or policy. Heaven forbid that any of these inquiring minds should have asked for evidence to support the unprecedented assault on our civil liberties and policies that damaged health and economy. Even after the infamous projection of 4,000 deaths a day wheeled out by Chris Whitty to bounce us into lockdown two, the media shrugged and moved on. Less easy to move on when you lose your business, a relative to late-diagnosed cancer or your child to suicide. It’s also less easy to trust politicians and media with any new crisis narratives that require renewed personal sacrifice.
The flags and children’s pictures supporting Ukraine that I see daily, as well as on so many social media profiles, echo the NHS rainbows of the pandemic. ‘I stand with Ukraine’ has replaced ‘Clap for the NHS’. We had our NHS heroes and now the entire population of Ukraine is idolised in a similar way, The language of war was deployed in Covid to galvanise the public into action. Now there is an actual war that is again evoking WW2, a historical period etched into our national psyche as a time of great unity in divine purpose. We have Boris playing at being Churchill just as he’s always wanted. But he is not the stand-out hero of this crisis. When I saw a journalist on a GB News discussion panel wearing a Zelensky t-shirt I knew we had strayed into boy band hysteria territory. But it’s more profound than that. Zelensky reminds me of the Old Testament ‘golden calf’, the idol created by the Israelites. The Israelites were dissatisfied with a God they couldn’t see and craved a more tangible deity. The cult-like religiosity that has seamlessly shifted from Covid to Ukraine appears to be an attempt at filling an existential void.
There is a popular meme on social media that declares: ‘I believe in the current thing.’ It is clear that a section of society needs to be in a cult of ‘the current thing’, which is also a cult of crisis. Emergencies give one immediate purpose and justification of one’s existence. A life that might otherwise feel trivial when examined too deeply becomes full of meaning when it is acting to fight off a threat. However, as any psychologist will tell you, living in a constant state of crisis is poison for the mind. Furthermore the religious fervour with which ‘the current thing’ is being approached should worry us all. Every religion has its heretics as well as its saints. As with Covid we see debate and dissent over the ‘accepted view’ on Ukraine being demonised. ‘Putin apologist’ has become the new ‘anti vaxxer’, a slur to shut down views diverging from a simplistic pure good versus pure evil narrative. It’s not enough to condemn terrible actions such as war crimes as evil. It’s whole nations, peoples or ‘sides’ who must be either sanctified or demonised. Nuance has become a trigger word.
‘But Putin invaded a sovereign nation!’ ‘But Covid can kill!’ One of the basic hallmarks of a cult is blinkered vision. Just as our public health policy became a ‘Covid spread limitation policy’ our international outlook is now simply ‘Help Ukraine fight Russia.’ All round vision has been jettisoned in favour of mono focus. Reason also leaves the building. I discovered that on a Daily Telegraph comments feed when my defence of Germany not switching off all their Russian gas led to angry replies saying I would have taken Germany’s side in WW2. Talking of Nazis, we now apparently don’t care about them, as long as they are on ‘our side.’ Facebook concurs and removed the ban on praising the Nazi Azov fighters as long it was in the context of their role in the war. Tunnel vision par excellence.
Cynicism and the cult of crisis have a certain alliteration, not just in sound but as they play out in life. They are part of the same repeated pattern of humanity’s reaction to threats and hardships. We must break free from this doom loop by using cynicism to temper the tendency for narrative cults, which will hopefully help us regain our compassionate common sense.