Summer of discontent

In recent times, as the reality of mortality has impinged ever more forcefully upon my consciousness, I have fallen into a routine of working through the winter and taking extended summer breaks, in an attempt to maximise my remaining time in the sun. This year I had scheduled another long, secluded retreat, but events disrupted my plans somewhat, as I heeded the call to help combat the national emergency.

Obviously, being obliged to work in a well-paid job for a few months instead of taking a holiday doesn’t exactly make me the biggest victim of the coronavirus pandemic, and, truth be told, I could probably have weaselled out of it, since what I ended up doing was mostly routine. I did cover for people who were off doing more important things I guess, which was just about enough to convince me that I had fulfilled my civic duty, and to confirm my rather narcissistic belief that I am a vital cog in the health service machine.

Whatever, the government has decided, almost certainly prematurely, that we are over the worst of this, and that everyone should get back to work already, so I’m set to slot back into my usual winter post at the end of next month.

I do have some belated time off before then, and I had considered going away somewhere, but the options are limited, the weather is getting colder, and, in any case, I’m not sure that I’m in the right frame of mind for relaxation. There’s a low-level haze of unfocused anxiety floating around on the edge of my awareness, which might just be due to me not having had a break for a while, though I think it’s more likely to be my brain’s fairly reasonable response to the objectively terrible situation we find ourselves in.

What’s most unsettling of course is much of it is beyond my control. The thing over which I have most influence – my personal risk of contracting coronavirus – is the thing I’m least worried about. I should be able to do something to ameliorate the effect of the epidemic on my immediate community, since I’m not completely out of touch with the local activist scene, and perhaps my professional skills, such as they are, will come in useful if and when the second wave of infection hits. But when it comes to the big bugbears lurking in the background – Brexit and the US elections – my only recourse is writing about them in this blog, which seems unlikely to make a significant difference.

Still, even useless activity feels better than doing nothing, so look out for some posts excoriating Johnson and Trump, as I attempt to exorcise my feelings of impotence by superstitiously scribbling.

Alternatively, I could make like a Polish pachyderm, and up my weed intake. It would probably take elephant-sized doses to calm me down though…

Solstice unease

So here we are at midsummer, half way through a year that started unpromisingly, and has steadily got worse. The most pressing problem is obviously the deadly global pandemic, with its accompanying economic meltdown, but all the things I was worried about back in January – principally our new right-wing government and its plans for a hard Brexit, and, across the Atlantic, Donald Trump’s dictatorial ambitions – are still around, only amplified by the new conditions.

Trump may have backed down from his threat to put troops on the streets, when it became clear that there was no stomach at the Pentagon for such blatantly unconstitutional action, but it looks unlikely that he will let the vote in November go ahead without doing his best to suppress Democrat turnout, while priming his own base to forcibly contest the outcome if necessary. Since he is trailing badly in the polls, the only results that look likely are that he loses the election, or he steals the election; either way serious turmoil seems guaranteed.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Boris Johnson seems determined to press on with a rapid Brexit, despite practically no progress having been made in securing a trade deal with the EU, and the economy being in no shape to take any more dislocation. There is little sign that Johnson has any sort of plan to manage the situation, beyond recklessly abandoning the lockdown restrictions, so we’re odds-on to be facing a combined political and economic crisis by the end of the year, with a public-health disaster thrown in for good measure.

There are some reasons for optimism; it’s becoming increasingly obvious that our current woes are crying out for a collective response, which has the potential to popularise progressive positions. The unprecedentedly diverse backlash against police violence is one sign of this; with some work the left could widen this out into a broader anti-establishment narrative that might produce some real change. Of course the extreme right are also working on their own alternative narratives, and, the way the world is now, it’s hard to be confident that they won’t come out on top, at least temporarily. By midwinter we may be in a very cold place indeed.

Coup de tweet

In another sign that Animal Crossing is turning into the Second Life de nos jours, notable politicians have been spotted on the platform. Perhaps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visiting islands owned by her Twitter followers isn’t quite on the scale of Hillary Clinton setting up an SL campaign HQ back in 2008, but it does, rather depressingly, suggest that no corner of cyberspace will a haven from the upcoming Presidential election, which is shaping up to be even uglier than feared.

This shouldn’t be a surprise of course; with the stakes so high for Donald Trump there is no gutter he won’t stoop to. A couple of months ago it looked like he might be able to coast to victory on the strength of being the incumbent at a time of relative prosperity, but his disastrously inept response to the coronavirus crisis, and the subsequent economic implosion, have left him staring defeat in the face, with little option but to continue his steady erosion of democracy.

So we have been treated to the spectacle of the President of the United States of America using his Twitter account to traduce a dead woman’s reputation, as part of a ludicrous conspiracy theory aimed at one of his many critics in the media. This seems like lunacy, and perhaps it is, but it also fits in with his strategy of portraying himself as an outsider, battling the liberal establishment, which, predictably, has reacted with outrage to this latest transgression. The evidence of 2016 suggests that his core voters will lap this up, but it does risk alienating his more marginal support. To cover that angle, Trump has also been tweeting baseless allegations of potential electoral fraud, a move transparently designed to prepare the ground for him refusing to accept defeat if the vote goes against him in November.

This is all quite alarming. Since the fabled checks and balances of the US constitution have proven to be worthless in the face of Trump’s dictatorial ambitions, it might appear that the only thing that can prevent the most powerful nation on the planet falling completely under the control of an unstable despot is his own party turning against him. Given that the GOP refused to even look at the evidence for impeachment, that seems like a forlorn hope.

Fortunately though we don’t have to depend on the Republican Party to stop the putsch. For all his bombast, Trump’s support across the nation is very much a minority, and any attempt to steal the election will, I’m sure, provoke a popular uprising. As ever, when bourgeois democracy is under threat, and the liberals vacillate, it’s the proletariat who are called upon to save the day.

Premature relaxation

The events to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day last weekend may have been scaled back a bit, but they still provided an opportunity for the country to remember past glories, and reflect on the quietly heroic nature of the national character, which, we like to think, ensures we can overcome any challenge.

Our current leaders seem to have less confidence in the resolve of the population however; while our forebears endured six years of war and hardship in the fight to destroy the Nazi menace, Boris Johnson evidently doubts that we can put up with much more than six weeks of lockdown, and is proceeding to loosen the restrictions with reckless haste. Underlying his rush to return to pre-crisis “normality” is of course a concern that the financial consequences of the current regulations will undermine his government’s reputation for economic competence.

I don’t want to understate the calamitous effects that the economic freeze has had on the more marginal sections of the community, deprived of work and largely excluded from the government’s patchy relief efforts, but it is these same people who stand to suffer most if the epidemic, which is just about contained at the moment, is allowed to run free, as they are forced back to their low-paid jobs with no regard to the risks that might entail.

The UK has, to some extent, rediscovered its collective identity over the last few weeks. A competent administration would build on that, by increasing support for the most vulnerable, while exhorting the rest of us to stick together in the face of a common enemy. Alas, as the country has lurched from crisis to crisis in recent years it has become clearer that our political class, epitomised by the Prime Minister, lacks the capacity to deal with any situation that requires actual leadership.

So it looks like our best hope of avoiding a second wave of infection might indeed lie in the fabled national solidarity, as ordinary people follow the advice that will keep their fellow citizens safe, instead of listening to those politicians who care more about the lost profits of big business.

Perhaps, when all this is over, and we are able to assess the legacy of this troubled time, we will see that, like the war, it gave us a chance to rethink what sort of country we want to live in.

Furry traversing

As we enter another month of lockdown, with the majority of the population still sundered from friends and family, there comes news that increasing numbers of people have been signing up to a virtual world, where they can customise their avatar, decorate their homes, craft their own clothing, and experience the social contact that has been denied them in these difficult times, recreating all sorts of communal gatherings, including weddings. All this has drawn the attention of big brands, who are rushing to establish a presence in the metaverse.

This story might sound familiar to readers who have been around since the early days of this blog. However the virtual world in question is not Second Life, but New Horizons, the latest instalment of Nintendo’s Animal Crossing franchise.

ACNH does have some things in common with SL – a non-linear structure, user-generated content, and an emphasis on social interaction – but also some key features that have helped propel it beyond being a niche interest, like the easy-to-grasp user interface, the cute graphic design, and the highly-regulated family-friendly ambience. Its biggest advantage though is that it can be accessed on a relatively low-cost console, or on mobile devices using the NookLink app, instead of forcing would-be residents to shell out for a PC with a high-end graphics card.

Linden Labs’ persistent failure to produce an iPhone or Android app has always puzzled me. It’s clearly technically possible – there are plenty of graphically-intensive mobile games around, and a third-party viewer was available for Android for a while – and even if the smartphone client didn’t have all the bells and whistles of the desktop viewer it would still be enough to keep more casual residents engaged. I suspect it has something to do with the somewhat extortionate revenue-sharing terms that both Apple and Google apply to their respective app stores, but other developers seem to be able to make money in that market, so I don’t see why an SL app wouldn’t be viable. If one existed it might give ACNH a run for its money, particularly among more mature demographics.

Perhaps though the real problem has been one of timing. If current events had unfolded back in 2006, then SL might have been well-positioned to meet the demand for a virtual social hub, and could even have cornered the market for remote business meetings. As it is, a combination of the ubiquity of smartphones, the popularity of social media, and much-improved video-call technology has left the erstwhile pioneer nothing but a cautionary footnote in metaversal history. Sometimes it’s possible to be too far ahead of your time.

176400

Today is another one of those dates that seem like they must have some sort of significance, and certainly the proliferation of marijuana-themed ads across the internet today is a sign of something, though I expect it has more to do with the increasing commercialisation of weed than anything more deep and meaningful.

A few of my friends, who have unexpectedly found themselves with time on their hands this month, are planning to celebrate the double 4/20 in an appropriate fashion, but it’s a long time since getting high on a Monday night was something that I could seriously contemplate, even if we weren’t in the middle of an international health emergency.

Perhaps in a month or two, as the population grows increasingly unmellow about being cooped up indoors indefinitely, the government will develop a more liberal attitude towards the social benefits of dope. Sitting on the couch all day watching TV is exactly what people need to be doing for the foreseeable future, so the case for legalisation on public health grounds will be unanswerable. It won’t do much good for those of us who are having to work through all this, but I guess we will be able to enjoy it after we retire.

Thoughts on La Peste in the time of Covid-19

Mentioning The Plague last week inspired me (like everyone else on the planet apparently) to re-read my old copy of Albert Camus’ classic novel.

[Some spoilers ahead – if you haven’t read The Plague already I’d highly recommend it.]

I first read La Peste when I was at university, more than 30 years ago. Although chronologically the mid-1980s are slightly closer to the present day than to the late 40s, when the book was first published, culturally my student days firmly belonged to that period after the Second World War when the conflict was still a living memory. It was thus natural that I read the work as allegorical, specifically relating to the German occupation of France, which Camus had lived through, and which he played a central part in resisting. This was certainly how it was received when it came out, though the novel’s nuanced depiction of what had become a French national myth was not universally popular, and Camus was criticised by contemporaries, including Satre and de Beauvoir, for representing the conscious evil of Nazism as an apolitical pestilence.

The last month or so has, unsurprisingly, seen a flurry of articles attempting to relate The Plague to our current circumstances. Interestingly, the authors of most of these pieces seem to have taken the novel more or less at face value, as a story of men struggling to persevere in the face of an overwhelming epidemic, and have dismissed or overlooked the connection with the Occupation. I guess that is understandable, given our present concerns, though I think that it does reflect an underlying current evident in modern-day discourse; a tendency towards ahistorical analysis that is so focused on what we are personally experiencing right now that it cannot appreciate that the past isn’t always best understood when viewed through the prism of our latest preoccupations.

Having revisited the beleaguered town of Oran, so vividly depicted in The Plague, I can see how the book can be appreciated as a straightforward narrative, as, at that level, it is a gripping story. Camus masterfully builds a sense of dread as the unseen enemy relentlessly advances. The main characters may inhabit allegorical roles, but this does not obscure their individual humanity. Key scenes, such as the death of M. Othon’s son, or Grand’s grief outside the toy shop, are powerfully moving. The resolution is somewhat downbeat, but satisfying in its ambiguity. (I would like to have seen Dr Rieux reunited with his wife; this perhaps betrays my over-sentimental nature). There are some shortcomings; the complete lack of non-white characters in a story set in North Africa for example, or the way that the female characters are mostly ciphers who exist only to illuminate the male characters’ internal motivations. Overall though, after reading the novel one can appreciate why Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.

Despite the seeming relevance to our present difficulties, I would still say that The Plague is essentially about France’s reckoning with the legacy of the Occupation, though Camus clearly broadens that out to encompass a theme familiar from his other work; the necessity of struggling against the absurdity of existence. The pestilence is life itself, with all its arbitrary cruelties, and the protagonists grapple with the question of how to live and act ethically, when everything is ultimately meaningless. Some, like Paneloux, look to God to guide them, though they are forced to acknowledge that His intentions are incomprehensible. (Secular orthodoxies, as Tarrou points out, are little more helpful). Tarrou and Rieux find purpose in doing what needs to be done to relieve suffering; the former is somewhat demoralised by the scale of the challenge, while the latter is sustained by focusing on the immediate tasks, and by his belief that humans are mostly decent (as exemplified by Grand, who, despite his own problems, makes his contribution uncomplainingly). Rambert (the character with whom I can most identify) is initially angry to find himself cast into the situation by misfortune, and makes plans to escape, but cannot bring himself to abandon his fellow citizens, and joins in the fight. (Rambert, unlike Rieux, is at least rewarded by seeing his wife again). Even Cottard, who accommodates to the new situation, and profits from it, is portrayed sympathetically, as motivated by fear and weakness rather than malice.

I’m not sure that the current crisis, significant though it is, has quite reached the level of seriousness of a world war, where individuals are forced to confront such pressing existential dilemmas. Certainly I have not felt moved to closely examine my ethical outlook, though perhaps that is because my response to events has been largely dictated by my professional circumstances, and I have not, as yet, been obliged to make any choices that are more difficult than usual. I hope that, if it comes to it, I will act as admirably as Dr Rieux, though I suspect than I will lean more heavily on ideology than Camus would have approved of.

In Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins, Henri, the character based on Camus, recalls the intensity of wartime, when he “was busy writing his editorials, a revolver in his desk drawer.” I don’t know if I want to go through that much excitement (and it would obviously be better for all concerned if the situation was resolved without too much more social disruption), but perhaps this dislocation will do me some good in the long run, even if it is only to force me to make my own peace with the Absurd.

Get well Boris

We wrote some pretty mean things about Boris Johnson during the course of the Brexit crisis (remember when that was the biggest thing we had to worry about?), but that doesn’t lessen our dismay at the news tonight that he has been admitted to intensive care, due to complications resulting from Covid-19.

The general sympathy and concern being expressed across the political spectrum is a reminder that we are fortunate enough to live in a country where ideological disputes rarely escalate to the level of wishing for the physical liquidation of one’s opponents (though such excesses are, sadly, not entirely unknown).

Even if one were unconcerned by Johnson’s personal fate, one would have to recognise that the national morale would be severely dented if the Prime Minister – a middle-aged man, in reasonable health, presumably receiving the best care the NHS can offer – were to succumb to the plague stalking the land.

The data, such as it is, suggests that the survival rate of coronavirus patients who end up in ICU is around 50%, which are not good odds, but the figures are almost certainly skewed by higher death rates in the older sections of the population, so Johnson can probably be expected to make a recovery, though he might be out of action for a while longer. How much difference this will make to the government’s response to the epidemic we will have to wait and see. In the meantime we will add our best wishes to those already sent to Johnson, and everyone else who has been laid low during these difficult times.

Isolated musings

One might think that our current circumstances, while clearly troubling, would at least provide some encouragement to bloggers, especially those inclined towards philosophical speculation, as the enforced idleness allows plenty of time for writing, and the situation naturally inspires commentary on all sorts of deep topics, like the nature of society, the limits of scientific knowledge, or the ultimate meaning (or meaninglessness) of life.

And, who knows, perhaps some bloggers are seizing this opportunity to compose memorable posts, but, as readers may have noticed, I am not among that number. I’m actually a good bit busier than usual, as the health service gears up to meet the challenge of the anticipated wave of infection. I’ve been redeployed into the sort of forward position that I haven’t occupied for a couple of decades, so I’ve spent the last week or so furiously refreshing my basic skills, which has at least kept my mind engaged. I’m glad to have the routine of work, which gives me an excuse to get out of the house, keeping me anchored to some sort of normality, though it also allows me access to information indicating that we are not quite as prepared for the coming storm as the the government would like the population to believe, which makes me think the immediate future may get quite rough.

So, it might be difficult to find time to post much over the next few weeks, but I guess I should try to make the effort, because these are the kind of times that’ll I’ll look back on in the future, and be glad that I recorded my contemporaneous impressions. Perhaps, if I live through this, I may even produce my own version of La Peste.

There's a catch

I first read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 when I was about 14, and one of the many lines that have stuck with me over the years is Yossarian’s reply to being asked “But what if everyone thought that way?” when he reports his disinclination to be killed for his country; “Then I’d be a damn fool to think any different, wouldn’t I?” (or words to that effect, it’s been a while since I last read it). It could be interpreted as an approval of selfish individualism, but, in the context of the book, I think Heller intends it to serve as a reminder to be sceptical of those in power who urge sacrifice for some “greater good”, which often turns out to benefit only a select few.

Anyway, I was thinking of this earlier this week, as I stood in the supermarket looking at the empty shelves. I had heeded the official advice to refrain from panic-buying, partly from a sense of civic responsibility, but mainly due to laziness, and had held off heading to the store until my supplies had begun to run low, only to find that my fellow-citizens had not shown such forbearance. There was nothing but some random stuff left, so for the last few days I have been surviving on a diet of organic quinoa and tinned asparagus. Fortunately, I’m not responsible for anyone else’s welfare, so it’s no big deal, and my minor discomfort is nothing compared with that of those who are actually ill at the moment, but still, I feel a little aggrieved.

At least in political life there does seem to have been a turn towards more of a collective outlook. Erstwhile champions of the free market are now overseeing the virtual nationalisation of the whole economy; by next week they will probably be trying to convince us of the merits of war communism. It would be nice to think that this new paradigm will last beyond the end of the current crisis, but I expect the ruling class will revert to type once the existential threat to their system has passed, and it will be back to business as usual.

In other news, it looks like Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee for President, after successfully consolidating the centrist vote and seeing off the progressive challenge of Bernie Sanders. I think this is a big gamble for the Democrats; they are going for what is essentially a rematch of 2016, and it didn’t work out too well last time. Of course that’s assuming that the poll goes ahead in November; Trump may try to use the dislocation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to cancel the popular vote. As Hillary Clinton found out, Presidents are not elected by the people, but by the Electoral College, which in turn is appointed by the State Legislatures. In modern times the Legislatures have selected Electors based on the result of the popular vote, but there is nothing in the Constitution to say that they have to do that, leaving the way open for Republican-controlled states (of which there are enough to guarantee a majority in the College) to simply hand re-election to Trump. This would presumably precipitate some sort of civil war, so it might be a step too far even for Trump, who, as incumbent, has a better than even chance of prevailing in a fair contest, but, the way the world is going these days, it’s hard to say that anything is unimaginable.