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.

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.

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.

A plague on all our houses

I was going to comment that recent events had made the light-hearted tone of my last post on this topic look rather inappropriate, but then it occurred to me that, as our Chinese readers might point out, the only aspect of the Coronavirus crisis that had really changed since I last wrote about it was that people in Europe had started dying too, so asking for my previous comments to be excused, on the grounds that I didn’t know how bad it was going to get (for us), would only compound my appalling insensitivity.

If there was any sort of cosmic justice I would now be struck down by a particularly unpleasant case of pneumonia or something, but the one part of my last post that was accurate was the observation that I, shielded as I am by several layers of privilege, am unlikely to experience any serious adversity as a result of the pandemic. I have had to cancel my spring vacation, and I’ll probably have a few days of mild discomfort when the virus catches up with me, but beyond that I’m unlikely to suffer much. There’s an outside chance that I’ll be drafted in to help treat victims of the outbreak, which would be penance of a sort, though if the health service collapsed to the extent that they needed me on the front line then we’d be only a couple of steps above a Mad Max style apocalypse, so hopefully things won’t get to that stage.

I like to think that I’m not too parochial in my outlook, but events like these remind me that I have more progress to make in that regard than it’s comfortable to admit. However this situation works out, if it encourages people to start thinking a little more globally, then perhaps we’ll be in a better state to deal with the next pandemic that comes around.

Viral concerns

Despite the occasionally gloomy tone of this blog, I am by nature a basically optimistic person, aided, no doubt, by the fact that, as a older, white, male, I can be reasonably confident that society is arranged to minimise the chances of anything really bad happening to me.

I am thus unsure that I am treating the looming Coronavirus pandemic with the requisite degree of seriousness. I live in an advanced, industrialised country, with a freely-available, high-quality health service; everyone I know who works in public heath is pretty sharp, and well able to handle this sort of situation. The city where I dwell, while not completely off the beaten track, isn’t particularly cosmopolitan, and is geographically situated in such a way that it would be fairly easy to control people coming in and out. Personally, I’m in good shape physically, and not in the age range that seems to be most at risk of serious complications. All things considered, I probably shouldn’t be panicking, despite all the alarming stories on the news, with scenes of hazmat-suited personnel quarantining entire neighbourhoods, and the ever-lengthening list of countries where cases are cropping up.

And indeed I am not too worried; my biggest concern at the moment is whether my spring holiday travel plans will be disrupted. I guess that this complacency may come back to bite me, but one can’t live life fretting about things that one can’t control. If people start dropping dead in the street then I might consider wearing a face mask and using hand sanitiser, but until then I’ll keep calm and carry on.

Cleaning up

We’ve received three emails over the last couple of weeks from Barbara Dunn at haiwatch.com, encouraging us to share the following message with you, our esteemed readers:

As you may be aware, hospitals still have a lot of work to do to put an end to the ongoing – but solvable – problem of Healthcare-Associated Infections (HAIs). To help achieve this goal,  Kimberly-Clark Health Care launched “Not on My Watch” (www.haiwatch.com), a website that provides tools and information to help facilities eliminate HAIs.

Ms Dunn is evidently labouring under the misapprehension that we are running some sort of serious health-related website here, but since she’s right about the problem of hospital-acquired infection I feel we should do our part to support this campaign, which I’m sure Kimberly-Clark are backing for purely altruistic reasons, with no commercial agenda at all.

So I’ll encourage anyone who is curious about HAIs, or just wants to know how to wash their hands properly, to head over to the HAI Watch News site, for up-to-the-minute information.

That’s the end of the Public Service Announcement, we’ll return to our normal programming soon…

Reoccurring Dreams

There was a lively debate amongst the commenters at Botgirl’s blog over the last week or so, concerning that perennial preoccupation of the SL intellectual elite, the question of identity in virtual environments.

I must have listened (and occasionally contributed) to this discussion dozens of times in the last three years, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything that was a significant advance on what Sherry Turkle was writing about fifteen years ago.

The particular facet of the issue that we (for of course I couldn’t resist chipping in with my two cents’ worth) focussed on this time around was the significance of choosing to represent oneself in Second Life with an avatar that differs substantially from one’s corporeal incarnation, especially with regard to gender.

How dishonest is this? Moral relativist that I am, my answer to that question is “it depends”; upon a lot of things, but mainly the expectations of the parties to the interaction. In the discussion parallels were drawn with other media, such as written fiction or cinema, with the point being made that no one feels deceived when they discover that, say, Robert De Niro isn’t really a taxi driver. This is true to a degree; for books, plays and movies there are commonly accepted cultural norms that define when it’s OK to make stuff up and when it’s not, and people do feel cheated when the rules are broken.

There is much less consensus regarding online interaction though, and, crucially, in a space like Second Life there is no easy way to communicate the extent to which one is using the platform as a vehicle for personal reinvention, as opposed to expressing one’s everyday self (which of course opens up the question of where one’s “true” identity really lies, or if such a thing even exists).

I’ve noted before that the research evidence suggests that it’s harder than one might think to create a new personality in a virtual world (certainly my avatar is boringly similar to my mortal form, in appearance and character), so in theory it should be possible to get to “know” someone just by interacting with their SL alter-ego. I suspect that there are not many people who could be bothered to put in the work required for this though, and there is always the (mostly unconscious) drive to project one’s internal object-relations on to the virtual relationships, which further muddies the waters.

With all this going on it’s hardly surprising that miscommunication and unhappiness can occur from time to time. I don’t think that there’s much to be done about it; it’s the price we pay for access to the creative possibilities of the medium,  like Cézanne being poisoned by Emerald Green.

Like I said though, none of this is new, or particularly profound, except insofar as it sheds some light on that other topic that has launched a thousand SL blog posts; “Why blog about Second Life?” Why make the same points about the same issues over and over, when we could be turning our minds to something more productive? I can only answer for myself of course, but I think (as, unsurprisingly, I’ve said before) that SL blogging is essentially just another form of role-play, a chance to imagine oneself as a heavyweight intellectual commentator, without all the tiresome business of actually having to think too much about what one writes.

It keeps me amused anyhow. And I get to link to some cool music.