Leaving the economics of the coronavirus for a moment at looking at the non-monetary losses. A second great weekend read.
Phil Leeke is a Faculty Member at the University of Liverpool, English Language Centre
In an earlier piece about the university strike, I borrowed Michael Sandel’s argument that there are moral limits to markets. It was about the degrading effects on people and society that occur when we value things the wrong way. When we make the market the ultimate arbiter of everything. I argued, borrowing from one theory about contributing factors to the Titanic disaster, that we should not ‘skimp on the rivets.’ The rivets I referred to were all the cleaners, teachers and lecturers that held the university together. The rivets now, in the current coronavirus ‘crisis’, and for once that word seems reasonable, are the Staff in the NHS and all the lowly paid care workers and the dustmen and shelf stackers and people working in the food supply chain and countless others who have always been undervalued and underpaid. And now we are all paying a terrible price for this parsimonious skimping, and the false worship of so many actors, celebrities, football players and any number of other individuals who have been worshipped and who have turned out to be particularly useless. Some of these people, who clearly didn’t pay much attention at school, have even spread misinformation about all kinds of ridiculous realities. Perhaps these realities mirror, in some way, their own absurd, vain and meretricious lives. And all those billionaires. And all those clichés that accompany the pandemic. Everybody in the same boat? Covid-19 as the great leveller? We know it’s bullshit. A child can see through it. David Geffen, for example, was in a boat located miles off the coast of nowhere and ‘everybody’—even though they could fit inside— was most definitely not in there with him. All of these people with so much to lose, with so much worry and concern about their stock portfolios, and getting us all back to work, seem less and less like an elite, or class of people, and more and more like a confederacy of murderous gluttons. So, rather than make an argument about that great, crooning, mythological beast ‘the economy’, or talk about the large numbers of people dying, which I’m sure will turn out to be complete propaganda, I want to examine the oversoul and underbelly of the tragedy, for this is a tragedy of horrible proportions. As a linguist, I want to examine its language and the rituals of power that seem to accompany it; alongside the many rhetorical moves that are designed to shut down thinking and close off debate.
I started off an earlier version of this article with an off-colour joke: ‘I don’t like to think about what would happen if some of our leaders got coronavirus. No, that’s not true, sometimes I like to think about it.’ These are not admirable thoughts, but they are common on social media and when you have leaders encouraging people to go outside and ‘fight the virus like men, it is sometimes difficult not to entertain them. Boris Johnson is a man whose politics I personally detest, but even though I have such disdain for what I consider to be the complete, blundering, witless stupidity of the many years of both Tory and New Labour austerity — I don’t actually like to think of the poor man struggling to breathe on a ventilator. Or having organ failure. My beef with people like Johnson is their complete contempt for every sort of problem they’ve never had to face in their own life. It’s what Susan Sontag accurately labelled ‘The problem of other people’s pain.’ And that problem is a very simple one: it’s other people’s and never your own. Johnson has now entered his very own, Chekhovian, ‘Ward 6’. I can only hope the experience makes him and his policies more empathetic towards ‘other people’s pain’.
I can see why health workers feel overwhelmed. I am, however, underwhelmed by the complete moral failure of many of our career politicians and MPs; people for whom moral concerns must always come last; individuals who are very rarely right and hardly ever honourable who do not really represent most British people, and are not representative of them, and who sound, in the words of Professor John Ashton ‘wooden and academic’ in their attempts to understand the scale of the tragedy. It is almost as if the years of spin; the years of always pledging their loyalty to large organizations or political parties, have completely removed their ability to move beyond the manipulative, or the expedient, or the strategic, or the ‘message’. The message which is endlessly repeated. Stay at home. Stay inside. Protect the NHS. Yes, but you are making the British people responsible for the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of our ‘battle’ with the virus. And so does the martial language you employ. He will do well! He is a fighter! However, where is your responsibility when for months you sat on your hands and did not listen to the advice of other countries? Oh yes, I forgot, ‘this is not the time’ etc. Now is not the time to be complacent? Excuse me, but why do you castigate yourself in others? This government has represented the epitome, the very sine qua non of complacency. And the language that is used, that is repeatedly hammered home? They had a step by step plan. A strategy. So desperate to look competent. We are following the science. Who, then, were the Italians following? Pinocchio? Who were the Spanish following? Don Quixote? What, exactly, was the scientific consensus and why didn’t you follow it? And what about that word, the word that I heard, sorry, ‘herd’? As the literary critic Kenneth Burke once observed, metaphor entitles a way of thinking. It creates the tram lines along which we think. Of all things that happen to all things bovine, most of them are not terribly pleasant. Hence, we have to be careful about using words like ‘herd’ to describe people. Herds get culled; alas, some people have to die. Or to use The thick of it ‘we give a toss, your loss’. This seemed to be the utilitarian Nazism that was later retracted and denied as part of the ‘normal messaging’. The furore that ensued was, apparently, simply because we didn’t understand. That’s simply untrue, most of us understood all too well.
Now what about that word? The word ‘herd’? There must be something Nazi in the state of Britain! Even the malefactor general, Donald the defiler, was self-aware enough to realize that there was a problem with the British ‘strategy’: a lot of death. A lot of death. The exact words. And death, let’s face it, can be a real downer. Especially your own. While zombies can remain moderately purposive, most people who are dead cannot actually go to work or live a normal life, especially if they are buried or cremated. They are permanently cancelled out by the weight of all that dirt. For many of our ‘leaders’, this seems like a belated consideration. People actually die and once they die cannot get back up again! As John Lennon once said, however, one thing you can’t hide is when you’re crippled inside, and many of the shrunken amygdalas who would purport to lead us, really and clearly need a great deal of help. They can do ‘message’, they can do the voice of artificial calm, they can do ‘this is all part of a carefully worked out strategy that is now unrolling and not unravelling’; it’s just that nobody believes or trusts them, even though we are all ‘in it together’ and the virus ‘doesn’t discriminate’. Doesn’t discriminate? Of course the virus discriminates! It is, generally speaking, against the old and the poor and the weak. Against the sick and the disabled. So, until fairly recently, was a great deal of government policy. Hervey Cleckley wrote about people in leadership positions years ago in ‘The Mask of Sanity’. He wrote about the sociopathy that sustains them and what all their endless compromises ultimately create. And, if you observe closely, you will see that the mask is starting to slip. Die for Wall Street! Die for the economy! To borrow from William Burroughs, some people very clearly, have no more feeling than a crab’s eye on the end of a stalk. To borrow from Yeats, we really have fed the heart on fantasies and its grown brutal from the fare. These elitist attitudes, which are never properly examined or explored by the corporate media, go a long way to explaining some of the abhorrent sentiments expressed on social media towards certain political figures.
Despite the failure and the seeming inability of most corporate journalists to really express any kind of moral outrage towards what hasn’t happened—file under: “we must all pull together, now is not the time, etc.” —there are signs that the smile, that vast stale smile that is so insipid and lame, and which is part of the mask of the many, seriously overpaid, BBC news presenters, is starting to slip. It must be difficult to suddenly have to start doing your job. After years of basically going along in clubbable deference, you realize that the horror which normally hangs around the exotic and the far away is suddenly right up in your kisser. It’s all so damned unmediated, the faces seem to say. Fine when the horror happens far away, fine when the drama is small brown stick figures fleeing far away. Almost entertaining then. Not so fine when it’s on your own doorstep. Even that famous reliable, the cat up a tree, won’t cut it. There are signs, thank god, of less tranquilised thinking. Green shoots. Real questions starting to emerge from amidst all the Uriah Heeping and the creeping. Perhaps, sadly, it will take the deaths of close family members for some journalists to start asking: What have you done to our NHS? Why isn’t there any social care or safety net? Why, when people told me they were suffering in low paid, insecure jobs, did I just smile it all away in that great, big, dopey way? Was it the ‘problem of other people’s pain’ that was so difficult to comprehend? Why did I so thoroughly self-insulate? Why did I not follow the dictum provided by Peter Finlay Dunne and comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable —instead of the other way round? Why did I endlessly berate Jeremy Corbyn and not listen to what the man was saying about the NHS and the poor and the sick and the disabled? Why didn’t most of the country listen? Why did I think it was so naïve to say we could afford a safety net? Why didn’t I consider the naiveté of saying that we couldn’t? And why, finally, are many people not listening or tuning in to what the mainstream media have to say? Why are they turning, in large numbers, to ‘alternative’ media sources which tell them to go outside and burn down phone masts? I’d say you’ve answered your own questions there. It’s not a question of sport old bean; it’s a question of trust. I’d also say that self-examination’s grudging tears are simply that: grudging. Many individuals will probably prefer denial and what Philip Larkin called the ‘solemn-sinister wreath-rubbish’ instead. Oh when will England grow up? We won’t try to answer that. Or perhaps they will initiate what the Spanish did with Franco: a pact of forgetting. Oh yes, I’m sorry, I already forgot: it’s easy to be wise in hindsight etc.
In my street there are NHS workers, people on the ‘frontline’. I clap them, but know you shouldn’t have to be heroic to do your job. Some have even been gagged for drawing attention to inadequate protective gear. And that is a real obscenity. They’ve also told me what the government can do with its ‘tributes’. All that talk of leadership and where is it? Cometh the hour cometh Michael Gove? I don’t think so. I’ve seen pictures of Michael Gove in braces. The man can’t even trust his own trousers. Cometh the hour cometh Priti Patel? She has all the warmth and fellow feeling of a laboratory retort stand. In the future, we really need to think about the kind of people who make it to the top. They represent us and they make decisions on our behalf. These decisions affect the lives of our friends, families and local communities. It is time to stop listening to what celebrities charitably call their ‘thoughts’. Time to stop depending on the unstinting ‘largesse’ of football clubs and football players. Time for journalists to do their damned jobs and time to value things properly.
As I write these words, it is Good Friday. According to some newspapers, I can be happier because Boris Johnson has come out of intensive care. Right. Nearly one thousand people have died in the last twenty-four hours. I can see very little ‘good’ about it. The death figures are incomplete and seemingly shrouded in ambiguity. One thing I do know. Trying a cover up will be to no avail. As we have seen in Hamlet: foul deeds will rise though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes.