Governing in the garden of good and evil

Jul 08


5 Responses


Helen Whitten

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Governing in the garden of good and evil

During the coronavirus spike in March and April we experienced incredible kindness and community spirit.  This seemed to be mirrored across the UK, with neighbours taking care of neighbours and with individuals and families abiding by what was, in effect, similar to house arrest.  We accepted that for the good of all, we must stay indoors and not mix with others, in order to avoid the spread of this unpleasant and sometimes deadly virus. 

And then, a few months on, we watch the other side of the beast that is we humans.  Walking through Kew Gardens and tripping up over litter – discarded disposable nappies, cans, papers, tissues.  How could people be doing this when so recently they seemed to be demonstrating such considerate behaviour?  It got worse, of course, with tons of litter being dumped on Clapham Common and other open spaces after illegal raves, or the protests where statues were toppled and police who had nothing themselves to do with the George Floyd murder, were attacked and injured.

I feel we are witnessing an interesting conflict between the opposing forces of dictatorship versus an almost equally authoritarian movement calling for a form of anarchy.  Unlike the movements of the past, where there was an identifiable group of fascist right or communist left, one finds people from all walks of life on both sides.

On the side of authoritarianism, we see in China, the heavy-handed demands over Hong Kong citizens, including the removal of books on freedom and democracy, and further undemocratic actions within China, including the incarceration of the Uighurs.  In Russia we have just witnessed Putin’s predictable manoeuvre to ensure that he rules into his dotage.  Then there’s Trump, though I do have higher hopes that the US Constitution will protect the world from his worst excesses. 

On the other side we have real forces at work that are encouraging anarchy.  Forces that wish to disrupt and overturn the institutions of government, defund the police and perhaps, in the terms of the anarchist Emma Goldman, institute a ‘sovereignty of the individual’. Governments were, in her view, harmful as well as unnecessary.  Governments, she argued, do not care for the individual but only that the laws are obeyed, systems in place and the exchequer full.  And yet, I would say, life has moved on since she wrote in 1910 and the welfare state depends on that exchequer.

There is a call for ‘right-think’ on both sides of this argument and those who speak against the current regime, whether in China or Russia’s dictatorships, or in the dictatorship that is the woke social media, get cancelled and silenced.  And so we see the Hong Kong protesters holding up a blank sheet of paper and, as a writer I am concerned that this will be the state of affairs for us all unless we fight back.  I am glad to see that, today, writers have written a letter condemning this bullying ‘cancel culture’. 53330105

There are specific and identifiable leaders in China, Russia, the US, Philippines, Brazil but we don’t really know who the people are who are deciding what is politically correct or not in the arena of woke social media.  They are the shadowy mob, able to hide themselves behind some weird online name.  But they wield huge power and are succeeding in bullying universities and organisations to sack academics and staff who do not follow their right-speak.  Online, people get cancelled or threatened with death or rape, ostracised for having a view that does not conform.  Such is always the beginning of any dictatorship, for, as Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the movement invades the territory of the mind, removing a human being from their beliefs and opinions – the essence of what it is to be human.  People can no longer speak or state the truth of what they feel or believe and so are reduced simply to being a body.

For those pushing for revolution and the disruption of government institutions and the police I question whether we are capable, as Emma Goldman would argue, of organising ourselves to live fruitful and meaningful lives without the structures of a government system?  She speaks of ‘intelligent minorities’ who are capable of overthrowing government systems, sometimes through violent means to overthrow government systems.  Isn’t this what we are seeing today?  When we look at the breakdown of law and order on recent protests, parties and street gatherings are we really imagining that individuals could create a society that provides for food supplies, roads, drains, light, health and education, without the structures of government?  Personally I doubt it.  They may not be perfect but they do actually do a reasonable job. 

In Seattle, where the police retreated from a precinct for the BLM protests, the crime rate soared, so how does a call for police defunding protect a population?  Certainly, the American police need retraining and a culture change.  But our police operate by consent and we have witnessed their bravery in terrorist attacks and in maintaining law and order.  Of course, they need to be monitored to ensure they are fair but when we weaken their ability to act on behalf of the majority, we are likely to see higher rates of crime, as experienced now in the USA, and that benefits no-one.

Those advocating anarchy and disruption hark back to a time when life was harmonious, and we lived off the land.  They don’t seem to have read their history books and forget the huge famines, the early deaths, infant mortality, tribal warfare and utter discomfort and lack of hygiene of everyday life.  Visit any ancient culture – Egypt, Africa, India, South America – and one finds a history of brutal conflict.  We aren’t actually very good at living in harmony with one another and there have been plenty of greedy and cruel leaders who have slaughtered millions, well before capitalism.

In the main these days we all get along incredibly well compared to even the recent past, as Europe was ruled by dictatorships, where certain groups were incarcerated or silenced for holding the wrong beliefs until the early 2000s.  And what has happened in the past can happen again.

The limiting of our voices is dangerous.  In our case, here in the UK, it is not governmental dictatorship but dictatorship by this invisible mob.  There is no identifiable leader seeking power but a mob of individuals buying into some form of Orwellian Doublespeak.  But no problem will ever be solved when the truth is masked and silenced, as you can’t solve problems without being able to shape them accurately.

But Orwell himself described freedom as the right to tell people what they do not wish to hear.  And we must fight for this right, otherwise we are lost as human beings, as individuals, families, communities and nations.  We must stand up against bullies who threaten us or shame us into silence and so I am glad that we are offering passports to the citizens of Hong Kong, that we may well rile China, Russia and Saudi Arabia by pinpointing individuals whom we believe to have been involved in assassinations.  For we stand on our values and we are lost when silenced.

Thomas Hobbes believed that the brutish nature of mankind required strong government and yet we are too easily turned into sheep, as we have seen during lockdown.  People have emerged confused “what can I do now?”, forgetting their ability to self-direct and apply common sense.   John Locke wanted to preserve human rights through limiting the monarchy’s control and this is what we have fought for over the centuries in the UK.  I believe in my lifetime we have done a relatively good job of preserving and increasing human rights, equality, diversity of opportunity, including collaborating on political, scientific and medical initiatives globally.  Through this, and trade, vast numbers have come out of poverty.  Does this mean that I believe more should not be done?  Of course not – there is much to do but I don’t believe improvement will come by overthrowing what we have built up, by throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

We have to accept that human beings are both altruistic and selfish.  And that means all of us.  There is no perfect human, no perfect government, no perfect or totally fair world.  That is idealistic.  Obama has just spoken to young people, suggesting that their tendency to point a finger at another for saying or doing the wrong thing too easily makes them feel virtuous and self-righteous.  Words like “should, must, ought to” generally reflect a self-oriented demand of the world or others but, as Obama said, we might do better to help the young accept the fact that we are fallible human beings living within a fallible system of community and government, both good and evil, wherever we inhabit the world.  There is no perfect but there is, for sure, a pursuit of excellence and improvement and that’s what we need to focus on.

So let’s beware the bullies who advocate anarchy.  It is no fun.  If we have to fight for everyday resources, we do not have the time or energy to create, whether that creativity is a business, invention, law, book, play, work of art, medical breakthrough or musical composition.

And let’s beware the bullies who advocate dictatorship or threaten us as individuals or, as China has done, as a country, should we not do what they say.  They are equally dangerous.

We must stand up for ourselves and what we believe in.  A healthy democracy depends on diversity of opinion unrelated to skin colour, class, age or gender.  We have to fight for this or we shall indeed be lost.


5 Responses

  1. Thanks Helen.. as ever your piece is interesting and thought provoking.. it is vital and energising to raise public and personal awareness and shake up our preconceptions – witnessing the recent George Floyd protests raised mine.. I admit to a thrill of elation when I saw Edward Colston being toppled from his plinth..Yes we must continue to stand up strongly for what we believe in, and think carefully about what – and who we support – on the local, national and global stage.

    1. Thanks for your comment Julia. I have no objection to a debate to discuss the issue of statues, though I do question whether it isn’t, in its own way, whitewashing away the acts, both good and bad, of previous generations, leaving future generations potentially more ignorant of history. But until that debate has been had I am not, personally, in favour of people taking the law into their own hands to topple or deface statues, ignoring the social distancing rules that so many had been abiding by, at great sacrifice, for so many weeks. But a debate on this, certainly.

  2. I will welcome those 3 million from Hong Kong because they possess rights that the Britain Empire – now the UK- granted them.
    But I do not support unlimited immigration because I have heard of families who entered the UK long ago and who – briskly from the airport – immediately went on Welfare, having paid about £200 in their home country to be told how to do it.

  3. The issues arising primarily from the death of George Floyd have become so muddled with other issues which are equally worthy of debate, viz. the stance taken by J.K. Rowling on the matter of self-identification. The problem is – how do we push back on the modern ‘dictators’ who intimidate us all from the shadows? Not wishing to engage with Facebook or Twitter, how do we indicate our wish for an open and tolerant discussion of both the wrongs of the past, and how we should engage with others now and into the future?

    1. I agree. It is difficult, as many of those speaking on the topic are so convinced of their own ‘truth’ that it is impossible to get them to listen to other views, let alone convince them of different perspectives. I think we have to keep speaking up for debate – that we are willing to listen to their point of view as long as they listen to others. To write letters, maybe write to one’s MP or to universities or schools if one has any relationship with one. Of all the places in the world, universities should be welcoming proper adult debate on these matters and not allowing one group (whomever they are) to silence another. The invisible army of Twitterati wield huge power but are invisible and unaccountable. As you point out, I believe we often hold similar goals for society but with different perceptions of historical fact and potentially different methods of achieving those goals. And, speaking personally, that in my lifetime we have seen many goals achieved and more progress would be made were we to acknowledge those changes.

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