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Date: 18/03/20

Panic - For A Purpose?

We live in strange times. Troubling ones, too, especially for anyone with a sense of proportion and of history.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the planet has been plunged (as they say in the rags) into a crisis caused by an imperceptibly minuscule lifeform of undistinguished appearance but enormous virulence (a bit like Alun Cairns).

That measures need to be taken to protect the most vulnerable from being negatively impacted is - or should be - a given (that I am deemed to be one of these 'vulnerables' is not relevant at this point). But what we have seen, are seeing, and are certain to continue seeing for some considerable time to come has been (is being and will be seemingly ad aeternam) so disproportionate to the actual risk in terms of the general population that one wonders whether we have collectively taken leave of our senses or that something less overt but more sinister is going on.

In support of the former contention, consider:

(This last is especially instructive in another way, too. It demolishes the dearly-cherished belief held by Pollyannas of the left, right and centre alike that 'a crisis brings out the best in people'. The formulation is incomplete, missing as it does the essential caveat, 'but only once all other options have been exhausted'.)

So why are we where we are (mostly at home getting on the nerves of our families and other domestic animals)? Because the Coronavirus (which, incidentally, is an anagram of 'carnivorous', just to add to the paranoia) is - compared to SARS, H5N1, HS2 and other such plagues in potentia - less transmissible and less lethal, and the whole planet didn't go into lockdown for those. So, to ask the question again, why now?

Well, compared to when those diseases were spreading, we are no longer governed by people capable of calm, rational thought. The sight of politicians obeying the old injunction, "When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout" gives a clue to the origin of our current predicament. There is no sense of calm in our self-declared 'leaders', no sense that an anxious public needs to be reassured - by anything, least of all facts. When people are openly longing for the days of John Major, one gets some idea of how far we have fallen.

Those pols who claim to be the representatives and tribunes of the people are instead in thrall to the 'win or bust' strategy which states that it doesn't matter who else loses - or to what degree - so long as you win. Anything may be said or done in the pursuit of that goal, and this produces a cynicism which is unameliorated by any lingering sense of shame or embarrassment. The Truth Is Dead, Long Live King Soundbite!

This calculated bad faith is, of course, disseminated, magnified and amplified by media outlets - print and broadcast, dead-tree and on-line alike - who are desperate to engage their readers, listeners and viewers with the sole intent of shaking money or attention from them. The lurid, strident headlines and breathless (seldom could the word be more appropriate) re-transmission of the latest figures for infections and fatalities (so minuscule in proportion to the overall population that no calculator which I have tried to use can produce a percentage for it, resorting as they do to one of those overflow displays like '2.343283582089552e-6', which looks like a bid in a quantum-algebraic version of Battleships) feed the general anxiety, fear and paranoia to the extent that (and I have observed this myself this week) any cough heard on a bus leads to everyone else's backs stiffening as if their possessors had been simultaneously goosed.

This produces a state of panic in the Great <insert name of country here> Public™ which can then be tapped into by those with axes to grind and plots to pursue. This is honey on the fingers of those who wield power, because an uncertain, highly anxious population is one which is easier to manipulate and hence easier to control. For, clearly, if the public are in a state of advanced jitter, they can be soothed by the message that 'strong and effective action' is being taken, that there will be a 'crackdown' - especially on the perceived ennemi du jour, be it internal or external - and that the plebs needn't worry because those set over them have A Plan.

So far, so risible. And in slightly earlier times it would have been met with the degree of scepticism essential for the survival of a free(-ish) society.

But that is not where we are. We are in an age of venal nincompoops heading - or at least fronting for - other forces. We are in a time of authoritarian régimes around the world, including - perhaps especially so - states which still have the brass neck to call themselves 'democracies'. So it's not just Xi, it's Morrison and Modi; it's not just Lukashenko, it's Orbán and Duda; it's not just Kim, it's Bolsonaro, Trump and Johnson (or rather, the Prime Minister de facto , Dominic Cummings).

And this has been what many of these sham-democratic demagogues (or their ventriloquist's dummy in the last-named case) have been waiting for. For one of the Golden Showers...sorry, I mean Golden Rules of politics is, and has long been, 'never let a good crisis go to waste'. In the unfolding pandemic, these pound-shop populists see their main chance; a chance to put into effect measures which even they would not dare overtly to suggest implementing otherwise. And hence we come to my second contention from earlier in this piece.

So it is that, in France and Italy, people have been ordered to stay indoors. In Spain - where Francoism has never been properly extirpated (see under 'Catalunya') - such measures are being enforced by state drones. Even in Germany, where people have been properly taught their nation's history and are therefore justifiably wary of such measures, restrictions of entry and movement have been introduced (the claim by one online wag that there has been panic buying of sausages and cheese in what he described as a 'Wurst Käse Scenario deserves to be dismissed with scorn and widely disseminated).

And what of mighty Brexitannia, that shining pearl of personal freedom and liberty in a blood-red sea of étatisme? Well, here are some of the powers included in an emergency Bill which will be rammed through that neo-Gothic theme park called Westminster without any meaningful opposition in the next couple of days:

Given that the peak for infection could well be reached in the next few weeks, and that by August we will probably be looking back and wondering what the fuck all the fuss was all about, this extends state power over us all for far longer than is likely ever to be justified by actual events. And, given our knowledge and experience that fiat powers like these will assuredly and inevitably be abused - especially to give approval to action against anyone or anything deemed to be the 'other' at any given time - and that freedoms removed are seldom regained except by force, then we are heading into an authoritarian masturbatory fantasy for the ages.

And the mass of the populace, made malleable by scaremongering and screaming headlines, will sit still for it.

Wurl, it keeps us all safe, dunnit?

That's 'safe' as in 'confined'.

Sorry, I meant 'self-isolated'