Our columnist Billy Allen calls for objectivity and calm in the face of the calamitous events of 2017
I do as most people do – when the clock ticks over into a New Year, I pause, however so consciously, in contemplation of what has come before, what is now, and what shall be. As years, months and days pass us by, we all take to moments of reflection, to see what we have accomplished and where we are lacking. To see both triumph, salvation, pain and anguish mushed together in our common memory is woven into the human condition in this most peculiar way, dictated by the arrow of time, and ‘borne back’, as F. Scott Fitzgerald aloofly puts it, ‘ceaselessly into the past’.
You will find at this time of transition, as we move from one year to the New Year, there will be many shrill voices, from journalists and commentators of all kinds, each decrying 2017 as a year vexed like no other by tragedy and injustice. For them, each year’s end is a miniature fin de siècle all of its own, where, rather than see the task of modern civilisation as a steepening slope, they see the lot of us all hanging in some desperate balance over a precipice.
Such, perhaps, is the hyperbolic state of affairs in which we now live. It is a matter that has been building for many years and has its roots in that more original, historical and in all senses revolutionary ‘end of centuries’, where 20th century modernism broke forth from 19th century conservatism, and no man deigned believe the 21st, our time, would come at all. Our little years pass by so quickly, too fast, indeed, for our reflections and considerations to keep abreast of the changes in society continuously underway.
But now, ostensibly, in the year 2018, we are catching up. It is quite a strange thing, but we are realising that through the post-modern ethic that “we can do anything”, we can also do quite as much wrong as we can right. And so, 2017 is a year some might call terribly wrong, even tragically so. Perhaps their observations are right. Or maybe, ironically, they are symptomatic of the wrongness they describe.
I do not really judge these views either way; a culture of censure is neither desirable nor necessary. What we need is a sense of objectivity and proportion in a world that would seemingly indulge chaos as a virtue. How should we put to work our more rational faculties, and make sense of the madness around us? It is no easy task. To call for patience and calm in the face of war, terrorism and extremism can seem almost farcical; our instincts rise up against such things, spurring us on, inciting us.
This is, of course, part of the whole problem: our moral fibres are too often at odds with our almost Darwinian tendencies to strike out to survive amid adversity. This is at least one story of humanity, a story which some past century or another had succeeded in subduing, and leaving forgotten, much, as Keynes once put it, like “a Devil chained up and out of sight”. Those, we claim, were ‘golden ages’ in our history. They came and went like the force of a tide, fleeting though never tarried.
But what of this? Are we to assume, therefore, that the forces of radicalism, Trump & Co., and all the rest, are just something cyclical to which time and chance has raised up, and will bring down in turn? Is there, after all, an unambiguous truth in the old phrase, laissez-faire, laissez-passer? This, surely, cannot be the answer. Apathy of this sort, after all, is little more than death; worse than death. It is common sense to us: inaction begets nothing. Neither was this our intention – our objectivity means that we must do something. We must adopt a middle ground, recognising the phenomena of time and chance, taking note of our history, but resist the politicised glut of rash and extreme action.
What we need is a sense of objectivity and proportion in a world that would seemingly indulge chaos as a virtue
There is nothing very new with this view. You may not easily hear it, but it is there, among both the elite and the modest of means. It is in such questions, for good or ill, as “How do we stop Brexit?” And it is found, just the same in campaigns against European Union bureaucracy, and the status quo, whose institutions smack of too much apathy to bear. So we should harness these causes, if our personal views are so aligned, that we might infuse them not with zeal, but with well-reasoned argument.
We must detach the loaded questions of civil affairs – the issues of health care, of gender, race, and sexual orientation – from the connotations of outrage, bigotry, so that they are not ‘loaded’ any more. Of course, it will not be easy to accomplish – but as much as time and chance sides with the affairs of impulsive and pretentious men, it will side with those who have kept their grace under pressure.
In this way, it has always been my habit to have one little conceit when it comes to the big issues one hears in the media and in the general course of one’s life. Namely, that I don’t blame wrongdoings on conceptions and ideas, but on the people by whom ideas are commanded. It makes me impartial to Brexit, because I know, deep down, there might be some economic, thought-out debate there in its favour.
It even makes me somewhat appreciative of Trump’s ascent to the Presidency, which, while so often clumsy and stupid in its execution, came about through a classically revolutionary idea: shake up the dogmatic, stagnating order of things. There is nothing so wrong with that, to rebalance the scales at a time of acute need. In the case of the American presidency, we will watch eagerly to see what sort of balance, or lack thereof, is brought about. In all of this there is a truth and worth in things beyond the assumptions of the opinionated public consciousness, there is personal truth, which we come to believe through all quarters of our experience.
It even makes me somewhat appreciative of Trump’s ascent to the Presidency
So, the end of the year need not symbolise for us any profound brink of disaster, nor should we remember 2017 as a confluence of unhappy memories. At first, we would do well to recall with fondness our own accomplishments, and then, more widely, the daily affairs of us all who speak quietly and are not heard, while few loud voices clamour away, either as our faithful delegates, or our pretentious foes. And for a time, we might consider the meaning behind these state of affairs, and fathom we might wend a heteroclite pattern through all the noise, to realise that we need not fear the heat of the sun, that we need neither surrender, nor sink into the furious winter’s wages. It is time enough for another of history’s puzzling, ‘golden ages’ – with an open frame of mind we shall have made progress. With faith, luck and hope, it shall not seem so puzzling at all.