Recently, I’ve begun to read about the 1930s, a period that never particularly interested me before. That “low, dishonest decade” has disturbing parallels with our own troubled times. A decadent, glamourised upper class, increasingly out of touch with ordinary people living insecure lives in inadequate accommodation and desperate poverty. The grim fallout from a financial crash. An upper class showing enthusiasm for jumping on the bandwagon of right-wing racism and anti-Semitism. Most of all, the ghastly feeling that we are hurtling towards some sort of crisis, Armageddon looming as we dance and party with increasing frenzy.
Are these chilling parallels the product of my own fevered imagination? Or are the times we are living in particularly ominous? I notice that social campaigners are being added regularly to my Twitter feeds, and I spend time reading and thinking about what they have to say. Yesterday I added my name to a petition expressing my disgust and abhorrence of the Bedroom Tax, presently being debated in Parliament. I don’t claim any moral high ground for this particular little act of protest. It was easy enough to do. It’s one very small step along the road to activism, marginally better than hurling abuse at the telly or retweeting the protests of others. Meanwhile, each day that passes brings something to the surface that challenges my comfortable existence.
Last week, for example, it was the sight of a forty-something man, clean and well-presented (though admittedly with a half-empty bottle in his pocket), literally banging his head on a wall and sobbing, “Please help me, they’ve taken everything away!” in the middle of a Manchester shopping street ten minutes from my home. A young mum, to her credit, had stopped and attempted without success to call the police. Nobody else had stopped. Unable to think of what else to do, I hurried round the corner to the Parish Office of the nearest church, where I used to worship for many years. I had a naive hope that someone, preferably ordained, would drop everything to play Good Samaritan. Isn’t that what Christians do? But no such person was around, and to their credit they were able to give my the right number to summon help. One can’t help wondering why it isn’t more widely publicised, but considering that we have a Government that regularly keeps victims of crime and people ringing up for advice on what to do after someone dies holding on and paying premium call rate for the privilege, perhaps it’s only to be expected.
When I returned, a police van had shown up and the distressed man was being dealt with. I was free to go. But the thought lingered – what had driven him to such public anguish and lack of dignity? Had he had his benefits removed for some trivial reason? Had his kids been taken into care? Was he mentally ill and desperate for help that would only be forthcoming if he collapsed or tried to murder a member of the public? All are frighteningly likely in the current climate of savage, vindictive attacks on people in need.
And so it goes on – an anecdote here, an incident there, and each one pushes at the boundary of what you, who consider yourself to be a decent, moral and reasonable citizen, find acceptable. You catch a train to Birmingham New Street station, and find that its redevelopment is so completely slanted towards the neighbouring shopping centre that it’s easier to find John Lewis than to find the platform to catch a train. Your local CoOp supermarket has a refurb, and fills with pretty little Waitrose-y islands selling olives and fancy cheeses; a market research person approaches you to ask your views and seems quite surprised when as an un-marginalized middle-class shopper who presumably quite likes her olives, you point out that it’s impossible to get a wheelchair, or even a double buggy, through the store now. Your daughter catches glandular fever and has to interrupt her university studies, and the financial fallout is terrifying – you can afford it, but you can’t help wondering what would happen to her if you couldn’t. You hear of three-bedroomed housing association homes in Liverpool facing demolition because of the Bedoom Tax, and similar three-bedroomed homes in London boroughs fetching £750,000.
Each time you think, “That’s not on. I really don’t like the thought of living in a country like that any more.” Everyone seems to be making the right noises – protesting because poppies aren’t being worn enough, or allegedly racist remarks are made, or Hallowe’en costumes mock the mentally ill. All quite legitimate concerns, of course, and apologies follow protests. Rightly so, yet the nagging thought remains – is it possible that by shining the spotlight on such infringements of good citizenship, our lords and masters are diverting our attention from worse abuses elsewhere?
You follow a few links and find yourself reading about the rise of National Socialism. It sends a shiver of recognition down your spine. How did decent German people reach the point where something like Kristallnacht, let alone the Final Solution, seemed okay? Wasn’t there ever a moment when enough people said, “That’s not on, etc” to change the course of history?
In 1981, an American journalist of German/Jewish descent interviewed ten law-abiding, respectable German citizens, asking them precisely these questions, and published their responses in a book called, “They Thought They Were Free.” Here’s one of them:
“You will understand me when I say that my Middle High German was my life. It was all I cared about. I was a scholar, a specialist. Then, suddenly, I was plunged into all the new activity, as the universe was drawn into the new situation; meetings, conferences, interviews, ceremonies, and, above all, papers to be filled out, reports, bibliographies, lists, questionnaires. And on top of that were the demands in the community, the things in which one had to, was “expected to” participate that had not been there or had not been important before. It was all rigmarole, of course, but it consumed all one’s energies, coming on top of the work one really wanted to do. You can see how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things. One had no time.”
In these days of endless form-filling in educational professions, and the proliferation of initiatives and campaigns, how very familiar these words from a quiet German academic sound. But it gets worse. One is reminded of the fable of the boiling frog by this testimony from another interviewee:
“You see,” my colleague went on, “one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don’t want to “go out of your way to make trouble.” Why not? – Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty. Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows.”
In uncertain times, even decent people want a quiet life, and from there it is a short step to craving the security of authoritarian government. Fascism frees us from thinking by telling us who to hate, and blaming the misfortunes of others on their own moral weaknesses. And we are all so uncertain. There are no safe jobs any more. The NHS is apparently collapsing and each week brings fresh horror stories about the abuse of frail people at the hands of market forces. If we have little children, we panic about the lack of primary school places. If we have older ones, we wonder if they’ll ever be able to live in their own home or start a family without working two jobs to pay for childcare. If we are 50 or over, we wonder what on earth will happen as we age. And everybody shudders at the thought of fuel bills. How we long for leaders who will answer all those troubling questions, and make us feel good about our own industry by comparing us favourably to the indigent disabled, the benefit scroungers, the health tourists and the illegal immigrants.
Surely, though, some basic standard of disinterested compassion remains? Not enough to make us a pushover, of course. We know all the tricks, have heard all the hard-luck stories, We are sick and tired of running the gauntlet of charity muggers and beggars every time we nip out to the shops. But obviously there are genuine cases that inspire compassion. People who have lost everything in tropical storms, for example. The more liberal among us might even shed a tear for desperate Eritreans drowned in the Mediterranean.
What does it take to reach the moment when we say, “Enough is enough?” The moment when we realise that we no longer live in any semblance of a decent society? The moment when the frog leaps out of the pot of boiling water? Perhaps it’s when your first grandchild dies in an understaffed maternity unit somewhere. Or your friend’s daughter who became a social worker has a breakdown. Or that nice old lady down the road is found dead in her own body waste because the carer didn’t call.
Or maybe you’re flicking through your tweets one morning and you come across a story like this:
Jenny came to the Chester and Ellesmere Port Foodbank last month, having been diagnosed with terminal Cancer. Her prognosis was three to six months. She already suffered with several chronic illnesses preventing her from working over the last two years and was in receipt of Disability Living Allowance. Having no family she was trying to “put her house in order”, ensuring all her bills were paid and saving up for her funeral. Her DLA was stopped; the reason given was that as she was not expected to survive the required time, she did not qualify for this benefit! She came to the Foodbank not for herself but to bring a neighbour who had mental health issues and short term memory problems. He had been 30 minutes late for his appointment at the Benefit office (he had forgotten the time!) and had therefore been sanctioned. He had not eaten for three days. They were both given a meal and the time to talk of their problems and referred to the appropriate agencies for food vouchers and further support and help. Several weeks later Jenny came to the Foodbank to thank everyone for the help and food that was given and the kindness and support that was shown in their time of need. Jenny died three weeks later.
That story has gone viral, and rightly so. Will it go down in history as our boiling frog moment? I think what stays in the mind about this story, what makes it stand out among so many equally horrifying ones doing the rounds, is the contrast between Jenny’s non-judgmental compassion and the punitive, cynical heartlessness of the system that condemned both herself and her neighbour to such suffering. And you reach a point where the arguments don’t matter any more, and you see past them to the man sobbing in the street, or the mentally disabled neighbour set up to fail by a system that finds him surplus to requirements. And you recall that the Hitlers and the Stalins of this world don’t have a monopoly on moral simplicity. I end with the words of Jesus Christ, quoted on the home page of the Tressell Trust website:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me…”
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”