There is hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of the old curse: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ The saying comes – appropriately enough, you might say – from China. But whatever one’s suspicions about the Xi Jinping administration and its role in the current crisis, I have always liked the saying. It seems to go so much against the grain of what we’re meant to wish for nowadays. What is our culture but a constant desire to be combative, enriched and distracted?
Of course, it would be folly not to remind ourselves of the benefits of our connected culture: our technology has enhanced our experience of lockdown ensuring that many have remained productive. As an employability expert, I am especially admiring of all those businesses – not only Zoom, but a whole range of innovative delivery and food companies – who have taken Covid-19 as an opportunity to ‘use the difficulty’: to reshape, to pivot, and even to grow.
Even so, if you thought the comparative silence in our cities – the empty skies and politer neighbourhoods – might have permeated the cultures of Washington and Westminster, then those hopes are beginning to be dashed.
Unsurprisingly, America’s especially divided politics was the first to return to its usual tone of unhappy antagonism: Donald Trump has already launched an esoteric buzzword Obamagate, dubbed amusingly a ‘hashtag in search of a scandal’. The question of whether to wear a face mask has also been politicised by the commander-in-chief. Another election looms where the Republican-Democrat vote share shall be somewhere around 50-50, and the presidency handed to the person who can most effectively navigate a few key battleground districts.
In other words, it shall be another short-term popularity contest, where the ruled over are cynical about the people who do the governing. I’m sure there are reasons for this: we do not always admire those who seek to lead us. Perhaps we remember Gore Vidal’s dictum that ‘any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so.’
But in Westminster, if you look at the good work done by people who in some cases don’t make the Cabinet – and in other cases don’t really want to – one begins to wonder whether the fault might lie not with the ruling classes, but instead with us. Perhaps indeed our politics is another example of the pervasive failure of compassion, which I outlined in this publication a few weeks ago.
One worrying recent development involved the new MP for Stroud Siobhan Baillie. On 23rd April, Baillie posted a photo on her Instagram account of herself in a maternity ward announcing the safe arrival of her baby daughter with a message: ‘She is healthy, happy & appropriately demanding.’
The constituents of Stroud seem to have had a mixed reaction to this news, and even more so when it emerged that Baillie would be seeking one month’s maternity leave. This has led to her receiving abusive messages of a kind which make the head spin.
Baillie’s case highlights a decline in respect for the notion of service. Indeed, in the age of Bolsanaro to Trump, there is now an invidious idea that all who end up in power are there with the specific intention not of serving us, but of lording it over us. This is certainly not the case with Baillie, and I could name off the top of my head scores of parliamentarians of whom it also isn’t true. On all sides of the House, most go into politics not in the hope of having a shot at No. 10, but with the ambition to do good.
I also suspect that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram combines to make us think we know public figures better than we do; and in almost knowing them, we feel have carte blanche to abuse them. The issue was raised by the activist Gina Miller’s recent confrontation with one of her online trolls. What emerged from that encounter was both Miller’s dignity, and the troll’s embarrassment. Our anger towards public figures would, in fact, very rarely survive prolonged exposure to the actual person: our rage is within.
If it is true that our problems stem from something so simple as not knowing one another then how do we bridge this gap in understanding? Social mobility must be one part of the answer, and Dr Lee Eliot is doing some important work in this area. It is hard not to feel that a more fluid society would also be a less resentful one.
But it’s also something which we all need to do our bit on. This is why I have launched a new magazine Finito World aimed at creating a dialogue between ambitious young people – the leaders of tomorrow – and the leaders of today. Whenever I have seen a room full of young people with a business leader or even a Prime Minister – the encounter never went as anyone was expecting. Why not have a print version of such encounters?
So let’s remember that, in these interesting times, our preconceptions are often misconceptions. We don’t know people as well as we think we do. Now’s the time to do better – and banish the hatred.