In the spring of 2020, I advanced an abnormally hopeful proposition: that one blessing that might arise from a pandemic with otherwise few redeeming features was a cultural sobering-up. Maybe we’d regain a sense of perspective about the trivial non-problems of identity politics once finally faced with a proper problem.
Boy, was I wrong. Instead, what proved a relatively mild disease, in the big, smallpoxian picture, fostered an even greater frenzy of ineffectual pettiness – park benches wrapped with police tape, government edicts about Scotch eggs, fisticuffs in supermarkets over thin, gap-prone facial napkins. Rather than reveal the content of the culture wars as meeting the textbook definition of neurosis – being beset by problems of your own invention – the pandemic allowed the same rival teams to reconstitute around a new false dichotomy: who has or hasn’t partaken of a certain medical prophylaxis, when the nostrum made the experimental population no safer company than the control group. Worst of all, virtually the entire western world jettisoned every civil liberty its peoples had ever imagined their birthright, going into throes of unrestrained authoritarianism, police overreach and state micromanagement of everyday life. Last month’s scenes in Ottawa of police arresting truckers at gunpoint for protesting vaccine mandates were ominously of a piece with this week’s scenes in Moscow of Russian police roughly arresting protestors against the war in Ukraine.
Still. Another opportunity to restore a sense of proportion presents itself. Many of us, myself included, may have a hard time quite getting our heads round Vladimir Putin’s full-tilt military invasion of a vast democratic country with a population two-thirds the size of the UK’s because it’s an event on a scale we’d forgotten was possible. The incursion is killing innocents, destroying critical infrastructure and in due course driving perhaps millions to flee their homes, while profoundly destabilising the post-Cold War order. This gratuitous assault is, I submit, Actual Badness.
We’re not used to Actual Badness. We’re used to Fake Badness. Crusaders fighting Fake Badness tend to locate malignity in-country. Statues, for example, must be toppled with great moral urgency, although funnily enough bronze tributes to the long dead rarely seem to land cruise missiles on blocks of flats. While British constabularies are, however incredibly, acting within their remit to threaten you with arrest for doing so, believe it or not using one pronoun when its referent would prefer a different pronoun is Fake Badness. The ghastly things that people you’ve never met did hundreds of years ago that are a done deal and you can’t change? That’s Fake Badness, too, as opposed to Actual Badness: the terrible things that people whose names and faces you know all too well are doing right now. And I’m sorry to ruffle the feathers of all those joyfully huffy Boris-bashers on the broadcast news, but a wine and cheese party that’s ooh-ooh against the rules is Transparently Fake Badness, even though you could make a case that the rules themselves, in their totality, contained a soupçon of Actual Badness.
Vladimir Putin is an Actual Bad Man – who after invading his neighbour with 190,000 troops had the eye-popping chutzpah to put his nuclear forces on alert because western leaders had made ‘aggressive remarks’. In comparison, many of those western leaders having turned a blind eye to their nations’ energy requirements and the grim realities of geopolitics for the sake of posturing environmentalism surely qualifies as criminally stupid, though calling such negligence outright wicked might be a stretch. The Donald’s continued glorification of his poster-boy Putin even after Ukraine’s invasion may come closer to genuine wickedness, though if Trump is damaging his own re-election prospects, he’s doing God’s work.
In any event, what does not qualify as Actually Bad is claiming that the British Empire accomplished one or two good things along the way, slipping up and saying ‘coloured people’ rather than the nearly identical ‘people of colour’, citing ‘the obese’ rather than ‘people living with obesity’, pronouncing both syllables of ‘the N-word’ when quoting James Baldwin, suggesting that pubescent girls think twice before lopping off their breasts, putting shoe polish on your face, teaching a curriculum in the very heart of western civilisation that includes a few icons of western civilisation, asserting the existence of biological sex, or arguing that experience, capability and competence might possibly constitute employment criteria superior to the overtly immaterial matter of skin pigmentation.
How about Actual Misinformation? Try this: Putin describing the Ukrainian government as ‘a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis’, which is the quality of propaganda you’d expect from a six-year-old. Or claiming that troops are amassing along the borders of a weaker country purely to perform military exercises – i.e. that an intrigue quacks like a duck but isn’t a duck. That’s Actual Misinformation. Questioning the efficacy of masks and lockdowns or highlighting under-reported side-effects of vaccines is Fake Misinformation. Many of the pandemic online posts censored by Big Tech have constituted either simple differences of opinion in a ‘free society’ or Inconvenient Information for the state.
The high-stakes headlines of the past week involve authentic morality, thereby exposing what’s been passing for the ethics of our day as indulgent entertainment. Decolonisations, contextualisations, gender-neutralisations – it’s all a load of onanistic, diversionary crap, and the West having shoved its head up its backside is one reason that Putin feels free to do whatever he likes. We’re not scary, because we’ve made ourselves ridiculous.
Oh, the new enlightenment isn’t likely to last, but for now Americans and Europeans seem suddenly to be awakening to what truly matters. We’re remembering that there’s such a thing as evil and this pathologically vain usurpation of Ukraine is what it looks like, in sharp contrast to the absurd plastic bath toys we’ve idiotically mistaken for evil. However briefly, for once we in the fractious ‘free world’ seem to be uniting around a shared morality, a grounded mutual grasp of malice. It’s been such a relief to finally read the New York Times and believe what the articles say.
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