I am quite impressed by the way academics, politicians, lawyers and others are reflecting about our society and the unhealthy trends that need to be challenged. The French lawyer Mireille Delmas-Marty summed it up as “The dream of perfection is transforming our constitutional state based on the rule of law into a police state”.
This observation immediately refers to the present pandemic and the various degrees of lockdowns and other restrictions designed to relieve the hospitals of excessive numbers of sick people needing intensive care. Then, in came an insidious ideology that determined the way things were done in New Zealand and Australia together with a few oriental countries – Zero Covid, meaning maintaining lockdowns regardless of the human and economic cost until the disease is totally eliminated. On the surface, it seems a very good idea, but is it realistic?
Recently the media ran a story about a young man who was sanctioned during the first lockdown by the police even though his attestation of being outside for exercise was in order. The police decided that his wearing flip-flops instead of proper running shoes was proof that he was not out for exercise. He appealed and it seems that he has good grounds for winning. A woman was also sanctioned for buying sanitary protection in the supermarket with her “essential” foodstuffs, because the police saw the hygienic product as “non essential”. I think she also got her fine quashed on appeal. Zero Covid, zero risk, etc. The powers being given to the police, or simply being assumed arbitrarily, are quite alarming. France is quite particular in that the ideology of the Jacobins has never really gone away. They don’t chop off heads any longer, but France is Paris and Paris is France! In other countries, England has always been a country of fairness, dialogue and reasoned debate, but it is drifting. Ireland has the strictest lockdown of all.
The keyword is safety and security, the two words being the same in French, sécurité. In past years, the political authorities vowed to eliminate terrorism after the atrocities committed by Daesh and other religious groups. The beginning is appealing, but then what is the cost of such safety and security? It is a dream of a world without risk, without crime and without sickness and death. No one must be allowed to die of anything! The price of such a dream is the nightmare of fear.
Many of us remember our childhood in the 1960’s or 70’s, or earlier. We took more risks riding bicycles around town, climbing trees and buildings. I once rode my bicycle into the side of a car. One second earlier and I would not be writing this article now. The driver took me home to my parents, and I told them the truth that the accident was my fault. I still have a photo from about 1970 of our school recreation at Millan Park in Ambleside and boys jumping off rocks about six to ten feet high.
Such a feat can result in a broken leg or a sprained ankle, but I never knew such a misfortune to happen. We learned the parachutist’s fall as he makes his legs give, and he rolls over on the ground to absorb the final shock of landing. Then we climbed up and did it again! I suppose it was no more dangerous than skateboarding.
O felix culpa! is an exclamation sung by the deacon at the Paschal Vigil. It is an understanding of the Fall and sin as having a positive outcome. It is a paradoxical idea. The Redemption would never have happened without the fault of Adam. This is a notion we will find more profoundly expressed in Jakob Böhme’s theology of the Ungrund. Similarly, to deprive mankind of any risk or danger in a prudent balance between risk and the desired result is to deprive us of our humanity. Many things we do are potentially dangerous, from getting out of bed in the morning to driving a car, repairing an electrical device (of course we are going to switch it off and pull the plug out!), crossing a road, going sailing, anything. We measure the risk and decide for ourselves to what extent that risk is acceptable.
Much has been said about the Nanny State and citizens being treated like children. In the case of the Covid pandemic, most of us follow the rules, wear masks, sanitise hands, greet people by an elbow touch. Some couldn’t care less and crowd into limited places without barrier gestures, and we all pay the price through the next lockdown. Perhaps the law courts should bring back the pillory and the stocks for those flouting the rules without care for anyone else! Another Latin expression came into my mind, Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. In law, it means that if a witness tells a lie, he has no credibility in anything else he says. Here I have the impression that the ZeroCovid people would find a case of the virus in one place and everywhere has to be quarantined. Not everywhere has the same density of infections.
I think there is progress at the level of the French government. It looked like a general national lockdown at the end of January. At the beginning of March, Dunkerque and Nice are in local lockdown for a few weekends and on the same curfew as the rest of us during the week. Decisions are currently being made for other places according to the levels of infection by variant strains. Already, President Macron is talking about loosening some of the restrictions in four to six weeks. It sounds just like Boris Johnson in England. Political points? Certainly, but maybe a break in the monolith of the ZeroCovid ideology which is more far-left than anything else.
It is still not easy to anticipate where things will go. Hopefully, most of us in the riskier age groups will be vaccinated by this summer. Here in France, I don’t expect to get my jab before mid May 2021, but maybe the Johnson & Johnson will make a big difference to the slowness of the operation here in France. My sisters in England are already vaccinated. I surmise that what is in the heads of presidents and prime ministers is that as many as possible will be protected and natural “herd” immunity will hit the younger age groups with few or no symptoms. Some scientists are more optimistic about longer-lasting immunity. Then of course, there will be other strain mutations and it will end up as just another version of the common cold. The question now is finding an acceptable level of risk against the needs of human beings to live normally and the state of the economy. A more pragmatic approach is prevailing, and this seems to be to be wise.
We still have many things to watch out for in the way as a gradual slide into totalitarianism and a post-human future of “perfect” technology. The reality is that our technology is far from perfect and banal faults and outside interference can stop something from working properly. I was brought up in a time when you gave a faulty machine a good bash with a hammer or a fist – and that would overcome the bad electrical contact and the machine would work again without an expensive repair job! Humanity trumps the machine.
Again, I bring up the notion of Romanticism, of rational humanism, the triumph of man over the machine. Here, the machine can mean a car or a computer, but also an ultra-rational system that replaces intuition and the kind of thought that includes risk in the paradigm. It is the abiding theme of Frankenstein and nearly all science fiction books and films throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up to our own time. They are prophecies.