Assuming that any will still be around by the end of this century, social historians may by then have arrived at a consensus as to what it was about the fifty years many of us have just lived through that led to the development of so many different brands of fundamentalism.
Yesterday, the u3a* French conversation group I belong to spent its meeting discussing two articles extracted from French newspapers. The first, which need not detain us here, gave an account of how the unfortunate Mr Eugène Poubelle, a 19th Century local administrator in Paris, came to give his name to French garbage bins. The other was a copy of the very unusual, it claims unique, joint manifesto ‘in favour of freedom of expression’ recently published by the French audiovisual and print media titled (obviously translated from the original French), “Together let us defend freedom”. This was a collective response to the beheading by a religious fundamentalist of Samuel Paty, the French teacher who had shown the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to those children in his class who were not Muslims.
Nothing Samuel Paty could possibly have done could ever have justified his arbitrary beheading, which was clearly the product of an extremity of what the manifesto rightly condemned as an example of the ‘novel totalitarian ideologies that are threatening freedom of expression.’ But I felt I was swimming against the tide of group sentiment when I argued that it was possible for the fervent upholding of the right to freedom of expression to shade into an equally totalitarian ideology. It would have been perfectly possible for Mr Paty to make his historical point by describing the cartoons, rather than displaying them. However well-intentioned, his discriminatory ejection of the Muslim students from the class before showing the cartoons demonstrated his awareness that what he was about to do in the name of freedom of expression would be considered highly offensive. Telling a group of devout Christians that you are about to burn a copy of the Bible, but will kindly close the door so that they can’t witness your doing so, wouldn’t lessen the extent of the offence being occasioned, even if the repercussions would be unlikely to be the same. As the old saw has it, the right to freedom of expression self-evidently doesn’t extend to shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, nor should it give totally free license to the provocative causing of unnecessary offence. For Samuel Paty to be posthumously awarded the Legion d’Honneur for his crass insensitivity was to implicate the entire French nation in the gratuitous offence he had occasioned. My response to the manifesto, and to the huge crowds that gathered to align themselves with Samuel Paty, was ‘I’m sorry, but “Non, je ne suis pas Samuel”.’
An equivalent fundamentalism – in this instance free-market fundamentalism – has been the ultimate cause of the much less spectacular deaths of untold thousands of people in England over the past few months who should not have, and need not have, died from Covid-19. Our pathetically inadequate test and trace system, which over the past week has been able to return test results within the necessary 12 hours in fewer than 15% of cases, and trace fewer than 60% of all contacts (in a context in which it is said to be essential for at least 95% of contacts to be traced if the disease is to be contained effectively), is the entirely predictable outcome of the Tories’ obsessional devotion to the private sector. It required a wholly irrational faith in the free market for Johnson and company to by-pass local health authorities and the network of NHS GP surgeries around the country entirely, in the process squandering billions of tax-payer’s money on outsourcing companies with no relevant experience whatsoever, to put their largely useless track and trace system in place and then seriously imagine that it could ever be ‘world-beating.’ It still rankles that they should have been shamelessly deceitful enough to taint the name of our excellent NHS by calling their failing system “NHS Track and Trace”.
* In the hope of literally downplaying the ‘University’ in the name ‘University of the Third Age’, which rather depressingly for some of us is apparently now regarded as having the potential to put people off joining, the decision has recently been taken to make the subtle change of lowering the case of the logo from ‘U3A’ to ‘u3a’.