from Brenda in Hove, UK: Another ‘Blursday’

Prof. Brenda Gourley

‘Blursday’, ‘covidiot’ and ‘doomscroll’ are in Times Magazine’s collection depicting the year ‘2020 in Language. I relate to these three particularly. In the UK we are now in the third strict lockdown in a year – but, given the risks for our age group, my husband and I have effectively been in strict lockdown since last March.

You will understand my recognition of ‘blursday’ as an excellent way of describing my life at the moment, a life where one day is so very like another that it is difficult to know which day of the week it is.   

You will pardon my exasperation at Covidiots who include the members of government here who thought letting people celebrate Christmas with their families a good idea. With family in America you can well imagine that ‘exasperation’ hardly covers my feelings towards an administration that largely ignored the Covid reality – and encouraged that same attitude in its millions of supporters. It is , however, no longer useful to merely describe them and the many millions of Americans who clearly think the same way as ‘idiots’. There are deep underlying issues here.

That brings me to ‘Doomscrolling’. Watching the news began to feel like ‘doomscrolling’ some time ago and we decided to limit the number of broadcasts we watch every day. There is just too much bad news out there. And then came the events at the Capitol in Washington last week. I was back to ‘doomscrolling’. I would think impeachment is the least of the consequences in store for Trump. We will see. One is not filled with confidence. And, given the number of his supporters and their deep and strongly held sense of grievance, Biden will have a difficult job restoring trust in the system. And it is not just the US system where trust has been eroded. The whole Brexit debate was fuelled by the many who no longer believed the establishment in power was working for them.

But exasperation, and doomscrolling and the blurred focus of the days do not cover the one overriding feeling I have at this time – and that is a sense of grief.

The grief is prompted by my concern for what young people make of all this, and what it all means for the lives of our children and grandchildren. It is not just the pandemic – although that has certainly highlighted many of the fault-lines in our society and I suspect that life will never be the same for many of us. It is that – but so much more. We are seeing almost in real time major geographic and political shifts which are already reformulating many of the premises on which so many of us in the West have built our relatively comfortable lives.

Climate change is wreaking havoc on many lives and yet we don’t see urgency in the kind of responses that such catastrophe should elicit. Governments that have been unable to come to grips with a pandemic do not fill us with confidence that they are equal to this larger and more threatening challenge. No wonder the Greta Thunbergs of the world feel they have to act. They do.

The changes wrought by technology and all that it has enabled have made the world better in so many ways with amazing innovations being announced all the time (not the least of which is the new vaccine). But it has also exposed a deep digital divide and made many jobs redundant. New kinds of jobs are being invented and yet education systems have been slow to change accordingly – and it is young people who are feeling the burden of this, their schooling interrupted and even cut short, they are to be thrust into a cruel and ridiculous ‘gig’ economy (if they find a job at all) and equipped only with the education of yesteryear. They are the future architects of a new world and the support they are given wholly inadequate.

The balance of world power from West to East, long foretold, is happening at a much greater pace than predicted and helped along by weak leadership in the West and the rise of populist cultures fed on the thin gruel of conspiracy theories, ‘alternative facts’, the importance of ‘celebrity’ and social media untethered by the laws of libel, incitement and hate speech. Some call this ‘the age of impunity’ where all sorts of behaviours including egregious human rights abuses are tolerated. Young, impressionable minds need to be strong to resist the siren calls.  It is hard.

It is true that from great upheavals there often comes great change. I do hope that the Black Lives Matter movement prompted by the death of George Floyd and others will take hold and fuel change. I am only cautiously optimistic. If those storming the Capitol last week had been black or Muslim I can’t help believing that the police response would have been a whole lot more violent. So we are not there yet. But I do believe there has been at least some change – but can young people rely on this?

The success of populist cultures has exposed the inadequacy of so-called ‘democratic’ systems of government and with the inequalities between rich and poor are more stark than ever before, no wonder there are so many angry people. Again too many people, young and older, do not have the opportunities to fulfil their potential. 

No young people are sheltered from these realities. Social media ensures that. No place for innocence now. My heart grieves.  

From David Maughan Brown in York: Populism and Justice

August 22nd

Populism is a political trait inextricably woven into democracy, whose essential meaning, according to the Concise Oxford, simply involves having concern for the views of ‘ordinary people’.  Which, of course, begs the question of whom Oxford regards as ‘ordinary people.’  Chambers, usually to be relied on for more colourful nuance, defines a populist as a ‘supporter, wooer or student of the common people.’  In the era of Trump and Johnson, ‘populism’ tends to be used mainly in the implicitly pejorative sense conveyed by Chambers’ ‘wooer’, and refers to the process of winning votes by pandering to the worst prejudices of as many people as possible who already entertain, or can be imbued with, those prejudices.   Countering that kind of populism is always going to be an occupational hazard for any decent person entering politics.    But populism should, surely, play no role whatever in a judicial system, and I get increasingly concerned that that is exactly what is happening. 

One doesn’t need to be a practising Christian to endorse the quaintly archaic wording  of the 1662 prayer for the Church in the Book of Common Prayer, ‘grant … to all that are put in authority … that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice….’ ‘True’ justice must, surely, be ‘indifferent’:  it should be based on a complex mix of precedent, compassion, retribution, and recognition of the need to protect society.  The passing of sentence should be the business of independent and experienced experts – but populism, of course, doesn’t like experts.   Justice should not be based on the emotionalism cultivated by the tabloid press and by the encouragement of victim statements, however heart-rending the latter often are.   If a 65 year-old man is beaten to death by a couple of teenage thugs, he may well have a wife, children and grandchildren who can all tell a court how devastated they are by his death, but he is obviously no more dead, and the crime is no worse, than if he happened to be homeless and to have no family or friends to be devastated by his death.  Justice should be ministered ‘indifferently.’

Two recent controversies over sentencing come to mind.  The first is over the sentences handed down to the three teenagers who were responsible for the killing of PC Andrew Harper, who was caught up in a tow-rope and dragged to his death behind a car when he intervened in the theft of a quad bike.  The driver of the car was sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment and his two eighteen-year old passengers to thirteen years each.   Harper had only been married for four weeks, and his widow, Lissie, who is very personable, very articulate and clearly heart-broken, believes that the sentences fall into the category of being ‘unduly lenient’, and is campaigning for a new law to make life sentences mandatory for people who kill police officers and other emergency workers.  Suella Braverman, our worthy Attorney General, has entirely predictably decided to refer the sentences to the Court of Appeal.  She it was who destroyed any iota of credibility she might have had left as Attorney General after agreeing to join Johnson’s cabinet of all the talentless by fully endorsing Dominic Cummings’ jaunt to Durham at the height of lockdown as ‘responsible and legal’, prior to the Durham police having had time to consider whether or not it was, in fact, legal.   The way PC Harper died was, as Bravermann said, ‘horrific’; his death was indeed ‘shocking’.    But 13 years in prison for two teenagers, who happened to be passengers in a car that drove off with a man inadvertently caught in a tow-rope dragging behind it, is ‘unduly lenient’?  What does it say about a prison system that can’t reform a teenager in two or three years, never mind 13?  Mandatory sentences were a favourite recourse of the fascistic apartheid government in South Africa: their object is to deny the judges the right to use their discretion, to overrule and discredit expertise, to toss red meat to the yapping right-wing Law and Order brigade.  Lissie Harper does not come across as a member of that brigade, and one can only feel desperately sorry for her, but her tragedy has taken place in a media climate that fosters contempt for experts and militates against rational judgement.

The other recent sentence worth commenting on is the minimum 55-year sentence handed down by the judge in the Manchester Arena bombing case, which, the court was told, would have been a ‘whole life’ sentence but for the legal preclusion of that sentence on the grounds that Hashem Abedi was under age at the time of the offence. There is no question that Mr Justice Baker was right in saying that: ‘The stark reality is that these were atrocious crimes: large in their scale, deadly in their intent and appalling in their consequences.’  But one wonders what the choice of 55 years was about, if not to pre-empt an outcry that anything less would be ‘unduly lenient’ in the face of the harrowing victim statements read out in court by survivors?  What is the point of sentencing the English State (which seems likely to be all that is left of the Union by then) to cover the cost of Abedi’s board and lodging for a minimum of the next 55 years?  Do we no longer believe in the possibility of reform and redemption?  Not even over, for the sake of example, 40 years rather than the somehow magic 55 years?  I suppose the one thing we should be grateful for, in the context of a justice system that has to try to keep itself afloat in a sea of populism, is that even David Cameron had the good sense not to call a referendum on the restoration of the death penalty.  But don’t hold your breath on that score as long as Johnson is in nominal charge.