The road from Damascus

What a year it’s been, so far. Back in January, I suspect like many others, I felt that mine was a very small voice in a very large wilderness. I wrote a series of posts on this blog about the future of the welfare state, in the hope, which I knew to be forlorn, of trying to influence the debates in the run-up to the general election that now seems so long ago. Even people who admitted to agreeing with me privately gave the impression that they thought that such views were too off-the-wall and old-fashioned to be taken seriously – even that it would damage Labour’s prospects in the election to express them at all.

Over the years those labels – ‘loony left’, ‘man-hating feminist’, ‘bleeding-heart liberal’, ‘politics of envy’  – have left their sticky imprints. We (I imagine my experience is not untypical) got used to being marginalised, seen as unrealistic, quaintly old-fashioned and irrelevant. Before we even opened our mouths, people knew what they expected to hear and their eyes glazed over and they stopped listening. Yadda, yadda, yadda, we heard them think, even if they were too polite to roll their eyes to the heavens or drum their fingers. The neoliberal common sense that says it is naive to care, and that any policy not based on appealing to homo economicus’s self-interest is deluded and bound, in the end, to do more harm than good had become so taken for granted a part of the ideological air that everyone breathed that questioning it seemed, well, mad. And we got habituated to this, in some cases self-righteously so, gaining a sense of being on the moral high ground, of not having sold out, even in situations where we were manifestly in a minority of one.

Now suddenly this has changed. I am still confused about what pronoun to use because the merging of the I with the we is so sudden, but will revert to the singular because I do not want to falsely over-generalise. Over the last few weeks, and particularly the last few days, I have had a growing sense of being in synch with huge numbers of other people. When Jeremy Corbyn decided to stand for the leadership of the Labour Party I immediately became a supporting subscriber and donated some money, to discover a few hours later via social media that thousands of other people had done the same. Last week I felt impelled to do something personally to support refugees and even as it occurred to me discovered that there were hundreds of other people out there with the same thought – starting petitions, raising money, organising convoys to take donations to the camp in Calais, setting up websites to share your spare room, organising demonstrations.

We are, it seems, part of a huge collective moral sea-change. Earlier visible in the surge of support for Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, it has spread and can be seen too in the unexpected wide appeal of such figures as Pope Francis, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. And it is now broader still: a veritable tsunami.

It is fitting that the symbolic turning point in public opinion was that heart-rending photograph of a drowned toddler on a journey from Syria. At a stroke, refugees were converted from alien ‘others’ into people with whom anyone who has hugged a child could immediately identify. It was, after all, on the road to Damascus that Saint Paul experienced the sudden revelation that converted him from a persecutor of Christians to a Christian himself, symbolism that will surely not be lost on theologians.

If there is one word that encapsulates the new sense of connection between people that seems to be emerging it is ‘humanity’. The common outrage is overwhelmingly directed at its opposite – inhumanity. We want to dissociate ourselves from what is being done so heartlessly by politicians in our names to refugees, to the homeless, to benefit claimants, to the Greek people, and in doing this we claim a sense of common belonging to the human race and open ourselves up to empathy.

Among the last people to ‘get’ what this is about are the neoliberal politicians – the Blairs and Camerons – who increasingly remind me of Bob Dylan’s Mr Jones (‘Because something is happening here. But you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mister Jones?). I wonder to what extent, at least in Britain, this lack of awareness of any common humanity on their part may have been instilled in childhood. One of the ways the British ruling class has perpetuated its ruthlessness through the generations has been by tearing its little boys from their parents at an early age and putting them in the hands of sadistic and abusive strangers. No hugs for their inner toddlers. No opening for empathy to leak through.

Whatever the reason for their moral obtuseness, the awakening of a collective moral sensibility more broadly is something to celebrate. And, for those of us who suddenly find ourselves part of a crowd, so too is the dawning of new hope. (Go, Corbyn!)

PS. Rather to my shame, the last time I remember this sudden feeling of being part of a much larger crowd than I previously knew existed – of being, so to speak, on the right side of history – was at the 14-hour Technicolour Dream at Alexandra Palace in 1967. ‘Oh my God, there are thousands of us!’. Perhaps if more of our generation had spent less time grooving and devoted ourselves to the serious things in life – as Corbyn evidently did – then the world wouldn’t be such a mess now. But this may be our chance to redeem ourselves.


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