To the young I never knew – diary of a bystander to the death of the world I should have left you

Most of us knew in our bones that things with the world weren’t right, long before it became a crisis.”

Pernell Plath Meier, In Our Bones

August 13, 2021

Grief. That is the feeling, right there. As the old world slips quietly into the softly airbrushed shadows, we look for signs of something – anything – that keep us believing that we are not already lost and helpless in the softly crying dark. An old world we moaned and groaned about. But one we’ll miss, more than we can know. And miss moaning and groaning about too.

At least I have this blog. And, for now, I can witness the events about and within this oh so slippery, almost intangible time. At least as long as very few people read it. Popularity is problematic these days, well, it is when you say the kinds of things I’m going to say.

I realize now as my fingers hit the type, that this has been in me long and urging to be let out of the house like a cooped up cat. I must admit the sin of cowardice. It is only in seeing the bravery of others with so much more to lose than I, putting their careers, their reputations, their livelihoods, their families on the line. I have none of these things, and yet I’m still afraid. I’m afraid right now as I type the word a.f.r.a.i.d. What I am afraid of, exactly, is only beginning to become clear to me. I am not afraid of the Coronavirus. I already had that. I caught it last winter in Tanzania (another story for another time), but I’m afraid of a virus of another kind. The virus that is being unleashed on our world. The virus of MASS FEAR.

It is not so much even the fear itself that troubles me, but its variants. The mutations of fear that seek out those vectors where good and decent people willingly give up on all that really matters in exchange for a kind of similitude of security. One that never comes through with its promise of safety, one that offers at best temporary rest stops, and then rolls out another minefield ahead of you. You are handed a map, but the map makes no sense. It contains routes that claims to be escapes but which actually only keep us in some eternally trapped nowhere like Escher staircases. If you make a misstep, you are rebuked, mocked or scorned, until you are not sure what you are more afraid of – getting blown up or getting shamed – and step by step, you lose your way, until you have forgotten altogether what it was like to walk your own path, to trust your own map.

Abdication of personal responsibility is only one of several of fear’s variants. Learned helplessness and reduced capacity for personal agency is another. As is reduced capacity for critical or creative thought. Another, more sinister, is the breakdown of social trust and the alienation of the perceived source of threat – the ‘othering’. The hypernormalisation of preposterous realities. The cowardice that nods and says “yes” when the only right answer is “no”. The anomie. We will get to all these in my coming posts.

I’m writing this with you in mind – the young. This may sound a bit rich. I mean I never even had children. To be honest, I’ve often looked upon you lot as grubby annoying little things that have to be kept from bumping into furniture for the first five years of your lives. But lately – and this is one strange thing in a series of strange things that I will recount here over the coming weeks – you’ve been catching my eye and looking at me – like really looking, and saying “hello” and waving, even from across parking lots. More than once I’ve turned around to see if it was someone else they meant to greet, but no. It was me. Even the littlest of you, and the littler still, you just look at me in this lovely friendly open easy way, and often smile. And damn, I feel smitten by you and sense the quiet stirrings of hope, and the grief I feel, suddenly it is yours. It’s all for you. Mother or not. Because I should have stopped it, or at least tried to. But I was too busy believing that it would somehow work it’s way out. And in truth, I didn’t see it coming so fast. I thought ‘that’ future would remain locked up in the collective imagination, at least for another 100 years or so. I wouldn’t be walking through it in the snack aisle of the supermarket in 2019. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. So it seems was dystopia.

Did I really believe that some magical band of change warriors would do the dirty work for me? Politics was never my bag – or so I told myself. I focused my attentions elsewhere – on wrongs committed in far flung lands – because I found your problems too irksome, too close for comfort. You have a right to be angry with me, with us – the old, to put it bluntly. But I’m here to try to tell you how it happened. At least from where I’m sitting. To be a witness to history is the only thing I have left. I already failed in the ‘stop the authoritarian takeover department’. Sorry about that. I will, at the very least, try to leave you a good story. Perhaps so you don’t hate all of us. Perhaps so you don’t make the same mistakes. Perhaps because if I don’t speak up, I worry I might really lose my mind. I think I already lost the friends I was going to lose. I grieve those friendships too, those promised moments of empathy. I’m too nostalgic, that’s my problem. One of them anyway. I thought the world was a holy mess until 2019. Then I realized that wow, it really wasn’t so bad. At least we still had more than one narrative. At least we could argue about stuff, at least we had opposing voices. No more.

At least now I know I’m not lost alone. Not like last week, when I thought there were like five of us. Now I realize we’re in the millions. And this is not nothing. Solidarity is not to be underestimated. I wish we could get together in a barn somewhere and shout and scream and hug and feel safe for the first time in a while. Safe to say what we really think. Safe enough to not even need to – to know it on a friendly glance. Yes, me too. I also say no. Just. Like. You.

This could be enough for now. I mean, I started all wrong. I had this grand plan. I wrote so eloquently during the lockdown about what I saw happening to us – the creeping anomie. I can’t find any of it now. But I tell you, it was heart-wrenching stuff. Clever too. I quoted Durkheim. It’s too late now. And anyway you already know how the lockdown fucked you up. You were on the front line of it. You and your grandparents. The rest of us – the self-centred middle – well, we didn’t exactly shine, did we? We can’t say that this was “our finest hour”. We should have had your back. We should have done better to keep you safe. Now we vaccinate you to protect ourselves, knowing full well – just as you do – that its not you who this virus goes after. It’s us. What did Neil Oliver say? Using the young like “a human shield” – that about covers it. I feel ashamed to be part of this human experiment.

And here I am about to talk about freedom. Freedom. A word about as abused as ‘love’. A word that somehow, somewhere, along this twisted gas lit street of next-door history, has taken on the mouth breathing drawl of some “right wing fetish” (thank you again Neil Oliver, bright voice in the wilderness).

We are told that we are to blame, the curious questioning ones. The ones who say, “Hold on one darn minute. Can’t we at least talk about this?” But the narrative is moving too fast. Forever changing the goal posts. No, we can’t talk about it, because to talk about it would require that someone was making sense. There is no sense here. Only. Fear. Shame. Blame.

We are told that we don’t care. But actually we have a different problem – we care too much. It has not gone unnoticed that the supposed compassionate ones, never speak on anyone’s behalf. They only speak against – never for. When you care, you speak for. We care too much to just watch, like another episode of whatever generic Netflix series we have our eye on, as the world goes slowly madder, as those we had respected, even loved, gradually lose their capacity for rational thought. As the fear – the real virus – invades the very cells of their hearts, and hardens them against us. It is not the regulations themselves that change us but the way we treat one another when we enact them.

But our caring alone does not absolve us. So this must be my absolution. I’m not responsible for the rest of them. Each of us, in our own way, must step into the harsh light of truth, and admit we were just too fucking preoccupied to make sure it never got this far.

But this is enough, for now. My young friends. You must be wondering where your future went. I will try to explain it but please bear with me. I am no expert. The only thing I can truly claim is that I lived through it.

About subincontinentia

writer and eternal optimist
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2 Responses to To the young I never knew – diary of a bystander to the death of the world I should have left you

  1. Julie Marron says:

    Thank you for writing this. I will write a long reply soon 💗💗💗

  2. Lonely Slug says:

    I think it’s important to place COVID policies regarding children in a broader context.

    In December 2020 there were 95,370 homeless families in the UK. This is lower than the usual figure because of the eviction ban that was imposed at the start of the pandemic. The main reasons for homelessness were that families could no longer stay with friends or family, the loss of private rental properties and domestic abuse.

    In 2018/19 there were 102,000 children in the care of local authorities. This figure has increased every year since 2010. About half of these children were in care because of abuse and neglect. There are estimates that one in five adults in the UK were abused (either witnessing or being the victim of physical, emotional or sexual abuse) before the age of 16. That’s quite a few million abused children.

    Education spending in the UK stood at 5.5% in 2010; by 2017/2018, it had fallen to 4%. If a child makes it to University, all but the very richest are saddled with large debts from the moment they get there. The latest stories about new students in the UK are about students having to defer for a year because they can’t find accommodation.

    Between 2015 and 2020, 400,000 children were pushed into poverty, making a total of 4.3 million children in poverty. That’s 30% of all children in the UK. The UK has the 6th largest economy in the world.

    The age of criminal responsibility in the UK is 10 years old.

    I could go on. But none of this is new. Thankfully, the rate of child physical and sexual abuse in institutions has probably fallen due to publicity, campaigns and changes in the law that mean that children are now (sometimes) listened to. Fewer people now trust institutions such as religious organisations that have systematically ignored child abuse and neglect, and children have rights which in principle allow them to complain. It’s no longer legal for parents and guardians to physically assault their children.

    At the start of the pandemic, Universal Credit, the main financial benefit to poor people in the UK was increased by £20 per week. This is about to be taken away. It would be hard to argue that this will not have an adverse effect on the lives of children in poor families. Universal Credit, by the way, is not unemployment benefit. 6 million people in the UK receive Universal Credit; 2.3 million of these are working, but their wages are not sufficient to cover their outgoings, such as feeding and clothing their children.

    While there have been periodic reforms that have helped poorer children, with figures like these, I don’t think it’s plausible to argue that children of poor parents in the UK are valued or fully cared for by successive UK governments.

    As a non-specialist, and given that there isn’t much data on the effect of either COVID or vaccines on children, any opinion I express on the science of vaccines versus the risk of catching the virus would be pretty much worthless. What I would say, however, is that I would not trust the UK government to put the interests of children first. The record of UK governments, particularly that of Conservative governments, is not good.

    The UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights said of the UK:

    “Relative child poverty rates are expected to increase by 7 per cent between 2015 and 2021 and overall child poverty rates to reach close to 40 per cent. For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain would not just be a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster rolled into one.”

    The new school year started earlier this week. This means that an experiment is about to begin. Again, I have no specialist knowledge, so I won’t express an opinion. However, the government’s main scientific advisory body, SAGE, says that with the rules as they are, there will be ‘high levels’ of COVID in schools by the end of September. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the UK Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, but if you google him and add the word ‘whip’, you’ll see an interesting picture of him at his ministerial desk; suffice to say I don’t think he’s a suitable person to be in charge of anything to do with children. Or anything else, for that matter.

    Perhaps what I’m trying to say is, if the goal is safe, happy enriching lives for children in the UK, there are many, many things that have to change. And COVID is no different in this respect from any other issue. My hope for today’s children is that they are less tolerant of injustice than previous generations, and that they act sooner rather than later. I wish them well.

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