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Apocalypse Now

Good news! If you’re reading this, the world hasn’t ended.

Yet.

But it certainly feels like it might at any moment. Australia’s on fire, this country’s flooding, New Zealand’s erupting, The West Indies are quaking, locusts plague East Africa, land slides in Myanmar, Ciara, Dennis and Jorge etc. batter Europe, corona-pestilence spreads around the world, democracies crumble to madmen and demagogues. Surely we haven’t got long to go? The end is nigh or near or now.

It’s all pretty biblical. But maybe that’s the point. In the back of our minds, this is how the world’s supposed to end, not with a bang or a whimper, but presaged with augurs, omens and portent. So even if we might think of ourselves as well beyond scripture, it’s hard to witness the earth shrugging like this without a sense of dread. It didn’t take a bible scholar to note that the four coaches carrying corona virus evacuees from Wuhan, were called “Horseman”: like the prophesised horsemen of the apocalypse.

Conquest, War, Famine, Death and a trip to Alton Towers
The Mayans were wiped out after miscalculating their crops, population needs and the kindness of the Spanish but somehow got their doomsday clock pretty accurate.

Even if few have read it, Revelations (originally in Greek: “αποκάλυψη” Apokalupsis), the last book of the New Testament, is embedded in the western psyche. It predicts a host of natural disasters before God eventually kills everyone and ushers in his new kingdom of righteous bores: “and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;” (Rev 6.12) sort of thing. Mind you, it also goes on about, “A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny;” (Rev 6. 6) which are way out at present crop values so you take your pick as far as accuracy goes. Judaism hand-wrings about “the Day of the Lord” in which God causes death, destruction, and a war between Gog and Magog; which is only settled when Gog and his Ma go for family counselling. In Hinduism, Vishnu returns to battle evil on a white horse and who can forget the Mayan clock predicting the end of the world in 2012 that, as things are going, only got the last two digits confused.

If you believe in such things, the omens don’t look good. But to believe there is meaning in the world’s current chaos takes something deeply human: a massive ego.

Even in our world creation stories we stick ourselves slap bang in the middle; created in God’s image, our planet the centre of the solar system, and so forth.

Why isn’t Adam more excited about all this?

Which may be why we find it harder to conceive that the world might just as easily end in a millisecond of senseless whimsy from a disinterested universe. Somehow, we’re so important we’re owed warnings, we’re so significant we’re worthy of messages from a higher power telling us of our coming doom; despite the fact that we’ll be able to do sweet far call about it.

On the one hand our human-centric sense of self-importance knows few bounds and, on the other, we’re aware of how vulnerable we are. Extinction Rebellion (XR) is the most recent movement to swell its numbers by tapping directly into the fear of an apocalypse and the role of man in both creating and preventing it. At the end of February their young prophet, unafraid of a bit of hell and damnation rhetoric, told a crowd in Bristol that, “the world is on fire” while a fug of spliff smoke rose above the student activists. XR follows the CND( Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) “Action or Armageddon” principle in the 70s and, earlier C20th campaigns, driven by a fear of overpopulation and faith in genetics: the Eugenics and Nazi movements. And before that, for millennia, the church had the last word on the “End of Days” and man’s role in it. Repent repent!

Repent

When you stop to listen to so called “Climate Change deniers” you find that a fair number are, in fact, “the-responsibility-of-man-in-creating-climate-change deniers”, which may be equally wrong but a little harder to provide conclusive evidence to challenge. And not nearly as pithy. The fact that they are lumped in with the swivel-eyed who struggle to read their own thermometers, and the corporate interest in continuing pollution and deforestation, is, I suspect, because their point is a harder one to bear. Because if, say, we didn’t cause this mess, or all we did was perhaps accelerate it, what hope have we of clearing it up? Would changing human behaviour really change anything in any significant way? Even if we all became net-zero, bovine-free, vegan, cyclists would that really be enough to halt the coming reckoning? Or, are we just inconsequential parasites tickling the surface of the planet?

Douglas Adams, in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, speculated on the effects of a “Total Perspective Vortex” machine in which ‘you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.”’ This would, Adams suggested, immediately destroy the human brain. Our significance, in the big scheme of things, is so minimal we wouldn’t even be able to comprehend a big scheme of things even if there was one.

Shame, guilt, or just heard a really old joke?

But if we’re not important, and our actions have little or no consequence, why should we feel guilty about them? And if we don’t feel shame, if we don’t feel bad about stuff, how can we be inspired to act well? The Judeo-Christian solution was simple: we’re all guilty. We’re all tainted by Adam and Eve’s original sin; “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste Brought death into the world, and all our woe” as Milton put it. Buddhism is more direct, its first two truths are that life consists of suffering, pain, and misery and that this suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire.

So here’s the paradox. If we are important, then we’re responsible, and guilty, and that makes us unhappy. If we’re inconsequential, there’s no meaning to anything we do, and our pointlessness also makes us unhappy.

Unhappiness, despair, anxiety, stress, fear, morbidness and self-absorption… or as a doctor would diagnose it: depression.

Maybe the old religions were on to something. Roughly 20% of people in the UK are diagnosed with depression, if we double that number for those too depressed to see their doctors and add some more for those who just try to pretend they’re ok – we might start to think Buddha got it right, the natural state of man is pain. The abnormal ones, the people who really have mental health issues, the people we perhaps should be trying to cure, are the deluded few who are happy in life, who fail to see their black dogs or take them for walkies.

Coronavirus has tapped into our universal dread perfectly. Every action the Government fails to make to prevent it fulfils our tendency for despair. At once we are fulfilled because we are right and crushed by the horror of it. At the time of writing, South Korea is testing thousands every day, they have drive-thru testing centres. In the UK, the tiny few that are getting tested currently have to wait 72 hours for results. Think how many people you can infect in 72 hours.

“Thanks for voting Brexit now just die.”

But consider this, the fact that we are doing so little may have less to do with Government incompetency and more to do with the fact that a proudly “out-of-box” thinker like Dominic Cummings is in 10 Downing Street. For a chap who likes to think the unthinkable, a disease that disproportionately kills Boomers and spares the young, annihilates the generation that are blocking up the job market with their damned experience and health and not retiring and sitting on all those properties – it is a disease made in heaven. “Thanks for voting Brexit now just die.”

Apocalypse now? It may not be the end of the world, but it will be for many. There are mad, surreal, prophesies in Revelations, but the world ending because someone in China fancied a bit of bat in their soup? Not even the Nostradamus went there.

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Masslighting

“The world’s gone mad,” is an all too familiar cry, and meme, from social media to the 49 Clapham Borisbus. The divisiveness of our politics and public rhetoric and the fact we can never be sure what’s happening with Brexit, our Government, or even the weather, makes everything seem bonkers. But if the rest of the world seems mad, and you’re remotely cognisant, you have ask the question: Is it them? Or is it me? Because any definition of madness must compare with what’s considered “normal”. And if normal society is constantly outraged and at war with itself, it’s the calm and conciliatory who are the fruitcakes.

Harriet Jordan, Bedlam patient with ‘acute mania’.

Madness is a slippery word in an age that recognises that we’re all on a mental health spectrum but last month in the BMJ Case Reports, a patient was described experiencing acute psychosis triggered by the “UK’s 2016 European Union referendum.” And though the right-wing press immediately branded him a pathetic snowflake, he is far from alone. The New Scientist reported, “The case is an extreme example, but there are signs of the wider mental health impact of the referendum result. Nearly two-thirds of people in the UK think anxiety over Brexit is bad for people’s health, polling has found. One study last year found that, after the referendum, self-reported wellbeing of a sample of people in the UK was lower than in samples from other countries.”

The future for everybody in the country has never felt less sure. We’re less able to rely on pragmatism winning through, than at any time since the war. It’s like we’re all collectively holding our breath and it’s got to that point when we feel our heads might explode.

Is it something in the water? Mob psychosis? Or could it be a mass delusion like the 17th century Dutch tulip mania; when people got so caught up in speculating on the value of tulips, way beyond logic, they crashed their entire economy? In 2015 few of us cared one way or the other about EU sovereignty or the customs union. Within three years it has become a hill many of us seem willing to die on.

If you want to know where this is coming from consider the word: “Disruption.”

Vlad to see you: Vladislav Surkov & Vladimir Putin

It’s a revolutionary technique which first proved itself in television. In the 90s, a slew of low cost “reality” programmes, disrupted the orthodoxy of classical studio shows. The real lives of the sad, mediocre and untalented were absolute ratings magnets. Unscripted uncertainty about what real people might do next kept audiences glued and changed TV completely. This uncertainty disruption was adapted into politics by Putin’s closest advisor Vladislav Surkov as described by Peter Pomerantsev in the London Review of Books. “In contemporary Russia … the stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away. Surkov is at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It’s a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.”

Dominic Cummings

Whether Surkov also explicitly backed Trump and Brexit we may never know but the word “Disrupt” is tattooed on the heart of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s closest advisor. We’re all glued to his show now. There was no real need to prorogue Parliament, except to rack up uncertainty. And it’s incredible how many got caught up in this 21st century doubletalk newspeak. To defend democracy we must strip it away. The representatives of the people are the enemies of the people. To fight for Parliamentary Sovereignty you must curtail Parliamentary Sovereignty. This is deliciously disruptive, pure Orwellian theatre. It’s mad. Or maybe we’re all mad. Or… what if we’re just being driven to think we are?

“Gaslighting” has had a resurgence of meaning, a term now used for domestic abuse which is psychological rather than physical. It derives from Gaslight a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, and the 1944 film of the same name. Ingrid Bergman plays a young woman who, with her new husband, moves back into the house where her aunt was murdered. However, he has secrets to protect and begins to play tricks on her to convince her she is going mad. Moving things around the house, claiming that she is taking them without knowing it. Or turning the gas-lighting down and saying she is imagining things.

Their servants gossip. “What’s the matter with the mistress, she don’t look ill to me. Is she?” asks the maid. “I don’t know,” says the cook. “Not as I can see. But the master keeps telling her she is.”

“I’m frightened of the house,” Bergman cries to her husband. “I hear noises and footsteps. I imagine things, that there are people over the house. I’m frightened of myself too.”

Believing the world is crazy is pretty stressful but imagining it’s you who is going mad is terrifying. Trying to hold on to sanity whilst believing someone is actually trying to drive you crazy is next level nuttiness. So this may sound top notch insanity but what if we are all being convinced we’re crazy. What if we’re being masslit?

Even if all Cummings is doing is sitting in an attic in Downing Street playing Minecraft, the idea of the Master of Disruption’s presence is enough to make all our parliamentarians suspicious. Everybody wonders if each move Johnson makes is part of a master plan and question whether their response is “playing into his hands.” The idea is probably more disturbing than the truth but then, as Woody Allen said, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

The cabinet, Parliament, we lumpen proletariat, we are all being masslit. And the extent of our craziness is that we’re half aware of this happening, that we’re being played, and we see shadows and we’re frightened.

As the victims of masslighting we struggle to know what is true and what we imagine.

Think about the theory that Johnson is negating bad news coverage by seeding Google search results using similar phrases and key terms. So when he described himself as a “model of restraint”, after the accusations of his funnelling public funds to a former model called Jennifer Arcuri, he was making negative search results for “Boris Johnson model” drop down the Google hit list.

“His speech in front of the police was meant to distract from reports that the police were called to the flat he shared with girlfriend Carrie Symonds following an alleged domestic dispute,” says Wired, “while the kipper incident was meant to downplay connections with UKIP (whose supporters are called kippers). The claim about painting buses, finally, was supposedly intended to reframe search results about the contentious claim that the UK sends £350 million to Europe branded on the side of the Brexit campaign bus.”

Is it true? Are we paranoid? Are billionaires really shorting the pound? In an age of mass information and fake news our filters are woefully inadequate. They have created circuses for us to gawp at and as long as we have to keep guessing, distracted, confused, our leaders and their machines will stay in power. Or am I just mad?