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All this stuff doesn’t matter any more?

May 14, 2019

My clearest memory of witnessing my father’s death 16 years ago wasn’t his last breath. It was watching him let go after a lifetime of achievement, aspirations unfulfilled and ultimately disappointment. Though he didn’t say as much, I sensed he was feeling that all that stuff didn’t matter anymore.

A few days ago, I watched our family dog, Poppy, slip away in my daughter’s arms after two years of increasing infirmity due to old age. As the vet delivered the lethal anaesthetic through a cannula in her leg, I got the same feeling: all that stuff – the struggle to stay alive and hang on to a semblance of her former vigour – didn’t matter anymore.

Though I have no plans to depart any time soon, I must admit that I’m getting to the point at which some of the things I care about – that enrage me, energise me and give me a reason for reading newspapers, scouring the social media, debating with friends and writing polemics in this blog – no longer seem to matter anymore.

Is this the cusp of old age, when I give up fighting – at least in my own head – and accept that there’s damn all I can do about jackasses like Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and all the other bullying reprobates that voters in various parts of the world see fit to elect?

If I’m powerless, why do I bother to care about the extinction of a million species, about yet more conflict in the Middle East, about trade wars with China and about the self-imposed national degradation that will follow after Brexit?

Perhaps I’m afflicted with a temporary madness. I write this in Morocco, looking out over a verdant valley, listening to the sounds of sheep, goats and geese, and marvelling at the huge eagle gliding on the thermals and then swooping down to earth in search of prey. Because of where I am, I’m re-reading Tahir Shah’s In Arabian Nights, in which he describes the central role of stories in Moroccan culture, and laments the inability of us Westerners to draw lessons in life from simple stories whose meaning lies beneath the surface of the words, if only we would look within.

Moroccans are a superstitious people, many of whom believe in jinns, which Shah describes thus:

The Qu’ran says that when God created Man from clay, he fashioned a second form of life from ‘smokeless fire’. They are known my many names – genies, jnun, jinns – and they live all around us in inanimate objects. Some jinns are good-natured, but most are wicked, enraged by the discomfort they believe that humanity has caused them.

Apparently jinns can be exorcised, but only through elaborate and often grisly rituals.

I sometimes wonder whether my own country is suffering from a plague of jinns. If they are to be found in Morocco, why not in Surrey and Yorkshire? How otherwise have we been turned from a relatively tolerant people into a nation full of resentment and ugliness of spirit? Salman Rushdie elaborated on this theme in his 2015 novel Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights:

The novel is set in New York in the near future. It deals with jinns, and recounts the story of a jinnia princess and her offsprings during the “strangenesses.” After a great storm, slits between the world of jinns and the world of men are opened and strange phenomena emerge as dark jinnis invade the Earth. The jinnia princess and her children thus need to fight to defend the Earth and the humans from them, the Grand Ifrits. All the while, the Great Philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and the famous theologian Al-Ghazali pursue a philosophical debate about reason and God. (Wikipedia)

It’s one of my favourite Rushdie novels, full of rich imagery and a plot to rival the Game of Thrones. What I love about it is that he seems to have chosen his theme just before the world was convulsed with real “strangenesses”: the refugee crises, the election of Trump and the rise of populism in Europe, the most extreme example being Brexit.

Rushdie’s tale is about the conflict between reason and superstition, but if you substitute superstition for irrational belief, you have an allegory for the past three years, in which the “laws which had long been accepted as the governing principles of reality had collapsed.” An era in which lies are believed and demonstrable facts and rational arguments are damned as fake news.

I can’t stretch to believing in jinns, but for whatever reason we do seem to be gripped by a malign spirit. There are many rational reasons why we are where we are, yet I can’t help wondering whether we are at the crest of a wave that has yet to break. Are we on the point of the kind of madness that prevailed in 1914 or during the 1930s? That remains to be seen, but we certainly seem to be heading that way.

Is it necessary for humanity to suffer convulsions before returning to some form of stability? Are we just unwitting and powerless participants in a cycle as natural as ice ages and super-volcanoes? If so, then the actions of Western demagogues and a host of tinpot dictators and murderous monarchs are irrelevant. If they didn’t exist there would be other factors that would produce the same convulsion. Is the only option to ride out the cataclysm and hope for the best?

That we should sit passively and accept what’s coming is arrogant nonsense of course. Arrogant because I’m assuming I’m on the right side. It’s entirely possible that Trump, Xi, Putin and Europe’s populists are the forces of light, and that people like me are merely minor obstacles to be swept way by the tide of history. Arrogant also because I believe in right and wrong, when you could argue that we as a species are no more morally driven than a colony of termites. Individuals might have morals, but the cumulative effect of the species is profoundly amoral.

If Morocco was my home, I wonder how quickly my outrage at what is happening in my own country would slip away, and whether I would look at our political turmoil with Olympian disdain. I think not. After all, four years spent in Bahrain before and during the turmoil there didn’t reduce my concern for my homeland, even if there was less to be concerned about at the beginning of the decade.

So no, I may appreciate the soothing effect of Morocco, jinns and all, but I’m still bloody angry at the charlatans, liars, dupes and manipulators who are tearing apart my country. And I pray for the political demise of Trump, Duterte, Orban and Bolsonaro, not to mention the tyrants of the Middle East and the oligarchs of Russia and China.

If I’m allowed a vote, I can and will use it. If I’m allowed to speak freely, I shall continue to do so. To remain silent, whether through tiredness, apathy or a sense of powerlessness, is a waste of freedom that previous generations, by accident or design, have fought to maintain.

My voice may be small, but if I can influence just a few people to choose dialogue over insult, logic over emotion and peace over conflict, then that’s good enough for me.

If all this sounds rather dramatic, perhaps we should look ahead a few years, and imagine living in a country dominated by one party, in which every individual’s action is monitored by the state, in which journalists are locked up or assassinated, and in which economic and political decisions are made without reference to those who have to bear the consequences. Is that so hard to picture, when I’ve just described conditions that apply to a lesser or greater effect in any number of countries across the world today?

Some of us still have a voice. We must use it or lose it.

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