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A message for the next decade: political movements are fine, as long as they’re regular

January 1, 2020

The festive season is a time of year when the principle of garbage in and garbage out most tellingly applies. I sometimes think it’s a miracle that Britain’s ancient sewers cope with the additional outflow that results from the stuff we pile into ourselves across the country. When the garbage out bit of the equation doesn’t happen, it can be a major problem seldom discussed in polite society.

People are quite happy to talk about the opposite problem – the world falling out of their bottoms. For some reason that’s funny. But constipation isn’t. It’s an embarrassing secret.

The British newspapers are currently full of pontificating articles reviewing the past year, and the past decade for that matter. Most of them are not worth the newsprint – or digits. For me, the main story has been how the nation, for the last three years, has had a bad case of political constipation over Brexit.

Now Boris Johnson, with the aid of dodgy money and dollops of rabble-rousing from the right-wing press, has inserted a massive suppository up Britain’s back passage, and the logjam has broken. Constipation has been replaced by what the Germans call durchfall – a much more descriptive word than diarrhoea, I’ve always thought.

The outpouring is of intentions. A northern powerhouse, wonderful trade deals and a host of legislation marinaded in Johnson’s optimism. Will we revert to our former bunged-up state when we discover that rhetoric and intentions are as short-lived as endorphin highs, that the shiny new Britain he promises might take decades to emerge, and that progress will be won through dreary compromises that please nobody and pragmatic decisions that leave us as far away from “taking back control” as we’ve ever been? Shame on me for my lack of enthusiasm, but I fear so.

Some of us are still afflicted by political verstopfung – the equally superior German term for constipation – for other reasons.

Along with half of America and much of the rest of the world, I have been watching and waiting for the fall of Donald Trump. So much so that it’s hard to remind oneself that a new president wouldn’t necessarily be able to undo the chaos and confusion that Trump has left in his wake. But to see him, his lackeys, backers and maleficent policies expelled down the toilet in a mighty durchfall would be well worth the political equivalent of a couple of Lomatil capsules to restore the digestive balance.

And yet, as we wait for the resolution of problems that seem to block up our thinking with every passing day, we sometimes forget that life doesn’t stand still. Suddenly, as Australia burns, we remember that climate change is more important than a deranged American president. As protests flare in Baghdad, Tehran and Beirut, and the killing escalates in Idlib, Tripoli and Mogadishu, we remember that revolutions have a habit of bringing with them more chaos, not less.

So do we respond to new challenges by imprisoning and seeking to re-educate a million of our fellow citizens in order to preserve the great leap forward that is delivering rice, smartphones and railways to the uncomplaining majority? Or do we seek to transform our nation into an entity made for the benefit of followers of one religion, while within our borders there are 200 million believers in another creed?

Do we close our borders to intruders from “shithole countries”, as Trump calls them, without making efforts to address the conditions that turned those countries into “shitholes” in the first place? And where do we take refuge when threatened by hypersonic nuclear missiles developed in a nation whose government is fuelled by a longstanding grudge that means little to the ordinary citizens of the resentful nation or to those of the adversaries they menace?

Over the past week I’ve seen a number of commentaries that seek to convince us that the past decade is the best ever, whatever that means. And yes, those of us who have survived the upheavals with our lives and lifestyles more or less intact have plenty of reasons to feel that we’ve never had it so good, even if our satisfaction is tinged with guilt that this is not the case for everyone.

For the lucky ones, of whom I am one, it’s easy to focus on the small picture of our personal prosperity and only concern ourselves with the immediate threats to its continuation. Equally easy to drive ourselves into an impotent fury or dull depression about the big picture over which we seem to have little control.

Those of us who suffer from an endless cycle of emotional verstopfung and durchfall can comfort ourselves with the example of Martin Luther. The founder of the European Reformation clearly didn’t eat his greens, because he suffered severely from constipation. Legend has it that he would spend hours every day straining in his closet, but that after long contemplation in that state he came to believe that salvation was to be gained not from deeds but from faith.

Luther was no doubt thinking of his eternal soul rather than his pain-racked body. Whether we are the deed-doers or the anxious watchers, I suspect that faith alone will not see us safely through the next decade.

There’s much to be done to turn optimism into action. Whether or not the importance of balance in the human digestive system is a good analogy for the way we should be tackling the real problems facing us is not for me to judge. But surely it’s better to chip away at the logjam of pressing issues in digestible increments rather than by grand purgative gestures.

With that, I wish all of you who visit 59steps a Happy New Year. May your movements be regular and your hopes for the future be based on reality as well as faith.

From → Politics, Social, UK, USA

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