There is, it seems, a part of the human soul that needs a bogey man, needs something that inspires fear. A child in a secure home, warm and comfortable with loving parents, will still fear the darkness under the bed or the pools of shadow behind the wardrobe door. Whole cinemas full of young women will scream and faint and wet themselves as a bloodsucking weirdo old enough to be their great great great great grandfather flaps his leathery wings at the window of the castle. And when the medical profession forgot about acquired resistance to antibiotics, handing the things out like Smarties, the perpetual nagging fear of disease which was always there to stop humanity from becoming complacent about their own mortality has once again begun to dominate the headlines.
And so it is with whole societies. Until very recently there was no shortage of things to fear on the world stage. Just beyond living memory it was the Prussian, ready and waiting to conquer first Europe and then the world. After that those twin actual monsters, Communism and Nazism, lurched onto the stage of history, with the latter providing the West with plenty to be scared of well into the 80s. Children in the US practised sheltering under school desks, and the UK issued a leaflet of how to hide from lethal radiation underneath the stairs. But deterrence and glasnost worked their magic. The West has forgotten the lesson that vigilance is the price of peace, and the armies poised to avert Armageddon have dwindled. Even Germany, reliant on Russia to keep its lights on, has allowed its tanks to rust and its air force to fall to pieces, while the UK disarms to a level not seen since the establishment of our first standing armies.
AIDS took over as the fear du jour for individuals, terrorism for societies. And then dominating all other worries, global warming. The last has proved versatile, adaptable and unanswerable, morphing like a respiratory virus into ever more virulent and lethal forms which never seem to actually come to anything: global warming became Anthropogenic Global Warming (with big scary capitals and a convenient acronym, AGW); AGW mutated into Climate Change, which meant we had to worry about any weather event at all, more rain bad, less rain bad, UK warming because of a melting Arctic, bad, UK freezing because of the Gulf Stream failing caused by Arctic warming, bad; Climate Change became the Climate Emergency, Climate Armageddon, the reign of the Fossil Anti-Christ bad, and still it goes on. Desperate to be afraid we look for the next ticking climate time bomb and turn down our central heating as winter drags on and on. And while Covid fades as a frightener it gifts us with concerns about blood cots, genetic engineering disasters, and nanobots courtesy of Mr Gates.
Are we desperate to be afraid? Maybe we are, maybe we aren’t. Maybe we are being made to be afraid by people who don’t have our best interests at heart and who are exploiting the propensity of people who are secure to look for problems and seek out reasons to be worried. And once we are frightened we look for leadership, for leaders, for someone who looks as if he/she can be trusted to allay the fear. AGW/etc fills that need and with a little nudging (the most sinister development in HMG’s response to Covid is the Behavioural Insights Team, aka The Nudge Unit) then bob’s your uncle, a populace looking to make sacrifices, to hand over its money, to serve a greater good.
“The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), also known unofficially as the ‘Nudge Unit’, is a social purpose organisation that generates and applies behavioural insights, officially to inform policy and improve public services. Following nudge theory, using social engineering, techniques in psychology and marketing, the purpose of the organisation is to influence public thinking and decision making. This is to improve compliance with government policy to thereby decrease social and government costs related to inaction and poor compliance with policy and regulation.”
I love that slightly ambiguous placing of the word ‘officially’. Are they acting in an official capacity? Or is that only the ‘official’ reason for their existence, while the real reason is something else, something more sinister? How do you like being nudged into compliance by a team of over-educated and (if they are anything like the rest of the arrogant idiots our government relies on for advice) ignorant and self-entitled nerds? A better name for them would be “The Goebbels Unit”.
But I digress.
We can’t explain what’s going on without mentioning H. L. Mencken and his famous quote. This rather unpleasant character – he was admired by Ayn Rand – was a clever, rumbustious and self-opinionated writer who left behind a statement about the human race that can hardly be bettered:
“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
Having once read that quote the history of the last thirty years becomes explicable.
But note the caveat. The series of hobgoblins are not all imaginary. Some of them are real. The Goebbels Unit is busy inventing variants of a disease which, while undoubtedly lethal and of concern, is not worse than many such which have run through the globe in the last hundred and fifty years. My impression is that they are ignoring a much greater threat from disease than Covid. The more mature readers of this blog will recall the days when antibiotics had just become readily available, and will have been recipients of warnings from relatives about the dangers of blood poisoning – a stab from a rosebush was sometimes lethal in pre-antibiotic days. For fifty years doctors handed out antibiotics like Smarties with the inevitable consequences, resistance. You want a non-imaginary hobgoblin, there’s one.
Here’s another. Climate Change hysteria is pushing civilisation close to real danger. We rely on fossil fuel to feed us, pump sewage, give us clean water, warmth in winter. Too great a rush to decarbonisation (sorry, that’s what they call it and the word, nonsense though it is, must be used) will kill millions, weaken democracy, raise hobgoblin demagogues too great to control.
A major non-imaginary danger is asteroid strike. But you know something? I think they’re already onto this. Every bolide, every asteroid near miss is getting coverage and, looking at the videos of the Chelyabinsk meteor, quite right too. Planning to do something about this threat is sensible, as is exploring phage treatments for bacterial infection. Readers can no doubt provide other examples of real hobgoblins.
The answer is to be afraid, but for heaven’s sake be afraid of real things. Don’t be like the boy who cried “hobgoblin” so often that, when a real one appeared, no-one believed him.