We are used to thinking of what we call the news as a tool that can help us to vanquish ignorance: we will, thanks to its updates, properly understand what is going on and where importance lies. But if we examine the role of this phenomenon with greater scepticism, we may find that it is as responsible for blinding us to ourselves as for introducing us to the complexities of so-called reality.
The presence of the news continuously — albeit slyly — encourages us to forget entirely what we actually feel in relation to certain events. The way stories are told invariably promotes one particular set of responses: this is outrageous, he is bad, this is tragic, she is a victim, they are repulsive… These verdicts may seem entirely fair, but only too often, to an extent we are bullied into forgetting, they don’t quite. We might in our hearts — oddly but authentically — not think that something is such a tragedy after all, we might not really care in the least about something which we have been repeatedly pressed to think is vital. And we might fancy someone we’re definitely meant to hate. The news quietly closes off alternative avenues of investigation and response.
At its core, the news is opposed to introspection. It doesn’t want us to know ourselves better and compulsively disconnects our emotions from their true but often hard-to-grasp targets. It takes our nascent feelings of anger, for example — and redirects them away from our acquaintances or early care-givers to causes that aren’t remotely for us to bother with. It coopts our fears to an ever-changing roster of monsters, and thereby blinds us to what we really need to be vigilant about before it’s too late.
Because of the prestige that we have collectively accorded to the news, the hurried judgements of skittish third rate minds are allowed to determine nothing less than our view of ‘normality’. It is almost universally taken to be sensible to ‘catch up on the news’ rather than, as is actually the case, for the most part extremely dangerous and irrelevant. There is almost nothing we really need to know outside of what has happened in our own heads and in the lives of ten or so people who count on us.
We would surely be made to feel untenably odd if we decided — as really we should — that we were from now on going to check the news only once a week, and the rest of the time devote ourselves to exploring the contents of our soul via meditative reflection.
While pretending to inform us about the state of the world, the news has become a formidable instrument of self-forgetting.
From an early age, kindly people are liable to leave us in no doubt that gossiping about the private lives of well-known or prestigious people is despicable. At the same time, as our search histories and clicks prove, we evidently enjoy gossip very much.
It would, for example, have been very hard not to read at length in the Chinese media about the actor Wang Baoqiang and his wife Ma Rong. After a heady romance and years of apparent marital idyll, things fell apart for the couple when Ma Rong had an affair with Wang’s manager Song Zhe. For weeks, Chinese media reported on Wang Baoqiang’s rage and sense of betrayal, Ma Rong’s dissatisfactions with her often absent husband, Song Zhe’s attempts to justify his behaviour, and elite Beijing’s surprise and condemnation. To read such stories is obviously demeaning and idiotic – but plainly irresistible.
If there is any way out of the conundrum, it is offered to us via the peculiar recognition that most of what we call great literature is in the end not so very far from gossip. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina could be described as little other than 800 pages of quasi gossip about an apparently idyllic couple, Anna and Count Karenin, torn apart by the former’s affair with Vronsky, a cavalry officer, much to the surprise and condemnation of St Petersburg society.
But if in the end we resist calling Tolstoy a gossip, it has nothing to do with the topics he considers. It is entirely possible to talk a lot about someone’s intimate existence, to take an interest in the details of their divorce, to wonder about their career or to reflect on their disgrace – and still not to be guilty of gossiping in any way. The activity is not defined by a particular subject matter, solely by the manner in which it is being considered. The China Daily or the Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti could easily have turned the bare facts of Anna Karenina and Vronsky’s affair into gossip, just as Tolstoy could have transformed news of Wang Baoqiang and Ma Rong’s breakup into a masterful slice of Sino-Russian literature.
What identifies gossip is the pretence that only certain people are foolish, sexual, embarrassing and prone to lose their tempers or say things they regret. The gossiper holds unfortunate specimens in their tweezers, turns them over with glee and refuses to see any connection between every new shamed or ruined personality and their own flawed nature. They withhold the truth, on which every act of compassion is based, that we are all sinners, every last one of us, not merely this or that miserable creature unlucky enough to have attracted the malicious attention of the latest hard-hearted journalist.
We don’t need to be great writers to avoid treating the intimate difficulties of others as gossip. We just need to keep seven important ideas in mind as we ruminate on the travails of people in the news: That insofar as they hurt anyone, they are extremely unlikely to have set out to do so.
1. That insofar as they hurt anyone, they are extremely unlikely to have set out to do so
2. That the difficulties they caused are almost certainly unwitting by-products of passing weakness and idiocy.
3. That they are liable to be mortified by what has happened and to long to make amends.
4. That despite their possibly prestigious position or fortune, they were once a child, and, like all of us, are desperate be held, treated with consideration and forgiven.
5. That if you knew them properly, you would probably like them.
6. That if you saw them sleeping, you could not hate them.
7. That if you dared to look at them adequately, you would recognise a version of yourself.
We can of course, and in terms of our psychological development probably should, spend time discussing the turmoils in the lives of influential people. Their difficulties present us with a chance to reflect on the powers of fate and the entanglements of the heart; we just need to remember our humanity and our vulnerability as we do so. The difference between gossip and literature is love.
For most of history, however disappointed you might have been with people close to home, with your own hurtful family or maddening colleagues, you were at least able to hold on to a broader faith to tide one over the moments of despair: you could keep believing in humanity as a whole, in human beings in general, as opposed to this or that flawed, irritating or nasty local example. You could look over a large crowd celebrating a national event and – without knowing any of them in detail – could feel a warm and broad assurance that among these cheering neatly turned out people, there were sure to be plenty of sincere and kindly souls. You could be certain that for all of your frustrations and let-downs, you dwelt among fundamentally decent types, that even if you were very angry with your mother or full of resentment against the foreman, there was solace to be found in your nation and its peoples.
Yet patriotism and a benevolent sense of community are ultimately based on the privilege of not knowing too many of our fellow citizens very well. The closer we come to understanding anyone’s real nature, the greater the risks of disappointment. Our own family and work colleagues aren’t exceptionally awful; we simply know them uncommonly well.
Unfortunately for our powers of endurance, modern technology has done us one incalculable disservice: it has introduced us to one another on a global scale. There are no ‘strangers’ any longer, there are simply billions of people one can peer in on via their social media accounts and who are ready to introduce us to their ideas, their puppies, their relatives – and, along the way, their prejudices, their blind spots, their conspiracy theories, and their dispiriting enthusiasms for rage and cruelty.
It is the particular curse of our times that we can read the diaries and streams of consciousness of everyone on the planet. We can see them lining up to punch anyone who is down; displaying obtuseness around views they don’t agree with; painting their ideological enemies in unforgiving colours; caricaturing, envying and resenting; acting sanctimoniously around every transgression; behaving as if they were flawless; leaving us certain that if ever we needed help or sympathy, we wouldn’t get it.
We may be saddened but we shouldn’t be surprised by what we have learnt. The broad ranks of humanity have been educated by the most influential force in society for a century or more; they are the dutiful pupils of the mass media. They have been carefully taught to hate and to misunderstand, to gossip and to resent, to attack and to slander – and now do so with enthusiasm and predictability.
But this genealogy also offers us a route back to hope. People aren’t cruel to begin with and they aren’t inevitably committed to remaining so. They are – more than anything – malleable; and they have been schooled in the very wrong ways. Yet they could one day take inspiration from other, better sources were these to be offered to them. There might eventually be as much kindness at large as there is currently viciousness or lack of empathy, were the role models and public messages to alter. The digital citizen armies don’t really want to drive others to kill themselves. As a wise and pained observer realised long ago, they simply know not what they do.
There is a complicated truth behind our nastiest impulses: we are nasty chiefly because we are unhappy. The paradox is that if only we could understand this about ourselves, and forgive ourselves for the origins of our hard-heartedness, then we would have the energy to do good – and could, in time, have so much less to be unhappy about. But for now, it seems far easier to cheer on the destruction of others’ lives and take satisfaction from sackings, scandals and the most dreadful court cases.
We can catch an inkling of our lust for misery at work in an apparently disconnected and unusual area: our attitudes to hurricanes and winter storms. The strange truth is that we like these extreme weather systems enormously – as the media well know. We love it when, towards the middle of September, the first of the tropical depressions build in the mid-Atlantic and start to mass and whirl off the Gulf of Mexico. We can hardly wait to see the shutters blowing off stores in downtown areas and National Guards talking of the dangers of broken levees and downed power lines. By February, we are equally gripped by the possibility of a complete shutdown of all schools, workplaces and transport centres. We love to see metres of snow piled up at railway sidings and to watch airliners – once proud and relentless – lying prostrate like smashed toys across icy runways.
It satisfies something deep in us to see so much chaos. Apparent creatures of order, we appear to have a lot of time for images of doom. The reason may come down to how silently unfulfilling our own neat lives are. We take pride, day-to-day, in our spotless kitchens, laundry cupboards and account books, but really, in our hearts, something aches for more: for love, heroism, sincerity, a chance of a new beginning. Our world can feel like a prison and we secretly want to put a bomb under our quiet misery and start afresh. That’s why we don’t really mind the storm at all. It could dump fifteen metres of snow on us and might offer us a chance to burrow out and discover new ways to be.
Mostly though, storms pass without destroying too much. Order returns, the cyclone relents, the ice melts. But still the ache within us persists and seeks fresh targets for its dissatisfactions. And here the media is, helpfully, on hand. There may not be a meteorological cataclysm available at all times, but what can reliably be served up almost every day is evidence of yet another human being imploding. It might be a sex scandal, an outburst of violence, an ill-judged phone call, a sudden sacking – something to bring down someone who was once elevated and mighty and (inadvertently) made us feel small and inconsequential.
How we enjoy the winds blowing through their life. We follow how they are dragged from home, bundled into an SUV and taken to the courthouse for an initial hearing about the shocking allegations. We hear a confused neighbour, who borrowed a lawnmower from them only a week ago, explain that they never suspected this of them. We love the storm of outrage and follow the pitiful suspect weeping for forgiveness in front of a pack of taunting journalists.
On other days, we adore looking at pictures of how once beautiful people have been gnawed by time or study how lottery winners have evaporated their winnings at gambling tables. There is fun to be found in following the hurricanes of infidelity shattering once-beatific marriages or in learning of a formerly influential pop star now living forgotten and penniless in a shack in the wilds, in rereading the embarrassing messages the adulterer sent to their lover or in hearing how the proud head of a film studio had to resign after a storm of allegations by an intern.
Without quite realising it, we have become truly failed people – that is, people who need other people to fail.
The solution, as ever, is not to condemn us but to be extremely compassionate for the many reasons why the downfall of others provides us with so much relief. We are not evil, we are simply – far more than we know – deeply unhappy. We shouldn’t be brutally ordered never to experience schadenfreude again, we should be allowed to explore what made us so angry and so sad in the first place, why the world appears to us to have let us down so badly – and why we now need everything to go wrong for strangers.
We should be allowed to mourn that we don’t look as nice as we had hoped, that we haven’t earned the money we wanted and that no one has properly recognised our talents or our potential. We should be allowed to complain that it isn’t fair and have someone gently take us in their arms and repeat in a gentle voice ‘I know, I know’ while they stroke our brow with patience and tenderness.
To wean us off our bitter delight, we require not sermons, but help to lead lives that don’t feel so regret-filled and forlorn. We will be in a position to be a little less excited by disaster when – at last – we are no longer so alone and unconsoled.
Of course, we’re supposed to shrug it off. We’re supposed to have a quick look at a gallery of images – the kiss in the ocean, the breakfast on the veranda, the evening walk by the candle-lit restaurant – and move on. We’re meant to say it’s ridiculous and mean it.
Except that in some moods we’re no longer capable of such sangfroid. We start to follow what they are wearing every day; we go with them on their plane; we know what dog they bought; we stop talking to our family so that we can look up their new partner; we watch them making a juice in their kitchen; we look in on their exercise sessions. It’s as if they were right here, with us, all the time. We can almost taste the sea salt drying on their tanned legs; we trace the fine hairs on their arms; we are intensely knowledgeable about everything they’ve seen and eaten in the last six months.
Not only this, we know – deep down – that it could have worked with us. We’ll make light of this in public, but in our heart we know that we are their spiritual twin. If things had worked out differently, if we’d lived in Paris or New York, if we’d been the right sort of age and looked slightly better and had more convincing careers, we might have bumped into them at a gathering and the connections between us would have grown undeniable. We’re soulmates dumbly separated by a sequence of arbitrary barriers – over which the media nevertheless allows us to peer.
On certain days, the scale of the missed opportunities grows unbearable. How ugly, mean-minded, joyless and loveless our lives are. How ugly and unappreciative are our partners, how little of what we are will ever be noticed. Why do we even exist?
The celebrity stalker isn’t simply ‘mad’, their principal error is credulity. They have been unable to resist the suggestions of desire and communion that have been artfully embedded in the infatuating work of the media’s army of paparazzi. A vulnerability in their psyches has meant that they have taken seriously what the more defended and contented among us have had the wherewithal to resist – and treat as a sophisticated fantasy. Their unhappiness has made them helpless before a cruelly devised fiction – and opened them up to a distinctive kind of torture.
But what is evident is that the celebrity crush isn’t a simple inanity; it’s a serious prism through which we glimpse, with rare clarity, certain of the agonies of modern existence: Why can I not become who I really am? How can I both know the life that I should be leading and be so unable to lead it? Why do I never meet particular people whom I am convinced – perhaps not wrongly – I could have loved properly and who would have redeemed me?
There are no good answers to such questions. They are among the most melancholy and grave we can raise. That we may be nudged towards them by an actor or singer on a beach is no argument against them. Right now, in a luxurious bedroom a few hours’ flight from where we are, the person we suspect we could understand without limit is sleeping with somebody else and will in a few days go back to a life from which we will always be excluded. If we existed in a different era, we might at this point get down on our knees and pray for our wracked souls. We should now at least be afforded an opportunity to let out a cry up to the indifferent cosmos. What we should never be forced into is the belief that this constant ache might merely be a joke.
We need to be informed, of course. But, in order to stay sane, we may also need – at points – to forget or at least not to remember with such vehemence and regularity.
A half-way balanced life requires a combination of inner and outer concern: we have to internalize the general message that emerges from a crisis without, however, getting so deeply immersed in the minute-by-minute particulars that we allow these to become the means by which we lose our hold on reason and become impotent to face our responsibilities to ourselves and those we care for. We must both register and yet at the same time mute.
We are so used to equating our humanity with our capacity to feel that we are apt to lose sight of what a necessary achievement it can occasionally be to remain numb.
Such are the limits of our own concentration and emotional resources, a serious concern for the people who deeply depend on us must involve a calculated restriction of sympathy for, and interest in, the wider picture – a recognition, far from psychopathic in nature, that however immediate and alarming the news updates can be, the issues these raise are not right now always our own. We will have nothing substantial to offer others so long as we have forgotten to be for a time appropriately self-focused.
We need occasional relief from the otherwise powerful impression that civilisation is ending in the coming hours. We could benefit from being able to rise up into space in our imaginations, many kilometres above the mantle of the earth, to a place where today’s events will lose a little of their power to affect us – and where even the most intractable problems seem to dissolve against the aeons of time to which the view of other galaxies attests.
We should at times forgo our own news in order to pick up on the far stranger, more wondrous headlines of those less eloquent species that surround us: kestrels and snow geese, spider beetles and black-faced leafhoppers, lemurs and small children – all creatures usefully uninterested in our own pains; counterweights to our anxieties and alarm.
A tolerably sane life requires a capacity to recognize the times when the news no longer has anything important to teach us, when we have learnt its key lessons and won’t benefit from being further terrified; periods when we must leave the wider story in order to attend to the pains and needs of a more domestic circle.
Far less than we are inclined to think, we are no strangers to suffering. As a species, we know well how to be agonised – but, as media organisations deftly like to keep hidden, we know even better how to endure.
We’ve been here before when, in the 27th century BC, the Nile failed to flood for seven successive years and caused one of the first and largest famines in Egyptian history. Hieroglyphs record that the national calamity was resolved only when Pharaoh Djoser ordered the construction of a giant temple to appease the temperamental and vain Nile river god, Khnum: the waters rose again the following year.
We’ve been here before when, on 13 December 115 AD, a devastating earthquake hit the ancient city of Antioch, destroying three-quarters of its buildings and killing half of its 500,000 inhabitants in minutes. Reconstruction work continued for a decade.
We’ve been here before when a devastating tsunami shored at Alexandria on 21 July 365. 50,000 people were killed in the busy port city and its surroundings. The city’s Royal Quarter disappeared permanently underwater only to be rediscovered by a chance dig for a cable in 1995.
We’ve been here before when the first global bubonic plague pandemic began raging in Constantinople in 542, having entered via the busy trade routes from Asia. Known as the plague of Justinian, it continued to infect the Mediterranean world for another 225 years, disappearing only in 750 after killing some 50 million people.
We’ve been here before when, in 1346, the ‘Black Death’ arrived in Europe from the Russian steppes and killed a quarter of the continent’s population – an estimated 25 million people.
We’ve been here before when in 1519 Hernán Cortés landed on the shores of what is now Mexico and what was then the Aztec Empire bringing in his saliva the smallpox virus, which in the next hundred years killed ninety-five percent of the population of central and South America.
We’ve been here before when, on 23 January 1556, one of the deadliest earthquakes ever recorded in history occurred in the densely populated province of Shaanxi, China. Building collapses and mudslides killed an estimated 830,000 people.
We’ve been here before when on 1 November 1755, an earthquake shattered Lisbon and drove the surviving population to the shoreline, where they were met by a gigantic tsunami. The combination made off with 30,000 people and at a stroke ended the optimism of the European Enlightenment.
We’ve been here before when the largest volcanic eruption in human history occurred at Mount Tambora, Indonesia in April 1815, killing 71,000 people and creating an ash cloud that reduced global temperatures by 0.4ºC, leading to major food shortages, epidemics and civil unrest around the world for the following three years.
We’ve been here before when monsoon failures in 1837 and 1838 led to famine in the north-western Indian provinces of Punjab and Rajasthan, killing 800,000 people. The economic and social disruption, and the cholera that came with it, live on in Indian memory to this day.
We’ve been here before when a third global bubonic plague pandemic broke out in 1894. The crisis lasted on and off for twenty years, its global spread accelerated by steam travel and the scale of imperial trade networks. Worldwide, 15 million died; India was by far the worst hit, with 12 million deaths.
We’ve been here before when, in 1896–8, over 95 per cent of Southern Africa’s cattle herds were wiped out by a devastating panzootic of rinderpest. Coinciding with a severe drought and crop failures, this resulted in unprecedented famine in the Northern Transvaal. Desperate, people ate roots, caterpillars and old animal hides; many resorted to drowning their children.
We’ve been here before when, in 1918–19, the influenza pandemic known as the ‘Spanish Flu’ killed over 50 million people, far eclipsing the deaths of the First World War, a mere 13 million.
We’re here now, we will be here again. None of this is to diminish for even a moment the individual immense sufferings of our own times. It is just to add – as the newspapers always fail to mention – that there will (somehow) be a tomorrow.
A presumption among many thoughtful people is that the great enemy of a good life and a decent world is something called ‘bias’.
By bias, people have come to understand a twisting of the facts towards dark and entirely nefarious ends. According to this interpretation, bias is invariably and necessarily bad. In some quarters, the word has simply grown synonymous with evil.
In order to hate bias so much, one has to love the idea of something else with equal passion: ‘the facts’. People hate bias because they ultimately believe in the redemptive possibility of something completely objective, and scientifically verifiable. Loathing of bias is the flipside of faith in facts.
Facts evidently exist in many areas of life. Science and many of the human sciences are beautifully based on evidence-based, fact-yielding work.
The problem is that in many of the most important aspects of existence, there simply are no ‘facts’ available. The big questions that bedevil us, individually and collectively, have no facts to appeal to.
– How should we live?
– What is the right economic system to institute?
– What sort of relationships should we have?
– What choices should we make?
– Who are we and what do we want and need?
In the face of such dilemmas, we may well long for facts – by which we really mean, answers we can be assured will be indisputably correct. But we invariably face ambiguity and, whatever answers we formulate, a degree of loss, and the risk of blindness and error. It is these elements which the haters of bias are, deep down, especially intolerant towards and upset about. Their hatred of bias reflects a longing for a world without a need for hard choices and the sacrifice these necessarily entail.
We may well long to ‘stick to facts,’ but we eventually have to try to lead our lives according to values, which are inherently much more contentious and complicated structures. There is no merely fact-based road to a good and contented life.
The passion against bias often comes to a head in our thinking about news organisations. In certain circles, there is a particular loathing for what is termed biased news – and a belief in the option of decent news organisations which are going to always and inherently be unbiased. Unfortunately, there is simply no way of providing factual, ‘unbiased’ answers to the really big issues facing societies. News organisations that vaunt their neutrality forget that neutrality is simply impossible vis a vis the really urgent questions confronting our civilisation.
The word ‘bias’ ultimately simply alludes to the business of having a ‘take’ on existence. One may have a better or worse take, but one needs a take. One needs eventually to tackle the question of what is important, just, worth striving for.
If news or information or even philosophy are to matter to us, really matter, they will have to be presented to us by organisations that have tried to think through the ends of human life, that have a vision of where we are trying to go as a species, and that have somewhere articulated their answers to their audiences.
The issue is not – therefore – the illusory and timid one between bias and fact but between better and worse varieties of bias. We should never knock (to take the most obvious examples) America’s Fox News or Britain’s Daily Mail just on the basis that they are biased, we should only ever argue that they seem badly biased. That is the battle to fight.
We also need an extension of our sense of what sort of bias can exist. At present, we are used to thinking of bias simply in terms of right and left. But this is a radical reduction in the kinds of bias that are theoretically available to us. We don’t always have to limits things to a choice between blue and red.
We might discover a bias in favour of the wisdom of Montaigne, the dark consoling pessimism of Schopenhauer or the wit and humanity of Marcel Proust. We could be biased towards ambiguity, cheerful despair or sane insanity.
Our societies would be richer if we were better, not at stripping facts of bias, but at developing our capacities for higher bias.
All individuals and organisations – even ones like the BBC, Wikipedia or a great university – in fact, believe in all sorts of things deep down; they aren’t as neutral as they want us to think – and that’s an extremely good thing.
It’s high time for them to stop hiding behind a faux defence of their factual impartiality and to come out from behind the shadows with a clear articulation of their vision of a good society. It’s time for biases to conflict openly, as part of a healthy democratic process.
We don’t need our information stripped of bias, we need to evolve our way, through a clash of ideologies, towards the best kinds of bias.
Furthermore, we’ll have matured when we start to know what our own biases really are – and so start to get less prickly and touchy about the biases of others.
We know that we must, to lay claim to any respectability or competence, keep up with the news. That’s why we’ve ringed the earth with satellites, crisscrossed it with fiber optic cables, and created networks of bureaus that inform us with maniacal urgency of pretty much any event to have unfolded anywhere on the planet in the last few moments. We are, furthermore, equipped with tiny devices that we keep very close to hand, and which we tend to check at intervals of between one and five minutes (rarely longer) so as to monitor all unfolding stories in close to real time. We have been granted a ringside seat on the second by second flow of history.
As a result we see a lot more. And at the same time, strangely, we see a lot less. The constant presence of news from without hampers our ability to pick up on an equally important, though far less prestigious source of news from within. We are not, by nature, well equipped to see inside ourselves. Consciousness bobs like a small boat on a sea of disavowed emotions. A lot of feelings and ideas require a high degree of courage to confront. They threaten to make us uncomfortably anxious, excited or sad were we to learn more about them.
So we use the news without to silence the news from within. We have the most prestigious excuse ever invented never to spend any time roaming freely inside our own minds. It is not that the news from without is unimportant to someone (indeed, it will be the most important thing in certain people’s lives a continent away or in a company in the capital or somewhere in the upper reaches of government), it’s just that this news is almost certainly wholly disconnected from our real priority over the coming years; which is to make the most of our life and our talents in the time that remains to us. It is touching that we should give so much of our curiosity over to strangers, but it is poignant that we are forced eventually to pay such a high price for this constant dispersal of energy. We dismiss fragile, tentative thoughts about what we should do next, who we should call, what we really need to do, thoughts upon which an adequate future for us depends – for the sake of the more obvious drama of the moment. But the drama won’t save us, and cares not a jot about our development or our real responsibilities.
It feels counter-intuitive to think that there might be certain things more important than the news. But there is: our own lives – which we have ever more respectable reasons to avoid confronting.
We tend to get very gloomy about our own era: the state of society seems especially lamentable, the international situation is dire, the political process is unnerving, commercial society is rapacious; the media is hysterical and vulgar, education is in crisis. We feel we are living in terrible times.
But ‘terrible’ in comparison to what? The media constantly invites us to view how things are today against a very narrow slice of time. Things feel worse than they were yesterday or last week or two years ago – before the most recent atrocity, economic downturn or security crisis.
By contrast, what we call History offers us a much bigger, fairer and more consoling comparison across large slices of time. It frames what is happening now against the perspective of how things normally tend to go over decades and centuries.
It teaches us some usefully dark lessons. We learn that societies are almost never very admirable; there are always crises; economies pretty much always fluctuate; manners and morals are always shifting and in some ways getting worse; almost no human communities have ever been remarkably just or equal; progressive moments never quite achieve what was hoped of them and are almost always followed by periods of reaction.
Nevertheless, History also reminds us that things have seemed close to outright collapse many times before but that eventually humanity has more or less pulled through. The Roman Empire was governed for many years by a string of horrendous Emperors like Nero and Caligula. But, this didn’t signal the end of everything, as it must on some days have seemed like it must. The chaotic years were followed a bit later by a succession of able and honourable governments (including that of the philosopher Marcus Aurelius) and long periods of civilised prosperity. The troubles of our own times are – much more than we tend to suppose – at once very normal and much less fatal than we are inclined to imagine.
A society at any time can be likened to a ship in a storm.
Ludolf Bakhuysen, Warships in a Heavy Storm, 1695
A striking thing about the painting by the Dutch 17th-century artist Ludolf Bakhuysen is that it doesn’t show a ship sinking. It’s a painting of a ship managing to hold its own perfectly well in frightening circumstances that it has been adroitly designed to withstand. It’s a distinction we easily miss. To a sailor on a first voyage, it would, understandably, have felt as if violent death were imminent. But as the older crew knew, the ships of the Dutch navy had survived many far worse storms already.
In effect, the news is always trying to place us in the position of the first-time time voyager. It’s always stoking our natural panic – for its own commercial ends (there is no money to be made reassuring audiences that things will, on measure, be OK). By contrast, History is like the person who has been on the seas for many years and can therefore compare any one storm with a great many others.
History is an artificial, laboriously constructed, beautiful corrective to the natural short-term perspectives of our timid, jumpy minds.