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My Favourite Planet > Blogs > Edwin Drood's Column > February 2015
back Edwin Drood's Column 24 February 2015
Hacking the public thing at the Mysterious Edwin Drood's Column
Hacking the public thing
In which Edwin takes a walk with love, death and a couple of dogs through the public parks of Europe and asks whether there still is a “res publica”, a commonwealth that can bind us all together.
Just when I was beginning to believe, on the basis of this year and last, that February had become the new April, winter returned with a vengeance and buried that topic in drifting snow. Same old same old, seems we can’t rely on climate change, after all. Meanwhile the phony war in the Ukraine was also showing signs of déjà was: the same tapestry of hints and allegations we saw back in the days of the Balkan conflict. Cue Bono in sodium sunglasses singing some variant of Sarajevo Girl. You get the picture; it’s a karma kind of thing. We’ve all been here before and the things we refused to learn from back then will definitely keep happening, despite our best intentions.
A walk with love vs a date with death
Once again Europeans of the western variety, as well as many of the formerly eastern persuasion, look on and shake their heads. Isn’t this the sort of situation we were not meant to be seeing anymore? In the brave new world of international consumerism that we have so painstakingly built together through … well, international consumption, I suppose … surely, in such a world we cannot seriously be expected to believe in a war that claims to be about manifest destiny, ancient hegemony, the primacy of culture and all that claptrap? These are the things we tore walls down to escape, the things we can definitely do without. How can we possibly judge the Afghans, the Syrians or the Iraqis if we new Europeans behave just as badly?

In a few brief weeks, spring will be upon us. Lovers will stroll hand in hand, their fingers and their thoughts entwinéd, through the public parks of Kiev or Brussels, of Moscow or Berlin. Every swain shall have his maid, every Jack his Jill and, “each with his bonny lass upon the greeny grass”, they will offer up the wonder of their love to those indulgent, if capricious, gods who take care of fragile hearts. They will try to talk of serious things and end up only saying what has already been said a hundred thousand million times before in the exact same language. They will snap their double selfies and update their Facebook status every other hour.

Insofar as ignorance is possible in this age of universal hyper-news, running along those TV ticker tapes that burn like a fuse under the most banal of daytime and nocturnal emissions, they will be blissfully ignorant of the looming shadow of a war that has not the slightest shred of an excuse for its existence: being driven neither by abject need, nor by rampant ideology, nor yet by the purifying fire of faith. Why should it bother their lovers’ idyll? Teenagers have nothing to do with war. But unfortunately, war has everything to do with teenagers. They are as essential to it as bullets and bombs, money and fuel.
Big spenders vs “Little-enders”
Perhaps for the very first time in history, we may witness a war between essentially identical people with identical priorities and lifestyles, a great majority of whom use the same smart phones on the same frequencies, watch the same silly game shows, the same badly dubbed UK and US soaps and hospital romances on the same Korean flat screen TVs, smoke the same brand of tasteless “light” cigarettes, hide their defining and doubtless enlivening scent beneath the same ubiquitous brands of deodorant, shop in branches of the same high street stores for the same labels, wear the same made-by-youth-in-Asia trainers and eat the same franchised fast food. The only issue upon which they seem to differ is whether to have Moscow or Brussels with their French fries … hardly enough to unleash the dogs of war! Indeed, given the prevalent blandness and lack of political interest with which the new culture of global commercialism seems to cohabit with our ever-so-slightly left of centre social democracies, it seems odd that anyone, anywhere, should get over-excited by such an out-dated irrelevancy.

It seems trivial, yes, but in truth, wars have been fought for far less. There was once a war over tulips. The Dutch and the British fought one over nutmeg and another conflict began on account of a sailor’s ear. Wars have broken out over the price of stamps, the amount of water in beer, the weight of a pound of suet, the size of a loaf of bread and the frankly absurd notion that people who pay taxes should have some say in how they are spent. In the present conflict, Dean Swift would feel quite at home with his delightful tale of an egg war fought between sensible little-enders and those inflammatory, heretical advocates of the big end. The issue here is not just one of loyalty to a particular worldview. Oil and gas lurk beneath the surface. Grain and fruit trees wave above. There are an awful lot of tractors in Ukraine.
Prima donna vs blood and honour
But if it is now possible to have a war between such similar opponents – much like two football teams with almost identical line-ups of sharp-haired, overpaid, Bentley-GT-driving, prima-donna players – using, for the most part, even the same weapons, sourced from the same suppliers (no clever little Exocet advantage to be had here), then isn’t it reasonable to ask just what the res-publica, that common “thing” purportedly binding us together in a modern state or federation of states, actually is or at least should be? If there is a consensus on the values, or lack thereof, that motivates both sides, if their attitudes, habits and preferences (setting aside that little question of what to have with the fries) are more or less identical, if they even look like peas from the same pod (the same compact, hard-as-nails, thick-necked men, the same gorgeous, leggy women), then what can possibly be found that shall hold them more together, and what can possibly be drawing them so far apart?

Civil society is exactly that: “civil”. It is the free and honest association of “citizens” with one another, gathered around common concepts of worth, independence, equality and dignity, concepts that have been refined over centuries. It suggests, though does not impose, an attitude of public service to a public dream or aspiration. It is proud, in the simplest way and without vainglory, of its achievements in the common cause and for the common good: bridges, thoroughfares, illumination, mass-transit systems, the provision and maintenance of utilities and facilities for health and welfare, resource, research, education and recreation.

Civil society, through its representatives, furnishes public spaces for our leisure and public events capable of demonstrating our public faith, public spirit and public loyalty. Furthermore, it expects our sense of public responsibility to be expressed, not only at the ballot box, but also through a certain type of public behaviour that is primarily, though not exclusively, defined by the integrity of its professional and artisan classes. In return for our adhesion and commitment, jointly and singly, to a civil society, we receive the benefits of peace, security, attachment to the common “weal”, a sense of mutual purpose and a even, with luck, a profound sense of belonging. This is all part of what we have come to call the social contract. We pay our taxes, yes, but the biggest part we pay is through the commitment of our blood and honour, our hearts and minds, either symbolically or, in truly difficult times, even literally to the idea-made-flesh that is the modern state. If this contract is eroded, broken, voided, made a subject of ridicule or an empty letter, then social, moral and intellectual decline are inevitable, at which point not much is needed to tip from barely maintained order into barely concealed chaos.
Worldview vs the doggy few
As I walked with my good friend Jean-Michel and his recently acquired dog, a border collie called McQueen, through the wondrous winter that had so surprisingly bewitched the parks and woodlands around the pretty regency town of Spa, I was struck by the way McQueen formed almost instant alliances and even small communities of purpose with other dogs we met, running together, chasing their tails together, rolling and gambolling together through the drifting snow with all the exuberance of young, bright-eyed and shiny-nosed creatures, each one updating its profile every few metres on yet another longsuffering tree.

Suddenly a fearsome scuffle broke out and we had to wade in to separate McQueen from another dog that had just emerged innocently onto the path with its equally innocent lady owner. According to J-M, McQueen has met this particular animal several times before and apparently cannot stand the sight of him or her. There’s always a fight and it’s always a toss-up to say who started it. I’m sorry to report that I found the all-too-apparent reason for this antipathy rather depressing. The two dogs were identical. If they were twins, their mother would have a hard time telling them apart. I don’t know for certain what each one likes with its fries, but knowing Jean-Michel, I expect McQueen leans strongly towards Brussels.

© Edwin Drood, February 2015
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