I recently looked at Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein to see if there was anything about a connection with Proust. Sure enough there was a letter I had never heard of that Proust wrote to a physicist friend in 1921: ‘How I would love to speak to you about Einstein. I do not understand a single word of this theories, not knowing algebra. [Nevertheless] it seems to me we have an analogous ways of deforming Time.’ In understanding Einstein, algebra is the least of it.
High streets were the landscapes of my teens, and they are now set to vanish. That would be fine if it also spelled the end of consumerism and an opening for something more decent. Instead, like a resistant bug, fast fashion rages on, from sweatshop to warehouse to doorstep, via a growing precariat of exhausted delivery drivers, alienated on all fronts: from the products they deliver, the means of production, their fellow workers and consumers. The ‘alien object that has power over him’, as Marx put it, is packaged in cardboard and scheduled for next-day delivery.
The post-Brexit debate, often involving the performance of allegiance on Facebook or Twitter, does not much resemble the collective deliberation of the ancient agora. Other aspects of the ancient city are making an unwelcome return. The first is a more prescriptive ideal of citizenship, according to which those who fail to measure up to a patriotic standard – ‘Remoaners’ and immigrants – lose their moral claim to membership. The ancient punishments of ostracism and exile are reprised in the enthusiasm of the Home Office for deporting people to countries they’ve never seen. Meanwhile, productive work on farms and in factories is often delegated to rightless foreign metics.
Structural conditions – the protections afforded by kin groups, the weakness of state institutions, the state’s being shored up by the international community – make it reasonable to wish for a secular state but to turn to one’s sectarian group for protection, to believe in the law but circumvent it as necessary, to long for change but reject all existing alternatives to the status quo.
In the last six months of 2020 – the death spiral of the Trump presidency – a series of peace deals and normalisation agreements were signed between Israel and Arab countries: the UAE and Bahrain came first, in September, followed by Sudan and Morocco. Rumours are that Oman will be next. In November, Netanyahu went to Saudi Arabia to meet the crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman. Apparently, while most countries were counting the minutes till Trump’s term would be over, Israel and a few monarchies and dictatorships in the Arab world were squeezing the most out of his last weeks in office. Each delegation asked Trump, as if he were the Wizard of Oz, for what it most wanted in return for normalising relations: to be taken off the list of state sponsors of terrorism (Sudan); to have its illegal occupation of other people’s land recognised (Morocco); to buy a few squadrons of F-35s (UAE); to put the Palestinian cause to sleep (Israel); possibly along with other promises we will never hear about.
The Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, which documented disproportionate incidences of deaths and disease in Irish mother and baby homes between 1922 and 1998, was published this week. The commission was set up in 2015 after the discovery of around eight hundred unmarked burial plots on the site of the former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway. It found that around nine thousand children died in the eighteen homes under investigation. The mortality rate, around 15 per cent, was almost twice what it was for ‘illegitimate’ children in wider society. The children died from respiratory infections and gastroenteritis, from diphtheria and typhoid. They died in homes that were overcrowded, where there were large, shared dormitories and nurseries, where privacy was impossible, where cots were crammed together, sometimes only a foot apart.
The Covid-19 regulations are draconian, inconsistent, obscure and inconvenient, but they are not unconscionable. They do not require me to do things that the state should never make its citizens do. They are proportionate to the threat that the virus poses to health services, and necessary to slow the spread of the disease and protect those services: or at least, they are arguably so. The law and the reasons for it make sense. The regulations are contained within statutory instruments. They alone are the law. They are the ‘rules’. They can be enforced with criminal sanctions. Guidance and advice are not rules and cannot be legally enforced.