Hope and a politics of care (2): Where to begin?

Hello friends. Thanks for visiting. Here’s the second of a pair of posts on hope and a politics of care (the first is here). It’s a 10-minute read / 15-minute listen.


I’ve recorded an audio of this post – here if you prefer to listen…


‘Time and again I have been persuaded that a huge potential of goodwill is slumbering within our society. It’s just that it’s incoherent, suppressed, confused, crippled and perplexed – as though it does not know what to rely on, where to begin, or how to find meaningful outlets.’

Václav Havel, writing as President of Czechoslovakia three years after the Velvet Revolution

It’s a modernist fever-dream to ride the whispering escalators through Westminster tube station. Up you glide, hushed to a cathedral quiet by the hyper-civilised neutrality of its steel and concrete grottoes. Then, at the last ascent, a huge advert bursts from the gloom like a suddenly jangled chord. It arcs over the portal as might a carved scene of Christ’s ascension on a real cathedral, but here the icon is a fighter jet rising from the clouds, wreathed in the national flag. It’s the work of global arms dealer BAE, which shells out millions to burn its brand each morning into the retinas of every drowsy parliamentarian.

The ad is my reminder that where I’m going, I can’t count on what matters mattering. I began the day in a place where I can, at home on the river, where the pale sun played on the ash tree above me in ripples of reflected light. I watched the geese float through the first mist of autumn, the heron hold its peace. I know the river isn’t going to lie to me, its story won’t stray from what it means to be. I can trust it to interrupt me with its vitality, bringing me back home to what it means to hold life well, all of it.

I crunched down the towpath in my suit, ankles dragging the mist. A few trains, escalators, and one giant advert for war later, I’m in parliament going through security with my colleague Charlotte. Have I checked my suit for snail trails, she wonders; last time we were here, traces of home had clung a little too literally, but this time I’m clear.

Irrupt

While the security machines beep and bloop, the hubbub of a hundred purposeful conversations fills the airy atrium beyond. I wonder what reminders of home cling to the people here: how does the remembrance of the life that matters intrude on the lawmakers’ work? The signs aren’t promising. Portraits of political luminaries greet us from the walls: Margaret Thatcher offers a cordial smile, John Major listens at his desk; one powerful personage after another is stripped of shadow and rendered larger than life, as if this is what politics is for.

I have more faith in the geese by my boat. They don’t know that BAE’s fighter jets are hurling fire on Yemen right now; that arms assembled by parents of children in Stevenage are killing the children of parents in Sana’a. But they do interrupt my morning with the dignity of living things. With a little moral imagination, I’m reminded that the children of Yemen number among them, as do the workers in the arms factory. Both are worthy of care, but all the prime ministers who line these walls have put Stevenage before Sana’a.

‘Worthy of care’. I don’t mean ‘in need of a liberal intervention’, at least not the kind that gazes down on ‘the poor’ as a problem to be fixed or expects to save the earth one solution at a time. I mean that the life in and around us deserves to irrupt into our consciousness and seize us of it worth, to throw us off our detached calculations of right and wrong and urge us homewards towards the intimacy of attention. The concrete-cracking street tree, the weeds pressing up at the roadside, the children practising penalties against the No Ball Games sign: all deserve to be met and desired as themselves.

On this understanding, care is more like a meeting place than some kind of ministration. To meet another in care is, before anything be given or received, simply to desire them to be, in their fullness, as we desire ourselves to be, in our own fullness. For care moves by desire alone; it has no ought, it won’t compel itself into being.

When I regard you ethically, you ought to matter, but when I meet you in care, I also want you to matter.

This makes all the difference in the world, for here politics pivots. When I regard you ethically, you ought to matter, but when I meet you in care, I also want you to matter. And that means I want you to belong, here along with me, with the geese in the mist, and with all the ramifying life of the world. And that means I have a touchstone – your belonging and mine – when I think and act politically. While care’s desire holds sway, I can’t trade your life off against some other in whatever detached calculus seems ethically expedient, and nor may I be seduced into believing that I should.

Until I forget. I’ll come back to that.

Fray

Charlotte and I have come to brief a few parliamentarians on the abuse of young army recruits, as part of our campaign to raise the military enlistment age from 16 to 18. Charlotte tells our meeting that girls aged 16 or 17 are twice as likely to be raped behind the wire as on civvie street. Last year, one in every eight girls under 18 in the forces raised a formal complaint of sexual abuse, sometimes against their drill instructors. Boys are abused too. Former recruits and their parents have told us their instructors would routinely beat them, humiliate them in front of others, and then threaten them if they thought of leaving.

When confronted last year with the rising number of these complaints, the defence minister said it showed ‘a system which works’. Though these words sound wilful, these days I hear them as merely the defensive retort typical of establishment functionaries with an infantry to fill, borders to control, fighter jets to sell. The child recruit, the child migrant, the Yemeni child playing under BAE’s sonic boom must be de-imagined – rendered smaller than life – for the system to ‘work’.

Which is why the politics of care – closing that distance of detachment – is always subversive in this place. Amid the domesticating machinations of civilised power, it’s a wild act to allow the traduced child to intrude on the imagination. For as soon as that child is allowed to make a claim on the choices we make, the orderly violence of the political economy is disrupted. Its guardians grow discomfited for they have children of their own. Some slumbering regard for the hurt child wakes, and care’s desire joins the fray.

When it does, parliamentarians tend to divide three ways. Some shrug off the abused recruit as the acceptable collateral damage of a needy army. Others feel the impulse to care but fear to give it voice; they won’t be ‘tofu-eating wokerati’ with the security of the realm. This leaves the few – always only a few – willing to take the side of the child against the state and against the odds. Among them are those we’re meeting today, who believe that care is what politics is for.

And then comes the forgetting again. Let’s come back to that.

Abide

We all know the power of a story heard out – particularly one that tells of the lives in harm’s way – to interrupt business as usual and tug us back to the meeting place of care. And yet we all also know how easily the story that pours in one ear today leaks out the other tomorrow. The hurt child – the child worth the care of listening to and remembering – slips from our inconstant consciousness and we drift away with the crowds beneath the altogether less inconstant marketing for war.

Drift. Isn’t this the problem here? What lies behind the hardness of heart that lets the hurt child suffer – behind the narrowness of mind that says it has to be so – but the systematically engineered, collective forgetting of goodwill. We drift, and the strongman of a Putin or Trump rides in. We drift, and the circus of a Johnson or Truss comes to town. And why else would we quietly tolerate the even-keeled, managerial violence of a Biden or Sunak, but for the same drift – the loss of a feeling for home as a place that holds life well, all of it?

So what do you do? Where to begin when you already know that whatever commitments you make today, you’ll drift away from tomorrow? Once upon a time the answer would have been so obvious that the question itself would have jarred the ear. You pray, repent, ask forgiveness. You go back to the religious story of hope you hope you belong to, and you allow it to bring you home again.

The one sure way home has splintered to many that wait to be improvised…

Years ago, I remember the disappointment of learning that the word ‘religion’ comes from relegere meaning ‘to go through again’, or possibly religare, ‘to bind fast’. I’d heard the dreary hymn – why would I bind myself to that? I’d sat through the monotonic creed – why go through it again? And now those creaky promises of salvation have burst like old wineskins the high priests had thought could hold the whole world.

In today’s postmodern, even post-religious, landscape, the old maps don’t match. The gate is still strait, but it’s not straight. The way still runs narrowly, but now in a dozen directions across a morass of gaslit violence and fake good news. The one sure way home has splintered to many that wait to be improvised of heart and mind and hand.

But some truths abide. We needn’t drift without aim in a kind of anything-goes liberty that knows no way home at all. The encounter that interrupts and leads back to ourselves needn’t be left to the grace of random accident.

The old sacred stories abide. For those with ears to hear, they still whisper freedom and it’s the real kind: the freedom of standing in the world as who you mean to be. These are stories to take a bearing from, stories to keep leading us home and folding our lives into the great society of the earth. They’re worth going through again, and then again.

All life cries out for care. All life deserves the intention of attention. Can we not begin there?

Prayer abides also. I mean the prayer that people of faith call a prayer. But I also mean the prayer of a poem, play, or painting, and the prayer that presses the flesh and welcomes the other in, and the prayer that flies in with the geese in the morning, watched over by the heron, and bound religare-fast to my trousers by the mysterious snail in the wardrobe.

All life cries out for care. All life deserves the intention of attention. Can we not begin there? Can care become our conscious hope, an invitation we make to ourselves again and again in all faith and fallibility? Can care become our prayer: that it be held in our character, and cultivated through our communities and remembered in the stories of our cultures? Can it grow to be the binding tie we test our politics against, until all the sundering violence can no longer win our vote?

Notes

  • UK arms used in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is by far the largest customer for British weapons. Among those used by the kingdom in its war in Yemen are BAE-made Typhoon and Tornado jets, also the Storm Shadow cruise missile made in Stevenage by MBDA, which is part-owned by BAE.
  • Westminster tube’s arms trade advertising. Transport for London won’t say how much BAE pays to keep their giant advert over the escalator portal year after year, but it’s likely to be a large chunk of the £1.8M raised from advertising at the station annually. 21 million passengers per year pass through, so BAE’s investment could work out at about 5p per person. Not to be outdone, BAE’s rival Lockheed, which makes Trident nuclear missiles, has now paid to have their branding cover the escalators leading up to BAE’s fighter jet ad.
  • Petition. You can sign the petition from the London branch of Campaign Against Arms Trade to remove arms trade advertising from public transport.

Acknowledgements

  • Václav Havel is quoted from his Summer Meditations (trans. Paul Wilson) (New York: Vintage, 1993), pp. 3–4, which set out his personal hopes and frustrations for Czechoslovakia a couple of years after the Velvet Revolution.
  • Not for the first time, I have borrowed with appreciation the notion of the world around us ‘making a claim’ on our choices from Kimberley Curtis, Our sense of the real: Aesthetic experience and Arendtian politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1999).
  • The photo showing BAE’s ad is taken from the Campaign Against Arms Trade petition.
  • Thanks to Arzhia Habibi for her helpful thoughts on an earlier draft.

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