It’s something of a privilege to write at the hinge of the year. But a challenge too. What a year to look back on; like no other for most of us.  Since this is New Year, we want to look forward as well as back. Looking forward after the after the surprises and crushing turmoil of 2020 is tricky too. It’s not enough to just hope things get better. 2020 has shown us some important insights into our society.

Shakespeare in King Lear gruesomely warns against thinking you have hit the bottom and the only way is up. “And worse I may be yet: the worst is not so long as we can say  ‘This is the worst.’”.

But there is no point if catastrophising. The media is too easily given to thoughtlessly apocalyptic at the best of times and it’s not good for our mental health. Forecasting what might come has always been a tricky trade.

One way of trying to make things better is the New Year’s resolution. But I’m no fan of them.. They seem to me to the shortest way manageable to self-disgust and the late January blues. If human nature could be improved by simply trying harder, we would have cracked the how to be happy thing a long time ago.

What can we learn from the last 12 months of turmoil, illness, rage and confusion?

I don’t think the fact that we have suffered from the release of a new worldwide virus tells us much. We were warned that it was about time for a global pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918, and here it is. But our responses to it might  be illuminating.

As it happens,  I came down with it about 48 hours ago, and am trying to type through a fearsome headache, an annoying cough, and sharply painful limbs. One things that cheers me is are the stats published today that of the 45,466 people who died with Covid only 1,911 have died who had no pre-existing condition. In which case I’m hoping to live through to 2021 if nothing else changes.

But the response to Covid has raise some issues for us. If it’s true, as it is claimed that the average age of those who have died from Coronavirus is 81.5 and the average age of death excluding the virus is older, 82.4, it’s hard to understand the level of hysteria. One reason for it is that having lost faith in life after death, our secular rationalistic culture doesn’t handle death very well. Preparing for our deaths, making sense of them, is made very much more difficult without a world view that puts our lives in a broader context  which includes life after death.   

Beyond the alarm that being reminded of our deaths causes, other fractures are exposed.

Society is somehow split down the middle, with each side getting increasingly angrier over a range of different issues.

Perhaps Brexit should have warned us with its 52/48 divide. There are a number of ways to describe the opposing values, but ‘independence v safety’ might cover it. The Brexiteers wanted independence and were prepared to pay for it, and the Remainers wanted safety and stability and were prepared to forego autonomy to preserve it.

Something similar seems to be happening with the Covidvirus. Those who favour lock-down and masks want safety first, at almost any price, and are terrified by the illness. Those who protest against the state placing them under house arrest against their will want to be able to assess the risks for themselves and live accordingly. Safety v independence again.

What has struck me greatly is the way in which there has been such a contest over the facts and the science. The media (by and large) have been uniformly presenting a slant of the science and a version of the facts that have been intended to strike terror into the hearts of its audience. They have moved from sources of information to projects of propaganda. While at the same time the social media outlets have censored voices that present a different view of the science.

Of course, it wasn’t really science we were arguing about. Modelling what might happen is closer to magic than science.

I don’t see any harm in having two sides, two points of view (strung out across a spectrum) for people to choose between. What seems deeply dangerous is that most of the public and social media are controlled by statist/safety factions.

In 2021, I hope the hard working virologists will continue their astonishing work on finding an effective vaccine for the virus. But even more important, will be the need to find a way of vaccinating our culture against being content with cancelling people and silencing opposition voices.

I don’t think I can do anything to  shore up the world-wide economic system against the damage done to it by international lockdowns; and I can’t do anything about the virus itself  except not frighten people, by continuing to keep my distance and mask my face.

But all of us can do something to fight for freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom to offend, freedom of conscience, freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. Bring on 2021 and with it a determination to fight for our freedoms.

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