I sometimes wonder what the hell we mean by ‘civilisation’. In the midst of the Woolwich horror, I thought I detected something like it in the action of onlookers who put aside all the miserably inanity of our media-consuming world to actually do something with real moral conviction. But it takes tragedy for people to find the best in themselves. Or perhaps it just takes a tragedy for the best among us to step forward and make themselves known. I wish I had that special kind of vision which could see those people among us, glowing and shining as they deserve to do, so I know who they are, so I could thank them as I also remind myself that I don’t live surrounded by cold lumps of flesh occasionally reanimated into action by the likes of Google, Samsung or Apple.
But that’s so hard. Everywhere I look, the things I took for civilisation are being corrupted by the slack-jawed bastards whose tastes run riot through our towns and cities, the Neolithic who have taken over the country and would make us a cultural void. But this isn’t just about the death of the bookshops, the collapse of the newspaper industry, the closure of our libraries, the destruction of our education system. It’s about the fast-food-dump-it-in-the-gutter attitude, plasticised mock-Americana, and the emergence of the precariat who are forced to live their lives under the old iron heel. Civilisation? What is civility in a culture obsessed with gimmickry, porn, war, noise, hypocrisy, violence, and anything that is trivial or banal? They won’t vote, can’t name a politician, but want us to celebrate some idiot drinking beer through her ear or a two-headed mongrel.
And when nobody cares, bad things usually happen. Politicians grimace and frown about tragic events but we know damn well that there’s political manoeuvring going on. Boris looked more like the PM yesterday whilst the PM was trying so hard to look like the PM. The night before, Theresa looked the PM, whilst the PM was PMing with the French PM… The media, initially spittle lipped with excitement, are now full of moral indignation. The left are predictably hang-wringing, cautious to adopt stereotypes, whilst the right predictably adopt stereotypes and are in the mood for neck wringing. They all ask: how do we stop these things happening among us? But we can’t. Things have gone too far. Neighbour rarely speaks to neighbour and communities are fractured with too many living their life in a meaningless void, disconnected from each other as they are disconnected from the culture around them.
We believe we are connected because we have technology to give us our Facebook updates, our Twitter feeds, our Google+ circles, but, in truth, it’s a lie we are telling ourselves to disguise the fact that we are completely disconnected. During the Industrial Revolution, such disconnects were intellectualised and became an ingredient in Romanticism, by which artists sought to return to an earlier time, to re-engage with nature. We need something similar today: a movement that encourages us to reengage with the people around us, to feel soil between our fingers, and the blood coursing through our veins. Because at the moment, we see violence and we reach for our phones. Freakishly, we record it, retreat to our passive state, go back online where everything is safe. And that’s partially the reason why terrorism is currently so potent.
People say we are desensitized to violence but have we actually become over-sensitized to reality? Approximately 20,000 soldiers died on 1st July, 1916. There were 40,000 wounded. Could any modern politician justify such loss, such suffering? We would laugh if asked that question, confident as we cry ‘no’, but that’s only because we can never envisage a situation when the stakes would be so high. But are we really that much brighter and less civilized than our parent’s parents, or their parents before them, or have we just forgotten how brutal the world can be?