Let’s begin with feelings. It is 2013, it’s the London Old Vic theatre. On the stage is Boss Finley, or rather, someone playing Boss Finley. Thomas J. Finley. He’s ranting; he’s depicted on a screen. He believes that the Voice of God has called him from the red clay hills to keep white blood pure. Nevertheless he believes himself the greatest friend to coloured people in the South. The recent castration of a young black gentleman is deplorable (he, of course, had nothing to do with it), but the passion is understandable, to protect that which is held sacred: the purity of white blood. A heckler has come forward, and asks a question about the daughter of Thomas J. Finley, about a trip she made to hospital. The heckler is struck. Thomas J. Finley says he will answer the question. Thomas J. Finley talks of an effigy that had been burned of him at the the great State University that he himself had built. Thomas J. Finley blames the Northern radical Press. The heckler is being beaten downstage. There is the shock of emotion with all the elements together: the demagogue shouting on the screen, his bigotry, the violence in among the tables, the boom of a storm, the acceleration to this unbearable pitch.
I sit in my seat, transfixed. I feel very helpless.
The quadrangle of the college was burned, Thomas J. Finley declares, because of the Northern radical Press. But that was on Good Friday, Thomas J. Finley declares, and today is Easter. The heckler is being kicked, repeatedly. A woman is screaming, crying. That was Good Friday, Thomas J. Finley declares. By this point too, I am crying. Startled tears. Today is Easter, declares Thomas J. Finley, and I am in St Cloud.
This is how many felt, I think, during the events of the last week and months. Except that afterward, I don’t just get to step out into the London night, and know that what I saw was just a fiction (a large sign above me reading: Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth), and that actors are changing in dressing rooms, and I can message you to say how great it was, how moving, how shocking. I don’t get to do that. We don’t get to do that. We are stuck in the theatre, and soon Donald J. Trump will be inaugurated as the President of the US of A, the big winner of this overlong reality TV contest. There is a particular phrase in a John Gray article in the New Statesman that struck me. He writes of liberals: ‘from being the vanguard of human progress, they find themselves powerless spectators of events.’ Whether the rest of the article holds muster, I’m not really sure, but this line spoke to my experience as someone who (broadly) would term themselves a liberal, someone of the Left.
Lionel Trilling, the literary critic, in his book The Liberal Imagination (1950) quotes J. S. Mill in saying that the prayer of a liberal should be ‘Lord, enlighten thou our enemies’ – by which he meant ‘the intellectual pressure which an opponent like Coleridge could exert would force liberals to examine their position for its weaknesses and complacencies.’ A good sentiment, but with one problem – what liberals face isn’t an intellectual pressure right now (though there are no doubt weaknesses, complacencies). These forces that appear about us, they ain’t no Coleridge. This rightward slide isn’t about policy, not really – Donald Trump, Farage, May (belatedly, haphazardly). No policies, despite claims to the contrary. They don’t have any ideas. They have no idea what they’re doing, as evidenced by the Brexit shambles, by Trump’s floundering transition. Brexit means Brexit, we are told. America will be made great, we are told. The how be damned. The slogans reign supreme. The soundbite reigns supreme. Their results, while surprising to many, were only won gripping on with fingertips. Leave had a slender majority in the Referendum, Donald Trump didn’t even have that in his election. This nightmarish debacle hasn’t been about ideas or facts, but about feelings.
Feelings like helplessness.
Feelings like anger.
Feelings like despair.
Feelings like distrust.
Feelings like alienation.
Feelings like I just don’t feel in control.
Feelings like I just want to break everything.
Feelings like everything is shit, the banks are shit, the politicians are shit, the media is shit, the Elites are shit shit shit.
Feelings like I just don’t feel like I’m listened to.
Feelings like don’t fucking patronise me.
Feelings like human rights and health and safety are the worst things to happen to this country.
Feelings like this country is going down the pan.
Feelings like I think those people should just go home.
Feelings like I just want to say what I feel.
Feelings like I can just say anything, what does it matter?
Feelings like I don’t like that woman, I just don’t like her, she's a nasty woman.
Feelings like I don’t think women should be with women like that.
Feelings like men dressed as women are going to rape my child.
Feelings like that black man is a loathsome creature.
Feelings like I think that man is gonna blow me up.
Feelings like two men kissing grosses me out.
Feelings like I miss being great.
Feelings like I don’t feel in control.
And so we where we are. And I don’t feel very in control. I feel very helpless. Or I should do, shouldn’t I? Increasingly, it is becoming clear that casting a vote in an election is not enough (though, guys it does help, it is needed). No vote I have ever cast in the seven years I have been able to has contributed toward a successful result. No council seat, no MP, no MEP, no referenda to speak of has had my vote to his or her or its name. Never, not once. Consider this feeling, however: the lack of feeling. Or rather, the exhaustibility of feeling. We are deluged with feeling, all the time. We see something on social media, and we’re angry, and share it and then get on with the day, as if this was enough, or as if anger wasn’t what the original poster wanted because that’s what gets shared. Maybe we sign a petition, and then forget about it. Maybe we forget. If we aren’t immediately effected, we forget. Life rolls on, the headlines roll on. We see something on social media, and we aren’t angry, and we roll our eyes. Or we grow despondent, we grow depressed, and don’t feel anymore.
You mentioned your, our, MP and a vote he made. But did you contact him about his vote beforehand? Does anyone? Do we make good use of our representatives by not making it clear what we would like to represent them on? This isn’t just a criticism of you, but of myself too. It is easy to feel once, and to act once, feel like you’ve vented, and then forget. Not for all, but for many. Most people are spectators to history. It happens, and we dissolve in the mob. Group feeling, group thought. The questions, it seems to me, in these times, for us as individuals is: how do we keep our feelings directed so we keep acting? And keep our feelings in control? And how do we act thoughtfully, as to be effective?
I look forward to your next missive on the subject of scholastic feasts and where to find them.