Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
Just in case you felt you weren’t appropriately concerned about the escalating Ebola headlines, try one of these: if you’re feeling intellectual, read or re-read Albert Camus’ La Peste, to be reminded how unthinkable horror can erupt from what often seems unassailable daily normality, and how perspectives, priorities and social norms can shift so rapidly.
If you’re feeling less cultured, download the game Plague onto your smart phone. In this addictive career-limiting app, you are a disease on a mission to kill off mankind. The trick is to give yourself ability to travel and survive in various climates and to infect as many people as possible, before ramping up your symptoms and liability to mutate, to start killing people off. The constant temptation is to ‘buy’ infective or lethal symptoms too quickly (projectile vomit, cysts, rapid organ failure, etc). If you do, the world’s scientists all focus on curing you (Game Over), or you kill off all your hosts too fast for them to get the chance to infect others (also Game Over.)
I wouldn’t for one minute claim this rather irreverent app is the pinnacle of scientific accuracy, but it does drill home the frightening vulnerability of the human race to disease – especially in an increasingly populated world where little planes and ships are rushing over the globe on your screen as helpful infection vehicles, and society is sufficiently moral and medically advanced to send aid workers from across the world to help care for and cure the afflicted.
The terror of plague is that the ‘enemy’ feels so intangible. You can’t fight it with guns, or make it illegal, it simply ‘is’ – in a grim mockery of our efforts to re-establish ourselves as pilots of our own destiny. In the face of such a common enemy to mankind, the divisions that occupy our global security summits begin to shrink by comparison. But it’s not all Armageddon. Medical science moves fast, and races virus mutations. Death sentences of just decades ago are now treatable. But amidst all the turmoil of issues occupying our headlines, it is right to keep a little bit of perspective on just how vulnerable we really are.
And perhaps part of the panic over one of those global security issues – the rising of ISIS – has its roots in a similar fear over the intangible nature of the enemy. ISIS may have condensed its sick ideology into the organisation of a would-be state, but the thing that fuels it is as intangible as a virus: it is an idea. You can’t kill an idea with guns, or laws. Finding an alternative energy source to oil might help drain the swamp of this perverted ideology , but the West hasn’t been particularly far-sighted on that front. Therefore we are left with the clumsy tools of military engagement and a dearth of invigorating counter-belief systems with which to combat ISIS’s toxic allure to angry or disengaged young people, who may simply be looking for a ‘cause’.
However, politics is very bad at dealing with the intangible. It is good at rearranging systems (for better or for worse); it can send armies into places. It can say what is and what is not allowed. Ironically, it often does this by means of White Papers heavy with rather meaningless abstract nouns. You know the ones: “sustainability, diversity, ‘excellence and equity’ ( Hang on: excellence and equity? How does that work?) and so on. All these words are fine in their own right but suffer from ‘word inflation’ and become a meaningless currency once politics gets hold of them and starts jamming them into policy documents and speeches, and suffixes them with the word ‘agenda’.
But despite all these abstract nouns – the Zimbabwean dollar of expression – politics is bad at dealing with such intangible things as people’s psychology; bad at encompassing and promoting real belief systems; bad at emotional intelligence. The word ‘politics’ comes from the Ancient Greek ‘to polis’ – the city state – and literally means ‘the stuff to do with the city state’. All this stuff is tangible, but to get it done effectively demands understanding the people who populate that city state, how they tick.
Politics has done this badly, which is why people feel it is out of touch. They feel politics doesn’t understand their anger, frustration, despair. An emotion was behind UKIP’s success this week – rather than belief in the party’s policies, or actual tangible outcomes and how they would be achieved, because UKIP doesn’t really have any that stand the test of practical reality.
The success of a protest party in one constituency in England is so far away in importance from the global threat of ebola, and the security threat of ISIS, that it seems almost wrong to include it in the same blog as these topics. But in some small way, the perplexed and worried response to these cosmically different issues – issues vastly different in significance and risk – illustrates a strange battle of our times. Perhaps we could call it the Battle of the Intangible.